Secret Places

When we were kids, we had a “secret place” – or so we liked to call it.

It was probably not a secret to the rest of the neighborhood or to the people who lived on that street, but when we were young and illusionary, it had magic and mystery and wonder. So we called it our secret place. It was a tiny little clearing at the end of a dead-end street, tucked behind a metal guard rail and a wall of thin foliage. To get through, we would sneak around the guard rail to the side, where we would push through the scraggly bushes and carefully step down the sloping ground in our flip-flops. There was a big slab of cement at the bottom – part of a sidewalk that had been abandoned, maybe, we didn’t know – where we could sit and dip our feet in the dirty, rocky creek. The creek was thin and sharp, and the other side of it was a flat mountain of dirt and rocks.

But if we climbed back up the sloping ground and stood near the guard rail at the top, five feet above the water, there was a big metal sewer pipe to shimmy across. The dangerous prospect of crossing the pipe with nothing but a rocky landing below always thrilled us, I think. The problem with crossing the pipe was that there was an intricate, shell-shaped grille right in the middle of it, barring our access to the hill on the other side. To cross, we would have to take a deep breath for courage, balance ourselves standing on the pipe (dangerous in flip-flops), and grab onto the rusty metal framework with both hands. The sides of the grille extended out over the creek, so we would have to swing around to the other side and hope we didn’t fall. It would always be a moment of heart-stopping adrenaline. Hands on the grille, swing one leg around, hope your shoe doesn’t fall off. Find purchase. Hang spread-eagled in the air over the creek for a moment before swinging your other leg over, frantically scrabbling for balance. Then, in a miracle, you would be on the other side. The rest was just a matter of scooting the last few inches on your butt and climbing the dirt-rock-grass hill until you were out of the secret place, on another long suburban street with a park and a playground on one side.

It was a miracle we didn’t fall and break our necks all those times we performed that death-defying stunt of crossing the pipe with no padding, no armor, and open-toed shoes, wearing shorts and tank tops. But things are always so much easier when you’re a kid. We were less afraid. Not afraid at all. All that mattered was that the adventure was ours.

On the other side of the pipe, on one of the rocks embedded in the side of the dirt-packed hill, there was a date carved in stone – the Ides of March. 3/15. The year next to it is hazy now, but the Ides are clear. We had discovered this extra secret in our secret place during the week we were studying Julius Caesar in our 5th grade class, and so it was impossible to convince any of us that it was anything other than an omen. But we were not fearful. It only added that much more wonder and magic to our secret place, our tiny forest where we were champions, we were brave heroes who scooted on our butts or even sometimes dared to walk across the high metal pipe, like acrobats on a high wire. We were bug-bitten and scraped and pinched and dirtied by our secret place, but we loved it anyway. It was ours. Our little kingdom.

Now that I look back on it, I don’t remember the friends with much feeling, but I do remember the fun. If I were to go back there now I would probably find it overgrown, infested, unremarkable and unimpressive, just a boring creek and a rusty metal pipe at the end of a dead-end road. But I would be able to see it for what it once was to me, to us.

And though I’m older, and different, and much more fearful and afraid than I was back then –

I would still hold my breath and walk across that pipe.

It would probably seem much smaller than I remember.

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