Several episodes have shown that Summer on 58th Street was a time spent in a land known only to those not faint of heart. One particular demonstration occurred on a late summer afternoon in 1949.
The afternoon was exceptionally hot. We lazed about in Charlie’s back yard coming about as close as we ever came to being bored. Finally, someone suggested we go swimming in the fertilizer pond to cool off. In our tattered T-shirts and grass stained jeans (that would stand alone on most windy days), we trudged barefoot along the back fence, down the well worn path that led past the big oak tree in Buddy’s back field, and eventually out to the unpaved, sandy portion of 56th Street.
Our feet had been toughened, as they were every summer, by months of activities such as running barefoot on asphalt roads and walking down the hot rails of the railroad tracks while being shot at with a slingshot or pea-shooter. Even with tough feet the blistering hot sand caused us to half walk-half dance, along the edge of the road. As we went, we threw dried dog fennel stick darts or sandspurs at bare backs and arms.
We passed the two old abandoned shanty houses that we occasionally “attacked” with B-B guns. When we reached the turn where the sandy road ran along the railroad tracks, Charlie suggested we take a detour and climb the big chinaberry tree on the corner. The tree was so old it was bigger than some oaks. At one time it had shaded the side yard of a shanty house that was long since gone. It also happened to be the tree that Mr. Balkcom had threatened Knox with a good whippin’ if he ever caught him in it.
Trees were special to us. After all, we had learned most of what we took to be gospel from Charlie in the big oak tree behind Buddy’s house. Trees were part schoolhouse, part sanctuary, part hideout, and always a challenge. But most of all, each was a road map to some kind of adventure. This Chinaberry tree would definitely leave a mark of adventure.
We’d been climbing around in the tree for about and an hour: jumping from limb to limb, swinging on vines, and throwing chinaberries at each other. Then we started chasing each other in a game of tag. We were all over that tree. Except for Ernie. He said his body was not conducive to brittle branches in high places. We knew that was a lie cause he’d jumped from the oak tree into the sand pile lots of times. Charlie finally got him going though when he said, as he said to us all when we were a bit scared, “Come on Ern, don’t be chicken”.
Buddy proposed that we gang up and all go after Knox. It seems we were always chasing Knox for some reason or another. Knox retreated out on the end of a young tender limb at the top of the tree. The farther he went, the more the limb would bend. Eventually, it bent until it reached the limb below it. Realizing this was a possible means of escape, Knox turned loose of the first limb and grabbed onto the second, which caused the first to spring back and almost launched Charlie into space. This was good, he thought. He could get away by riding one limb down to the next like a cherry sliding down the outside of a melting scoop of ice cream. As Knox went from limb to limb, he hurled insults and obscenities toward his pursuers.
This worked well until we cornered Knox out on the end of a large limb that was not bending. Unwilling to admit defeat, and fearing retribution for his continuous degrading verbal challenges to the others, he looked around for possible means of escape. None was apparent. He could either endure the physical attacks of pinching, hair pulling, and painful knuckle punching “frogs” to his arms, or he could risk a jump to the ground into the sticks, branches, weeds, vines, blackberry bushes, and who knew what else, some twenty feet below. That did not seem to be an acceptable alternative. In desperation, he looked for other avenues of escape. Over his shoulder Knox spotted a small cherry laurel tree below him and about fifteen feet away. So near and yet so far, he thought. Knox stared at the tree, telegraphing his intentions. Charlie, realizing Knox’s dilemma, yelled, “Jump Knox, I dare you!”
The jump was strong, too strong! Knox completely overshot the Laurel tree and landed solidly on the ground. We scrambled down to nab him, but he did not run. He was not moving at all. He was still squatting, like a frog ready to leap, but stunned, and looking at his right arm. As we approached, Knox lifted his right hand and turned it over. There was dark red blood, spurting in time to a beating heart. Suddenly, he screamed and grabbed his hand at the wrist. He started running towards home so fast that even Charlie couldn’t catch him.
We all yelled for him to stop so we could help. He never heard us. He was only making his heart beat faster and pumping more blood. Apparently, he was afraid that if he stopped he would bleed to death before he got home. When we got close to home the neighbors heard us yelling and screaming for him to stop. Mr. McCormack and Mr. Zorn came running out to help catch him, but to no avail. We tried to corner him, trap him, gang up on him, but he was like a flash of lightening and nothing worked. All he wanted was his mamma, who just happened to be a nurse. But mamma was not at home. She had left to pick up Knox’s dad from the paper mill.
We almost had him cornered and we could see that he was covered with blood. Just about then his mother and dad came up the road driving toward home. When Knox saw the car he once again escaped our out-stretched arms and ran toward his parents. Seeing the situation, his dad quickly stopped in the middle of the road just long enough for Mrs. Balkcom to grab him in her arms and jump back into the car. “Get to the hospital as quick as we can,” she yelled to his dad.
As they drove away we could hear Knox screaming, “I don’t wanna die! I don’t wanna die!”
Well, he didn’t die.
Knox later told us he didn’t know which he was scared of the most, bleeding to death or what his dad was going to do to him for being in that chinaberry tree. His mother told us that she was afraid the police were going to stop them and take them all to jail for running the red lights on the way to the hospital. “It was close,” she said. “The emergency room doctor said five minutes more and he wouldn’t have made it”
A few days later, we all went back to the chinaberry tree to investigate the scene of the accident. There, in the middle of a handprint in the sand, was a half of a broken brown Clorox bottle. The dark bloodstains were still visible.
Not only did Knox not die, the wound did not become infected. Bleach is a good antiseptic.