THE The GREAT CRABAPPLE WAR of ‘56
Marilyn A. Kinsella
Sometimes, I think that, as a child, I lived in the world's greatest neighborhood. Old Fairview (now Fairview Heights, Illinois), just up the bluffs from St. Louis, was nestled in a forest of trees. First of all, you have to understand the layout. The main street, the one I lived on, was called St. Clair Rd.. It led back off Route 50 on an old road called Old Lincoln Trail, purportedly named because Lincoln had stayed in one of the houses along that road. There were many off-shoots on St. Clair Rd - North Rd, South Rd; Judith Ann Place and Center, Dogwood and Deppe Lanes. These roads always dead-ended in the woods that provided a backdrop for my neighborhood. It was the perfect place for me and my wild imagination to soar.
For my 10th birthday I got my first new bicycle - a sky blue Western Flyer. It was big, it was bulky, but it was my ticket to freedom. It had such character with white hand grips and ribbons of colored plastic, white leather seat and chrome trim. I called her “Ol' Blue.” Every evening Ol' Blue and I took a ride up and down the streets of my neighborhood. I knew every house and tree and almost every person. As I sailed by, I waved at my neighbors and they waved back. When I got back home, Ol' Blue shone with the evening dew clinging to her chrome flanks. I always helped her up the front porch steps and put her away for the night.
Other times Ol' Blue and I rode on up to Grant School that faced Old Lincoln Trail. Even though I went to St. Albert the Great School, a lot of my friends from the neighborhood went to Grant School. Oftentimes, the school had some event going on. So, the kids from St. Albert’s from my class in the neighborhood met up with the Grant School kids. We just went along and made ourselves at home. On Saturdays, they showed old black and white movies. We could buy a bag of popcorn and a small soda for 10 cents. Our gang sat there in the darkened gym and laughed at the antics of the old Our Gang movies.
Close to the school Mr. Randle had a tiny little house that served root beer in icy mugs. There was a small counter with only four stools with puckered red leather seats. Ol' Blue waited outside while I plopped down fifteen cents. Mr. Randle went to the freezer and took out a frosty mug. Then, he poured the dark brown liquid until a foamy head formed on top. He gave me a wink and slid the root beer down to where I was sitting. On hot summer days with no air-conditioning anywhere there was nothin' better than to sip that root beer and let those icy crystals slip down my face and hands. After I was refreshed, I hopped back on Ol' Blue and headed for the corner store.
Now even though it was already the fifties, we still had a country store called the Fairview IGA. It was unbelievably small, but it had everything you could possibly want. Every inch was taken up with various sundries – seed potatoes, a dairy case, and even a butcher who cut fresh meat right there in the store. One of my favorite places in the store was a chest freezer with a glass top where they kept their ‘sicles - Popsicles, Fudgesicles, Dreamsicles. They had malted milk bars, Eskimo pies, ice cream sandwiches and little flavored Dixie Cups with their very own wooden spoons. Since we didn't have an air conditioner at home and the store wasn't air conditioned, sometimes I opened the lid of the case and took in huge gulps of frozen air. I breathed in till my nose hairs felt like sharp needles, and I thought surely my lungs would burst. Then, I closed the case and, since I didn’t have enough money, pretended as if nothing in the case really appealed to me. I walked over to the candy counter and began my perusal of the chocolates. If I do say so myself, I was quite a connoisseur of candy - Milky Ways, Oh Henry's, Snickers, Baby Ruths, Fifth Avenues and Clark Bars - I loved them all equally and with passion. But, sometimes I couldn't cough up even a nickel for a candy bar. So, I had to settle for a piece of gum. Back then you could buy a piece of gum for the pricey sum of one whole penny. I didn't have to think about it either, because there was only one brand to choose from back then and that was Double Bubble Bubble Gum. Childhood doesn’t get any better than chewing a piece of Double Bubble and blowing massive bubbles while riding Ol' Blue down the backroads of my ole neighborhood.
