The Spanking Machine

First used in the Spanish Inquisition, I think

Nowadays, something’s always on TV. The 60s were different, though. You took what you could get. There were only four or five networks, depending on whether you counted PBS. (I didn’t.) What’s more, these four or five networks “signed off” every midnight or thereabouts. “This concludes our broadcast day . . .” a voice would say over an image of an American flag. Then—just a test pattern until they signed back on in the early morning before kids were awake.

The test pattern featured an image of an Indian chief and strange markings and symbols, like something you’d lay on the floor to summon the devil.

The point I’m trying to make in a roundabout way is that when we were kids, we were outdoors more compared to kids now, I think. Now that the Democrats are back in power, someone should fund a study looking at the incidence of skin cancer now compared to the 60s.

During daylight hours, one’s best bet was The Woods. Every neighborhood had them. You could do anything in The Woods. Build a fort from lumber you stole from local construction sites. Cruise the seedy part of the spaceport in your speeder, looking for a score—from the crook of a tree! Your speeder would rumble, barely containing its rage, as you passed the prostitutes and the purse snatchers.

Hey, girls.

And if nature called, maple leaves presented themselves in profusion. That’s a nettle, doofus. Such splendor—right in your neighborhood. You never see them nowadays. Now we have parks, which are what happens to The Woods when the Legal Department gets in involved.

However . . . one didn’t go into The Woods at night. Are you crazy? At nightfall, ownership of The Woods ceded to whatever creatures and ghouls rose from the crevices and swampy places. What exactly were they? No one was sure because no one had ever ventured in to find out. Duh. We were children but we weren’t stupid. You go look if you’re so interested!

So at nightfall, we congregated. All us neighborhood kids would gather in somebody’s backyard, usually the Barker’s, and play some game, usually Kick the Can.

Let me explain Kick the Can. Take the rule schematics of hide-and-seek, tag and capture the flag and interweave/interlock them and you approximate Kick the Can.

This is America and so we followed American Rules Kick the Can, which, I guess is American Rules Kick the Can Rule 1. Here’s the rest:

Get a can. Coffee can’s best. It’s almost empty. Just dump it in the trash. Your mom won’t notice. You place the can centrally, in our case in the glow of the lights from the Barker’s house on the Barker’s lawn. The lights created a penumbra circumscribing the house. Exactly where inbounds ended and out of bounds began was not so exact. Inbounds was definitely anything touched by the penumbra’s light molecules. Light has molecules! Well then, what is light? Out of bounds was certainly the Barker’s property line.

Of course, we cheated. At night, you’re as immaterial as an apparition. The lines around your edges would be dotted in some pocket dimension. (You’d know an invisible person’s there because you’d hear a wavering sound. A faint radiating sound. As if someone were humming through a kazoo wrapped in a towel. You often heard the sound on Space Ghost, as he was always turning invisible.) If comic books had taught us boys anything, it’s that the universe is lousy with pocket dimensions. Their existence was implied as well by The Twilight Zone, which I did not watch, thank you. Go ahead if you want. Gives me the creeps.

You break into two teams. One team is “it.” They close their eyes and count to ten while the other team scatters. The “it” team goes out and tries to capture the members of the other team. If the “it” person gets to the can before the other kid and puts his foot on the top of the can and says “One, two, three on Jimmy” or whomever, that person is “caught.” One by one, they put these unfortunate saps into “jail,” a holding area to the side of the Folger’s can, in this case, the Barker’s patio with their rusted barbecue and a length of garden hose showered in light molecules, which we decided before is a thing.

The remaining members of the other team can free their captured comrades by making a mad sprint to the can and kicking it over. However, if a member of the “it” team gets to the can first and puts his/her foot on the can and cries out “1, 2, 3 on John” or whomever, that person, John or whomever, is placed in the jail.

But were you able to reach the can first—the glory! You were the Great Liberator. Your freed teammates would bolt for the dark outer reaches of the Barker’s property, chanting your name. We’d have used the word orgasm if only we had had it known it.

Woo hoo!

Inside, our parents were warm and oblivious. Theirs would not be the orgasm of victory at the kicking of the can. All they had were real orgasms. They were watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or something, learning valuable facts about the Serengeti.

Bah! What good is that when you’re crouching in the bushes, trying not to pee your pants by skwooshing your doodle in your shivering fist, and you see the Keeper of the Can stray too far from the can itself? Can you make it—or will he get there first and “1, 2, 3” your butt? Wiping your nose with the back of your free hand and marshaling your strength, you make your decision.

Here I go!

The Keeper of the Can would turn at the sound of the rustling bushes and bolt for the can to call you out.

“C’mon, John!” all the kids in jail would shout.

Sometimes, you’d win. Your team would cheer, exploding from jail like Christmas confetti.

Kids.

Sometimes you’d lose. Life’s like that. You’d join your teammates in jail. If you didn’t run like a girl we wouldn’t be here right now! You’d shrug. One tended, at such times, to look at the bright side. You could go into the Barker’s house and pee. On the other side of the sliding glass door, Mr. and Mrs. Barker were sitting at opposite ends of the family room. Mr. Barker’d be engrossed in his show. He would have been enjoying a cup of coffee but, unexpectedly, they were all out. Mrs. Barker would be working on some craft.

“You kids having fun out there?” she’d ask without looking up from her work. I could have been an ax murderer.

“Yes, ma’am,” you’d say. “Loads.” At school, a sixth-grader had just presented one of us with the term shit load and we made a point of wedging it into just about any conversation amongst ourselves. “I almost got everyone out!”

“Maybe next time,” she’d say, as if to prove she was actually listening. With that, I was invisible.

