When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike through Bluestem Park on the way to school. A creek ran through the park, and in the springtime the crawdads would be thick in the creek. We’d stop our bikes on the way home from school, dink around in the creek and catch crawdads. I brought home – and let die – hundreds of crawdads over the years. Too bad my mom didn’t know how to cook ’em.
It was maybe four blocks to school from my house, but of course it felt a lot longer to a kid. The last block before I got to school was a pretty normal-looking Dick-and-Jane sort of neighborhood. Nice, modest, middle class homes. Green lawns. Big trees. I normally rode my bike to and from school down that block. But there was a slightly faster way to the school from my house: Dog Alley. Back behind the houses on the east side of that street was an alley where rabid, ravenous, howling dogs inhabited every yard. It was a terrifying place to be, and only the bravest of the brave, (or the most foolhardy – like me), would dare to venture down Dog Alley.
As a 1st, 2nd or 3rd grader, you avoided Dog Alley even though it was a shortcut. But by the time you hit 4th grade, a boy became aware that the gauntlet of Dog Alley loomed in his future. Those who had made the trip and lived to tell about it could boast of their own adventure and courage and rest secure in their place in that special group. (…he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…) Those of us who knew we must eventually prove ourselves shrank to the back of the crowd whenever a challenge to go down Dog Alley was issued by one those happy few who had already survived it.
The imagination of a child is a weird and wonderful thing. I imagined the journey down Dog Alley to be slightly more terrifying than a trip through Dante’s Seventh Level of Hell. Of course, looking back on it with adult eyes, it was just an alley with some dogs in the backyards. But children have a tremendous ability to construct fantasy worlds at once more wonderful and more terrifying than the mundane and predictable world we adults inhabit. I’m certain my friends’ wildly exaggerated accounts of the terrors contained therein also contributed to the image of Dog Alley that loomed in my mind.
Sometime in 4th grade, I knew the time had come to prove myself. I must brave the terrors of Dog Alley. At school, I announced – with way more confidence than I actually felt – that I would be running Dog Alley after school. The word spread; as always, there would be an audience to witness my attempt and probable bloody demise.
The final bell rang much too quickly. I retrieved my bike from the rack, and rode it slowly across the crosswalk to the head of Dog Alley. I laid my bike on the ground. One of the unwritten rules of Dog Alley was that you always made your first trip through it on foot, never on a bike. Once you were a Dog Alley veteran, bikes were allowed, but the first time through, you had to survive on wits and skill alone – no mechanical aids allowed. I peered to the end of the alley, mentally calculating whether or not I was fast enough to make it out the other side at the end of the block before those horrible hounds snapped their chains, leapt their fences and tore me shreds.
My friends gathered around me on their bikes, ready to fly around the block and meet me – or what remained of me – at the other side.
Imagine the terrors a little boy can construct in his mind out of vague stories and a dozen barking hounds. Imagine the plucky courage that would drive this little boy out of the safety of his well-traveled and well-known paths, down into the gullet of the unknown. I think it may have been the bravest thing I ever did, because I don’t ever remember facing – let alone overcoming – that kind of fear since.
I ran the alley as fast as I could, and of course the sound of my passing drove the beasts to madness. Barking dogs create a feedback loop that gets louder and crazier the longer it goes on. They howled, they yelped, they whined, they barked and called for blood – my blood – the very blood pounding in my ears and racing through my chest. As I passed yard after yard, I was certain that any instant would be my last and that I would be pulled to the ground and torn limb from limb. But then…
…it was over. I emerged unscathed at the end of Dog Alley. My friends met me there, gave me the kind of reserved congratulations boys offer one another. For my part, I feigned indifference, as any boy who has just done something very brave must. I even half believed that what I had just done was No Big Deal.
But it was a very big deal. The day I conquered my fears and conquered Dog Alley was one of the best days of my life.