Saturday, June 09, 2012

Kill Hill (Hartland, Where I Grew Up Once)

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Hartland, Where I Grew Up Once is a series of posts about the places in the town where I was a kid. Here's the intro.

I remember Kill Hill as being vertical.

That's probably not right.  Kill Hill would've been Kill Cliff if it truly went straight up and straight down so there's almost no chance my memory is right, but it's not that my memory is making things wrong as I get older because when we were kids, that's how we'd describe Kill Hill:

It goes STRAIGHT DOWN, we'd say, telling each other about it even though everyone knew about it.  We'd always all been there, in Hartland, as far as that mattered. Nobody ever came to town, and if people left we mostly didn't talk about it anymore.

In fact, I know, people did come to town, because nobody was there when we first moved in, or almost nobody.  We lived in Hartridge, a subdivision on the edge of Hartland itself, carved out of farmland back when it was still cool to do that.  Nowadays, we are supposed to care about farmland and not allow it ever to be developed and we are to try to build communities where if we do develop farmland we do so in ways that make us feel good about being us, by, saying modeling all the houses as though they were personally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and putting at the front of the subdivision a small grocery store and coffee shop so that (in theory) people will walk to get their groceries, but I have to say: We buy about 15 bags of groceries a week and I am not going to walk to and from the grocery store with that many groceries, especially when it's winter which it always in Wisconsin.

Our family owned the second-built house in Hartridge, which would have been lonely except that almost all of Hartridge, so far as I can tell, was built within a year or two, the subdivision springing up around us like a montage.  The house I grew up in was built around 1974, I'm sure, making that house actually a little younger than the house I live in now, the only house I've ever personally owned, myself.

When I first saw our house, it was standing on a dirt-lot in the middle of lots of other vacant lots and dirt lots, and the subdivision itself really didn't exist, per se: There was us and another house.  You'll have to trust a five-year-old's memory on this, and I don't know how far to trust that, because I remember only two things from that era: our house standing alone on that dirt lot, with another house not far away, and having to use a closet to go to the bathroom when we first visited it because the bathrooms weren't yet completed.

Because it was carved out of that farmland and because back then land was cheap enough that nobody had to find very complicated or expensive ways of using land that nobody really wanted to use the way nature had laid it out, Hartridge had not only a few parks in it -- Castle Park being the big one -- but also it was separated from the "downtown" and a few other satellite subdivisions by "The Field" and "The Swamp" and "The Canyon," the not-very-clever names we gave to those things.

Our house sat on the very edge of The Field, which was simply a vacant area that had apparently been deemed unsuitable or undesirable for development.  There was just long grass and sumac bushes, starting at the apple tree that grew at the corner of our yard just outside the boundaries.

It might be from that apple tree that I eventually developed an almost-crippling mistrust of natural foods: the apple tree grew apples -- not large ones, not the kind you'd see in the store, but they were apples nonetheless and they were there for the taking, but we were not to take them.  "Don't eat those apples off that tree," my mom told us from the earliest ages.  She never said why, but the message I got was they were bad.  Hartland was full of mystery spots like that:  The apple tree with forbidden apples [and I am completely cognizant of the symbolism there] and Hasslinger's poisoned land and the swamp we were not to play in... all natural spots that we were raised to distrust.  In our subdivision, where manicured lawns manifesting hours, if not days, of work each week were the bare minimum for acceptance into society -- a yard that was left alone or barely tended marked you as trash -- the natural order of things was prohibited, beginning with not eating the apples that grew just outside our yard.

It can't, I think, have been that the apples were especially enticing to us; as is fitting for the symbolism of that tree, the apples only became more interesting once forbidden to eat them.  We weren't fruit lovers, as kids, even in the 1970s when snack foods were in their infancy.  It's not like we'd have been powering down apples to the exclusion of other food.  It also couldn't have been that the spot where the tree grew was poisonous, or bad, like Hasslinger's, which I'll talk about some other day, because the apple tree was literally steps away from our vegetable garden, where we grew tomatoes and radishes and carrots and rhubarb, and we were allowed to pick the carrots right out of the garden and wash them off with the hose and eat them, and we even ate the rhubarb, which actually is poisonous.

