The Hidden Wall

Summer had descended all along the length of Prospect Avenue. The schools were out, and nothing but the wide empty expanse of summer lay before us. Each morning we would rise to the whirring of the fans in the windows, run down stairs for a bowl of Honeycomb, or Sugar Pops before putting on our dungarees, and heading out to play.

We’d meet in the shade of someone’s front porch steps, and plan our day until everyone had shown up. There was no place else we could dream of being; no daycare, no summer school, no sports camps, our lives were centered on the block upon which we lived. It was an unwritten rule that everything was in bounds so long as we stayed within shouting distance of someone’s mother.

So we roamed the length and breadth of the street; front yards, back yards, and in between. There were only a handful that we knew were off limits because of the grumpy old women that lived in them, but for the most part the little old ladies looked out for us and let us play through. We’d sweep the length of the neighborhood in running gun battles with imaginary enemies, or use their overgrown hedges and shrubs in games of hide and seek. Our own yards had base paths worn into the clover and creeping Charlie, from generations of baseball, and football games.

If we were feeling particularly adventurous we’d sneak through the 8 foot security fence that separated Prospect from the fancy homes on Ellicott Avenue and go exploring. There were very few kids that lived on the other side of that fence. The yards on Ellicott were much deeper than on Prospect, and those big empty expanses of green grass beckoned us like sirens.

I used to fantasize about the awesome games of football we could play in them, or marvel at the mysterious little summer houses that stood at the backs of their property; little glass enclosed patios from another century that stood empty, except for the ghosts of ladies in crinoline and summer hats, sipping lemonade in their dusty interiors. To us dirty faced kids of the 70’s these Victorian homes and carriage barns seemed like the ruins of ancient Rome. Sneaking through childless backyards with their overgrown fruit trees I sensed that there was an age of wealth that had vanished from our little city. The great Elm trees that had once lined Ellicott had fallen to Dutch Elm disease, and the marvelous old homes seemed naked in the sunlight, their paint peeling, and flaking from the window sills.

We had no business in those yards, except satisfying our curiosity about a land that seemed so foreign, and yet so close. The mystery of these yards just confirmed the ghost stories, and fairy tales that we had heard as children. Once the sun began to set, danger and evil lurked in the shadows; from the murders in the old Rowell Mansion on the corner, to haunting call of owls roosting in the walnut trees above our decaying barn.

One long summer afternoon, when we had tired of playing football in the backyard, we had slipped over the fence to go exploring. Sneaking through an overgrown cedar hedge, we came across the remains of a stone wall. The wall had been pierced by the roots of trees, 4 inches in diameter, and the huge stone blocks were tilted, and broken in places. Rabbits had made their nests in the cool shade of stone slabs. Crouching in the shade of that hedgerow amidst the cedar smell, I felt as if we had stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient city. How long had it been since these stone slabs were stacked upon each other, to separate someone’s orchard from the wilderness that would someday become Prospect Avenue?

What was the meaning of this wall? Abandoned for years, and swallowed by the hedges, it now sat hidden in the middle of the city. I sat there on the wall for a long time, running my hand along the rough surface of the stone, trying to imagine what the builders wanted to keep out, or hold in.

I grew up less than one hundred yards away from that place, but after that day I never went back to visit the hidden wall. That was almost 40 years ago now, and I imagine the wall still stands. The blocks have probably slumped closer to the earth, and the cedars droop farther out over that lawn of grass. I’m sure the house has changed hands at least twice since that time and perhaps there are children living there now. I can’t help but to wonder if they have crawled into those cedar shadows, placed their hands upon those stones, and dreamed of what they were keeping out, and what they were holding in.


23 thoughts on “The Hidden Wall

  1. “You meddlin kids” said in best old Scooby Doo bad guy voice. That, good sir, is what the stone wall was keeping out. It’s a good thing for you that Velma didn’t talk you into further investigation or chaos would have ensued, involving ghosts chasing you around, obviously!

  2. I wouldn’t have been able to stay away from that wall! I get in trouble when I visit Mexico with all those Mayan ruins, too. Really someone needs to strap one of those kid leashes around my wrist or something.

  3. Tom, I’m trying not to sound like a fanboy, but I am seriously relating to your writing.

    That whole bit about kids owning the whole neighborhood and running through people’s yards, complete with the great expanses of lawn in the nearby rich people’s neighborhood…

    Seriously, you are talking about my life too.

    When I was a kid, I promised myself that when I grew up and had a big lawn like that, I was gonna let kids play on it. I could not understand why some people were so selfish.

    I still don’t have a big lawn for kids to play on, and I still don’t understand the selfishness of those who do.

    (“You’ll mess up my lawn!” is a stupid excuse because that’s what gardeners are for. What? Can’t you afford that? Guess you’re really not that rich after all, you pretentious twit.)

    Oh dear… I’ve left another of those long comments, sorry.

    But I have one thing more to say… Ask, really. I am doing a series of reviews of blogs I have found. It’s an honor roll. I would love to include yours. May I? Not that it is much of an honor, for my new blog is not hit monster; still, I’d love to talk about your work there.

    Thanks, Tom, for your ever evocative, exquisite word pictures, Rick

    • Rick,
      Thanks! I’m flattered, and I’d love to take part. If you want to email me offline, feel free.

      It’s funny, but as a home owner with kids, I understand both sides of the freedom vs. private property. In some ways, suburbia is not much different from the English enclosure movement. Our society has placed the individual above the collective, to the point that sometimes we are more concerned about the rights of private property over the commons, even when it is clearly counter productive. I mean, when we grew into surly teenagers, and went out egging, and soaping windows, the homes we targeted weren’t the kindly old ladies who let us play in their yards as kids, it was the grouches that always came out onto the front porch to yell at us to stay off their lawn.

      • Wow, did you open a big topic there! This is something I think about a lot. Just one little scratch on the surface exposes a whole world beneath. So for now? Oh, yeah. Got it. And yes, I’ll email you. Cheers, Rick

  4. I used to scale those walls and ask the owners of the fancy pants houses to get me a coke from their fridge while I swung on their hammocks.
    I was annoying like that..
    My cousin and I used to terrorize one old man endlessly by appearing at odd times out of the woods that connected our homes and knocking on his door while he hid inside.
    Still to this day I have no respect for neighbors who want me off their lawns. I’m real popular.
    Also, make this flu go AWAY!

  5. Dungarees….such a great word. And all the words here are put together in away that brings me right there. Although I was always such a scaredy cat playing in my room alone. SAD FACE.

    Love this post.

    • I can totally understand why you stayed alone in your room. I would have too, what with Dufmanno running loose in the neighborhood wielding an ax.

      If you’d have lived on Prospect we’d have had you out there with the rest of us mop haired freaks and misfits, causing trouble, and making memories. It was like “wild-ing” minus the “wild” part. So I guess “mild-ing” would be more like it.

  6. I throughly enjoyed reading this! I was one of the kids that did live on Ellicott Ave. There were several backyards we explored and sometimes we crossed over to Prospect.

  7. Tom, I found your articles almost by mistake. And then I saw that they were written by 20 Prospect Ave., which peaked my interest because I grew up at 30 Prospect Ave. I sat for an evening and read all of your articles, with much enjoyment. Everything you wrote about was spot on, and I could relate to 100%. My gang on Prospect Avenue was just slightly older than you by a couple years, so we never really hung out. But I knew of you and your house of course because it was in our territory. My parents still live there, and I go home to visit at least once a year. It is the Bernard household, always love that neighborhood and the gang that hung out and I grew up with. Thanks for the great memories.

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