by Howard Smead
There was a war to be fought.
The bushes bordering the alley had tubular interiors that easily concealed stealthy soldiers. We used them as underground passages to the killing ground in my back yard.
Junior, Mobile Unit, Thacker and I ground the Germans to pulp. At the sands of Iwo Jima, as we were dusting the Japs with our superior gun noises and flaming screams of Bonzai!, Jim shut off the mower and called us over.
"I know where another army is," he told us in his low, phlegmy voice.
He was a small man, no taller than we, with a straight back settled into his body in such a way he had to step out a little behind the mower to compensate for the lack of leverage. Always when he did yard work, he wore a faded coat, shiny green shirt and my grandfather's yellow and brown necktie. On his feet were a pair of broken brown and white wingtips.
"An army — near here?" we said, drawing closer to him to peer
into his mysterious face, desperately wanting to believe him. "No way."
His curly gray hair stuck out at his ears beneath his stained porkpie straw hat. His eyes were rheumy puddles and his face had the deep tones of my leather jacket. He broke into a laugh that rumbled from the pit of his stomach. On a younger man with stronger innards, it would have
been a belly laugh. On him it crackled and croaked.
Finished with our lawn, he pushed the mower into the garage, banging the garage door down behind him. As he sat on the stone steps to catch his breath, we percolated around him issuing wild challenges of glorious combat.
He described a route that took us onto the next block. We stayed with him when it cut down the alley past Mobile Unit's big yellow brick house, then three houses later Thacker's elaborate brick patio and barbecue that the Germans had destroyed the previous summer.
Jim kept on walking right out of our neighborhood. Before we realized it, he’d led us onto Marsh Pike toward Paramount.
"He's just fooling," Mobile Unit said. "He doesn't have any army." He pushed his taped-together glasses back up his nose and
smirked skeptically. But he stayed with us anyway in case he missed something.
Mobile Unit was two years older than we were and couldn't make good gun noises to save himself. It didn't matter because he spent most of his time roaming the streets on his bicycle that had about a hundred antennas on it pretending to be a cop.
"Jim does so," I said. "Don't you, Jim?"
"Yeah," Thacker threw in. "What do you know anyhow?" He gave Mobile Unit a shove. Thacker had a big gut and was always thrusting it at people. Even my mother wondered why I hung out with him. He was okay most of the time. Besides, he lived close and he had the best mortar explosion of us all.
"I know Jim doesn't have any army," Mobile Unit replied, pushing Thacker back.
"Where is it?" Junior asked.
"Near here?" I hoped, excited by the possibilities.
"Outchere a ways," Jim told us.
“You sure it’s there? I think Jim’s making this up,” Mobile Unit said.
“It is too, there,” Thacker insisted.
"Oh, it's there all right. I expect it’s been there since before you boys were born."
"How many kids are there? Do they go to our school? Maybe we
"Who said anything about kids?" Jim said with a sly wink.
Pausing for a moment, he removed his hat. His head was almost devoid of hair. On the doom rested a neatly folded white handkerchief. We stared and didn’t stop. I don’t think we’d ever seen him with his hat off before then.
Jim removed the white square and carefully patted every last bead of sweat from his forehead. Once done he returned it to its perch. With a look of amusement at our gaping, he fished into his pocket for a small bone wrapped in leather with bits of fur sewn around it. "This is their talisman." He said it so casually it didn’t sink in at first.
He placed it in the flat of my hand. I gazed timidly upon this alien doodad not knowing what to make of it. It felt light and alive, like holding a grasshopper, feeling its prickly legs tickle your skin. Jim took it from my palm and placed it on Junior's. And on to Thacker and Mobile Unit.
"Are you the leader?" Thacker asked when the talisman was taken from him.
Jim shook his head.
"Who is then?"
"He goes by the name Cudjo."
"Cudjo? What kind of name is that?" we wanted to know, picturing maybe a cow chewing its cud.
"It's a special name," he replied. "For a special army. Never fired any shots — except for one time."
"What kind of army doesn't fire any shots?" Mobile Unit broke in. "Where is this place anyway?"
Jim pretended not to hear. Then he said, "You all are good boys and I'm sure old Jim can trust you."
We assured him he could even though we were already bursting with this wonderful tale. "Well now, it's a bit farther yet."
We'd already passed Paramount.
We proceeded along Marsh Pike single file under a sun that began to draw grit on the backs of our necks.
At Reid we cut off the highway onto a shady farm lane, kicking up road dust as we playfully danced ahead to see what lay
over the next hill and around the far turn.
"Cudjo teaches young men how to travel at night so they can't be seen, and how to walk so light on their feet their own moon shadows can't find them," he told us. "He shows boys like you how to dance so quiet in the footsteps of the enemy they can steal the shoes right off their feet. And to treat their enemies with respect. It's their territory, you know. It's always their territory."
“Yeah,” Thacker agreed, “like not messing up old lady Ward’s backyard.”
