Wild Blueberries

In 1962, when I was eight, I lived with my parents in a rented house on Wildwood Avenue, in Worcester, Massachusetts. On the Wildwood Avenue signpost, below the sign that identified the street, was a second sign which can still be seen today. It says Private Street -- Dangerous. This warning is still used to identify Worcester's worst streets, often unpaved, or with giant potholes the city, or whoever owns the street, allows to grow deeper every year, until small cars are swallowed whole, accounting in part for the city's slowly dwindling population.

Actually, the lower part of Wildwood Avenue was paved in 1962, and fairly passable as "dangerous" streets went. It was the upper portion, the flat part at the top of the winding hill, above where my friend Billy Lucas lived, where my story begins. Here the potholed pavement gave way to a shellholed dirt road, which progressively deteriorated until it was only suitable for hiking. Today this road, barely improved and a challenge even for off-road vehicles seen most frequently on ESPN2 after midnight, is a spur to the left, signed Swan Av. - Private Street -- Dangerous. Upper Wildwood Avenue now breaks slightly to the right, and ends ingloriously in a circle of unimpressive houses built on the cheap in the seventies. Time has changed certain other details of the landscape. In the late sixties, a four-lane road was cut through the woods to access Airport Hill from the southwest, and the shacks and tiny cottages on Scandinavia and Forkey Avenues which we used to call "toy houses" have by and large either expanded into or been replaced by modest capes and ranches.

Tommy Case was my best friend in the summer of '62. Tommy was ten, and knew something about everything that mattered in life -- the location of wartime Army camps, secret fishing holes, and untouched wild blueberry bushes. We became "blood brothers" that summer. In a ritual no decent parent would consent to, then or now, we took our pocket knives and each made a little bloody scratch on our wrists, then pressed our flesh together until our blood supposedly mixed. It was just like the Indians did it, he claimed. Now we were committed to each other as best friends forever. I have not seen him in thirty years.

On warm spring afternoons for many years, Tommy and I played sandlot baseball, went exploring for arrowheads, or raced our gigs down Wildwood hill. On the coldest days of winter, we would clear Hendy's Pond with snow shovels, and play hockey until darkness or ankle blisters from our ill-fitting skates would send us home. Every summer day about three o'clock we would get on our bikes and go fishing at Woodard's Pond. We never caught anything, except the occasional hornpout or kiver, but Tommy convinced me Woodard's contained trout and pike and pickerel and bass, and this would be the day. Most of the time, I tangled my line in the reel, or got it hung up in an overhead branch, but we were fishing. And, thanks to my father, my fishing creel had a great assortment of bass and trout lures, hooks, bobbers, sinkers, and rubber worms. I also carried a ruler to measure my catch and a tool to scrape the scales off, neither of which were ever used.

Now my father was a real fisherman. He knew how to fly cast, and catch trout and salmon. Every summer, he would take us to his home town of Blaine, Maine, a mile from the Canadian border. He and my mother would leave me and my little brother at my grandmother's house, to fight over the location of the property line in our shared bed. For days that seemed like weeks, my parents would fish the St. John's River in New Brunswick or the Miramichi in Quebec. Occasionally I got to go with them, my one and only perk as the older brother.

My father was a pilot. He flew various missions in World War II, including the dangerous Burma Hump, based out of northern India. After the war, he became a corporate pilot, and in 1962, he was Norton Company's chief pilot, flying the company's twin-engine DeHavilland Dove from Worcester Airport.

"So where are you boys going today?"

"Picking blueberries, Mom."

"You be careful, and be home by five. Your father is flying in from Poughkeepsie, and we're having steak tonight."

"Yes, Mom."

"You need a pail. Tommy, do you have a pail?"

"Yes, Ma'am." He always called my mother "Ma'am."

"You boys are going to need a lunch. I'm going to make you each a sandwich. Is anyone else going with you?"

"Just Jimmy Renner."

"I'll make him a sandwich too."

Jimmy, who was seven, was my next-best friend, the kid I impressed with all the worldly knowledge Tommy Case had passed down to me. Tommy was a leader. His favorite Stooge was Moe. Jimmy was a follower, and a bit of a clown. I identified with Larry.

In 1962, the world seemed safe enough to allow a seven year-old, an eight year-old, and a ten year-old to go off into the woods for the day, hiking miles from home. None of us realized that day just how many miles.

