By Tim Hayes

So it wasn’t exactly Tom Sawyer and his gang. We never faked our own deaths, explored in mysterious caves, or floated down a river on a raft. But we did bake some potatoes. Sort of.

Right behind the houses across the street from mine stood a field. A miracle of a field. Flat, level, with two enormous oak trees that stood the perfect distance apart to serve as the goal lines for two-hand touch football.

The young male marauders of our neighborhood spent most of our summers on or around that field. The wind got knocked out of me for the first time on that field. I learned that I could kick a football farther than I could throw one on that field. We loved that field.

But you can only play so much football when you’re 11 before your attention span darts away.

So one sweltering afternoon, one of the guys pipes up with a bright idea. “Let’s make a fire pit and bake potatoes,” he says.

“Yeah, let’s do it!” we all affirmed, thereby cementing our reputation as cement-heads. Why, you may be asking, on a 95-degree July day, would anybody want to ignite an open fire to bake and eat scalding hot potatoes in a field?

Because of the adventure behind it, that’s why. Duh.

We divvied up the assignments to pull off this stunt. One guy had to find bricks to make a circle around the fire pit. (We did have enough sense to avoid burning down our field, you have to give us that much credit.) One guy had to find sticks to make the fire, another to sneak out a roll of aluminum foil from home to wrap around the potatoes, another to get matches, another to get lighter fluid, and each of us had to go home and pilfer a raw potato from our mothers’ kitchens.

Not exactly Ocean’s 11. More like Moderately Damp Dipsticks. But I digress.

In the era when this story occurred, most of our moms stayed home during the day, adding a layer of required cunning and creativity in our quixotic quest to bake these potatoes. Quite the challenge, especially with this bunch of city kid yahoos. Yet somehow it all came together, more or less, 30 minutes later back on our field.

We picked our spot for the fire, ripped out enough grass to make a circle of dirt, laid the bricks around the edge, positioned the sticks in the middle, wrapped foil around the spuds, and waited for the magic to begin.

The kid in charge of aluminum acquisition faulted at his post a bit, dragging back a box of foil that contained the final shreds on the roll, meaning that a couple of the potatoes would have to go into our backyard barbecue buck naked. Let’s just say this guy would never make quartermaster on a submarine.

But this adventure in outdoor rustic dining had elevated itself from a half-baked idea into the chance to half-bake some potatoes, and such sacrifices had to be made.

Lighter Fluid Guy dumped enough of the stuff on those sticks to launch the space shuttle. Matches Guy struck one, tossed it onto the pit, and we all came THIS close to becoming pre-adolescent flambé before the fire receded enough to drop our potatoes on top and await the culinary delights sure to result. What a Grade A flock of dingbats.

When you’re 11, the concept of time hasn’t quite developed fully just yet. Also, you don’t really have a good grasp of the difference between baking and roasting. Forget about thinking two moves ahead. Not only were we not playing chess, we weren’t even playing checkers. Hell, this wasn’t even Chutes and Ladders.

What got produced for us that searingly hot day, after giving our mid-afternoon meal about 10 minutes on that fire – remember, we had the attention span of a rock – were potatoes too hot to hold yet too raw to eat. Naturally, nobody thought of plates or forks, much less butter, salt, or sour cream.

Yet on we gnawed, gulped, and gagged, unwilling to cave in front of our other buddies, and simultaneously unable to continue trying to ingest the absolute inedible mess we’d cooked up. Or, tried to cook up, anyway. A bunch of faux macho goofs getting sick to our stomachs over something we intentionally did to ourselves. A Blue-Ribbon moment for all involved, believe me.

Finally, the charade collapsed under its own weight. The posing became unsustainable. We spit out the lousy stuff, tossed the uneaten potatoes into the nearby woods (actually I might have kicked mine, for greater distance), threw dirt on the fire (we had a couple Cub Scouts who knew that stuff), and started a new football game.

We had scorched a little patch of our wonderful field, but it forgave us in time. Mother Nature didn’t seem to mind, but some of our real Mothers ended up being not so serene over the whole thing. Stealing! Playing with lighter fluid! Starting fires! What’s gotten into you kids?

The terrible swift sword of domestic justice came later. But right after ditching those awful sort-of-baked potatoes, and I’m not absolutely sure about this, but I could see our gang quickly getting bored again and starting some other ridiculous venture.

Maybe whitewashing a fence. Hey, it worked for Tom Sawyer.

Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes

This story appears in “Growing Up Giffin: Reflections on a Happy Steeltown Boyhood,” available by clicking HERE.  ALL PROCEEDS from the sale of this book benefit the Hilltop Economic Development Corporation, to support economic revitalization efforts in Tim Hayes’ hometown of Mt. Oliver, Pa.  

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