One of these, in particular, before the war and the depression, had been part of a large farm. Now surrounded by an aging residential neighborhood, only five or six acres remained. Along one edge, below a steep cliff, the tracks ran west to Ohio. On the lot’s far side a small creek bed, usually dry, ran into huge sewer pipe that disappeared into a labyrinth of smaller pipes beneath the neighborhood.
We spent hours in this vacant lot. I walked through it on the way home from school and discovered something different nearly every day. I spent hours with friends in the sewer pipes. In there I smoked my first cigar—a friend had stolen two from his grandfather. I’d never been so sick.
One of the pipes was big enough that we could walk through it standing up. To gain access to the main pipe, we either crawled through feeder pipes that started at each neighborhood block or we walked to either end of the big pipe in the old farm and entered from there. I’m not sure what the fascination was. It must have been the feeling that we could spend hours away from the adult world without having our whereabouts known or traceable.
In addition to the storm sewers, we spent a lot of time by the tracks. Above them someone, probably other kids years before, had dug out what amounted to a mine into the side of the cliff. The tunnel was small, permitting only a single kid at a time to crawl in and out. It was dug in ten-foot sections. After each section, the tunnel bent at a ninety-degree angle, gradually working farther into the cliff. Someone said they dug it that way so it wouldn’t cave in. Hearing that only heightened my anxiety as I crawled through. The first three ten-foot sections were more or less the same, but the temperature fell noticeably in the final section. It was hard to turn around at the end and head back out. I was happy to stand only five feet three and weigh just over a hundred pounds at that time.
No one ever explained why there should be a tunnel dug into the cliff over the tracks. It seemed to me even then it was a dangerous place to dig a tunnel, given the tremendous vibration the trains caused when they rumbled by. I only knew I needed to crawl all the way in so I wouldn’t get a reputation as a chicken.