When I was growing up in Oceanside, Long Island in the late 1940s and early 1950s, our spiritual addresses were vacant lots. Small-town housing developments then were frequently unnamed spurts of fifteen or twenty houses, just a block or two, and there was always a buffer zone of one or more empty lots between layers of development. Life outside of school and home-the life of childhood play-was situated for me in one or another of three vacant lots within a few minutes walk or run from home. There were plenty of other vacant lots, but these three had undergone colonization by us neighborhood kids. They had character. Although someone owned them, they seemed to be our property and were treated accordingly. The Bamboo Lot, the Deep Woods, and one that was not then named but which I’ll call the Baseball Lot took us in and embraced us. Each had a separate function.
The Bamboo Lot, a double-sized undeveloped corner lot, was, as the name suggests, a thick tangle of bamboo. Though hard to penetrate, it succumbed to our stubborn efforts and suffered several worn paths and a few small clearings. In the Bamboo Lot, we could quite easily get lost from roadside view. This lot, just a few houses away from my home, was basically for just getting together and for imaginative talk, often about getting even with Mrs. Schaeffer, the neighborhood scold. Here, we’d trade baseball cards, play marbles and mumbledypeg, and develop our cursing skills. So quickly sheltered from passing cars and prying adults, we made wild plans, sneaked smokes, and poked at snakes and other creatures.
Of course, the Bamboo Lot provided the raw material for stickball bats, unneeded walking sticks, fishing poles, flutes and whistles, and the weaponry of our war games, which rarely took place there but rather in the Deep Woods. The lot was a generous and inexhaustible provider. We all practiced our skill with knives on the bamboo stalks and shoots, and singly and together we fashioned marvelous things, often joining bamboo lengths with wrappings made of vines or pliant reeds. Judy Leathers, who played with us there when we all still looked like boys, was the best at devising these fastenings.
The Bamboo Lot stood for several years, somehow resistant to development while other empty lots in the neighborhood were built on. Maybe the dense bamboo itself made the corner inhospitable. Eventually, though, it was tamed and a large house with an elegant yard claimed the space. We never got along well with the new family who took our Bamboo Lot away. Treating their children as usurpers, spoilers, we called them names, tripped them in the hallways at school, and generally made them miserable. After a while we just ignored them. They stayed on their property and we stayed off it. They were trapped in what we had lost.
The Deep Woods, a much larger undeveloped area a few blocks further to the east, was several lots wide and very deep; I don’t think we ever walked all the way through it to whatever road was its distant border. It was the typical wild space of the coastal mid-Atlantic, densely green with many large, overhanging trees that provided shade and kept in check the low-lying scrub and grasses. Wild berry trees provided color as well as snacks, and they also provided projectiles for small arms fire.
A clearing in the Deep Woods held our fort. Actually, it wasn’t ours: its basic design and construction predated our generation of kids. Nonetheless, we had taken it over and improved it. The basic structure of the fort had been formed by nature. Two large trees, only about eight feet apart, had been half-severed and bent over about four feet up from the ground. We believed they had been hit by lightening. Their toppled upper trunks stretched out in the same direction, with the distance between them narrowing to about four feet where they rested on the ground. The length of these upper trunks, from the point where they angled down from the place of fracture to the ground, was twelve or fourteen feet. All the tree limbs had been chopped off by our predecessors, as had the narrowing (once topmost) part of the trunks that rested on the ground and had once carried the trees’ crowns.
Upon this sturdy sloping frame we built or rebuilt platforms by placing odds and ends of “discovered” lumber and the stripped trunks of smaller fallen trees. And upon these platforms we erected further fortifications-not quite walls, but barriers against intruders and rests for our bamboo spears and other defensive weapons. The fort was always in progress. From its various heights and appurtenances, we could jump, swing, and otherwise risk our necks. Coming back from the Deep Woods, we often wore bloody knees and elbows. Every now and then, a defense of the fort resulted in a trip to the hospital.
After a few years, the near, roadside width of the Deep Woods was developed with several houses, including the one Arnold Tucker’s family built. Because the Tuckers let us cross their property to reach the diminished Woods, Arnold quickly became one of the gang. But in another year or two our visits became less frequent. We spent more time at the candy store and other places where there were girls around. Arnold and Judy Leathers were the first to have anything like a date. Younger kids clamored over our fort. Occasionally, there were signs that hoboes had stopped by.
The Baseball Lot was really a large sweep of undeveloped but largely cleared lots that ran from in back of our house to the intersection about six houses west, fronting on the street behind us. At the far end of this stretch, the older kids in the neighborhood had worn in a rough baseball diamond. The baseball field backed onto the property line of Mrs. Schaeffer and one other neighbor whose name I forget.
From the first warm days of spring until school let out, late afternoons would find us in the Baseball Lot. Once school was out for the summer, we would gather there at almost any prearranged time to start a four- or five-inning game. My friends’ older brothers would get things going, picking captains and choosing up sides from their teenage peers down to the fledgling players: Billy Markland, Scudder Black, Howie Schleich, and myself. While there was clearly a pecking order, everyone got to play. Limitations were accepted. I usually played second base to minimize the disadvantage of a weak throwing arm.
Although Little League and other organized leagues existed, most of us spent our game time on the Baseball Lot in informal but hotly contested competitions. We managed without umpires or coaches, though sometimes the girls served as line judges, calling balls fair and foul. Their participation was more a matter of friendly help than officiating, though in Judy’s case we knew that something else was going on. Our parents did not show up, we had no uniforms, and some of us didn’t have baseball gloves. We were grooming ourselves for absolutely nothing, and yet we played all out. There were no slackers. The early spring games ended at sundown. Later on, games were discontinued when two or three of us got called home for supper, then they might resume on full bellies to conclusion or nightfall.
The ball field of the Baseball Lot was still thriving when we left Oceanside in 1954, but the several subdivision lots to its east, including the one behind our house, had been built on. Mrs. Schaeffer remained miffed about the foul balls that would end up in her yard, causing us to trample through her garden, or the occasional one that would bounce off her house or break a window. However, she never called the police (though she constantly threatened such action) and our parents were always quick to offer payment for damages and warn us to be more careful, which we were. Diehard players at war and marbles and baseball, our energy knew boundaries. We lived in a time of civility.
When I returned to visit the neighborhood years later, the old baseball field and most of the other vacant lots were gone. Kids had well-groomed, well-lighted parks to play in and community centers with backstopped baseball diamonds. Lists of organized activities and team calendars covered the bulletin boards, and scores and schedules filled the local weekly newspaper. By the 1960s, parents had taken over as well as hired program directors, and play was not the same thing anymore. In more recent years, parents have pushed neighbor umpires into court over bad calls. Kids have shot each other dead over inside pitches under the blaring lights of civic stadiums where we once roamed free, wild only in our imaginations, in vacant lots.
[“Vacant Lots” originally appeared in the WordWrights No. 20, Nov.-Dec. 2000]