It’s true, sometimes I liked to be myself, but other times I liked to be with my gang. When we put our creative minds together, we had very imaginative, if not downright wild, adventures. In the woods we had a clubhouse. It was just a dugout old ditch with a piece of tarpaper over it. We used that as a home base for our excursions into the vast woods. Other times we played war with our little plastic army men. They were small green men cast into different poses - there was one with his carbine rifle positioned to shoot, another with his bayonet ready to charge, but my favorite was the little green man with his bazooka resting on his shoulder - what power!
We dug out elaborate catacomb forts into the walls of our clubhouse. Eventually, someone would call out, "To Arms!" and we delighted in flooding or otherwise destroying the enemy. By “otherwise destroying,” I mean that every once in a while one of us would come up with an old firecracker left over from the Fourth of July. Now, you have to remember that this was an long time ago when such things were actually legal. I'm surprised we didn't lose an arm or a leg in those battles, but we somehow got out of harms way just in the nick of time. I remember this one time, someone came up with a cherry bomb. Needless to say - there wasn't much left of the catacomb much less the fort after that thing went off. But really, there was no finer childhood memory than finding your enemies’ little green men making a hasty retreat as they slid down an avalanche of mud and rock after a surprise attack.
But, even though we had a good time together, we all quivered and shook in the presence of the true rulers of my neighborhood - a group of bigger, older, and stronger boys aptly named “the super-cool.” You know, I never actually saw the super-cool ever really play together. They just sort of hung-out… looking cool. They usually congregated outside the storefront of corner store leaning against the window, and sipping Coke from a bottle. Make no mistake - that storefront was their territory and they never let anyone pass without dishing out an armload of insults and then laughing uncontrollably behind one's back.
You can understand why sometimes going to the corner market could be a chore. And, I found myself going to that store almost daily. My family was spoiled with having that store so close. Inevitably, we'd be ready to sit down to eat, when I'd have to run out at the last minute to get a loaf of bread or carton of milk. And, of course, I'd run into the super-cool gang. There they'd be… suckin' on those Coke bottles... lookin' cool
I always parked Ole Blue well away from their bikes. They even had super-cool bikes. They all rode a Schwinn bike called “The Phantom”- a jet-black, chrome invested bike, with dual handle breaks, and a silver racing stripe. I knew better than to leave Ol' Blue anywhere near The Phantoms. After I parked (around back), I tried to act nonchalant as I walked up to the front door, but I was always so intimidated that I usually stumbled all over the place and inside. I could hear their jeers all the way down to the dairy aisle.
And, if the super-cool ran the store-front, they also ran the streets. My gang and I were, to cop a term from today’s vernacular, referred to as…well…as "geeks." And the geeks, I mean our gang, were allowed on the streets anytime - the super-cool were not. It was as if they feared some of our geekiness would rub off on their royal highnesses, if they should stoop to share the street. If we were riding down the street, and the super-cool came around the corner, it was expected that we would have to move over to the other side to give them all the room they wanted. Some unwritten laws of the streets were just naturally understood by one and all. So, we blindly abided by it.
But, then there was that fateful day in August - I was taking Ol' Blue out for her morning ride, when a whole slew of Phantoms came into view. I politely got over to the other side of the street, but that wasn't good enough. Oh, no! There were too many of them and they kept coming closer. Worse, they acted as if they didn't even see me. Like I was some sort of invisible… nothing. I knew Ol' Blue and I were going to have to cut our losses so I headed for the ditch. The next thing I knew, Ol' Blue was on top of me, and the super-cool were leaving me there in a fit of laughter. Now, I don't mind getting a couple of scratches or bruises, but they racked-up Ol' Blue. Her handlebars were all twisted around and one of the spokes had a dent in the middle. That did it. This could mean only one thing - WAR!
