A new boy approached me in the Eighth Grade schoolyard.
“Hi, I’m Paul Ladendorf.” He held out his hand, strangely formal.
“I ain’t seen you before,” I told him. “Are you from around here?”
“I’ve just been kicked out of Holy Ghost.”
That was the Catholic grade school. I never asked how or why he’d been kicked out. Now he joined us in Wood Dale public school. Strange that we’d never run into each other before. He lived right across Salt Creek from me, close by. Most of the boys my age lived a mile and a half away, on the far side of town.
Paul and I hung a rope across Salt Creek, lashed to trees on either side, so we could easily clamber across, even when the creek flooded. In his room he spoke in whispers. “Let me show you something.” He moved a heavy rug, exposing a ragged hole in the floor barely wide enough to pass into. “Come on!” He slid, feet first into a secret chamber. I followed and found a roomy hang-out. It was big enough for four boys to sit in. It was comfortable, with old rugs to lounge on and a stack of comic books, with a few girlie magazines he’d come across in the neighbors’ trash. Paul’s face was stern as he intoned solemn words.
“I’m going to initiate you into our secret society. You must never reveal what I’m about to tell you on pain of death!”
His secret organization was the SSVA. It stood for the “Super Salacious Villains of America.” Such a mouthful. He laughed, breaking his somber demeanor. He then led me out to meet the three Diezel brothers, who lived a few houses down on Potter Street. George was our age. Charlie and Mike a few years older.
“Do you watch the Man From U.N.C.L.E?” George asked me.
“Sure,” I lied. I was vaguely aware of the TV series, but thought it corny.
“Watch it carefully,” he said seriously. “We get secret messages from them.”
I couldn’t tell if he was joking. I kept my own face in character and played along. Together with Paul and now joined by me, we made up the whole of the SSVA. But we were not alone.
“The SSVA is allied with the Woods Runners of the West End Nation,” Paul told me.
“The Woods Runners,” I wondered. “Who are they?”
“Be patient,” Paul shot me a stern look. “You’ll find out soon. We’ll have to test you first, see what you’re made of. Not just anybody can become a Woods Runner.”
It was late on a Friday after school and already getting dark. My father had grudgingly given permission for this weekend camping trip that Paul had been raving about. His father called my dad and finally convinced him.
“It’ll be all right,” he told him. “These boys are thirteen now, plenty old enough to handle themselves in the woods.”
Paul’s father pulled onto the shoulder of Church Street. We got out by an open field that I soon discovered had a cemetery at the far end. His father called out. “Sure, you boys don’t need anything else?”
“No, Dad,” Paul answered impatiently, “Just go on! We’ll see you Sunday!”
As soon as his father drove off, Paul’s attitude changed. Haughtily he tossed his backpack at me, which I barely caught while struggling to put on my own.
“Hey, what’s the deal?”
“Shut up, Ron. If you want to be a woods runner you’d damn well better do as I say. No questions! Got it?”
Confused, but suddenly realizing that this was to be a test, my initiation, I nodded.
“Keep up with me!” His voice was gruff and commanding. “Let’s go–goddamn it–get the lead out of your ass!”
He took off running, leaving me no time to somehow sling his pack along with my own over my shoulder. Finally, I had to carry his in front. Struggling with the hopeless load, I ran to catch up.
Paul loped ahead, winding among the headstones. As I ran among them I recognized the Gothic script. This was one of several ancient German cemeteries in the area, but there was no time to read details. Crossing the cemetery was relatively easy. I’d barely caught up as Paul disappeared into the dark shadows of the woods beyond. It was pitch dark inside. He didn’t slow down, but only yelled back at me.
“Double time, idiot! Get a move on!”
What an asshole, I thought, as I blindly crashed through branches. He obviously knew these trails by heart. The roar of his obnoxious voice acted as a beacon for me to home in on. He changed direction several times, crisscrossing onto alternate trails. Sometimes he seemed to forgo the trails altogether. We circled around. I suspected he was deliberately trying to confuse me to see if I was worthy, able to keep up. In total darkness Paul suddenly disappeared altogether. Gasping for breath, I swung around, utterly lost for a moment.
“Up here, idiot,” his voice called from high above.
I looked up, but could see nothing, until I bumped into a large oak.
A rope dropped down as he called to me. “Tie the packs on before you climb up.”
After I did so he hoisted the rope. I waited for him to drop it again for me, but he refused.
“Use the notches on the bark. A woods runner climbs up the bark like a squirrel.”
In the darkness I stumbled over a log at the base of the tree. Stepping on it I felt around, finding shallow notches, worn smooth by use. Unlike Paul, I had a fear of heights, but I was more afraid of being thought a coward. With his demands to hurry ringing in my ears I blindly threw myself up the tree, making it part way up before my hand slipped. Falling, I landed painfully on the log with a bruising thud. My second try ended the same way. I was bruised and scratched, but nothing was broken.
