It was the last week in May of 1979, and all the kids in the fourth grade were starting to get the summertime itch. While Mrs. Short stood at the chalkboard giving the math lesson, every child’s mind was elsewhere. Some were at the Jersey Shore, in places like Seaside Heights, Wildwood, and Long Beach Island. Others were at Six Flags Great Adventure, while still others weren’t even in the Garden State at all, but in far-off places like the Poconos or Florida. Yes, math was the last thing on the brains of these twenty-six restless little rugrats.
I sat between my two best friends, George Mawefski and Michael Fienberg. We used to pass notes when Mrs. Short had her back turned, usually just silliness like dirty jokes and unflattering caricatures of our not-so-beloved drunken teacher. We were sentenced to spend the remainder of many a class out in the hall because of them, especially the one of her with the stink lines emanating from her mouth, armpits, and feet. She was a meanie who yelled at us all the time, and even at that tender age, we knew she was almost always half in the bag whenever she showed up for class (any kid with drunks for aunts or uncles knows the signs). I reckon it was because she hated teaching about as bad as the three of us hated school.
It was on that Monday when Michael passed me a note telling me to meet him and George out by the pond behind the school for something important. Though I pressed him for details, he said it would have to wait until lunch, when we were away from the tattletales and the unblinking red, watery eyes of our teacher.
That day it was sunny and comfortable, about 80 degrees or so. Michael and I walked out to the basketball court where George was waiting. The three of us then walked to our secret pond, where we used to go and catch frogs or skip rocks sometimes during Lunch. We jealously guarded our secret, making sure no teacher, parent or snitchy little teacher’s pet knew about it.
It was also our hockey rink whenever it froze over in the winter, where we’d just slide around in our Keds and Pumas, kicking some little chip of wood around, or sometimes even use real hockey sticks and a puck. One winter, Alex Barceau fell in because it had not frozen thick enough, and we had to sneak him back into school and dry his clothes out the best we could with the electric hand dryer in the boy’s room. Once in a while, we’d get run off by some older kids who went there to get high or make out. But in the end, it was our pond, no matter what the season.
As we plodded along the trail through the marshy woods, George finally told us the big important issue.
“I got a plan, guys. This Friday, we’re gonna escape from school.”
“What the fuck?” Michael asked, “Escape from school?”
“Yeah, man” said George, “It’s all in this map right here!”
George then pulled a hastily folded piece of notebook paper from his back pocket and unfolded it on a giant fallen log.
“Alright, check this out: Here’s the school, here’s the soccer field, here’s the woods, and the pond, and the highway. Now, on Friday, when we take our lap around the soccer field in Gym, we break off from the group right here, cut through the woods, cross the pond, cut through the woods until we get to Route 9, then we’ll all walk to the 7-11, and call my big brother to pick us up and take us to the beach!” We used to cross the pond with no trouble when it froze over, and knew the trail led to Route 9. It seemed like the perfect escape.
“Why don’t we just go around the pond?” I asked.
“Look how thick the fuckin’ briars are, man. If you wanna get scratched up by them Cat’s Paws, you can go around it.”
“Alright, then how are we gonna get across the pond?” I asked.
“Simple. There are plenty of logs around the pond, and we can tie them together with vines, and make a raft.”
“Wicked!” said Michael, “Just like in Tom Sawyer!”
“Hell, yeah” I said, “This is gonna be cool!”
“So we got till Friday,” George continued, “We meet here every day at Lunch to build our raft, then hide it, so come Friday, we make our escape!”
And so the plan unfolded.
Tuesday afternoon, we went to the pond to gather up fallen logs. The ideal size was about 4-5 inches in diameter and about eight feet long. It took two of us to move one at a time to the edge of the pond. We also gathered the long, thin green vines from the shoreline. They were very strong, and hard to cut, but we managed to cut many over ten feet long.
Each day, we gathered more logs until we had about a dozen, all varying in length from 6 to 8 inches of each other, until Thursday, when we used the vines to lash the timbers together, winding the vines around each log several times. The finishing touch was two relatively thinner logs, about an inch thick, tied in crossways at each end to keep the raft rigid. By Friday afternoon, we had a finished raft, and it actually looked pretty good for the work of three fourth graders.
That next Monday, we were restlessly awaiting gym class, shooting glances toward each other, trying to keep our silly little smiles hidden from Mrs. Short, and waiting patiently for 11:00. When the bell finally rang, we went out to the basketball court to line up for Gym class and wait for our teacher Mr. Kohn.
