When I moved to 1410 Odell Street in Great Bend, Kans., I found myself an outcast. None of the other children who lived on The Block, as I always think of it—not Rosemary Keegan in the house on the northeast corner or the five Pillers at one end of the alley or Charles and Marilyn Kendall at the other—would speak to me. Their expressions were baleful and they stuck out their tongues. I was just six and bewildered until Jo Filler at last cracked and informed me of my crime. The brand-new house my parents were renting had been built on the vacant lot that had served as the baseball field!
With spring and the absence of a playing field on The Block, the suffering of those who heretofore had played on the lot became unbearable. A grudging substitute for the missing field was finally found in the alley that bisected The Block. What evolved there to take the place of baseball was a variety of games based in the Pillers' large brick garage, which we all believed harbored rats, though I can't recall ever seeing one. For the most part, the games were played at dusk down the garage-lined, neutral territory of the alley.
At first the events had no generic name, but having finally, if ungraciously, been allowed to join in them, I remember gaining the honor of naming them. My high-flown title, "The Nightly Games," was adopted and used for years thereafter up and down The Block.
I seldom left it except to go to grade school or to the dime store downtown; all the rest of the time, The Block both sheltered and terrified me. This place I inhabited was fraught with peril on all sides and seemed to contain every experience in the universe. There was a thickly vine-covered spot where I could hide, but Jo knew it, too, and would crowd in beside me. There we huddled, hearts pounding, fear spurting through our veins because The Nightly Games weren't for the weak of spirit.
July 5, 1981
Ruled by the older Piller girls, the games on a typical evening might include kick-the-can, punch-the-icebox, may-I? and perhaps a round of rope jumping or follow-the-leader, but invariably, as twilight deepened, they ended with no-bears-out-tonight. Often, I think if people understood how I had grown up playing no-bears-out-tonight, they would be more understanding of my hysteria in the face of jeopardy.
We would meet inside the Pillers' garage. "Not I, not I, not I," we'd yell until the oil-stained cement floor echoed the sound up to the ceiling. But there was always an "I." The last to be heard, this person then rushed from the garage. After a suitable period Mary Helen Piller would cry, "Bushel of wheat, bushel of rye, all not ready holler I," and then "Bushel of wheat, bushel of clover, better get ready, we're coming over!"
Into the alley we then issued in a body, our voices raised in a singsong chant: "No bears out tonight, no bears out tonight." Usually the bear waited until we were halfway down the alley before he charged. Screaming and scattering, we raced for the Pillers' garage. Anyone the bear touched became another bear, and therefore the gathering for subsequent rounds was smaller. Although honor demanded that you resist to the end, that could result in a peculiar horror: being the last non-bear. All alone, then, in the deepening dark, you had to stand on the floor, and wail out the "Bushels." And when no answer came from out of the gloom, you had to leave the Pillers' unquiet garage walls and all alone walk straight down the middle of the dim alley, crying, "No bears out tonight!"
How thin your voice sounded. Sometimes your breath would almost fail and the words would come out in a gasp. After all, both you and the bears knew there were plenty of bears out tonight, and all of them waiting to get you.
Usually the torture was prolonged. The bears waited until you were clear down at the Kendalls', your quavering chant the only sound in the stillness; then they burst at you from all the garages and gardens of the alley, whooping and howling. By instinct you ran blindly, heading for the haven of the Pillers' garage, but, of course, you never made it.
There were other terrors in the alley. Once Charles Kendall and I went head to head in a marbles game that resulted in my losing all of mine. Madly gambling to gain them back, I stole the marbles out of the Chinese checkers set in my parents' closet. Charles was contemptuous of this subsize offering, but the colors intrigued him sufficiently to persuade him to take the little marbles off my hands, too. One by one they went. Too late, the dread set in that didn't leave me for years: the day my parents would decide to play Chinese checkers and say, "Whatever happened to the marbles?" From time to time I imagined this scene, and I would almost faint with apprehension, but for once I was fate's favorite. The vogue for the game—at least in my house—had apparently passed. The star-shaped board was never again brought out, and I got off.
But in retrospect, nothing—not even the older Piller girls tying themselves up and daubing ketchup over themselves so that Jo, Marilyn and I found them "dead" in the back of the Pillers' truck—was so frightening as faring alone out of the Pillers' garage into the bear garden.
According to today's Little Leaguers, baseball builds character. But our alley was narrow and there was no longer a field, so I never got to bat a ball in my childhood, and all I can say for my character is that sometimes, walking down streets, I chant the brave "no bears" words to myself, on the theory that if what you fear is really out there, you might as well go down singing.