When I was, oh, about twelve, I’d guess, my family went to the Rustic Lodge for brunch. There really isn’t anything that rustic about this place, to be frank, and, come to think of it, I don’t really know what qualified it as a lode. When I think of lodges, three things come to mind: members, dues, and those blue hats that Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble wear. Between this brunch and my Junior Prom, my only other experience at the Rustic Lodge, I don’t recall any of those things. Semantics aside, there we were, my nuclear family plus a handful of aunts, uncles, and cousins from my mom’s side. My cousin Zach, just ten months my senior, and I had gotten our fill of roast beef and mashed potatoes and were growing tired of teaching swear words to Evan, at that time the most nascent and impressionable member of the family, so we ducked out and made our way to Getty Heights, the small park just across the street. We knew our parents and aunts and uncles would sit and talk endlessly about the best way to get from Harrisburg to Indiana or who from one of their graduating classes had just gotten divorced, so we counted on having at least an hour to sneak a few cigarettes underneath the yellow slide where my sister had chipped her front tooth years prior, before I was old enough to remember whether I was even there. I don’t recall how many cigarettes we smoked between the two of us, or what brand they were, or where we got them, even. My dad smoked Marlboros, but I was never bold enough to swipe his, and neither of Zach’s parents ever smoked, but alas, there we were. As we finished, we stuffed our faces with mints or gum or both, took turns, each smelling and then assuring the other that he couldn’t smell it on him, and rejoined our family at the long table. Once all the stories had been told, we all exchanged hugs and wished each other safe returns. Looking back, I can see now that it was likely the hugs Zach and I gave to our Uncle Brian, the State Trooper, which clued him in to what we had done in the park. Needless to say, Uncle Brian told my mom, who eventually called me down to the basement, her lair, to do some chore, and then confronted me about it. “I’m not going to tell your dad,” she said, “but you betchyerass he’ll hear about it if it happens again.” And that was it. She didn’t ground me or spank me or make me smoke an entire pack. In fact, that very night I was still allowed to go ice skating with the other kids in my grade, and that’s part of what makes this next memory so remarkable to me.
Years later, after I had learned my lesson about smoking cigarettes (and I had, just not right away), and before I ever had the notion, or at least the opportunity, to smoke anything else, I was an eighth grade kid with an eighth grade job; a paper route. My route, which was usually between 31 and 34 papers, took me out to the very end of North Ninth Street, which I am soften still told in settings much like that Sunday brunch was only the halfway point of the route decades earlier, when the papers were delivered by my Uncle Bill. Zach’s dad. The non-smoker.
The last house on my route was a large grey-blue and white cape at the end of Kathryn Street, one of four houses dotted around the cul-de-sac at the end. Most days, the man, who I always took for a widower, though really all I know about him is that he read the Indiana Gazette, was outside, either playing with his dog, a kind and obedient mutt that never wore a chain, or with his head buried under the hood of his pickup or an overturned lawnmower, anything with a motor, really. As I’d cut through his yard, he’d raise his head from whatever he was doing, wave, and smile at me from underneath his dark aviator sunglasses, and though he never said a word, I’d pause my CD player every day, just in case, until I crossed the small bridge I’m certain he built. Once I had crossed his bridge over the small creek I could have just as easily stepped over, I was secluded, and would un-pause my CD player and make my way home along the railroad tracks, through the woods, balancing on the rusty metal rail, a skill I had mastered early in life due to my childhood home’s proximity to the defunct tracks.
On an icy Friday half-way through the eighth grade, and just after my 14th birthday, I had plans to go to Daliah Singer’s house for a double date with one of my best friends, Brendan Bash, her “boyfriend” at the time, and her best friend, Jenna Barone, a girl I barely knew beyond an AOL screen name, but was eager to get to know. Excited as I was to proceed with my evening, and, believe you me, I was excited; Brendan having relayed messages to me that our two dates had already decided who got to use the couch and who got the pool table as make-out locations, I knew I had a responsibility to carry out. As I exited the Junior High through the side door and cut across the teachers’ lot, I ran into Billy Rout and Jobie Helm, two kids I had known my whole life. They were headed to Jobie’s house, and, since the Gazette was on their way, they joined me as I went to pick up Friday’s papers for delivery. We must have gotten to talking about something hilarious, because the two of them ended up walking with me along my entire route, despite the January weather. Jobie had walked my route with me before, when Ian Love was around, so he helped me out, launching papers onto porches or sliding them through mail slots when a customer preferred it. The man at the end of the cul-de-sac was salting his driveway with his dog following his every move, and he waved at the three of us as we trudged through his yard, still laughing with each other. We, childhood friends just entering the world of part-time jobs and girlfriends, were still having a good time, so when we hit the railroad tracks, instead of turning left to call it a day, we decided to make a right and explore the tracks beyond what we knew. From Billy and Jobie’s older brothers we had heard of a half-mile long tunnel just a few minutes beyond the end of my route, so we kept on, eager to see what the older kids had seen. Laughing and throwing snowballs, we came upon an underpass, the walls littered with amateur graffiti, “Metallica” scrolled in drippy blue letters across the cold grey support beam overhead. Between the tracks and the walls of the underpass laid a dead deer. The winter had been cold enough to preserve the deer and keep away flies, but apparently not cold enough to keep away the young vandals who had emblazoned the deer’s belly with a yellow Anarchist A. We talked amongst ourselves and decided that this underpass could not be the tunnel that had been described by the older kids, and that, if it was, they suffered from severe lack of depth perception. Unaware of, or at least unconcerned with the time, we continued in the same direction until we saw the large black mouth of the tunnel.