As the pavement at the top of Wildwood gave way to the dirt road, the conversation turned to VBS. "VBS" stands for Vacation Bible School, which my beloved little Christian & Missionary Alliance church promoted with an evangelistic zeal a Roman Catholic like Jimmy Renner never quite understood. He had "catechism," whatever that was. But Tommy and I -- we had VBS.

At VBS the night before, Miss Thelma had instructed each of the children to write a Bible verse on a little piece of paper, then roll the slip of paper tightly, and insert it into a balloon. The balloons were later inflated using a rented helium tank, and on cue at sunset we released our balloons, and watched them disappear into the darkening summer sky.

"So where do you think yours is?" Tommy asked, as he flung a small stone into the woods.

"It depends on which way the wind is blowing. My Dad says the winds up there, you know, where the planes fly, go a lot faster. So maybe it's in Africa."

"It can't be in Africa," he corrected. "Not for at least a week. Maybe over the Atlantic."

"I wish I could be in Africa when they find my balloon. I'd like to see them read it and get saved."

"Some of the balloons are going to come down in the ocean, you know," Tommy said.

"So where do you think yours is?" I asked him.

"It's in my room. The helium leaked out during the night." At that point, I became troubled, because I knew Tommy had committed a grave sin, pilfering his gospel balloon. Sure, I too was intrigued by the amazing properties of helium, but I knew that because of his action, somewhere a heathen could burn in hell, deprived of the Word of God.

The road was now virtually impassible, except on foot. Years of hard rains had washed out much of the dirt and sand, leaving deep gullies, and exposing sharp rocks that could rip the drivetrain out of an army halftrack. Streets here no longer even had real names. Little cul-de-sacs with mysterious names like "Passway Six" and "Passway Nine" vanished into the bushes. We knew that evil old men with big knives lived in the tar paper shacks at the end of each passway. Jimmy and I agreed that to venture down any of these passways was so perilous that even Tommy Case could be excused for never having dared explore them.

Now the road ended, and we followed a footpath into the woods. "It's around here somewhere ... Here it is!" Tommy proclaimed. "Old Man Carson's last will and testament." Jimmy didn't understand. "Years ago, Old Man Carson -- he was a millionaire. His daughter was murdered one night in his mansion -- you know the place." We nodded, having seen the decaying mansion, which was later torn down to make way for a housing tract. "Anyway, at night, his daughter's ghost would haunt the guy, until finally he went crazy. They put him in an insane asylum, but he stabbed a guard and escaped. He came here and lived in the woods. And his fingernails grew six inches long."

"Wow." It was Jimmy's favorite word.

"He hunted bears to eat, and he lived in caves. I was in one of them caves. I saw the cans and junk he left. But the cops could never catch him," Tommy continued. "Every day he'd chisel some more on this flat rock. When he was finished his message to the world, he climbed up to the top of that cliff over there, and he jumped off."

"Wow. Did they bury him here?" Jimmy asked.

"They never found his body." The large flat rectangular piece of granite indeed had a message chiseled into it. It was largely illegible, although I could make out a few numbers and words.

"This must be worth a lot," I said.

"It's worth a million bucks," Tommy confidently replied.

"Someone should dig it up, and take it to a museum," I suggested.

"They tried that. It's too heavy. There's no way to get it out of the woods." We discussed the logistics of recovering Worcester's very own Rosetta Stone, until we had crossed the next ridge, where we came upon a spring. The water was ice cold.

"Fill your canteen," Tommy commanded. "There's no more water after this."

"When we get back, you wanna go fishin'?" Jimmy asked.

"I'm gonna work on my boat," Tommy replied. He always had an exciting new project.

"Wow. You got a boat?" Jimmy asked.

"Me and my brother Barry are fixin' it up. Part of the bottom is rotten. My father gave me a three horse engine for it, but it's busted. After I get it goin,' we can take it fishing."

"I'd like to take a speedboat across to Europe," I said.

"You can't do that. You'd run out of gas."

"Not if I arrange for them to drop me some gas every time I need it," I replied.

"My boat's too small for that. Next year, I'm gettin' a bigger boat, then maybe."

"Is this water clean?" I asked.

"This is the best water in the world," Tommy replied. "It comes straight from deep under the ground. It's much cleaner than the water in your house. The water in your house has rust from the pipes. You ever see them pipes? If you did, you wouldn't drink any more water."

