A story from the early 1970s about me and my mates.
Life in the Street........Mischief and Mayhem.
Where we lived, was a great place for a boy to grow up in the 60's and early 70's. We were surrounded by sports fields to play football and cricket in, woods and farms to have exciting adventures in and there was even an orchard to go scrumping in. We weren't hampered or held back like the overprotected children of today. There were no Xboxes and Playstations, no DVDs, Videos, or IPods. There were only three TV channels, and they only broadcast children's programmes for a couple of hours a day. So you see! no reason to stay indoor.
From as young as five years, if ever you uttered that agelessly overused phrase, “I'm bored, what can I do?”
Nowadays, I suspect that the stock answer given by most exasperated parents is,"go and play something in your room."
But then it was, "why don't you go outside and play?"
This didn't only come from my parents I suspect, but was the catchphrase for the generation. We lived most of our waking lives out of view from grown ups and authority.
Behind our back garden beyond the 6ft high wire fence was a small wood, it was part of the land where once stood a big house. Now all that was left were two stables and above them a hay loft. Even though they were ramshackle, the stables were still home to two horses. They were kept there by an elderly couple. I assumed that was all they could afford at the time, the horses didn't seem to mind though.
We weren't supposed to go there and were forever getting caught by the old boy and his wife, but that just made it more exciting for us. Mucking about in the woods and not getting caught was half the fun.
One Saturday morning, my two best friends, Cliff, Steve and myself had all been getting up to mischief. We'd been down in the orchard that was behind the garages at the end of the road. We had developed a fascination with lighting fires, we weren't arsonists, we just liked building bonfires. We did get the odd occasion when one or two got slightly bigger than we would have liked, but that was part of the excitement of it all, I suppose.
The red tilley lamps that they used to hang around the barriers of road works were filled with paraffin and we would steal a bit from any that we came across. We used to pour it into a big metal jug that Steve had borrowed from his father's garage. I realise how stupid doing that was now, but never gave a thought to it then. I don't think we were the cause of any road traffic accidents, but I can't be sure of that. I'm just starting to get sidetracked here, so I'll return to the scene of the fires later.
We'd just managed to bring our latest inferno under control and had made a hasty retreat out of the orchard, just in case someone had seen all the smoke and called the fire brigade. We ran from the orchard out of the far end and into the corn field. From there, you could get into Gateway's sports field and across the football pitches and over the fence to safety in Iron Mill Lane. From where, looking back over the fields, we could see the plumes of smoke rising above the trees in the distance. Iron Mill Lane runs parallel to our back gardens, and the wood is what separated the two streets. When they finally pulled down the old primary school, they built the new one on this site.
Anyway we decided to go through the woods and through my back garden to the street. We had climbed over the wall and were making our way through the trees, being careful to keep away from the track that lead from the road to the stables. Whenever we got caught by Naomi and George, I only found out their names much later on, at the time we used to call them “the old whingers” instead of just throwing us out, we always got a long lecture about it not being a playground blah blah blah. So when we made it to the stables and noticed that their old Land Rover wasn't in its usual spot we decided to stay there for a while.
We were on the lookout for suitable tree branches for making catapults with. It had become a bit of a craze with all of us, we were forever arguing about whose was best. What you had to do first was spot a suitable branch, it had to have a nice thick stem and two forks growing in equal thickness to each other but slightly thinner than the shaft. Quite simply we looked for a nicely symmetrical letter Y. Once the desired candidate had been selected, we climbed the tree and hacked the entire limb off. We used an old axe that Cliff had relieved from his father a few weeks before, we kept it hidden in a plastic bag that went in a hole in the ground, all very clandestine.
We'd drag the branch from the woods to Steve's garage. His father was a great bloke, and his garage was chock-a -block with wood working tools. He was always in either the garage or the garden because he was building a boat in his spare time. He would gladly help us to saw the branch to the right size. I was always a bit jealous of the relationship Steve had with his father. He was an only child and was clearly doted on. He loved showing the three of us how to do stuff, and it was he who had shown us how to make the catapults, not the chopping down of tree's bit you understand.
