FREE THE POLE
by Howard Smead
Mobile Unit's driveway was big enough to accommodate half a basketball court with the boundaries and foul line painted in white on the dark macadam and plenty of room left over in case your momentum carried you out of bounds. The handy Mobile Unit installed spotlights on his second floor porch so we could play basketball well past sunset. The rim and backboard stood the requisite ten feet atop a solid wooden post, also painted white, in front of two garages, one belonging to Mobile Unit's family, the other to the neighbors. The post was murder on layups but it served another vital function, providing the home base for late night games of Free the Pole. So many places to hide were close by, we could always count on thrilling races to the pole. "One, two, three on Sally, hiding in the rose arbor." And the race would be off to touch the white post first.
My sister and I lived on the other side of the block. An alley connected our backyards so we could cover the distance on our bikes in about a minute and a half. It served as our own private road connecting all the important parts of our neighborhood, the all time greatest hood for growing up. Lots of open grass for putting up tents and playing baseball and football, heavy shrubbery for hiding, isolated places to congregate where no parent would think of looking, and even a few forbidden houses inhabited by kid-hating misanthropes, who for some odd reason took a dim view of a bunch of hyperactive kids seeing how much noise they could make. But they were just props in our play. What, after all, would childhood have been like without at least one wretched old couple whose sole pleasure came from loathing children?
At night when it was dark and we were into our games, all the neighborhood could hear our high-pitched voices calling fouls or shouting "free the pole" and "allee, allee in for free," while cussing up a shrill storm. We played with total abandon and never thought for a moment of anything beyond the game we were involved in. Until that is, I heard the clanging of the bell my mother kept on top of the refrigerator. I knew then either to shut my mouth or the next time she'd be calling me home. Not that my mother could actually discern all the swear words from her wicker rocker on the screened-in porch where she would be sitting with my father.
Most probably Mobile Unit's mother had called her telling her I was "using swear words again." The next thing I'd hear would be the agitated ringing of the bell. If it was a warning to cool it, the bell made sharp clangs, one right after another. From the middle of the court, usually as Mobile Unit had stolen the ball from me yet again, I'd imagine my mother holding the bell's black handle and throttling away, blaming herself for my foul mouth. If I'd said anything worse than hell or damn, an insistent ga-ding ... ga-ding ... ga-ding would bring my evening to a premature close.
The best nights came in July when our families got together for cookouts. Just before dinner we'd dump our bikes on the lawn and pick up the basketball mainly I think to annoy our mothers who were yelling at us to wash our hands and get ready to eat. "Just one quick game of horses?" we'd protest, eyeing our fathers. "Horse?" we'd offer when they demurred. "Okay, then, just Hor?" They never knew whether to laugh or pretend to be angry.
Meanwhile, out on the wide driveway with the smoky air so flavorful with cooking hamburgers you could taste it, we'd run through a few layups and setshots that constituted our repertoire until the food was on the table. One quick command barked at us bunched beneath the rim and we'd scramble to sit down with our legs still dancing beneath us to expend the last rush of energy.
Getting through dinner was always the tough part for me. In my mind, it was nothing more than an adult impediment to having fun. A burger partially eaten from the foul line and laid aside on a plate in the grass somewhere would have been fine. But our parents had acquired the idea somewhere that we had to sit at the picnic table with them while we wolfed down our food and warded off their attempts to engage us in conversations that always went nowhere.
That was me, not Mobile Unit. He regarded his food as though it were some organic version of his shiny red radio bike that was always nearby except when he was in school (and even then it wasn't far from his mind). Mobile Unit ate like an orphan at his first backyard barbecue. Two hamburgers with ketchup on top of the mustard and onions and relish, potato salad, potato chips and tomato wedges on the side. I, on the other hand, ate like a zen master. Playing was all the fuel I needed.
Mobile Unit actually went back for more at a time when it was his obligation to finish as fast as possible. But his values were way out of kilter. Enjoying supper was something our parents did because they didn't have anything better to do. It was always a passing mystery to me what they talked about while sitting on the small patio just off backcourt in their comfortable semi-circle.
Meanwhile, I'd reduced my despairing parents to subterfuge. "Eat your hamburger or you won't be big and strong enough to play basketball when you get to high school." When you're twelve-years-old, high school is an incomprehensible era too far away to contemplate. Adulthood is a disease causing your glands to swell and distend and your stomach to get big, forcing utterly lame remarks up out of your mouth at odd times. Especially if you have to sit still and answer questions about your favorite subjects in school and tell what the latest book you were reading was about.
Although, after a while that question didn't get asked too often. "It was called Space Prison," I'd say. "It's about these people who get put on this planet called Ragnarok and they keep having children so they can build up an army. After about ten generations of having children they build a hyper-space transmitter and send a message to the people who put them there saying, "Ragnarok calling." And it takes about ten more generations for the people to get the message and send their army and by that time the people have their own army using little chipmunks that sit on their shoulders and communicate through mental telepathy and they defeat the bad guys and use their space ship to get off the planet and then they're free."
"Where do they go?"
"I don't know, it didn't say."
By then my mother would have figured it out. "When did you read this?" she'd ask.
"Last night. I stayed up all night. Can I go play now?"
"Drink your milk first."
By then the looming shrubbery and deepening shadows around the garages had begun to offer promising hiding places for Free the Pole. You could climb into them or squat behind them and pretend for one short moment that you were transported into a world of mystery and adventure, where adults stayed in their place and were always willing to let you eat on the run, and never intruded unless they were asked. And all you had to do was get home before whomever was IT. If you succeeded, if you ran fast enough or if you had chosen a clever hiding place, you got to Free the Pole and liberate the hood all over again.
© 2007 Howard Smead