"I don't drink water anymore," Jimmy bragged. "My Mom lets me drink pop."

About ten-thirty, we arrived at the blueberry picking site. Wild blueberry bushes were everywhere. We broke for lunch at twelve, then berried again until our pails were almost full -- nearly two quarts each. It was two-thirty, and we took a break before starting for home.

A few minutes later, an airplane appeared, roaring directly overhead. It feathered its twin engines, dropped its landing gear, then disappeared over the trees. I recognized the Dove's distinctive shape, its blue and white markings, and N20R under one wing. It was my father's plane.

"We're really close to Worcester Airport," Tommy said. "Let's go to the airport, and your Dad can give us a ride home."

"Which way do we go?"

"Just follow the plane, and we won't get lost."

An hour later, we were lost. "There's an old Army camp here somewhere," Tommy said. "If I can just find that ..." My pail full of wild blueberries was getting heavy, and I was beginning to get thirsty. We sat down and ate some berries.

"I'm getting a motor for my gig. Then a license plate, and I can take it to school," Tommy said.

"They won't let you take it to school," I replied.

"I'll park it on Gates Lane. They'll never know ... Maybe we should build a lean-to for the night." Tommy was always building lean-tos.

"My feet hurt," Jimmy said.

"That's because you're wearing Keds. You should get some P.J. Flyers. My feet don't hurt."

"We can't stay here tonight," I said. "My father will kill me."

"Just tell them you were camping out at my house," Tommy answered.

"I'm sorry. I'm not staying here."

"So which way you wanna go?" Jimmy asked.

At that exact moment, a Cessna appeared in the sky, flying very low overhead, trimming its engine and descending. I pointed. "Thataway!"

Runways lead to terminals. Even at eight I understood that. My father had taken me up in his plane many times. He let me fly the plane in the air, and even talk to the control tower. "November Two-Zero Romeo requests permission to take off." I looked at the position of the sun, and where the plane had disappeared over the horizon. "Follow me," I said.

We were elated when we came upon, first, a bank of approach lights, and then the end of a runway. Like Dorothy and her friends following the Yellow Brick Road to the gates of the Emerald City, side by side we walked down the middle of the runway toward the terminal.

I don't remember our topic of conversation, but I do distinctly remember the Piper Cub a hundred fifty feet away, bearing down on us. If he'd had a horn, I'm sure he would have used it. For the Piper Cub's pilot, it was too late to abort his take-off, too soon to lift off the runway, and too dangerous to swerve. Any action was up to us.

I don't remember what I said, but I got my friends' attention, and we ran toward the side of the runway as fast as we could. In actuality, we probably moved no more than a few steps before the Piper Cub roared by us, its draft or perhaps our fears knocking us to the pavement. In an instant, it vanished into the broken clouds.

The airport police did not arrive, sirens blaring and lights flashing. As for what actually followed, to be honest, nothing. However, we walked beside the runway the rest of the way to the terminal, entering from the tarmac, passing a line of people boarding their Mohawk flight to Buffalo. There were no jetways or X-ray machines or security guards, just a doorway onto the tarmac. It was 1962.

I asked about my father. "He finished up here and went home half an hour ago." My heart sank. Meanwhile, hungry and thirsty, Tommy and Jimmy had struck up a conversation with a woman and her son waiting for a Northeast Airlines arrival.

"They're such nice blueberries," she said. "They'll make a lovely pie. How much do you want?"

"Fifty cents a quart," Tommy announced, without consulting us.

"Then I'll have to take them all." It was a bargain price for three generous quarts of wild blueberries, even after removing a few unripe white berries and little twigs. Now we were young men of means. We had a dollar fifty, which we immediately cashed in on candy bars and pop ... or "tonic" as Tommy preferred to call it. It was four-thirty.

"I know a shortcut," I announced. Actually, it was the only way I knew to get home from the airport, by following the surface roads my father drove nearly every day -- Airport Drive, Mill Street, and so on. It meant five more miles of walking. Tommy repeatedly insisted that my way was actually the "long-cut." It felt like a death march, but we did not pause, we did not cry. By the time I entered my house, my calves and feet ached so badly, I thought they were going to fall off. I was late. I had no blueberries. I'd spoiled my appetite. My mother was worried sick. I could hardly stand up. But being home - it felt good.