In the large field behind my parents' home in Chester County, a local farmer would plant corn in the summer months. The cornfield was where most of the neighborhood kids went to play.
Walking among the stalks, some as high as eight feet tall, made us feel as if we were in another world. The largeness of the maze, however, made us leery of venturing out too far. We had heard of how a few local boys had gotten lost in the corn. The story was that the boys had walked out too far and couldn't find their way back. When they eventually surfaced several hours later, their pale white faces and hollowed out eyes suggested that something bad was lurking somewhere in the maze.
As children we knew that nobody ever went into the cornfield alone. Not even the brash neighborhood bully who loved to chase me down and sit on my chest. Even he would pale at the thought. The only way to navigate the maze was to stick together. When this happened, we would march into the corn like that gang of kids out of Lord of the Flies; we'd sit down among the stalks and listen to the quiet as a hawk or two circled overhead.
In many ways we were "the children of the corn."
Our hiding places among the stalks caused some worry among the adults, especially when they'd call us home for dinner. Their calls did little good because all they could see were the tops of the stalks blowing in the wind.
The adults knew that we were somewhere inside the maze performing our childhood rituals.
When you grow up in the country with its fields, streams, barns and forests, you develop your own style of play. There's no street hockey, basketball or sidewalk hop scotch but weird "made-up" country games.
One game was to visit the local red barn and play among the bales of hay, which included jumping from the higher stacked bales and falling 15 feet onto beds of softer "floorboard" bales that acted as a cushion. Occasionally one of us would fall into a hay bale sinkhole or crevice and have to be yanked out. The barn was owned by a Mennonite farmer who allowed us to use the barn. Of special interest was the barn's secret corridor of small rooms, where once we found stacks of risqué magazines hidden there by the farmer's sons.
As country kids, we knew that there's nothing like a big red barn when it comes to harboring secrets.
Cowboys and Indians was another game we played. Kids rarely play this today because it's become politically incorrect for anyone but a Native American to put on an Indian headdress. But this was not the case when I was growing up. In preparation for the game, we'd dislodge the hardest cornstalks and turn them into spears. Then we'd move to a part of the field where the corn did not grow so we could throw the spears in imitation of the Indians in Hollywood westerns.
During one game a spear I threw was thrown back at me. It was thrown high into the air and hit me in the eye. I was wearing a full Indian headdress at the time and the blunt force trauma caused me to fall on the grown. My attacker was a dark-haired Irish kid named Carney pretending to be a U.S. calvary officer.
My nine-year-old cry went up in the air where the hawks were still circling.
My mother asked Carney why he did what he did, but Carney shrugged and said it wasn't him who did anything, but the calvary officer.
On the living room sofa in my house I held a warm towel over my injured eye and waited for the family doctor to arrive. When the doctor arrived with his medical bag, he stuck a light near the injured eye and asked me what I saw.
"The U.S. calvary," I said.
The inflamed eye healed in plenty of time for the season of the scarecrows.
Scarecrow season was when the Mennonite farmer constructed a series of stick figures with pumpkin or pin cushion heads with straw arms and potato-sized eyes. The scarecrows were lined up like small electrical wire towers. Having them lined up this way at sunset made the cornfield look twice as threatening. The scarecrows reminded us of the one thing that we all did without question: never enter the cornfield during or after sunset. We understood that going into the cornfield at night would be like swimming in the ocean at night.
The scarecrows gave us an idea around Easter time.
A few of us found some large narrow boards and fashioned them in the form of a cross. We wanted to stage our version of a Passion Play. True to the style of Passion Plays, we each took a turn being Jesus, even though being roped to a cross and raised up to be viewed put one at risk if the cross fell forward on the ground. Happily, that fear never became a reality. We did our best to mimic ancient Jerusalem: Dressed in Centurion capes (bed sheets) and aluminum foil helmets (Roman soldiers) meant living in the moment. We even scrawled INRI on cardboard and nailed it to the top of the cross.
Our parents, aghast at the display, ordered us to dismantle the cross and to leave "things like that" for church.
"But don't they do this in Spain?" one of us protested.
The venerable line of scarecrows in the cornfield seemed to define autumn and Halloween, and made some of us think of The Wizard of Oz.
One day my brother showed us a rubber devil's mask he said he'd found in the cornfield. It was the kind of mask that scared young children. We took it and placed it over the pin cushion head of a scarecrow nearest our house. At sunset under a sky of heavy cumulus clouds the effect was alarming. The scarecrow had the look of a false idol in an old Polynesian film.
The farmer came around to our house one night and asked about the new face.
"The look of it," he said, "I'd rather it be off."
The face was just too scary for birds.
The next day we removed the devil mask, and in its place the farmer installed an even larger pin cushion face that didn't look scary at all. The devil mask wound up in a box in the basement before its transfer to a cabinet in the bottom of an upstairs bookcase. Its life did not end there (that's another story), but after the devil came the discovery of the monkey paw.
Monkey paws, after all, are not native to Chester County. There are no monkeys in Chester County. But one day our dog Lucky came out of the cornfield with a monkey paw in his mouth. It was just one more mystery to add to the other mysteries that we associated with the cornfield. The paw had a fossilized, leathery look as if it was from a taxidermist's shop. My mother insisted that we throw it away, or at least get it out of her sight. In the end, we decided to let Lucky use it as a toy, but Lucky, as it turns out, had no time for the paw, but just wanted to bury it in the crawlspace.
Even Lucky was afraid to go into the cornfield alone.
Crawlspaces, of course, are essential parts of most split level and ranch homes. As spaces they are generally dark with a dirt floor hidden behind a complex array of heating ducts and hot water heaters. Because crawlspaces are out of sight, a variety of things can be stored or hidden there. Only my father entered our crawlspace, although Lucky knew it well.
After Lucky buried the paw in the crawlspace, that was that.
When autumn was over, the cornfield went bust and the ground became a field stretching on as far as the eye could see.
When winter came, the field was transformed into Russian tundra, making it an ideal place to walk in our hooded up parkas and pretend that we were characters in Doctor Zhivago. .
When spring came around again, we'd spot the farmer and his sons on their tractors tilling the soil.
"The corn is coming," we said. "The corn is coming."