When he was about eleven years old, my brother Dan walked in the door one day after school wearing a New York Yankees ball cap. “Where’d you get that?” I asked him enviously. But before he had even replied, I already knew what his answer would be.
“I found it in the woods,” he said. Naturally. That’s where kids like us found everything.
The “woods” were not far from our house in the small town we all grew up in. My siblings and I would shortcut through that sizeable patch of forest anytime we wanted to walk downtown, to school or to meet up with friends.
The woods were also a great place to hang out. After all, it was always teeming with imaginary bad guys, lions and monsters — especially at night. (What is it with monsters and night, anyway?)
The woods actually had less exotic fauna like chipmunks, rabbits, birds, and really cool insects. One of the insect types was called “potato bugs.” My brother Dan (the ball cap guy), got the idea one day that the reason potato bugs were so-called was because they must taste like potatoes. He ate three before he got hip. Wisely, he never made the same assumption about butterflies, fruit flies or mealworms.
There were also a good number of resident lizards living in the woods. I can still remember moving a troop of my little plastic army men out to try and capture one of the “dinosaurs” alive.
But most of all, the woods were a treasure trove of, well … stuff. It was mostly stuff that other kids had discarded, lost, stolen, hidden, or forgotten — so whenever my brothers or I would stumble upon something, we claimed it.
“Look at this candy bar I found in the woods,” the youngest brother said once, licking his chops. “And there’s still half of it left.”
He went on to eat it greedily, but at least he brushed the potato bugs off first.
Among the other booty found in the woods:
1) Shoes. There was usually just one, but we always had hopes that a matching one would show up—or cooler yet, one with a foot still in it.
2) Pocketknives. My brothers seemed to find lots of them, but I never could. I did once find some toenail clippers—not as cool as a full-fledged knife, but still more of a weapon than fingernail clippers.
3) Magazines and books. Most often, there were just a few surviving pages, but my friend Steve once found, intact, what he called a “nudie” magazine. It turned out to be a National Geographic featuring an Amazonian tribe. Not Playboy, but still better than nothing.
4) We’d also find the occasional pack of smokes. We didn’t smoke them, but if they were the kind with filters, we’d remove those and make earplugs out of them.
One time, we found a magnifying glass. We figured it must have either belonged to a young botanist examining forest shrubbery—or a kid on an ant-burning crusade.
On another occasion, my youngest brother came running up with a piece of cloth that he had found behind a bush. It turned out to be an old diaper—an old used diaper — used in the worst of the two ways a diaper can be used. We never went near that bush again.
Eventually, saying “I found it in the woods” became our family explanation for anything we came home with. Once, my dad drove home in a brand new station wagon, and before my mom could say a word, he told her with a wink: “I found it in the woods.” I figured he’d found a lot better part of the woods than I knew about.
The woods were also a great place for kids to build forts, hideouts and imaginary cities. We had pretend stores, gas stations—and a city dump. It was actually a transfer station—my bedroom was the real dump.
And whenever we would find a dead bird, rabbit or chipmunk in the woods, we would take the deceased to our special animal cemetery. We made little headstones and crosses out of pop sickle sticks and rocks. We thought about including a section for insects, but figured that would keep us way too busy.
Last week, while visiting my old hometown, I took a stroll nearby where our house once stood. In less than an hour, I found a rusty golf club, a Frisbee, two plastic army men and a very old Converse basketball shoe. Yes, just one.
But this time, I left all that stuff right where I found it. It’s there now, waiting for new kids to find—in the woods.