Toughskins

The mud-colored water of Silver Creek — The Creek, though we pronounced it “crick” — would turn your tightie-whities red, the color of Arizona red rocks, the color of pueblo clay. Stains that would never remove. And so you’d score points with your mother if you took them off and left them somewhere else while you swam — well, waded — your dry-as-a-bone vacation days away.

silver creek

Summers, we trekked through cow fields to get to the creek, a ripple of green trees in the distance. We knew, with pride, that our Silver Creek was a tributary of the Little Colorado, and that the Big Colorado had made the Grand Canyon. But we knew deeper secrets still: We knew how to avoid cow patties that were too fresh to touch, soft in the middle, and which ones you could fling like a discus and smack a friend in the back of the head, sending cow-shit shrapnel spraying from the point of impact. (We knew the Navajo word for “shit,” too, and the variation that meant “shit left out in the sun until it’s white and powdery.”) We knew how to scramble through barbed-wire fences without snagging our Sears Toughskins, ordered each fall from the Back-to-School Wishbook. We knew which field-owners kept beehives on the perimeter of their property and just how close we could approach them while still playing it safe.

We knew, too, how to find places to play — around corners, behind bends, under the bridge, or surrounded by thickets of Chinese elm, birch, and aspen, brushy uprisings of willow, free from farmers’ eyes or the sounds of traffic from the highway on the other side of the fields.

Flushed with the utopian possibility of our liminal, pre-adolescent geography, we once established a nudist colony in the middle of what we called “The Labyrinth,” a dense mass of reeds and bushes springing up from the creek bank. We hacked paths to the center of the spot and called it home. When no one could figure out exactly what you’d do in a nudist colony except take off your clothes, we found enormous leaves on vines of wild gourds and thought we’d stitch new clothes from them, our own Edenic garments, though the leaves itched too much to make that plan long-lasting. In the end, being caught naked in the middle of the choked, reedy growth, unable to see the outside world, sent us running back to the riverbed for air.

The water-level rose and fell according to the previous winter’s snowfall or summer flash-floods. The creek could dry to a trickle only inches deep or it could rise and flood adjoining fields, even threaten homes, requiring neighbors, in the middle of the night, to band together and stack sand bags at doors and basement windows.

If you were lucky, the creek might be just deep enough to support a swimming hole, down by the dirt road that ran from a friend’s house, stopped short at the water’s edge and resumed on the other side. Those times you’d tie a frayed rope, salvaged from someone’s barn, around the strongest branch you could find and line up, one after another, to swing and plop, crouching as you hit the water so you’d break your fall. If the water level were low, you’d build makeshift dams.

Where a storm had knocked over an old paper birch, a silent white giant, its parched bark peeling and curled like scrolls of ancient script, we built a fort. The soil around its roots had eroded under the passing water, its dead weight had dried in summer winds until, a ghost of itself, its thick flesh eaten by insects, it finally keeled over, uprooted. Its roots splayed like a rainbow, reached out like tentacles, formed a cave just deep enough for protection. We set up house inside it, marked off a firepit complete with a chimney, built an outer wall for semi-enclosure. Like the Boxcar Children we scavenged the junk-strewn banks of the creek for domestic accouterments: pots and pans, old picture and window frames, fabric or vines to use for curtains, the rear-view mirror of an old Ford truck. From our mother’s kitchens we sneaked bouillion cubes, potatoes, and carrots to make sour rustic soups, clay creek water for stock.

We told stories about turkey buzzards hiding in the trees above — the most dangerous things we could imagine — and occasionally had cattle wander through our playground on their way to water.

More dangerous were the older kids, staking out some of the same turf. You’d steer clear if you could, avoid their music, their trucks, their sometimes mixed-sex crowd, their whoops and calls. The size of their bodies as they swung on ropes we’d hung to land in pools we’d dammed. Once, when we were unlucky, a herd of older guys, maybe five years older, junior high schoolers at least, spotted us and chased us down. Corralled like sheep, we waited to see what they’d do to us. Two of them — the beefiest ones — were brothers. They looked to one another, hatching a plan.

