• Otter Views: Memories of The Slab

    by Tom Stevens

    Walking a friend’s dog near Toro Park other day, I watched three neighborhood kids run swiftly through scrub brush on a trail known only to them. As focused as cheetahs, they ran with the bounding, feral joy only freedom from adult supervision can bestow.

    It pleased me that in this age of after-school sports and organized age-group everything, a few kids still run free in ragged packs across the land.

    Well, not totally free. At some point, they’d have to go home to eat dinner, do homework, shower, go to bed. But right then, that afternoon, they were free.

    In these times of “Common Core” learning, most schools start the academic year well before Labor Day. This robs late August of the sweet melancholy it used to wield back in the day. But even in my dotage, summer’s end stirs ancient cellular memories. Watching the running kids reminded me of “The Slab.”

    The Slab was situated in an overgrown badland bordering the subdivision where my family lived. The area today is a vast suburban sea of rooftops, but in my childhood it was mostly thorn trees, tall grass and red dirt. Newer subdivisions had been penciled in for the surrounding hills, but they hadn’t yet merged into a megalopolis.

    Amid the thorn trees was a ruined military base of Fort Ord vintage, but far humbler. The Quonset huts and barracks were long gone, but the concrete pad beneath them was still largely intact. An earlier generation of neighborhood kids had dubbed this cracked, sun-fried expanse of cement “The Slab,” so we called it that too.

    The Slab boasted two main attractions. One was an old baseball backstop that angled up out of the brush like a SETI satellite dish overtaken by kudzu. Because the backstop was rusty, sagging, broken and dangerous, we spent a lot of time climbing around on it.

    One weekend, an ambitious father bucked his power mower through the weeds to restore The Slab’s overgrown baseball diamond. Like a lost Amazonian city, home plate surfaced, then anchor pins for first, second and third bases. We laid out a crude infield and spent a few days absorbing bruises from “bad hop” grounders. Any ball hit hard enough to vanish into the tall outfield grass was a default home run.

    The Slab’s other big draw for neighborhood urchins was a full-size basketball court with two rusty hoops. The hoops had no nets or chains, but the painted outlines of a court were still dimly visible beneath mesozoic layers of dirt. These all-important lines vanished for long stretches around the court’s periphery, prompting heated arguments about “in bounds” and “out of bounds.”

    It amazes me to this day that we played there at all. Except for its metal backboards, the court was entirely concrete. Baked by sunlight all day, its smooth surface rippled and shimmered like a salt flat in the desert. On bright days, it wasn’t unusual to pass the ball to a mirage. And on really bright days, the mirage would score.

    As befits any good hideaway, The Slab was accessible only by narrow, secret, torturous footpaths studded with roots, toe-stubbing rocks and wicked thorns. We somehow negotiated these trails at full gallop in thin rubber slippers, which we kicked off upon reaching the court.

    That we played basketball barefoot at The Slab testifies either to the toughness of our feet or the softness of our brains. Because most of us didn’t have to wear shoes until 7th grade, our feet were as tough as alligator wallets. Still, there were limits. After one hot August basketball game, I limped home, pressure-washed my feet, and discovered weird discolorations on heels and soles. I showed my dad.

    basketball hoop geo herbert“Where did you get blood blisters?!” he marveled.

    “The Slab?”

    “Well, stay away from there until these heal up.”

    “Yes, Dad.”

    The recuperative powers of childhood had me back on the court the next day, which was when we saw the drowned man.

    We knew something was amiss when a crew of firemen sprinted past the court bearing an empty stretcher. Before we knew it, they had ducked into the forest and were crashing off toward the ocean. We followed as best we could.

    When we reached the place where the trail snaked down toward ocean cliffs, the firemen were already coming back up. Striding fast, they bore on their stretcher the limp, surf-battered body of a man who had drowned gathering shellfish. An angry shout from the captain scattered us out of the way.

    The Slab changed after that. The neighborhood parents held a fund-raiser, planted grass and repaired the backstop. We kids gave up our feral life, accepted adult supervision and formed a Little League team. We didn’t get to Williamsport.

     

    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 5, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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