Episode 3 – The Pipe
For Zeno’s birthday, his Dad upgraded his arsenal and gave him a Winchester model 1873 replica BB gun. Ronnie’s celebration was the same week and he got another Cub model. He was pissed.
Zeno’s lever-action weapon was his best present ever and was now his most prized possession he owned outside of his ball glove. After Little League was over, war began. The Stingrays loved it. Zeno and the rest of us would divide up into two forces and play until the sun went down.
Our favorites TV shows, Combat, Twelve O’Clock High and The Galant Men were all reruns. We watched every episode we could until the new ones showed up on the tube. The Stingrays were serious warmongers and paid little attention to the goofy shows like Gomer Pyle and McHale’s Navy. Rumor had it that Roger would hide out in his house sometimes and sneak in a couple of the comedies.
The neighborhood’s residents all knew when June arrived, not because of the beginning of the scorching heat but because they would see the Stingrays riding down the street decked out in the best army gear Yates had to offer.
Fred had a really cool rifle scabbard tied to the back of his sissy bar. My rank was Sargeant and actually wore the stripes my Mom had sewed on my heavy BB-proof green jacket.
Zeno stood out from the rest of the troop because of the big red and white cross on the front of his oversized army helmet. He liked being the medic even though all of us would use him as cannon fodder and pepper him with BBs to sight in our rifles when he attended to the wounded. The pillow he carried in his pack served as cheap body armor.
This evening was going to be a little different and a ton more fun than lighting gasoline on the Westwood basketball courts; we had special plans and for the first time we were all on the same side.
The ultra-secret mission we had devised for tonight’s assault took over a month to get everyone prepared and outfitted. No moon tonight made it even better. Our plan was simple and we called it, ‘The Pipe’.
The idea was proposed to the gang last month after Ronnie had spied a group of construction workers milling around 22nd Avenue on his way home after picking up a half gallon of milk for his Mom from the UtoteM.
The plot was to gather together this night, fully dressed for combat, in back of Ronnie’s house in the alley then stealthily make our way to where the men Ronnie had seen and explore the new sewer pipe.
This section of pipe ran along side the full length of 21st Avenue for a half mile between Campbell and Camelback. The length was uncharted and teased us for exploration. “Are we ready? I asked.
Fred nodded. Ronnie said, “Check.” Gary slapped his chest like Tarzan on Saturday Movie afternoon series. Zeno did a rifleman winchester move. Dan just stared, his face was completely covered in black camoflauge cream. His lips were covered in the makeup. Roger held his gun on his shoulder, his pack full of supplies.
We backed in all the Stingrays and my Huffy in a line against the wall of Ronnie’s house like a biker gang would. This night, we’d walk and not tell Bobby. The seven of us then left the alley quietly with expressions of seriousness. More stern looking than Zeno looked on his Little League appreciation plaque picture. Now he looked mad and determined.
Since Ronnie found the pipe, he would lead the way to the huge excavation left by the D9 Cat tractor installing the pipe. Once we arrived we made our way carefully down by walking sideways in single file down the dirt embankment holding hands.
Ronnie knelt down, turned on the chrome flashlight entered the pipe’s darkened mouth. Roger went in second then Fred then me, followed by Zeno, Dan and Gary. The fit in the pipe was tighter than we expected. Ronnie didn’t plan that our packs would rub on the top of the pipe as we moved ahead following Ronnie’s light.
I had filled my pack with all the essentials for survival. A blanket, a pillow, an aluminum mess kit with two plates that formed the kit when they clasped together. We all had the same things. Inside each kit was a small fork, a spoon and a knife held together by a metal ring so I wouldn’t lose them accidentally.
Yates had run out of the mess kits so Ronnie brought two Daisy paper plates and metal spoon his Dad had in the garage for scooping out bearing grease in the Covers. We each had a Roy Roger compass and a pencil and a piece of folded-up blue lined school paper for sending messages.
Zeno brought a half bag of Fig Newtons and Ronnie carried a pack of Pall Mall reds he’d tucked into his pants at the store when he picked up the milk. He didn’t smoke. The plan seemed foolproof even though we never thought of checking to see what was at the opposite end of the long pipe before tonight. The thought had still not crossed anyone’s mind.
“I’m in,” Gary voice echoed.
No one spoke from then on as we shuffled following Ronnie. I looked up and could see Roger’s butt silhouette. Ronnie couldn’t hold the light still in his hand.
