Where the Wild Things Were

(Michael Alan Peck His Very Self, courtesy of Michael Alan Peck)

I’m delighted (you didn’t know I was the kind of guy who’d say “delighted” about anything, did you?) to present this blog’s second official Guest Blogger. Michael Alan Peck is an awesome writer and human being.

Not only has he forgiven me for talking him into moving to L.A., he is the author of one of my favorite book series, The Commons, and a winner of the Illinois State Libraries’ Soon to be Famous Illinois Author project. And at holiday time, he also terrorizes the world as ringmaster of The Little Drummer Boy Challenge.

Wait. Before I forget, I want everyone to know that I especially identify with Mike’s feelings about quicksand as expressed below. When I was a kid, quicksand was everywhere, in all segments of reality and unreality also. Then one day, poof! it was gone. And no one’s even mentioned it since. Except the oh so observant Mr. Peck.

Where the Wild Things Were

In a local Facebook group devoted to the suburban-Philadelphia neighborhood I grew up in, I stumbled upon a six-year-old photo that shows then-new houses being built on what had long been a cornfield and a greenhoused rose farm. That farm was on the other side of the woods behind our house, but it was only ever visited by the older kids who were adventurous enough to battle their way through the half-mile or so of trees, muck, old barbed wire, poison ivy, and such to get to it.

Because most of us younger kids never went far enough into the woods to emerge from the other side, the farm was legendary to us. And so were the other far reaches of the woods. According to the kids who’d made it there, if the farmer caught you in his field, he shot you with rock salt from a shotgun.

And that was if you managed to survive the trip, which was unlikely, as far as we were concerned.

The way there was rife with copperheads, we were told. (And in actuality, copperheads, which are venomous, are found in the area.) There was, of course, quicksand, which was a problem everywhere in the ‘70s but mysteriously went away after it was no longer featured quite so much on TV and in movies. (There are some great memes about that.) You had to go beyond the nearby creek, which we hardly ever did because that was the most fun feature of the woods anyway. You needed to beware the aforementioned poison ivy, wasps, bees, rusty barbed wire hidden by overgrowth, and the ever-present menace of bigger, meaner kids who you didn’t know. Or who you did know, which might make them even more likely to punch you, take your stuff, or throw you in the creek you shouldn’t have crossed.

The woods were pretty much a combo of Stand By Me, The Hills Have Eyes, and Deliverance in the suburbs, minus the horrific Ned Beatty scene.

Also, reaching the farm meant crossing the property where the witch lived.

How did we know she was a witch? One of the older kids told us. Older kids, we’ve already established, who were trusted sources of information when they weren’t punching us, taking our stuff, or throwing us in the creek.

And it made sense. Who else would live in a house that was way back in the woods, reachable only by braving the hazards I just listed? (In reality, I’m sure her home was accessed by a long driveway, connected to a nearby main road, that we’d never seen. But if we hadn’t laid eyes on the driveway, then it didn’t exist.) Therefore, only someone with magic powers could live in such a place, and that magic had to have been bad magic. Thus, whoever owned the dwelling was Baba Yaga lite.

So being limited in range by fear, size, and age, we entertained ourselves by doing what boys do. We caught frogs, toads, worms, and other local critters, removed them from their natural homes and kept them in unsuitable Tupperware containers with air holes punched in them until they died despite what we thought were heroic efforts to make them happy and comfortable. (I remember crying, squirting a large, dead moth with water as it rested in a bed of grass I’d dumped in one of those inappropriate habitats because I thought it must’ve been thirsty.)

One time, an older kid convinced us to catch a bunch of crayfish so he could send them up in his model rocket as astronauts, which we thought was a smashing idea. But the only place the crayfish would fit was a space just above the engine. And we only realized what that meant when we retrieved the rocket to find the poor crustacean cooked to a mottled pink and red.

Another time, some hapless, randy couple looking for an out-of-the-way spot for a tryst pulled a car down the main access road in the woods, which was mostly unpaved and was soft and messy after any kind of rain. They got stuck and couldn’t get the car out without a tow truck, so they had to leave it there for a day or so.

Word got out that they were bad people because they were doing something they shouldn’t have been doing (as opposed to our always-exemplary behavior), so some of the kids punished the car for their sins. I didn’t take part in that one, but I heard the vehicle was suitably bombarded with mud and rocks and had its antenna snapped off.

Justice served, all agreed. 

There was also the time I’ve posted about before, when we were bored and decided to build a series of traps to catch other kids, who deserved it because they’d committed the crime of not being us. The first one was a hole we dug that we lined with plastic bags and sticker bushes, then filled with water just to make it extra terrible. Only we placed it in a part of the woods nobody else passed through, which meant that after all our work, no victims got anywhere near it.

So the next time, we got smart with our trap.. We dug a shallow hole in the middle of the access road, lined it with the trusty sticker bushes, and even tossed in a scavenged piece of lumber that had a few nails in it. (One of us said it was sure to give our victims something called tetanus, which we knew we’d gotten a shot for and which we thought sounded cool, even if we didn’t know what it was and certainly didn’t understand that it can be an awful way to die if you do contract it. “Alright! Tetanus!”) Then we covered it with a rotten piece of woven wicker somebody found and hid to watch things play out.

In a few minutes, another group of kids came wandering down the path, and the first one blundered right into our concealed hole. “It’s a trap!” the kid behind him said, warning everyone else as the rest helped the victim out of our low-energy pit. Miraculously, nobody was hurt, and they went on their way after glancing about to make sure they weren’t going to be attacked by whoever had set the hazard in their path.

Which we might have done, had we thought of it.

My friends were disappointed that only one kid fell in and that he suffered no damage. I, for my part, was disappointed, too, but not as much because I knew the kid who’d fallen in and had no beef with him. Of course, it didn’t occur to me that I was unlikely to have had a problem with anyone who might’ve fallen in.

Bored, we soon moved on and left the trap there without removing any of the danger because we were sociopaths.

I mean, think about it. How bad does a given part of society—young boys—have to be when a few of them are in agreement that a trap should be built that might harm someone who’s done nothing to you or yours? Or when the practice is universal enough that the kids who fall victim to it know exactly what’s going on and even accept the terms?

“Let’s build a trap!” we said.

“It’s a trap!” they understood when one of them fell into it.

All of that made sense in our world.

In short, the woods really were filled with evil. They were populated by monsters.


Lord of the Flies was a documentary.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for your reflections, Michael Alan Peck. Spooky stuff in suburban Philly? Sounds like Downingtown, PA. Having lived there I have plenty of strange stories. My own film on Downingtown only talked about the Quakers, the Underground Railroad, etc. but I’m posting a link below to someone else’s film about spooky D-Town legends. I hope you enjoy it. —Dawn M

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