Boy Meets World – in the Sewers of Montgomery

Hurricane Frederic swept across the Gulf Coast in September, 1979. At the time, it had the largest storm center ever measured: 50 miles across. Hammering the coast with 130MPH sustained winds, it passed over Dauphin Island, where my adoptive mom (and Dad Wife #1) lives now, a small barrier island just south of Mobile, AL., with wind gusts of 145mph.

Dauphin Island

Luckily, my family was not there at the time, having temporarily moved to Montgomery for a year and a half following my dad and his new contract job, which coincided with his marriage to Wife #2.

We kept our house in Mobile, only renting in Montgomery since we knew dad’s contract would eventually run out. When we returned home shortly after Frederic for a check-up on the old homestead, other than a pine tree now residing smack-dab in the middle of my swingset, crushing it like a frat-boy fist-smashes empty beer cans, we had little damage.

Generic single-family-home in Montgomery, AL
Souther residence from 1979-1981. My room had the window on the front.

Back in Montgomery, our new step-mom was still coming to grips with suddenly having two boys to deal with and my brother didn’t make it easy. While the new couple went on their honeymoon, our new step-Grandmother, a quiet, somewhat aloof prayer-warrior of a woman, left her modular home and her soap operas long enough to come watch a couple of young kids, something she hadn’t done in 20 years.

Her short time there was the beginning of what I can only call, “Quite a Year.” Kicking it all off was the “fire incident,” which happened within days of our new grandmother coming to stay with us and while dad and Wife #2 were on their honeymoon. My brother took our father’s small, propane-powered torch and burned holes in various parts of the house. My parents were only then starting to realize what they had gotten in my brother, so of course, I was questioned about the burn holes, as was he. But, it was pretty obvious which of the two of us was most likely to have done it; the 9-year-old or the 12-year-old. When asked, I’m not even sure he denied it. It was a sneak peek into a long line of future shenanigans.

Another time, the newlyweds were chasing each other around their room and our new step-mom smashed her shin into a bedside table. Normally, this would just hurt like hell for a while. But, she ended up in the hospital with major bone trauma, requiring a leg brace for weeks.

Then, there was the time I got bit–I called it “mauled”, but Step-mom called it “bit”–by our neighbor’s dog. It was a large German Sheppard that normally barked threateningly at me as we cut through the narrow walkway between it and its neighbor’s fence on the way to school. This day, the dog was not barking at me and, wanting to be friends and not have it terrify me on a daily basis, I put my hand in his fence to pet him. You can guess what followed.

Undoubtedly, our new step-mom was questioning her decision to join up with our merry bunch when the 80s began.

But perhaps the most memorable thing to happen that year didn’t involve our parents. In fact, it’s questionable they ever knew about it, which was just fine with me. And to this day, they still don’t know about it, which is also fine with me.

Now, despite my age, I had always been very much aware of girls. I’d been good-naturedly chased around the playground by packs of them in elementary and growing up with a brother three years my elder, and hanging out with him and his friends when they would let me, exposed me to things usually reserved for the more worldly: dipping, smoking, cussing. By the time I was 10, I’d at least tried all of it.

Behind our white-bread neighborhood in Montgomery, and in fact, also behind our neighborhood in Mobile, was a series of drainage pipes. Some were completely underground, while others were half-pipes, split horizontally so that only the bottom was concrete. These were storm sewers that almost always had water in them, presumably from some upstream lake or stream that was being diverted away from the houses. We spent a great deal of time walking, or crawling when it got tight, all through these concrete pipes, hoping to escape the brutal summer sun while simultaneously praying we didn’t stumble on a water moccasin resting in the shadows.

One particular day, my brother and I were exploring a section of half-pipes with a couple of the other local boys. Passing a smaller, intersecting pipe, someone noticed something set back a few feet in the dark. Crowding around, one of the older boys climbed up in the pipe and after much dragging and scrambling, pulled a wooden box into the daylight.

Measuring about 16″ square, it was solidly built, with an oily exterior, presumably to protect it from moisture. Holding the lid tight, was a padlock. We all took turns touching the box and pulling on the padlock and making sure it wasn’t somehow unlocked. It wasn’t.

Finally, someone said out loud what we were all thinking, “Should we open it?”

Despite each of us having a healthy fear of what could actually be in a locked box stuck way back in a storm sewer tunnel, we all nodded in excitement.

My brother, maybe not the oldest, but certainly the leader based on pure grit and meanness, picked up the box and threw it on the concrete floor as hard as he could. The sturdy box cracked, but didn’t give up its secrets just yet.

Two more similar beatings and the box burst open, its content spilling all over the floor of the storm sewer, and changing my 9-year old world-view forever.

Within the confines of this plain, wooden box, were dozens of dirty magazines! Hustler, Playboy, Penthouse, and some I had never heard of; they were all there. In bright, pristine colors, every teenage boy’s second-most favorite thing lay spread out at our feet.

As the initial shock wore off, we descended on those magazines like vultures on carrion. There was plenty for everyone, but still, expletives flew and we shoved each other in our excitement to see “what we could see.”

We must have spent an hour thumbing through the slick pages; holding them up to show the other boys with a, “Look at THIS!”

But eventually, the light began to fade and, knowing we had all better be getting on home for dinner, we made a pact to never tell anyone else about our find, lest they come and steal the magazines, or worse yet, destroy them! And so, with our heads still in the clouds, we put the magazines back in the remains of the box as well as we could, put it back up in the recesses of the dark pipe, and we headed home.

That would be the first and only time I would see our secret stash. I don’t know what transpired over the next week, but a few days later, on our way to school one morning, we saw what we had all feared might happen.

Along the main road leading up to school, all along the grassy bank, someone had ripped from our beloved treasure, page after glossy porn-covered page, and laid them out on the bank of the roadside for all to see–driver and pedestrian alike. It was awe-inspiring and sad at the same time. As we and a dozen or so parents accompanying their kids to school walked by this travesty, this betrayal of boyhood promises, none of us looked at each other, partly out of shame and partly for fear we might give away the fact that we’d known about the magazines for days.

I never found out who was responsible for this act of teenage vandalism. Whether it was one of us who originally found the box, or someone whom one of us had told, I don’t know. My brother and I never spoke of it again. But, it didn’t matter. The damage was done. I’d seen things no 9-year-old should see, and I loved it!

My dad’s contract expired a few months later and we moved back to our home in Mobile. There, I spent many hours exploring the storm sewers hoping to find something even remotely as cool as that box; but, I never did. Like so many things that happen to us when we are young, it was amazing and brief. But oh the memories.

 

 

 

 

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