In short order at a descending curve in the road beneath a towering oak tree we came to a boarded up red brick church nestled against the slope of the low hill.
Jim led us into the graveyard. Most of the gravestones were covered with bracken. The spongy ground was deep with weeds and dead leaves from the oak. He sat down wearily on a fallen marker. He repeated the slow ritual with his handkerchief. “You young fellas go ahead and clear the brush from that gravestone over yonder.”
Set off by what was once a small fence, separate and above the rest of the graves. The marker’s blank eye of the marker seemed to be closed as Junior and I knelt before it and ripped dead branches away. The eye opened.
Conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Rescued 191 souls from slavery.
Born the Ides of March 1800.
Followed the Drinking Gourd until
Murdered by slave catchers November 1860
We gathered around it solemnly. After a moment Mobile Unit said, "Is that all? Just some stupid old grave?" The insulting
smile again, the glasses. We shifted toward Jim to see how he would take it. He was still perched on the fallen gravestone, winded, it appeared, maybe from the long walk. His face had taken on a gray cast.
"Cudjo was born with Nat Turner," he said with gravity that startled me, "and died when old Abe was elected President."
"Underground Railroad, what's that?" we asked cautiously.
Jim placed his strong old hands squarely on his knees. "It's a way to get the people out," he said. "So they can be free."
Free, I thought. It sounded funny. Free ...?
"Was it really underground?" Junior asked.
"Lordy, no. It isn't really a railroad either. It's a way to escape, a way to be free. This here church is a safe house, a
place for the people to hide."
"All this way out here for nothing," Mobile Unit mocked. "This is stupid. We should have stayed home."
Thacker spun at him, insulted by what we all feared might be true. But also tired of looking for an excuse. "You're full of it," he cried. He threw himself at Mobile Unit, locking his arms around him.
They fell to the ground grunting and pushing at each other.
Junior and I gathered on either side of Jim, as if to fend off this disrespect. Jim paid them no mind. He was studying the
bracken. To my surprise Mobile Unit pinned Thacker against the trunk of the oak and started unleashing roundhouse punches against Thacker's fat gut. Smack, smack. Smack! It was the first time I'd ever seen Thacker lose a fight, and believe me, he'd been in plenty of them.
Thacker wailed. Mobile Unit flailed. Thacker’s voice scratched raw, Jim pushed himself up and made his way across the open stretch of ground to the oak. We figured he intended to break up the fight. Instead, he stopped before something that the tussle of angry bodies had exposed. Something both wonderful and forbidding.
Junior and I came up and stood beside him. "You guys better come and see this," I called to Thacker and Mobile Unit.
As soon as I said it, I realized I didn't care whether they came or not. In fact, I kind of hoped they wouldn't. For as I stood there staring at the dark ancient opening dug into the earth by long-dead hands, I grew excited beyond my imagination's ability to give expression to my feelings. I knew instinctively that this little lesson in history would warn me about a world much too harsh for play-liking.
The urgency in my voice ended the fight. Thacker and Mobile Unit hurried over. Now wholly a part of our adventure, Mobile Unit got down and ripped away more weeds. Thacker hung back trying to suppress his tears. The chamber sloped down into the ground from the side of the burial mound.
"Is it a tunnel?" Thacker exclaimed, shrugging off his defeat in the privileged way of a kid.
We waited for Jim's response. But he had already returned to the gravestone, where he was sitting with his head bowed. His hands were clasped over his talisman as though he had fallen into a trance.
The old man's head was bent, his aged face closed up. I couldn't be sure if he was sick, really in a trance, or what.
"Come on," Thacker cried, sticking his head into the mysterious hole in the ground. "We've gotta check it out. Wonder how far it goes?" He acted as if the thrashing Mobile Unit had just given him never happened.
Jim stirred. From deep within came a long low gasp, as though he'd been holding his breath. His eyes came open, slitted but unblinking. He raised his head.
We followed his gaze back to us at the opening. Thacker’s snapping legs remained behind as if the hungry hole was gobbling him up a piece at a time. Mobile Unit broke into a wide smile as Thacker's legs disappeared.
Hard to tell what he was thinking. Maybe he was thrilled by the discovery. Maybe he was eager to follow Thacker. Maybe he was ridiculing Thacker's eagerness to prove himself. Hard to tell. I fell to my knees at the opening. "Thacker," I yelled. But got no answer. The silent opening stared back at me. "We could make a torch. Get a branch." I suggested, casting around for something that would burn.
"Who's got matches?" Junior asked. Mobile Unit didn't have any. Jim neither. His attention was focused on the hole, as though it held something over him more powerful than our boyish curiosity. Only Thacker had any. He always carried matches, and a few cigarettes as well.
"We can't just let him in there alone. Maybe something's happened to him. Thacker!" This time I screamed it. Junior joined me.
I didn't have a choice. "Here goes." Gulping air, feeling like I would surely drown in a pool of dirt. The last thing I wanted to do was dive in without a light.
