Everyday life can be filled with adventures, especially when you are 13.
When I reached junior high, I traded my bat and ball for a set of track spikes. Marcus Whitman Junior High had the most awesome track team in the county. Our school had not lost a track meet in four years, and it would be another three before the unthinkable would happen.
I didn’t suddenly dislike baseball. I simply wanted to try something different. I had played Little League for four straight years and I didn’t want to play school ball. Besides, I couldn’t participate in both baseball and track because the seasons ran concurrently.
I tried out for a number of track events: the fifty yard dash, the hundred, and the two hundred. I enjoyed the long jump, but hated the hurdles. I kept hitting them, banging my knees or shins and sometimes tripping and sprawling in a scraped-up heap on the cinder track. Pain was not my thing. I even avoided the distance events because of the upchucking, gut wrenching agony that was tied to the Herculean effort to finish a long race first.
Marcus Whitman wasn’t equipped with many facilities. Weight room? Surely a joke. A rubberized track? Not yet invented. A stadium with bleachers? Not even close. How about a cinderized straightaway where the coaches positioned the hurdles and a dirt and sand field where we practiced the field events. Also a gravel road that served for sprint practice. Add to that miles of abandoned roads and lanes—the remains of a World War II housing project where workers and their families at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard used to live. Those barrack-like buildings were gone now, leveled to foundations and concrete slabs. Nature had begun to reclaim this man-altered area. Grass, bushes, and small trees masked the old construction scars. But the road system still remained—a maze of asphalt arteries branching like the strands of a spider’s web.
The grid of roads worked perfectly for our track team. The coaches preferred the honor system. They didn’t feel obligated to baby-sit us every workout. So, after our warm-ups and practice on individual events, they set us free to roam and run. All we had to do was keep an eye on a wristwatch in order to check in after practice and catch the activity bus home.
So, we ran to while away the time and experience small adventures. One afternoon my friend John and I crested a low hill and veered to a road in a clearing near a forested area. A bulbous, concrete receptacle jutted above the gravelly earth. The round cover had been removed and it was partially split, allowing the sunlight to penetrate deep inside. To me it looked like a World War II bunker, but John said it was a cistern, a huge container that collected water for drinking or storm runoff. Steel rungs of a ladder led to the bottom, and we couldn’t resist. First John, then I lowered ourselves to the floor where two-foot concrete pipes disappeared sideways underground.
As I watched open-mouthed with surprise, John wriggled headfirst inside a pipe.
“What are you trying to do?” I yelled. When there was no response, I became concerned. “Hey, John, I don’t think what you’re doin’ is such a good idea.”
“Aargh!” The faraway, muffled cry spread a bumpy chill over my arms and legs.
“Hey, are y-you okay?”
My question was answered almost immediately when a pair of sneakers and his skinny rear end clambered back into the dry well.
“Man, what a cool echo.” He snickered at my paste-colored skin and wide eyes. “Hey, man, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Another day, John and I joined forces with another friend—a long-legged sprinter and hurdler named Doug. Checking our ever-present wristwatch, we realized we had plenty of time before we needed to return to the school. Time enough for exploration. Jogging up a side road that wound far away from the school, tufts of grass poked through cracks in the asphalt and a furry coat of moss grew along the edges of the road. Morning rain had left puddles, and we splashed through them, mindful that our sneakers would dry later.
We ran and talked as our easy strides carried us farther into the woods. The vegetation became denser—fir trees flanked the lane while wild huckleberry and salal bushes made a hard-to-penetrate border. Our talk wandered to topics of wild and strange creatures, both human and animal, that could be lurking around the next bend.
Doug asked, “Do you guys believe in the Sasquatch?”
As if on cue, a low cloud passed beneath the sun, and it suddenly became dusk. A raspy, high-pitched scream cleaved the air like a rusty saw blade. We stopped, scanned the woods, and looked at each other. My friends’ shoulders were stiff, and their eyes bugged out like crabapples.
John said, “W-what was that?”
“I don’t know, and I’m not waiting to find out.”
We took off in a sprint, retracing our route. Only much faster. We were trying to catch up with Doug who had already gotten a head start on us. After we’d put some distance between us and the scream, we stopped, bent over, hands on knees, heaving for breath. We wondered what we had heard. Was it a wild animal? If so, what kind? Or was it someone playing a joke on us? We decided that no person could produce that unearthly sound.
When we returned to the school, we told other teammates what happened. Some believed us. Some thought we were pranking them.
About a week later the mystery was solved. John brought to school an article from the Bremerton Sun newspaper. It told about a dairy farmer near Long Lake who reported a newborn calf carried away, mutilated, and devoured by a marauding creature. It also mentioned an Orchard Heights woman who, while hanging her clothes outdoors, was stunned by a cougar (“It was after my chickens,” she claimed.). The lady launched her bucket of clothespins at the beast, raced inside her house, and called the police. The state game department sent officers to investigate both incidents. The article explained that cougars ranged from twenty to thirty square miles. That would put Marcus Whitman well within the beast’s territory.
The mystery was solved, and for a time we became minor school celebrities. But fame is fleeting. Nothing more was heard of the cougar. We imagined it disappeared into the wilderness or was shot by a farmer.
Track season lasted a few more weeks. We continued to practice sprints, field events, and hurdles. We resumed our runs through the main thoroughfares of the projects. But even though Doug, John, and I still ran together, we never ventured back to that winding side road through the woods far away from the school—the secluded lane where we heard the scream.