I didn't grow up in Mayberry, Mayfield, or on Walton's Mountain. I was, however. allowed to run wild, run free from the time school let out in May until it resumed in August. Seven homes adorned our block, and five of them housed children in my age group. Sometimes we were a roving gang, all for one and one for all. Other times, it was all-out war, boys versus girls.
Guys can be so BARBARIC! Like that time the young Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals smashed the clay pottery we girls had worked so hard to craft, digging clay from the creek bed, sorting out the pebbly bits, shaping bowls and vases, and painting them with watercolors. Yes, left on the end of my patio to dry, they were mere shards when we returned from a trip to town. There was none of this Twitter-feuding and lawsuit-filing and bullying-claim nonsense that fills the news these days. We simply vowed revenge, and found a better place to cure our pottery.
One activity in which we joined forces was downhill racing. Not that there was an actual race, mind you. The concrete sidewalk was only wide enough for one vehicle at a time. We took turns, and used the distance traveled and the magnitude of the crash to judge speed. The race started at the top of the hill in front of my grandpa's house. We provided most of the vehicles. Bikes were left at home. They were for street-riding.
The favorite racer was a pedal-car fire engine, with wooden ladders on racks on each side. Fire Engine was not fast. It had a built-in coolness factor. It was grand to ride on, but did not steer well. Perhaps because the rider on the back sometimes caused the front wheels to lose contact with the sidewalk. The big red tricycle was also popular, because it went fast (as long as the person on the seat held their legs out from the pedals and let them spin), and the one riding on the back could stand comfortably, yet jump off before a crash. The smaller, blue tricycle was a single-rider vehicle, and lacked the handlebar streamers of the big red one. The daredevil contingent preferred the Radio Flyer, once red, but picked up at a garage sale sporting a coat of baby blue. Blue Flyer was tricky. You had to coerce a smaller passenger to sit in the front, then give it a big push and jump in like a bobsledder, wrapping your legs around the passenger, and grabbing the steering column out of their panicked clutches.
The racetrack itself would not meet today's OSHA standards. Lining the left side were assorted yards, some with a little drop at the edge, some with a hill that could act as a ramp for sending a racer into an inadvertent barrel roll. Running parallel, on the right flank, was a ditch. Not just any old ditch. An open sewer ditch. That meant nothing to us, of course, kings and queens of our eight-year-old world, until we hit ninth grade and attended the consolidated high school, where we learned that our town was called "Sewer City." Which was only a little bit more pleasant than "Moosec*ck, our other nickname.
At the bottom of the hill was a culvert. It was kind of like this, but with only one opening, a stream barely as wide as the tunnel, and houses on each side. Oh, and no men standing on top.
Of course there were no rails, nothing to keep a kid on a fast-moving downhill racer from careening off the side. And to encourage such careening, the concrete of the sidewalk was all broken and crumbling where it passed across the culvert. That's why we made a habit of yanking hard left into Lewis's yard just before we reached the culvert. That, and what lay on the other side of the culvert...
THE HOUSE OF FANNY HUGG!
In all likelihood, her name was probably "Fannie." But not in our eight-year-old minds. As you can imagine, it was a rite of passage to stand in front of Fanny Hugg's house, and chant her name. Seriously. What eight-year-old kid can resist hollering "Fanny Hugg" with glee? It's as good as yelling, "Who FARTED?" instead of inquiring, "Did somebody let a stinker?"
Various styles were employed. The girls usually giggled, and said in a conversational tone, "Fanny Hugg, Fanny Hugg, Fanny Hugg!" The boys took it several steps further. Sometimes they turned and pointed their own fanny at her house, even slapping their cheeks for emphasis. On occasion, if one felt particularly full of himself, he might run up her sidewalk and put a foot on her porch before shouting her name! Of course he darted back to the safety of the public sidewalk immediately, before Fanny Hugg could open up her door. We were certain she could not harm us on public property.
Fanny Hugg did not hesitate to let us know of her displeasure. She was probably in her early forties, maybe even late thirties, but to us, she was ancient. And old hag. Old bat. Old witch. A kid-hater. Nobody EVER went a-knockin' on Fanny Hugg's door at Halloween. Even if she had put on her porch light to entice us, we would not have gone. Whenever I heard the story of Hansel and Gretel, I thought of Fanny Hugg shoving kids into her oven. Fanny Hugg had short kinky hair like she had just given herself a Toni home perm and not combed it out. She was not an attractive woman, being short and stout and pale and thick-eyebrowed. She stopped short of shaking her fist at us, but she had that you-kids-get-off-my-lawn attitude. "Go on home now. Leave me alone. Stay out of my yard." A simple request, really.
Of course we could not leave like that. "It's a free country. This sidewalk is public property. We can stand here if we want to." Yeah. The guys. Their mouths writing checks that Fanny couldn't cash. We WERE on public property. What was Fanny Hugg going to do? She couldn't call the police for such a miniscule offense. She couldn't turn the hose on us. She couldn't grab us all by the ear and march us home. If she had come out to knock on our doors and talk to our parents, we would have followed her, mocking every step, the boys most likely acting like apes and picking imaginary lice from their armpits to toss into their open mouths for imaginary chewing.
Fanny Hugg knew we had her number.
I don't know why we delighted so in tormenting that poor woman. She kept to herself, and only wanted to peep out her venetian blinds to watch the world go by without looking over a throng of barefoot kids with sticky trails of melted cherry snowcone juice down their dusty bare chests. The boys. Not us girls. We were shirted, and not dribblers.
Fanny Hugg, I apologize for the angst we generated. I know how you must have felt. Because now I am just like you.