We were ushered in to the tunnel by low cement walls on each side of the tracks, these walls littered with graffiti similar to but les abundant than that of the underpass. Someone, in an attempt to scare kids like us, had scrawled in red warning to the right of the tunnel’s entrance, telling us to turn back, but we had come so far and were too smart to fall for this. The entrance to the tunnel was like a large black keyhole surrounded by grey walls and buried underneath a bulbous white hill sparse with trees. In the center of the black was another keyhole, this one brilliant white and much smaller. This second keyhole was our goal. Not more than fifteen feet into the tunnel, we came upon icicles such as I had never seen. Unlike the icicles I had batted off of my front porch with a broom, these crystals hung from the ceiling of the tunnel, 30 feet above, and had the girth of tree trunks at their bases, many coming to points in front of my eyes while others continued all the way to the ground, still as big around as basketballs where they met the rocks and wooden railroad ties, appearing to continue on, coming to their points somewhere below the Earth’s surface, and still others clung to the tunnel walls like varicose veins. To this day, I can’t recall a time in my life where I so regret not having a camera. When I saw the Roman Coliseum, I didn’t bother to take any pictures, because it’s been in the same place for thousands of years, and millions of other people have seen it, and it takes about two seconds to find professional photographs of it online. These icicles, though, this hanging crystal garden, was momentary and perfect and breathtaking.
I don’t know why we destroyed them. We sure did, though. Young and stupid, we stood and gawked at the awesome icicles, and then, in a move that would surely have sent our parents into panic attacks, we filled our arms with railroad rock and started hurling them at the ceiling from which they hung. In my days as a little-leaguer, I had never had much luck, but on this day, my aim was never better. The rocks chipped away at the icicles’ bases, and when we finally knocked enough away, they came crashing down, their sharp points colliding with the ground below and crushing under their weight, appearing to spear straight through the wooden railroad ties, leaving behind piles of shiny wet chunks.
When a bully topples a sand castle, it’s not because he wants to destroy something beautiful; it’s because he wants to see the reaction of the kid who spent his day building it. But whose reaction had we to see? Neither Mother Nature nor Father Time, who had devoted equal amounts of time to the project, was going to burst into tears at our irreverence, and we knew it. So why’d we do it? Maybe if I tracked down and talked to Jobie or Billy about it, they could give me some answers, but Billy and I fell out of touch. I think he goes by Bill now. Jobie and I were never really that close before the day we discovered the tunnel. In fact, despite the fact that everyone was about twice his size, I remember being somewhat scared of him in elementary school, though I can’t recall why. In the four years of high school following our trip to the tunnel, though, I would learn to appreciate his wild sense of humor, namely his willingness to embarrass himself for a laugh. Sadly, though, it was this same wild streak of his that lead to an accident on another icy January night, which has kept Jobie bouncing back and forth from hospital to hospital and home to home for the last few years. I’ve lost track of him now, so I’ve got no explanation for what we did that day in the tunnel.
We left through the opposite end of the tunnel as it was starting to get dark. As we looked back, I could see bats swooping against the backdrop of the snow on the other side, leaving us with no choice but to climb the grey cement walls and make our way through the woods over the tunnel on our way home. I walked with Billy and Jobie to Jobie’s house, and there I realized how late it had gotten. I hurried home, eager to get on with my plans for the evening, but as I stomped the snow from my boots in the kitchen, my mom came storming in, furious that I was so late returning from school, and demanding to know where I had been. When I told her, she became even more upset. “That’s where the drug heads go, you know?” I didn’t know, but I did keep that in mind the following year when I would once again try my hand at smoking. At any rate, something about this trip to the tunnel was too much for my mom, who had always hated my coming home late from school, mostly because of my seventh grade year, when I was late nearly every day without fail, having spent my afternoons with Molly Simpson at her house in White’s Woods, just a few hundred yards from the railroad tracks. Determined to finally put an end to my consistent unpunctuality, I was forbidden to go to Daliah’s house that night, prompting Brendan to invite my best friend, Andy Copollo, despite my pleading with him to invite a different, less charming friend, who would be less likely to steal my girl.
Ultimately, Andy did charm my girl (probably on the pool table), and I think they ended up dating for a couple of months, which is an eternity in the eighth grade. I spent that night at home, wondering why my mom had deemed this unintentional act of defiance worthy of grounding, when catching a twelve-year-old-me smoking cigarettes only required a verbal scolding. I tried to tell my mom that Jenna Barone was probably the girl for me, and that she was probably denying herself grandchildren by keeping me at home, but, unlike those icicles, I was not able to chip away at her strong base. She didn’t cave, and she didn’t crumble, and now it doesn’t really seem to matter. Since the eighth grade, many girls and many pool tables have come and gone, but to this day I haven’t seen anything like those icicles. The saddest part of this story, aside from Jobie’s eventual fate, I guess, is that the train tracks are now functional again, occasionally carrying coal throughout Western Pennsylvania, so even if those icicles do get the chance to reform, they’ll just be shattered again, and this time, I won’t be there to see it.