However, when the enemy is bigger and older and stronger, it does pose a problem. But, the line had been drawn in the tar across St. Clair Road, and there was no turning back. There was only one way to retaliate for such a breech in neighborhood etiquette, and that was to catch the enemy unaware, to seize the moment, to stage a surprise attack.
First, I gathered my troops. When I told them what had happened, they were more than happy to enlist. We scouted around for the perfect, camouflaged, natural fort from which to execute our strategic maneuvers. There was only one such site. On the corner of North Road and St. Clair there was a lot owned by Aunt Josie and Uncle Blainey. Growing around the corner were large lilac and snowball bushes that had long since lost their blossoms. Now they were a massive tangle of greenery that would provide us with an impenetrable walled fortress. Growing behind the bushes was our ammo supply - a line of crab apple trees just full of tiny green apples - perfect for flinging on our wooden rulers.
Being a child with a flair for the dramatic I ran home and got a handful of coal from the coal bin in the basement and all the old head scarves I could find. When I got back to my troops, we streaked our faces with the coal dust and wrapped the scarves around our heads like bandannas. The last scarf we tied onto the end of a long stick. It would make the perfect flag to wave as we went into battle. Next, we picked all the crab apples off the trees that we could reach. We virtually denuded the whole bottom half of the trees. We stored our ammo in orange crates requisitioned from our garages. With our powder kegs full we were ready for action. We didn't have to wait long. Through our hand-made periscope we could see the Phantoms, jet-black bikes invested with chrome, dual handle breaks, and silver racing stripes, coming over the rise. We loaded up our rulers and cocked them. We waited. At just the right moment someone shouted "To arms!"
In an instant, crab apples began catapulting across the fortress and toward our designated targets. Like B-2 bombers, our crab apples hit their marks time and again - arms, heads, butts - anything was fair game. Ho-ho-ho! They were caught completely off-guard. The Phantoms, those jet-black bikes invested with chrome, with dual handle breaks, and silver racing stripes began to wobble. They went out of control and headed straight for the ditches. The super-cool were down… but certainly not out. They began scrounging around for stray bullets and started throwing them back toward the bushes. Hah! Very few missiles could penetrate our fortress.
According to plan we were ready for phase two of our battle. And, this was crucial. To run now, would be to run for the rest of our lives. So with our pockets filled with crab apples, we charged out of our fortress and met our enemy head on.
What happened next went down in the annals of neighborhood lore as stuff from which legends are born. With our flag flying high, bandannas on our heads, faces streaked with coal dust, and crab apples in hand, we ambushed 'em! Oh, they tried a feeble counter-attack, but they were totally awestruck and apple-struck! They retreated to their bikes and rode off with a barrage of crab apples pelting their backs accompanying their hasty retreat.
We Won! We couldn't believe it! We won. The mighty store front gods had Achilles' heels after all.
Well, things changed after that. Oh, not drastically. They still never talked me or anything as civil as that. But now when I rode Ol' Blue down the street, the Phantoms would move out of the way. And, when I went to the corner store, I parked Ol' Blue right up front, and nary a word was said as the super-cools gave me a grudging path to the front entrance.
That fall my Aunt Josie and Uncle Blainey began harvesting their fruit trees. Unfortunately, there wouldn't be any of their famous crab apple jelly that year. There just weren't enough to make it worthwhile. They 'sposed that the squirrels got to them. Although they did think it a bit odd that the squirrels stopped precisely halfway up the trees. Hmmm.
I never told them what actually happened. After all, they were half right. A squirrelly bunch of kids did rob their trees.
A couple of weeks ago I went for a walk down my old neighborhood streets. The people had changed, but I nodded "hello" to the familiar homes and trees. Then, I came to that hallowed ground where the Great Crab Apple War of ‘56 took place. Gone were the bushes; gone were the crab apple trees. But, the memory lingered on like a thick fog. I closed my eyes and I heard once again the echo of a far-off, rallying cry, "To arms!" And I thought - childhood memories… don't get any better than this.