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Ghosts of summers past: When the big worries were bees, barbed wire, bullies — and that bull

On a summer day like this, you could run barefoot through a sprinkler in the backyard, that is until you stepped on a bee. Or you could try to get enough kids together for a sandlot baseball game up at the school. Afterward, you’d need to have a Popsicle to cool down. 

Mark Brown traversed these same woods as a boy on his way to Devil’s Cliff in central Illinois.
Mark Brown traversed these same woods as a boy on his way to Devil’s Cliff in central Illinois.
Photo courtesy of www.singletracks.com

It had been a long time since I’d given any serious thought to Devil’s Cliff.

The searing July sun brought it back to me Tuesday morning, probably because the summer heat was so much more enjoyable when I was a young, skinny kid.

On a summer day like this, you could run barefoot through a sprinkler in the backyard, that is until you stepped on a bee. Or you could try to get enough kids together for a sandlot baseball game up at the school. Afterward, you’d need to have a Popsicle to cool down.

Or if you were really feeling adventurous, you could organize a “bike hike” to the woods, destination: Devil’s Cliff.

Parents didn’t always approve of outings to the woods for unspecified safety concerns, so sometimes you’d have to just keep it a secret, which was a problem with so many kids involved, especially if you left out somebody’s little brother.

We’d round up the kids on the block, starting with my brother Matt, who is two years younger, and maybe my brother Mitch, although at five years younger I’m thinking we would have tried to ditch him.

Mark Williams lived in the house behind us. He was a year older and the strongest, therefore good to have around if we ran into bullies. Next door to him were the Ross brothers: Mark, Steve and Pat. They were wiry little guys, on the small side, but ornery enough to hold their own.

Skip King lived around the corner. He was probably my best friend until he moved. We were pretty evenly matched in most of the important stuff like checkers, fighting and hotbox, a game you might have called pickle. Skip always made the all-star team in Little League, and I didn’t, but I always made the honor roll at school, and he didn’t.

For a few years when our houses were new we could just cut through the backyards to visit, but then everybody put up fences. We could still yell for each other to save the trouble of walking around the block, which we did to our parents’ annoyance, except they did the same thing when they were looking for us.

The woods were located about three blocks away. We’d tell our parents we were going for a bike ride, then pull off near the VFW post and take our bikes deep enough into the trees that they couldn’t be spotted from the street, which might result in them getting stolen or us getting our butts whooped when we got home.

Then we’d make our way down through a steep gully that led out to a pasture. All these years later, what sticks in my mind is that the woods were always very dark, and the clearing at the bottom of the gully always loomed like a bright light at the end of a tunnel.

Once we reached the pasture, there were still two obstacles to overcome: the barbed wire fence and the bull.

The barbed wire fence was easy enough to climb over, as long as we helped each other and set aside our fear that it might be “electrified.” It wasn’t, as far as I know, but you could never be too sure.

The bull was another matter. You never knew whether or not he was going to be there, so the rule was that when everyone reached the pasture you just ran like hell until you got to the other side.

This reminds me that I forgot the third obstacle: the cow pies laid out like land mines. Step in one of those and there’d be no hiding it from your mom later.

Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever getting chased by the bull, but every kid knew a kid who knew a kid who had.

Once you made it through the pasture, there was another set of trees and then a large creek, and then on the other side of that loomed Devil’s Cliff.

Carved from a hill by erosion and likely a shifting creek bed, the “cliff” was maybe 50 or 60 feet high, although to a kid it seemed more like 100. It jutted out at the top to create an overhang, at once menacing and awe-inspiring.

How did it get its name? Everyone had a story: from farm animals falling to their death to young lovers jumping. Most likely just because it looked gnarly.

You’d think we would have tried to climb it, but that really would have been dangerous. Talking about it was enough.

Why bring it up now?

Maybe because life was so much easier when the dangers to kids were mostly make believe — or easily avoided.

And when it got too hot, we could just go home and have a Popsicle.