“Goddamn it, Ron, get up here! Prove yourself!”
How had this inept ‘statue of stupidity’ been transformed into my tormentor? He sounded like one of our exasperated teachers, or even my dad. Maddened with pain, angry at Paul, and even at myself for my ineptitude, I attacked again. The third time I was more familiar with where the grips were and made it to a jutting brace that supported a platform. Paul’s voice was inches from me then.
“Climb the braces and swing yourself over,” he demanded.
One brace in each hand, I shimmied up fourty-five degrees away from the tree to the edge of the platform as the braces squealed under my weight. I hoped they would hold my hundred and ten pounds. With a last burst of effort, I swung a leg over the side and hoisted myself over.
As I caught my breath on the gently swaying platform, Paul gripped my shoulder, and then pulled me to him in a bear hug, his attitude suddenly affectionate.
“You’ve made it,” he congratulated me. “Fischer’s Woods is the sacred forest of the West Enders. Only the tested elite can be introduced into these mysteries. Tonight, you have joined the ranks of the immortals, the denizens of the West End Nation. You can be proud and revel in your feat.”
With dramatic flourishes Paul initiated me into the brotherhood of the West End Woods Runners. He’d put me through hell and I’d made the grade. After I’d caught my breath, I repeated the oath after him.
“On pain of death I shall never reveal the secrets, nor the whereabouts of the West End Nation’s tree fort…” I swore to everything, little realizing that the location was hardly a secret in the neighborhood.
After tales of Paul’s daring do, we rolled into our sleeping bags. Rocked by the gentle breezes of the night in our lofty aerie, we fell asleep.
Chirping birds heralded the morning. Eagerly, I gazed out over my green surroundings, which I could see clearly at last. We were about fifteen feet off the ground on a large platform. Walls on three sides shielded two decks that could easily sleep four boys, two on either side of the tree at each level. A sloping shingled roof gave protection from rain. A six-pointed red and green star in the logo, “Tree Dwellers” decorated the south side. “Give up hope all ye who enter here,” was inscribed prominently on a panel within. I’d read that somewhere before.
Paul sat up and followed my gaze. “It’s from Dante’s Inferno; the sign over the gates of Hell. Pretty neat, huh?”
The quiet was shattered by a far-off cry.
Paul cupped his hands to his mouth and replied. “OOOODIN!”
It was the name of the Northman’s great God, Odin, used as a war cry in the Vikings movie. A figure soon appeared in the small clearing below, wearing khaki shorts and barefoot, he adeptly climbed the bark to join us, bringing a sack of bologna sandwiches for our morning repast.
I was introduced to this “Bugly,” whose Christian name was Steve. He was a member of the large DalCerro family that comprised more than half of the West Enders. They were the Gatekeepers, living on the edge of these woods at the dead end of West Avenue.
Bugly was soon followed by his brothers. As there wasn’t enough room in the tree, we climbed down to the fire pit by the log at the base. I was introduced to each as they appeared. Chris, bare-chested in jeans and bearing a machete on his shoulder, was always busy constructing rope bridges, damming small streams and of course, devising defensive booby traps to dissuade the unwary trespasser.
Mike, called Hippie since long before there were any, in tee shirt and shorts, was the artist. His focus was dramatic Spiderman and Tarzan pictorials.
Then the younger brothers came. Patrick, the reliable, who grimly obeyed the orders of his elder brothers, as if a junior officer in their Army. Patrick was tasked with keeping the younger kids out of our way. He was aided in this by his equally steadfast older sister Mary. Their charges were Joey; the precocious and wayward boy; Teddy, little William and sister Eva.
The Fichter boys came next. Mike, Toney and Bubba lived a few doors down on West Avenue. Their two sisters did not join us. Talking with each, or all at once, became chaotic. Through multiple voices I gradually absorbed West End lore. One thing stood out. Like Paul and the SSVA, the boys peppered their speech with archaic idioms they’d found in the Sci-fi and Adventure books they devoured.
“Patrick!” Chris peremptorily ordered. “Get these little kids out of here.”
Patrick snapped to it. He could be counted on to perform errands and to watch over the antics of the smaller siblings.
There was an older, almost mythical brother, Ricky. He was a remote figure, busy with the onerous demands of high school. It had been Ricky, they explained, along with his equally legendary chums, who had built this well engineered tree fort and founded the West End. Its ideals lived on in the minds of his younger siblings.
The DalCerro brothers operated under a chain of command by birth order. Nature was sacred; the woods must be protected from developers and vandals. Tarzan, especially as depicted in the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which they re-read often, was a figure they emulated.