“Strip,” they said. If this had been a movie, one of them — the littler one — would have cackled like a jackal.

If we ran naked down the creekbed to the next corner and back, they’d let us go. Otherwise, we were dead meat.

It’s not like there was much of a choice.

When we got back to where they were standing, our farmer-tanned arms and legs flailing under and around pale abdomens and torsos, I held out my hand for my clothes. Instead, the older kid hauled back and threw the whole wad of them across the muddy water, hoping to reach the other side, where some of his friends were standing. The shirt and underwear made it, but the Toughskins peeled away mid-air, landed in the water, and sunk like a dark denim stone. The older kids split, and we were left searching the stream, kicking up swift, swirling curls of mud as we went. The pants were gone. Eventually a friend clambered up the bank, scrambled through the fields to civilization, past beehives, through backyards and alleyways, over fences, in the back door of my house and upstairs into my bedroom. He sneaked another pair of pants from my dresser and smuggled them back to the creek, where I sat waiting. If my mother ever realized a pair of my bluejeans had gone missing, she never let on.

Years later — who knows how many years — swimming in that same spot, someone spotted a pant leg in the mud and played tug-of-war with it until it pulled free. We looked the pants over: mud-caked, stiff, the yellow-stitched Xs on the back pocket long since gone black. We pulled the waist, stretching out the elastic band. We held them up, folded them, carried them home. They were so small you’d hardly believe you once wore them.

16 responses to “Toughskins”

  1. AW says:

    This is lovely and evocative. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Godfree says:

    Cliché alert: such a doggone simpler time.

    Your story reminds me so much of my own youth, which my friends and I considered equally adventuresome, if not as idyllic. We were like a herd a gazelles always with one ear dedicated to detecting to the sound of approaching “teenagers.” Breaking bottles, un-playful laughter, or Bruce Springsteen always precluded them. Those were scary times, but running for one’s life can sure be invigorating.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    At the risk of sounding too much like Paula Abdul-
    I loved it. It is fun to read about your childhood memories, and the creek sounds too perfect!

  4. Wow, Bryan, I didn’t know you could wax nostalgic without letting too much cynicism get in the way.

    I’m proud of you.

  5. Dave says:

    Echoing Scotty, teenagers were definitely scary and mysterious when I was a kid. Funny thing, when I was I teenager I never felt scary or mysterious.

  6. Scotty says:

    Dave, that’s really funny. By the time my friends and I were teenagers, we often talked about how we felt robbed because no one seemed intimidated by us. Oh well, perhaps that was a cycle that was best served by being broken. Maybe the fact that we never actually picked on any small kids had something to do with it.

    And Dave, I’m sure if you weren’t scary, you were at least a little mysterious.

  7. marlene says:

    I often wonder if what we have gifted the next generation in way of new life experiences can ever make up for those lazy pasttimes spend in our own imaginations. I to lived in
    a world where you made up your own fun (making bridles out of string and riding wild horses, swimming in streams that you look back at and wonder where your parents were, spending the day at the community pool when you were only five, going home only when the pool closed). Your post made me close my eyes and weep for days gone by,. Love your sweet mom-in-law.

  8. hi, friends — thanks for comments.

    Marlene — I started thinking about this post and this story a while back less in terms of letting the memory stand on its own than in terms of a comparison of my children’s childhoods (computers, city life, highly supervised, etc.) with my own (pre-modern, pre-internet, limited TV, lots of access to outdoors and unsupervised time, etc.). It’s hard to know what’s gained and lost and whether it’s all good or bad. Part of what I wanted to convey was the danger of unsupervised play, in part as a response to people who can’t imagine having kids in the city — but is danger always bad, wherever you live? As for being left alone at age 5, I also have a very strong memory of having to walk home from a friend’s house and choosing to cut through the fields and creek in order to meet my parent to go see Star Wars. This must have been 1977 — which would make me 7 and my brother 5. We scared ourselves half to death worrying about turkey buzzards, and a cow scrambled from some bushes and sent us running back to the friend’s house. I don’t know how we eventually got to the movie theater, but we were late and my parents were already there. We missed the beginning of the movie, but my dad stayed with us for the late show so we could see what we’d missed. Could we really have been left to walk ourselves home — more than a mile — through fields and over water at that young an age?