His lean, six-foot-six form soon appeared from behind the White Birches. The deafening shrill of his whistle stunned the children into silence.
“CLASS, TEN-SHUN!!!!” he yelled. We formed into our three “squads”, A, B, and C, and lined up to do our calisthenics. After our fifteen minute workout, we finally heard our cue.
“SQUADS A, B, and C, CLOSE DOWN YOUR RANKS!!!! LINE UP!!!! TAKE OFF!!!!!!!”
The class was off and running around the perimeter of the soccer field, most of the kids cutting corners when Mr. Kohn wasn’t looking. We made sure we ran around the pylons that marked each corner, though, just to make it look good. After the second turn, we fell back from the group a little ways, and then made a mad dash through the tall grass of the meadow between the woods and the athletic field.
The three of us ran through the grassy lea and straight to the trail that led to the pond, laughing all the way. I did not even feel the usual stitch in my side that running the lap after calisthenics usually gave me. We just bolted straight for our getaway craft, which was ready and waiting at the pond’s edge.
Michael and I pushed it gently into the water while George found a very long, strong stick to propel us to the trail on the other side. We walked gingerly aboard, standing as still as we could, and gently floated about fifteen feet away from the shore, parting the thick, green scum as we foraged ahead. About that time, we discovered that we seriously underestimated the buoyancy of logs that had been lying on the forest floor too long!
The raft started to sink in the middle of the pond as the rotten logs soaked up the water like a sponge. When our sneakers were starting to fill with water, Michael began to cry.
“Shut up, you pussy!” whispered George harshly. “We’re almost across!”
“I can’t swim!” Michael blubbered, “I’m gonna die!”
“Great” I muttered, “NOW you tell us!”
As George pushed the pole even harder, the raft sank deeper as it moved forward. Seconds later, the rustling of the forest undergrowth gave away Mrs. Short, Mr. Kohn, and our principal Mrs. Lefkowitz; I guess our pond was no longer a secret. We all knew we were in deep shit.
The really sad part was that we only had two weeks left till summer vacation, and because of our stupidity, we had to spend every last day of them in Mrs. Lefkowitz’s office, doing extra work in addition to our usual lessons as punishment, in complete silence, isolated from all the other students and banned from the end-of-school party. Really, we didn’t want to talk to each other anyway, because we were all convinced that it was the other two guy’s fault we got into this mess. They almost didn’t let us move on to the fifth grade because of our attempted jailbreak.
George’s momma taught French and Russian at the school, so she found out about it right away, and grounded him for a month (what a way to start the summer!). Michael’s sister Beth ratted him out when he got home, and his folks beat the shit out of him. The only reason I didn’t whooped until I saw the angels was because, thankfully, I just got a note sent home for my parents to sign. My sister went to another school, so she couldn’t nark on me, and we had both learned to artfully forge our daddy’s initials, so keeping my in-school suspension from my parents really only involved praying like mad the school didn’t call home to follow up the note, and trying not to act guilty. None of our parents really knew or talked to each other, so that was another thing that saved my sorry ass.
That summer was a good one, though. My sister and I spent our usual three months with my grandparents, staying weekdays in Riverside and weekends at their house on Long Beach Island, nobody even the slightest bit wise to my dirty little secret. That September, George and I rarely spoke, and Michael had not come back (We heard his family moved back to Staten Island). As time went on, though, we got to be closer again, until the eighth grade, when I moved to Tennessee.
Whenever I look back on that time, I can’t help but laugh at those three dumb kids in 1979 who thought they were so much smarter than everybody else, and how our impetuousness almost led to our destruction. It was probably for the best, because even if we made it to the 7-11 on Route 9, what if we couldn’t get a hold of George’s brother to come get us? We had no money to ride the bus, and George’s house was the only one where no adults were home, and he lived all the way in Jackson. And three 10-year olds thumbing a ride was completely out of the question.
The way I see it, we would’ve had but two choices; either the police would’ve eventually picked us up for truancy, or we would’ve had to call one of our mommas to come pick us up; Either way, it would’ve only made things a whole lot worse for all of us!
Well, anyway, good luck, George and Michael, wherever you crazy sons o’ bitches are. I can only hope Karma isn’t paying you guys back through your kids doing the same kind of stupid shit we did. I willingly admit that this is probably one of the reasons I decided not to have any kids of my own, because I don’t want my progeny used as instruments of my cosmic payback!