Once it was cut to size and stripped of bark we would go down to the orchard and light a fire, placing the forked wood on top. This dried it out enough to stop the sticky sap from gluing your hand together whenever you handled it. We would buy a few feet of quarter inch cat elastic from Gentries the sports shop and cut notches in the top of the two forks. Then cut the elastic in half and force one end of each piece into the notched ends of the wood. Then we'd bind them together with a length of wire. The other ends of the elastic were then attached to a square of leather using more wire. When Steve's dad had made the first one he had bought a piece of leather especially for the job. Cliff and me didn't have such luxuries, so we just cut the tongues out of our shoes, they were perfect for the job.
So we're back in the woods, and we had come across this tree that was about 30 feet tall but very thin. It had loads of spindly branches on it, nothing suitable for us, but Cliff had decided to try to climb it. He had only got about halfway when the tree started to bend over. He was only about seven stone wet, but even his weight was too much for the puny tree. Suddenly it bowed over and brought Cliff back to within a couple of feet of the ground. When he let go he more or less just stepped off, but the tree whipped back upright a lightning speed. If anyone had been in its way they would most certainly have been killed. It was then I think that all three of us had the same thought at the exact same time.
We immediately set to work, the mission was to strip the whole tree of all it's branches, this took us hours. I still to this day can't believe that we were so dedicated to one bit of mischief. We took it in turns to shimmy up the tree, hacking off all the limbs as we went. We had to return to finish the job the next day because it had got too dark to continue, and to be honest we were shit scared to be in those woods at night.
So it was Sunday afternoon when finally the last branch had been removed, and the top ten feet cut off. So basically what we were left with was a twenty foot pole. We were almost ready. We went back into the street and collected half a dozen milk bottles off some random doorsteps and a sledge hammer from Cliff's dad's garage. I got a massive steel spike that was about three feet long and had stood against the wall from my garage. It had been there for so long that no one knew how it got there or what it was originally used for. But finally we had found a use for it.
So about fifteen minutes later and we rendezvoused back at the pole. We hammered the spike into the soft ground with the sledge hammer. That was the hardest part of all. Cliff had insisted on doing this because the hammer was his, but the trouble was the bloody hammer was almost as big as him. He could hardly swing it and when he did manage to lift it above his head the weight of it dragged him over. Anyway eventually between us we got it hammered in so that there was about six inches sticking out of the ground. Next I climbed the pole until it bent over enough for the other two to grab it. Then with all three of us hanging onto the end we secured it with a length of rope to the spike in the ground.
Great! It was finally ready. We stuck one of the milk bottles onto the end of the pole and stood back to admire our weekends work. I think that if it hadn't taken so long to get to this point we might have had second thoughts about doing this, but we’d come too far to turn back now.
Using the axe I chopped through the rope, it went in one because it was under so much strain already I suppose. I think we all thought the bottle would simply fly straight up into the air, and we would get loads of fun doing this over and over. What actually happened was the milk bottle got launched up into the stratosphere. We didn't even see it leave the end of the tree, it couldn't possibly have stayed within the woods. We didn't see it leave, and it would have been impossible to see it land because it must have flown out of the woods, across the road, over the school on the other side and carried on straight into town.
Of course, we did what we always did when we came face to face with our own stupidity, we ran. We legged it out of the woods and went home. We stayed out of those woods for at least a couple of weeks, and when we did venture back in all our handy work had been removed. The old boy must have come across it, he cut down the stripped tree and pulled up the spike. I think we were secretly pleased, all the evidence was gone, and there had been no reports on the news about anyone being killed by a mysterious flying milk bottle, so we had got away with it.
Years later, when Cliff and I were in the pub chatting to anyone who would listen, he loved telling that story, and the more he drank the further that bottle went.