Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Tar Pits of Portland

When I was a kid, we lived in Portland on Stevens Avenue near Morrills Corner. My brothers and I had regular exploratory routes in the odd spaces between things -- houses, Westbrook College, Evergreen Cemetery, the Armory. During the summer, especially, this was our stomping ground.

One of the paths we would go down regularly ran between the back of Westbrook College and the huge lot behind the Armory. Back then, the Armory was very active, and the lot was filled with strange Army-green vehicles, including some that looked like they had actual missiles or some sort of rockets loaded on their backs. The lot was bounded by a tall chainlink fence, which had barbed and/or razor wire at the top.

We were fascinated by the proximity of all this military equipment. It was like our G.I. Joe toys had grown up and would actually work if you sat in them. It was also fun to feel like we were spies, even though we had nothing and no one to spy for except for our own entertainment. I think we might have even taken photos of the missile trucks with our cruddy little 110 cameras.

One day we traipsed down the trail as usual, probably on our way to the dirt access road that runs into either the older backside of Evergreen Cemetery or the soccer fields far in back of our house depending on which way you choose to go, and we noticed something new, strange, and disturbing. Around the perimeter of the fence, a shallow trench had been dug, maybe a foot or two wide and half a foot deep at best. Into the trench had been poured liquid tar.

I could understand it as a deterrent to any fence hoppers. We ourselves were a little too wary of repercussions to climb the fence, but there must have been older, less concerned parties who happened upon the barrier from time to time and had no such compunctions, who tried their hands at jumping into Green Man's Land. So in that sense I guess I could reach for some logic as to the presence of the evil-looking tar spilled about in a long line.

What my adolescent brain could NOT wrap itself around was the horrible carnage that ensued from this seemingly simple ploy. At regular intervals in the tar we came across the carcasses of dead birds. The stark horror of blackened feathered corpses and their curled feet still haunts my brain.

I don't think we wandered down there much beyond that summer. Things were changing. Beyond the tar pits, Westbrook College had gotten a security guard that seemed a little more territorial than previously.

Junior high was inflicting its societal "norms" on us. Social life was picking up for both me and my brother, two years behind me and formerly my constant companion. He spent more time adventuring with boys, both his friends and our middle brother, than with me, and I was babysitting, and started hanging out with my girlfriends more.

High school and the mirage of adulthood loomed on the horizon, a vision soon to be disrupted by the roils of adolescent angst and parental restrictions. I didn't think of the refuge of the back ways again for many years. I kind of wish I had kept in touch with them -- it might have saved my sanity a little bit more than working a crappy job and moping about the house!

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