    scotty and dave: i’m afraid i never became a scary teenager. unless some little kids were scared of my new wave hair and thought i was a freak. actually, that very much could have been the case.

    kate: i didn’t want this to come off as schmaltzy, though it probably did. i’m not entirely nostalgic, but i’m also not a cynic by nature. i’m a pretty optimistic guy! i’m ambivalent about rural origins. i do miss the color scheme in the photo, though. to me those colors are just about the essence of 1976.

    marley: if you had, paula-like, complimented me first on my appearance i would have worried.

    aw: thanks. and don’t stay away much longer.

  9. No, no, it wasn’t schmaltzy! Just enough nostalgia to give us a pleasant feeling about the setting, yet enough real plot to keep it from being too drippingly golden. A good balance; I enjoyed it.

  10. LP says:

    Bryan – I loved this. I also feel all nostalgic for pre-internet, pre-video game, lots-of-outdoor-time days of youth. We didn’t have TV for three years in the late 70s, and I remember that time as one of constant outdoor play and mingling with neighborhood kids (who didn’t have tv either; we were living in Spain and no one wanted to watch the single terrible-reception Spanish TV channel).

    One of my favorite memories from your apartment on Water Street is of watching the girls play seven stories below, on the playground you could see from your living room window. It was time for them to come in, so I was gesturing to Anna, who was looking up and gesturing back, as though she couldn’t figure out what in the world I was trying to communicate. I kept beckoning and beckoning, as she shrugged her shoulders, trying to get as much more time on the playground as she could. As I remember, they finally came up only when you called down to the cell phone they had with them. It reminded me of pretending not to hear my mother calling out for us to come home on warm summer nights.

  11. lane says:

    Bryan,

    This is one of the bravest posts you’ve ever put up.

    For me, running around naked in the back yard was great. Ahhh! . . . 2nd grade!

    And who could forget the Ray Stevens classic:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85krLPrWWTY

    But those mean older boys! Crapping all over your Eakinsesque idyll.

  12. PB says:

    Myfavorite parts of this post:
    Varying dryness of cow poop.
    Mid-childhood’s ambilvelence with nakedness (“this is supposed to be cool but I don’t get it”).
    A reference to the Boxcar Children (one of my favorite manuals to what life could be without parents).
    Crazy sharp images and a sense of place I can practically smell.
    And the toughskin pants – I had a pair of purple and kelly green (girl colors were more vivid than blue) – a kind of time capsule that anchors you to this memory. Sunk deep and rediscover to our benefit.
    I found a decaying dog carcass on one of my similar adventures – the possibility of danger (in this case your evil teens) always eclispes the possibility of too much sepia. There was mystery and in some cases real fear. This was life to us – not entirely play. You capture this beautifully.

  13. dead dog reminds me of _stand by me_, which was on my mind but which i was trying to avoid if possible: i never had friends like the ones i had when i was 12. blech. not true in my case. (sorry, old friends who may be out there! i don’t mean everyone, just on average.)

    but when anna watched that film a couple weeks ago i was in the other room and kept finding myself mouthing whole sequences i had memorized.

    i had some green toughskins, now that you mention it.

    and lane, i always did love that ray stevens song.

  14. Rogan says:

    Great post Bryan,

    I agree, that looking back definitely makes one wonder how the differences between our children’s childhoods and our own will play out over the years to come. Lovely work.

  15. James says:

    Everything you wrote is evocative of things I hope to share with my own children about growing up here. And I hope that their memories are as cherished.

    Mine still are. It’s one of the reasons I can see that same creek from my office window.

  16. ruben mancillas says:

    bryan, sorry for not commenting until now. i was suffering the anxiety of influence, knowing that i was in the midst of something related to childhood/adult memory and this was just so good that it made me step back and reassess where i was going. i liked how this was so much about a particular place and yet, as a life long city boy, i could still completely identify with it in so many ways. just great writing all the way through, thanks.