(When we were kids, we would pick carrots and eat them out of the garden, washed with hose water. Now, I have strawberries growing in my yard that I won't eat, and I try not to get any hose water in my mouth.  As I said: crippling mistrust of nature, and nature now encompasses water from my hose, which is water from my house but it is outside, where nature is, and so I don't trust it.)

The apples, I think, were just not our caliber of nature, the way people whose yards were unkempt were not our caliber of friends and people who put their Christmas trees in the window or had flashing lights on them were not the kind of people you'd want to associate with.

But the idea that there was something unsavory about the land behind our house -- land that technically was accessible only by going down to Pennbrook Way and heading up the dead-end behind the Herros, whose house would eventually sit behind ours, separated by the big black fence my dad and Mr Herro put up one summer...

...How, I wonder, do you manage to go to your neighbor, with whom you are friends, as we were with the Herros, and say Hey, you know what would be nice? If we erected a 10-foot wall between our yards.  Want to help with that?  My parents were better at navigating the social world than I am...

...but you could get to The Field, which was the first gateway to adventure, through our yard and lots of kids did, to my parents' anger because our yard is not a shortcut, they'd tell us.  For most of our lives growing up it was rumored that eventually the village was going to actually use its governmental powers and make a shortcut through our yard to The Field, a rumor that grew stronger once The Field was partially converted to a real park, but they never did, not while my parents were on the case.  My parents were not to be messed with and were conservatives of a sort, in that they did not really believe in any governmental power when it came to messing with them, personally, including and perhaps especially sidewalks on their land.  In Hartridge, you did not travel by sidewalk: You traveled by curb, and to this day there are no sidewalks in that subdivision, in part, probably because my parents would not tolerate any further incursions into their yard.

By further incursions, I mean there already had been one, and the story of that helps demonstrate, in a nutshell, my parents' attitudes towards local government.  The attack was a mysterious occurrence one summer day.

We were playing in our yard, me and probably my brothers and maybe Paul, not doing much of anything the way kids do not much of anything most of the time, and nothing much was going on anywhere, until suddenly a Village truck pulled up in front of our house.

Two guys were in the truck, and we watched them from our front porch.  They got out of the truck and looked around, then looked at us and our house and then came onto our yard.

Someone probably should have said Hey get off our lawn, but these were not the type of people kids like us mouthed off to.  They weren't grown-ups, really: they were in their 20s, maybe, wearing jeans and t-shirts and they were dirty and sweaty, so it was obvious to us that they weren't adults that we needed to mind in any manner because real adults did not wear jeans to work or drive pickup trucks for the Village, but they were the kind of guys who looked like they would have once been the older kids in the neighborhood who smoked and looked like they could beat us up, so we weren't about to yell at them even though they had no legitimate authority.

After a few minutes of looking around, they got out a pick and a shovel and they began attacking our lawn.  We all sat, enraptured and frightened because you just simply didn't do that to my parents' lawn.  But what were we, a bunch of kids, going to do? Get beat up by the older smoking kids? No way.  So we watched, and as we watched, they unearthed...

... a manhole.

They dug and picked and frittered and opened up a manhole that had never been there before, only obviously it had: It was there, under our grass that had come from sod.  They cleared it completely, opened it up to make sure it opened up, and then put the lid back and got in their truck and drove away.  Not once did they speak to us and we all went as soon as they left and clustered around the manhole, staring at it.  It seemed, then, as if they'd just installed the manhole, their few-minutes feat of digging up a layer of sod seeming far more remarkable because we'd had no idea that there was a manhole under our lawn, and even less of an idea that my parents, when we'd moved in and landscaped, had simply opted to sod over the manhole because it interfered with how their lawn should look.

And it had worked, for about 10 years.

Maybe they lost The Battle Of The Manhole, but my parents never lost the war over accessibility of The Field, and The Field was the gateway to The Canyon and Kill Hill, which marked the entrance to The Swamp where we sometimes played hockey in the winter but never touched in the summer because we were told not to.