“Johnny Weissmuller lives in Elk Grove Village, north of here,” Bugly asserted. “My brother met him once.”
Johnny Weissmuller, I well knew, was the actor who played Tarzan in many pre-color films. We practiced his blood curdling yell. It reverberated in the woodlands.
“Are you ready to see more?” Chris asked and without waiting for an answer, led the way, climbing up the bark and then hauling himself out the upper window and over the roof.
We climbed higher into the tree, which was one of the tallest in Fischer’s Woods. I’d never climbed so high. I firmly gripped each branch to avoid vertigo. My cautious pace up the swaying trunk caused Chris to badger me. “Come on, catch up.”
We reached a small platform, barely large enough for Chris and me to sit on. The sight took my breath away. We floated over the green carpeted forest beneath a baby-blue sky.
“Look over there,” said Chris, pointing east. “It’s still a little hazy, but on a clear day you can see the new John Hancock building.”
“Oh, yeah? I can barely make it out.” It was the odd, wide at the base building, twenty miles away in downtown Chicago. “How high are we?”
“Exactly 80 feet off the ground. I measured it by dropping a rope. The same one we used to make that catwalk.” He pointed to the V shaped rope bridge attached to an end of the platform. It offered a single rope to walk on and two, on either side, for handholds. “My brother Joey fell from there. His fall was broken by so many branches that he landed on his feet, undamaged, like a cat.”
The way he said that was so matter-of-fact, like it had no special significance, but it sent a chill up my spine.
“I tied myself on this deck and rode out a thunderstorm once,” boasted Chris. “The naturalist, John Muir, did that a hundred years ago. He’s one of my heroes. Believe me, it was a hell of a ride.”
Chris seemed fearless. I wondered if, like Paul, he too had an Achilles’ heel. We surveyed the canopy of trees below in silence. Despite my visceral fear I too wanted to experience a thunderstorm up there. This club of forest folk promised me adventure. As Paul would say, I was among the immortals. I wanted to belong. As if reading my mind, Chris spoke gravely.
“Ron, you are now a Woods Runner. That’s our translation of coueur de bois. They were the renegade French Voyageurs who lived with the Indians before the English and Americans took this land.” He grew pensive. “My mom’s side is French Canadian; I think we are their descendants.”
“Me too,” I told him. “My grandfather says we are part French Canadian Indian.”
“Come on,” Chris said. “Follow me across to the other tree.”
Each step we took on the thick rope caused it to sway and bounce. Exhilaration mixed with terror chilled me as we crossed the fifty-foot span. Reaching the far tree, we clambered down to the ground. Then he led me on a tour of the woods.
“This is the swamp we call Green Death.” Chris said as he led the way into the murky green, algae covered water.
The trunks of a few long dead trees, like white skeletons, rose up before us. Holding our shoes, we waded barefoot across the water. It rose past our knees, as Chris inundated me with facts of this, his cherished domain.
“Fischer’s Woods is over eighty square acres. It’s a natural sponge, absorbing the rain’s run-off.” A cynical sneer crossed his face as he looked at me. “The developers want to build a subdivision here. Can you believe it? Stupid humans are ruining our world.”
We reached the far side and sat down to put on our shoes as Chris continued. “The good news is that some naturalist from the University of Chicago came through here. He says this place should be protected. Building here would increase the flooding in the area. He also found rare native plants here. It’s up to us to save our woods.”
To the north the woods ended in a long swamp that girded the edge of civilization. Several muskrat dens made of reeds broke the surface of the water. We passed through on a raised path to a road, where I saw a street sign, “White Pine.” It ran along the northern edge of their realm.
Chris struck me as a kindred soul. He was exactly one day older than I was, born in March 1952. Like me, he was an avid consumer of the news. We had come to respect the Viet Cong’s People’s War that was taking on the American colossus. They had guts and were fighting for their own country, like we did in 1776. Our United States, we decided, had turned its back on our founding principles of equality and human rights. It would be patriotic to oppose it.
It had been an amazing weekend and I wanted more of it. The guys at the “End” felt like family. Belonging to the West End, even as a peripheral member, gave me the sense of belonging I sorely needed. I didn’t feel that sense of fitting in among my classmates in Wood Dale. The West End was in a different school district. They would attend Addison Trail High School rather than Fenton, where I was bound. With chores and homework taking up so much of my time after school and on the weekends, I had to carefully plan each arduous trek there and back, making my visits infrequent during the school year.
West Avenue was a stub of a street. A residential road only two blocks long, coming off the busy Grand Avenue from Chicago. We were at the southern edge of Bensenville. The town of Elmhurst began at the cornfield on the other side of Grand. Grand Avenue dead-ended a couple blocks beyond, where it joined Lake Street. This, with Fischer’s Woods to the north, was the neighborhood of West End Nation.