In I went. Junior right behind me. On all fours into the dusty darkness. We had often crawled through the pipes under Northern Avenue that funneled buried streams through our neighborhood. That led me to expect dampness and hollow echoes. What sound we got was dry, muffled, and practically dead. I kept a constant stream of chatter to Junior behind me.
Each time I lost the feel of his hands scraping against my shoes, or his head butting me, I called out, "You still there? You with me?"
Each time he grunted, "See Thacker?"
I didn't. I couldn't see anything. And I was too frightened to stop and listen.
I inched forward waving my hand at the blackness in front of me, placing it down, raising the other, cutting through the black with it. One after the other. Heartbeat by heartbeat with Jim’s deliberation. Dirt was all over me, pinching at my skin with its tiny claws. My lips tasted like it.
"Thacker, where are you? Are you all right? He's gotta be here," I said over my shoulder.
"Keep going," Junior was breathing through his mouth now from the effort. I was too scared to. Who knew what might flutter into it if I kept it open.
"Can we still get back out?" Where was Thacker? Damn Fat Packer anyway.
I quit crawling when I felt Junior stop to check and waited. I wasn't moving another inch unless he was with me. We'd passed maybe five feet if that far even though it seemed like miles. "Call Jim, see if he's there."
"Jim, can you hear me?" The ground swallowed his voice. "Jim?"
"You guys? Hey, you guys." It was Mobile Unit.
"Yeah," we cried.
"Gone? Where’d he go?”
I don’t know. He just disappeared.”
“How could he just disappear, you jackass?” I shouted, about to lose my nerve. “Mobile Unit’s so stupid sometimes. I wish Thacker’d beaten him up instead. Let’s go back.”
Junior’s head rammed against me.
"Thacker,” I called into the darkness.
Ahead of me something flickered and disappeared. “A light. I saw a light,” I cried “Thacker, is that you?”
“You sure?” Junior asked from behind.
When the light flared again I was looking straight at it. A tiny island of yellow flame suspended in a vast inky ocean. “There it is again. Thacker!”
The flame sputtered and went out. I hurried ahead. The tunnel began to widen. Junior came up beside me. The flame renewed itself and we made for it in a rush.
Thacker was crouched against a brick wall, filmed over by generations of dust. He looked at us in mute terror. Junior grabbed the pack of matches from him and lit another. By the light of the tiny flame, I could see the stone reinforcement in this part of the tunnel. We’d crawled all the way to the church. Dirty tears streaked Thacker’s face. This was more like a room that was once attached to the basement of this church, long ago walled-off.
The air was close. Sulfur from the matches stung my nose. Junior yanked on my arm. I turned back to see what he wanted. He pointed.
In the flickering light, my eyes met the cause of Thacker’s tears. Not three feet from us lay a skeleton, browned like parchment, half-buried in the hard dirt of the wall. I took the matches, lit one as his went out, and gave then back. He lit another, doubling to cramped light. Suddenly, with him there beside me and Thacker sniffling behind us, I felt safe. Unbelievably so. “Is this part of the Underground Railroad?” I hear myself asking.
“Beats me,” Junior said. “Slaves could’ve hidden down here. If they wanted to escape, they could have come out this way. It looks like this tunnel runs way past the open part where we came in.
“That hole was actually a collapsed section, I’ll bet you,” he said. “No wonder it was so tight.”
“Think this was a slave? Why did they have to escape from the church? Wouldn’t they have been safe inside?”
“They had to get across the Mason-Dixon Line. That’s the direction of this tunnel. North. Pennsylvania’s not too far from here.”
“Yeah, I know, we followed it once in Boy Scouts.”
“When were you a Boy Scout?”
“Before you moved here. I got thrown out for talking too much. Why would slaves be safe once they got across it? It’s just an imaginary line.”
“Maybe they weren’t,” Junior said. “Then again, maybe he’s some normal guy whose coffin rotted.”
“Yeah and he fell out,” I agreed. I held up a fresh match. Above us stones had been worked into the earth to keep the roof from caving in. The skeleton couldn’t have fallen through. One arm slanted across his chest. The finger on the hand, a long and slender series of bones held in place by encrusted dirt — admonishing us to keep the secret. It might just as well have said, “Sssssshh.”
“Holy moley, look,” I cried. “There’s a bullet hole in his head.”
Sure enough, an inch or so above the bridge of his nose, as indistinct as the tunnel opening, was a small round hole.
Thacker pushed through us as he generally did whenever he wanted to assert himself. His own finger shot through the dim light and ticked at the bullet hole.
Touching it, he disturbed the delicate balance of bone and earth. Slowly, the hand came away from the body and the finger leveled toward Thacker until it pointed directly at his nose.
He let out a wail I was sure would bring the tunnel down on top of us. Thacker screamed again and shot straight down the tunnel and out into the light with us piling right behind him.
From time to time when I'm tempted to re-tell Jim’s tale, I've felt that dessert-dry finger tickling at the back of my neck warning me to keep my mouth shut.
I was the last one out.
©2007 Howard Smead