After I peed, I went out the front door, which is cheating in any country’s rules. Except, I guess, where the homes don’t have a second door to the outside, like igloos.

I saw Lance crouching behind the tree in the paisley-shaped garden appendage that swooped into the middle of the front lawn like an encroaching amoeba. Since his back was turned to The Woods, he was always aware that something could jump him. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about with the prospect of being caught in the game. So he was edgy.

“Hey, man!” I whispered.

He started. “Shhh!” he said embarrassedly, putting his finger to his lips and hunching his shoulders to emphasize the point. He hoped that maybe I’d confuse embarrassment for anger, something manly.

“Anybody caught yet?” I asked.

“Tommy is sneaking around to look. He’ll whistle when he sees something.”

“What?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “A lot of prisoners, I guess.”

“Won’t they hear him whistle and catch him?” I asked.

“He’ll whistle like a bird, stupid!”

“At night?”

“There’s birds at night!”

“Oh, yeah?” I said. “Name one.”

“Bats!” he said.

“Bats aren’t birds!”

“Owls!” he shot out, as if it was what he meant to say in in the first place. “Owls.”

“Owls don’t whistle,” I pointed out. “They hoot. And bats don’t whistle either.”

“Quiet!” he said with an expectant look, holding his fingers to his ear. “That’s him!”

“What are we supposed to do when he whistles?”

Lance sat silent for a few moments, scanning the garden floor as if the answer might be sprouting there. “We didn’t get that far.”

I looked in the direction I assumed Tommy had gone. “So what do we do?” I asked.

“Let’s go around the other way.” He eventually said, essentially counting his brother as “expendable.” Better safe than sorry.

We turned the furthest corner of the house and confronted one of the “it” team members who was just going through the fence door to conduct reconnaissance.

“HA!” he shouted and bolted for the can. He had a good twenty feet on us. We were doomed. We took our spot on the patio.

Fortunately, now I had to poop.

Eventually, Mrs. Barker would stick her head out the sliding glass door and say, “time to come in, kids!”

“Just five more minutes!” one or all of the Barker children would plead.

“Five minutes,” Mrs. Barker would agree with an indulgent scowl.

Kids.

Ned, the oldest neighborhood boy, said, “Okay, the last person I touch wins.” We all shrieked as he put his hand over his eyes and counted out loud to 10 and bolted for our hiding places.

It was every kid for himself. If you could, you’d push a friend in front of Ned to prevent yourself from being touched. Law of the Jungle. You had no friends. These people? They’re important to the extent they’re useful. Pawns. Decoys. Chum. I think this is how human shields were invented, from Kick the Can, this very night for all I know. We should have taken minutes. A snapshot with us standing around some black felt sign with white push-in letters signifying the date and the moment. Barker's Backyard. 1968. Invention of Human Shields. Us kids. Of course, one of us would have to surreptitiously give the finger to the camera and wreck the solemnity of the image. It would have been me except I hadn’t yet learned that you could swear without talking.

Ned went around picking off kids as if he were one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The skeleton one. And I looked and, behold, a pale horse and the rider’s name is death. Or maybe they’re all skeletons. The approaching rattle of the bones will be the warning that you should repent. As they crest the horizon, the wind would whistle through their rib cages.

I was crouched with a group of us. Each of us was trying to position another person between themselves and Ned’s most likely direction of approach. But he might come from behind, you keep thinking. So you turn yourself sideways so that one eye can look one way and the other eye looks the other way.

“Ha!” Ned shouted as he burst through some bushes I was facing, touching as many kids as he could.

“Got you!”

“Got you!”

“Got you!”

Not me! I jumped backward, tripping over someone’s feet and landing on my butt then spinning over and running for my life. For all I knew, Ned was on my tail, and if that was the case I was done for, as he was two years my senior and didn't run like a girl.

But, stitch in my side, I made it to the backyard where the coffee can was. I stood in the middle of the backyard, each back corner of the house equidistant from me.

My breathing began to ease. Eventually, everyone ambled around the southern corner, laughing and talking, and scratching themselves in places they shouldn’t but it was okay because it was dark and everyone was facing the same direction except me, who saw it all and would tell the boys about the girls who were scratching themselves at the first opportunity.

“You’re the winner!” Lance called.

“Cool!” I said then thought for a minute. “What do I win?”

“You have to go through the Spanking Machine!”

The Spanking Machine, first used in the Spanish Inquisition, I think. To create the Spanking Machine, the kids would line up single file with their legs spread, each person facing the back of the person in front of them. Then the spank-ee would get on his hands and knees and crawl through the kids’ legs as quickly as he could. The spankers would . . . spank.

I got on my hands and knees at the front of the line, my face about 12 inches from Lance’s doodle, bundled up there like a kazoo in a towel. The rest of the kids were hooting and taunting. The point was to go through the Spanking Machines as quickly as possible. As you’d skooch underneath everybody, they’d each spank you on the butt as hard as they could. One of the bigger kids was likely to clamp you in his legs and give an extra-hard whooping.

So I went through as fast as the palms of my hands and my boney knees could take me. And, yes, Ned clamped down on me and drum solo on my butt. “Ha!” he said.

At this, Mrs. Barker stuck her head of the sliding glass door and said, “I really mean it this time, kids!”

We all went to our own houses, calling out “See you tomorrow” over our shoulders. Laura skipped ahead of me. By the time I got to the fence, she was already at the front door, chiming, “We’re home!” then slamming the door. I stepped on the bottom railing and threw my other leg over the top of the fence. From there, I stood on the bottom railing and took in the night. I could hear doors open and close around our immediate neighborhood. Then . . . nothing. The Barkers shut off their outdoor light and I was alone in the dark. From The Woods, I heard a creature of ill will purring with malice and I bolted for the door.

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