It was fitting that Kill Hill marked the far boundaries of what was an acceptable area to play in, then -- we could be in The Field, and The Canyon, but when we got as far as Kill Hill, we were on the outskirts of civilization, only the forbidding, near-vertical look of Kill Hill standing between us and The Swamp, on the other side of which stood who knows? (Actually, on the other side of The Swamp stood Hartland Plastics, where my mom worked before she was a nurse, a small factory alongside the railroad tracks.  But we didn't really know that because we never explored The Swamp.  We were not troublemakers, not really, as kids.)

Kill Hill was about 30 feet tall.  It was a hill that jutted up for no reason whatsoever off of the rough path that wound through The Canyon and The Swamp and The Field, a path that had been marked only by kids coming and going; this wasn't a path that you'd want to ride bikes on, even though we did, because it was uneven and meandering and filled with fist- and head-sized rocks that stuck up halfway out of the dirt and old roots that would trip you every chance they got or spill you off your bike.  The path just followed the lines that were easiest to walk around in that semiwild area, easiest except for Kill Hill, which had a path but which really had no reason to have a path.

When you got to Kill Hill in that area, you got there by coming at it from the ridge that defined The Canyon, and so you ended up on this hill that from one side rose up only a moderate bit and on the other dropped off into sheer oblivion: the hill went at an absurd angle, more cliff than path, but there was a path down it, the same kind of darker-dirt, rocky/rooty path that led elsewhere throughout the few acres we roamed, only in this case it led straight down Kill Hill, a feature that got its name because, we imagined, if you rode your bike or sled down it, you would probably die.

Not that anyone ever tried that, not that I remember.  Kill Hill was too steep, and even if it hadn't been too steep, it wouldn't have made any sense to sled or bike down it.  Getting your bike that far back into the wilds would have bee near impossible: You'd have to ride it along seeming miles of trails that were hard to walk, and even if you could, why would you? At the bottom of Kill Hill lay only The Swamp, which was fed by a small river or stream that was about 3 feet wide, and filled with rocks and dirt, too.

The stream was directly at the bottom of Kill Hill: If you were insane enough to have ridden or sledded down it, you would have, at the bottom, leveled off and had about five feet in which to stop before you hit that stream, which never froze even in the winter, and which had large rocks in it to guarantee you'd smash your face up and be dead in case you'd survived the free-falling ride down Kill Hill.

Plus, you couldn't sled down it because in the winter, Kill Hill was too steep to keep snow on it: the path was never snow-covered.  You could make it back there -- barely -- in December or January when the snow was up to your knees and there stood the path on Kill Hill: black dirt, roots and rocks, exposed to the cold winter day and proving that not even nature could stay on that hill for long.

We would talk, a lot, about trying to ride down Kill Hill.  You could stand at the bottom of it, across from the stream, and look up at it, and you could imagine yourself, dragging your bike up there (riding up Kill Hill would be impossible and besides the point), and then sitting atop the crest, looking down at your friends on the other side of the stream, them in awe of you, the bravest kid around, ready to ride down and conquer Kill Hill and amaze everyone.  You could plan how you would do it:  I'll start down and midway down I'll kind of hit the brakes and at the bottom I'll skid to a stop just short of the stream.  It would all make sense, and we weren't 'fraidy-cats:  We were the kids who'd ride our bikes all the way from the top of Castle Park down to the sandbox and then jump them into the sandbox so we could do this.

But nobody ever did.  Kill Hill stood, unchallenged and unchallengeable, throughout my childhood, a menacing imposition of nature that dared us to take it on, and then, when we didn't, just glowered in a way that said Yeah, I knew it.


Andrew Leon said...

Well, Kill Hill sounds like it was beyond even what my friends and I would have done, and we used to ride down the steep, winding stairs at the local college, but The Swamp... we'd have been all over The Swamp. Or it on us, as the case may have been.

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

You and the Chubby Chatterbox need to make a book where you two just reminisce Grampa Simpson style. It'd probably end up being 10,000 pages long and have only one chapter.

Andrew Leon said...

I suppose I should brush up on my Simpsons. It's been so long since I've seen any of it, I'm not sure what his style is. All I remember of him is him always trailing off into nothing.