I mean, kids are always getting into trouble, whatever, no big deal. But I think about some of the shit @ThatWeissGuy posts about all the time and wonder how he or anyone in Massachusetts is alive at all.
— Smart Mark Hale (@ChaosMonkey) November 14, 2017
For some reason, Mark’s comment got me to thinking about a very specific corner of my childhood landscape, one that now only exists in the realm of hazy memory.
A couple of blocks east of North Woburn Center, where Merrimac Street split off from School Street, began the undeveloped parcel of land known only as “The Woods.”
Its far eastern edge, bordered by Hall’s Brook, was right across Dartmouth Street from by back yard as was one of my earliest arenas for unsupervised play. We built forts, hacked away at rotten stumps, had crabapple fights, and chased monsters in its semi-wild confines. My friends and I parceled out our areas into distinct nations, complete with crudely drawn maps on Manila paper marking the borders between the “Weiss Republic” and the “Empire of Artie.”
Our realm was split off from the rest of The Woods by a sneaker-swallowing marsh thick with skunk cabbage and fiddleheads, walled off by a steep hill that extended from the backyard of a weird Victorian house that was the only residence along that stretch of Merrimac Street.
Crossing that combination was no mean feat. It gave the patch beyond it a mythic quality, borne out by the presence of a seasonal pond that served as the local ice rink in the winter months and a sturdy stone bridge which had outlasted the overgrown pathways on either side of it. The place marked the upper part of the brook’s serpentine path, where it had been cut loose from the Middlesex Canal across the road and served as an outlet for its sluggish waters.
When the freight operations ceased along the canal, the towpaths were repurposed as railbeds, then left as as a impromptu network of trails for horseback riders and dirtbike enthusiasts by the time I was a kid. The path along the western edge of the woods had dwindled into a thin sandy sliver hemmed in by a chainlink fence on one side and the edge of a steep retaining wall overlooking the brook on the other. In the winter months, my friends and I would fling ourselves off the wall onto the snow and accumulated leaves (and occasionally rocks) below.
There was always a little trepidation about poking around that end of the woods. It was the realm of the Teenagers, the feather-haired, acne-marked, denim-rocking crowd of high schoolers we simultaneously feared and admired. They tended to be more nocturnal than my gaggle of pre-teen pals, but evidence of their passing was wasn’t hard to find.
Sometimes it turned out pretty well, like when we found a rope swing they’d built that let you launch yourself out over the brook before arcing back towards a massive oak tree at bonesnapping speed.
Other times it ended with white knuckle terror, like the time we pulled an ill-considered daylight raid on “Dead Man’s.” Located on the spit of ground where the brook curved back on itself, Dead Man’s was a informal campsite walled off by an open-ended square of fallen tree trunks. It was the preferred place for local adolescent bacchanalias, which also made it a great place to scoop up various “treasures” left behind in a drunken-stoned stupor or manic stampede from the cops the night before.
On this occasion, my friends and I found the teens had left behind a honkingly huge cooler. It was massive enough to for a pair of us to sled down the hill in or use as a makeshift rowboat on the pond, both of which we did before dragging it back and storing it in my buddy Brian’s backyard clubhouse.
Our glee at pulling one over on the hesher set was short-lived, as the teen’s soon sussed out who swiped their goods and started spreading threats of retaliation through the grapevine. (I suspect my pal Artie let it slip because he felt compelled to brag about his bullshit to anyone within earshot.) We spent a harrowing week glancing over our shoulders and fearing every dinged up muscle car that rolled past us on the walk home from school.
The dread about our anticipated stomping was so thick that we were thrilled when the teens limited their payback to trashing Brian’s backyard shack and retrieving their stolen cooler. (Artie was the most indignant about it, which bolsters my theory that he was the one who brought attention to us in the first place.)
Woburn being Woburn and regional property values being what they are, the entire east half of the woods was razed about twenty years back to make room for a massive apartment complex. The seasonal pond was filled in, the old bridge was torn down, and Dead Man’s was finally laid to rest.
I’ve driven past the place a few times since then, but my brain has difficulty registering the changes. No amount of pastel vinyl siding and prefab design can erase the topographical contours etched into my gray matter.