It seemed as if we had gone a long way in only minutes when disaster struck. I could tell something was wrong as Roger’s butt started to blend into the darkness. The batteries in the flashlight Ronnie had went flickered dead and we had never seen darkness like this.
“Whose got another flashlight?” Zeno asked.
The quiet was fearful. The panic began to set.
“I’ve got a candle in my pack and some matches,” Dan said, “at ease”.
Ronnie took a breath everyone could hear. “Light it,” he demanded.
All I could only hear progress. They could hear shuffling coming from Dan’s pack and the sudden scratching as he tried to strike a match.
Whoosh. The light from the flame of the birthday candle brightened the tunnel more than any of the boys expected. The spiral of white wax flashed light for a second then suddenly went black. Dan struck another match, striking it again and again. The bent match flung from his hand. In a frenzy, he tore the last match from the book in total darkness. The match lit with a rescuing glow.
Dan’s hand shook as he held the sulpher-colored flame over his other hand clenched onto the bottom of the candle. The candle’s flame finally held bright.
The candle was passed to Ronnie by Roger. “Don’t breathe assface. I can’t believe you didn’t bring more batteries,” he said to Ronnie .
With candle in hand, Ronnie looked back and could barely see underneath the lip of Roger’s helmet past the shadow covering his eyes.
“C’mon, let’s get the hell out of here,” Zeno said.
We started to move again. Two hundred yards further into the narrowing pipe Ronnie hesitated, scooted forward one more arm’s length and stopped. The candle flickered, came back to life, flickered, and then extinguished.
In a whisper, Zeno asked into the darkness, “You got anymore?”
“Nope. Besides that was the last match,” Dan said.
Little Ronnie let out the same familiar chicken whimper.
“One? You brought one lousy candle?” Ronnie spouted.
“Shut up, dickwad. You didn’t bring batteries.”
“Listen up,” I said. “Lets turn around and go back. We can go get more batteries and another flashlight from Fred’s Dad’s workshop.”
“Yea, this was a stupid idea anyway. I’m not coming back,” Fred announced in the darkness.
The noise of the us balling up, trying to turn around in the pipe with packs on was the only indication someone was next to you. We started to move toward the direction we had come from.
“Hold it! I forgot. I got something that will help,” Roger said.
Everyone paused. “What? Zeno asked.
With anticipation, I stared in Roger’s direction hoping to see a flashlight appear. Roger’s pack went silent and for a moment no one breathed. Then it came; a scratching sound, a scuffing of sorts. Scratch, scratch. Hesitation, something dropped against the dark clay floor. The sound was similar to the sound of a match striker. Scratch, scratch and then another.
Then Zeno realized what the sound was, “No!” he screamed.
Before the first echo of Zeno’s warning could return to them, the last scratching sound Roger had made woke up the dragon. With a force of a welding arc, the 1800 degree fire spit fury out the tip of the old red waxen traffic flare.
All hell broke loose in the pipe as the piercing smoke lurched into our lungs as if sulphuric acid had been poured down our throats. My body involuntarily stopped breathing instantly under the caustic attack. Our chests expanded into a terrible pain.
Roger dropped the flare between Ronnie and him separating Ronnie from the group. The flare erupted into a splatter as it hit the floor; the smoke doubled and covered the roof of the clay tunnel half way up.
“Go! Go! Go!” Zeno yelled.
Ronnie rolled left away from the spitting monster, toward their unknown objective, while the rest retreated in the opposite direction without any hesitation.
Ronnie screamed a long whiny sound, sounding much like an old Indian lady mourning the loss of her husband. His sound grew faint as the group retreated.
Fred looked back on all fours as he rushed away, I could see saliva pouring from his mouth and feel it pouring onto my calf. I looked back and could make out a reddish hue in the distance. The smoke was coming fast and Ronnie was definitely not behind Roger.
“Faster! Faster! I can’t breathe,” Dan said as he pushed on Gary’s rear.
Fred’s skin on his knees was bleeding when he finally reached the exit and plopped out the entrance and onto the dirt. I came out and landed on Fred and Roger followed. Our eyes and lungs burned. Everyone was coughing uncontrollably, crying and wheezing for at least two minutes or more before Dan rose up from the heap.
“Where’s?” he made a gagging sound then spit out a marble-size dirt clod at Fred. He coughed again and asked, “Where’s?”
The six of us were still wiping the flushing tears away as we all in unison finished his questionable horror at the same time, “Ronnie?”
To be continued . . . Where’s Ronnie?