High Stakes

By Hilary Carr | Oct 17, 2010

Have you ever noticed the frenzied energy in a video arcade room? I watched a group of kids, alone with their game, completely focused. They twisted and shouted themselves to out-maneuver their machine through car chases, and all kinds of shoot ‘em ups. They were so quick on the trigger. I made my silent judgment: such solitary sport as opposed to interactive, so neon-lit as opposed to sunlit, so much more about speed than imagination. I was the alien in a new world of games.

My passions as a kid were different. Give me a tree to climb or, better still, a pair of roller skates. I spent hours skating up and down Beach Ave. with legs just long enough to circle around the wide sewers tops without tripping. I played school with my best buddy, Mary Ann. We imitated the nuns as we lined up our dolls and gave them a thorough going-over.

“Sit up straight”, we’d command. “That’s enough from you, Mister. You are just a bold and brazen article!” “Straighten up your hair, Missy, you look like the wreck of the Hesperus!” We were so awed by their authority and power that we each decided to fashion ourselves a nun’s costume. We wore them not only on Halloween but played in them regularly, especially on the magnificent swing in Mrs. Goldstone’s garden.

Cowboys and Indians was another favorite. We had plenty of shoot ‘em up times with sticks for guns. I named my old Raleigh “Silver” and pretended to be the Lone Ranger. Mary Ann was Hop-along-Cassidy. Our local Manor Park provided paths and a rocky shoreline that became our wild west. We spied on anyone and jumped out from behind trees, leapt out from behind rocks, stealthy and cunning, as we stalked the park looking for bad guys. We loved an ambush! We, of course, were always the good guys.

My mother was the expert on “good guys.” Each morning at breakfast she read to me from her book about saints. The stories of saintly heroes and heroines became part of my hide. I was very familiar with everyone from Polycarp to Philomena. Saints took on extra meaning as each of the five of us was named for one and mother celebrated our saint’s day with the same enthusiasm and rituals as our birthdays. My own name made me uncomfortable. No one I knew was named Hilary. My saint was an old bishop who fought heretics. Not interesting! I was much more drawn by Joan of Arc. She was the youngest of five kids just like me. Visions and voices told her what she must do and even though it was strange and difficult, she did it so bravely. I prayed every day to be this lucky, to have miraculous visions and voices directing and protecting me. I wanted to be special like Joan of Arc.

In fifth grade, when I was 10, I was still pretty short. I had a mouthful of new hardware. The family moved several blocks away. I said goodbye to my friend Mary Ann and packed away my dolls, roller skates, and nun’s costume. I found myself in a new neighborhood gang of three boys, two Peters and a Billy, all around my age. We lived on the same block and went to the same school. I turned myself inside out trying to keep up with them — stick ball, dodge ball, and softball. I wanted to impress them that I was tough and ready to play their games.

Joan of Arc’s story inspired me. “She was so tough that she’d disguised herself as a boy. She led an army on horseback,” I’d say to myself as I struggled to play like the guys. But I was also a girl and I wanted these guys to like me. In the schoolyard, boys and girls played separately. Here in the neighborhood we did most things together. These guys roughhoused and wrestled, swam, ran track and built forts. Outside of sports stars for heroes, we all shared the influence of the nuns and admired, with the nun’s coaching, Catholics who made headlines, and, of course, the saints. Joan of Arc grew larger in my mind.

One fall afternoon ,the boys and I were raking leaves together in the backyard. We threw them at each other and we set them on fire to toast marshmallows on a stick. This particular day, after raking some very large piles, our play turned to Joan of Arc.

“I’ll be Joan and you guys are the English and see if you can capture me.” And with that I ran off. I headed out through the Farley’s garden, jumping the boxwood hedge and sprinting through the Colson’s yard. They ran after me shouting.  They split up and Billy came around the Daley’s driveway through the cedar hedge meeting me face on. By then I was out of breath, caught. They pinned me down on the ground while one of the Peters dashed next door to get his sister’s double-dutch jump rope. They lashed my hands behind my back and tied my ankles together. Then they chris-crossed the rope around me, head to foot and stood me up against the Daley’s oak tree, the stake. As Billy fastened the ropes and knots, the two Peters shaped a nice big pile of dry leaves around my feet, adding sticks and twigs. The rope at my wrists and ankles tugged tight as I jerked nervously. “This is uncomfortable and not much fun either,” I thought. But I remembered Joan and stood silent and brave.

Then my nose began to drip. I couldn’t wipe it with my cuff of my sleeve and no amount of snuffling stopped it. Embarrassed, I continued to carry out my image of Joan with stoic heroism. The rakes scraped along the grass as the two Peters worked in silence. Bits of leaves flew around them and stuck to their sweaters. Acorns crunched under their dusty brown oxfords. A crow cawed in a near-by pine.

“I need to get some matches,” Billy said as he disappeared though his back door. He came back holding a red and blue box of wooden kitchen matches. “These are going to set a fine blaze” he grinned. “Hey, we need more sticks and twigs over here. Let’s make this a huge bonfire."

The boys’ eyes flashed wildly. I began to quake. They really are going to light this, I thought to myself. I looked to the heavens for help. “No miracle is going to save me now. Not one heavenly voice is instructing me. I will be burned dead right here.”

My stomach seized. My heart was pounding. Bravery drained right out through my sneakers. I couldn’t get a deep breath. The more I squirmed, the tighter the rope pulled. I licked the salty sweat running down my face.  Only the rope held me upright. With a nod of OK from the Peters, Billy struck the match along the side of the box. First I smelled the sulphur. He held the lighted match over the pile of leaves and, shuffling his feet a little anxiously, he dropped it into the pile of leaves. The familiar smell of smoke circling me unleashed an earth-shattering scream. “Help, help” I yelled, “somebody please help! Somebody save me!” That was echoed by a second shriek — Mrs. Daley had thrown open the second-story window to see what was happening. “Oh, my God! Stop that, stop that at once, you are going to kill her! You are going to kill her! Get the garden hose. Put out the fire! Hurry!”

In a flash she came rushing out the back door. She grabbed the hose with one hand and her son Billy with the other. “Untie her at once," she shouted. Billy loosened the knots and I leapt over the smoldering pile. She began stomping out the fire. We all joined in, suddenly sprung from our trance. All of us were shamefaced for taking the game too far. “We were just kidding around” the boys stammered, still flushed with excitement and probably anticipating the wrath of their parents when they got home. I slunk home, shriveled by my own fear and hollow bravery, especially in front of the boys. I was frightened by how close I’d come to being burned at the stake.

It was a while before I had the gumption to play with the boys again. When we did get together, it wasn’t the same. My interest in becoming a martyr vanished. My burning desire to become a saint was extinguished. I gave up the notion of heavenly voices. In the end it was my voice that saved me. So much for sainthood! I knew what I wanted now was girl friends, real live girl friends.

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