A large sign next to a small, temporary office building festooned with colorful flags promised that row after row of mighty condos would spring up from the leveled soil in the Spring of 2007. Looking at the barren landscape surrounding this outpost of real estate sales, it was hard to recognize any potential. Cheerful, optimistic flags flapping in the breeze, worthy of a fine used car lot, seemed to be overwhelmed by their surroundings. But I remember what it used to look like. And the now-sanitized-for-your-consumption overhaul of this site meant only one thing. And it came to me with a gasp. "They're out there. They've been dug up. Some bulldozer driver has unearthed 'em." I fantasized about marching into the condo office, giving some poor real estate guy some hope, then dashing it to pieces with a bizarre inquiry: "Do you have my Plastico Boots?"
That's what we 13-year-olds in Camp Hill called them. The term was derisive and yet a simple acknowledgment of their utility. You might even say we were ambivalent about them. They were high. They rose to a point just a couple of inches below the knee. There was a nice satisfying hardness to the inch-high heels. The toe was squared-off. When I looked down at that straight, uncompromising toe, it gave me a feeling of invincibility. Like if I gave anybody a good kick, they would fall down dead. Plastico Boots boosted a young teen's confidence in such an endeavor. They added steam to my stride. Sure, they were made of plastic. Not leather, or even rubber. Actual plastic. And that material, somewhat pliable but still rigid and unyielding at the ankle, could change the character of your stride for the better. Since the ankle hardly flexed, you came down hard on the back of your heel. That was your full weight hitting that spot, which made your robotically approaching figure all the more imposing. Who wouldn't look formidable with each leg like a steel tube slamming its heel into the pavement?
But the aesthetic undermined you. Each one had a molded, non-functional buckle. It protruded an eighth of an inch or so from the surface of the boot. It was apparent at ten paces that the buckle was phony. This flaw would be a magnet for ridicule. But they increased in numbers at Camp Hill High School, probably because some savvy parents couldn't resist their unbeatable combination of economy and utility. (In those days, everybody from the 7th grade all the way through 12th matriculated in harmony in the same building. Most of the time.)
OK, so the phony buckle feature made them stupid. Colossally stupid. But the acceptance of the masses blunted the effect. One kid in Plastico Boots is an individual. Two are a movement. If you showed up wearing Plastico Boots one day, and took your usual position in the bull session waiting for the bell to ring, as if nothing were out of the ordinary, you might see the top of a lowered head taking them in. "Plastico Boots," came the observation. Not disrespectfully. But certainly not singing your praises, either. I'm not sure who the poet was who coined the term. It stated the obvious, irrefutable, truth. They were plastic. They were boots. But the grafting-on of the "O" was the stroke of genius. It elevated the whole concept to flat-out absurdity.
But like I said - you couldn't help but automatically cut an impressive profile when you put them in motion. I'll bet they even improved my posture. Their almost unforgivable transgression of style was outweighed by the practical value for young, growing, adventurous feet. And the perfect place for putting my Plastico Boots to the test was Windy Hill on 17th Street in Camp Hill near the Bypass.
Not far from my house - as a kid it might as well have been in another galaxy - was Windy Hill. It represented spookiness, instability, transition, and the certain unknown of the future. It was a big fat question mark in the middle of the early 1970s, with suburbs sprawling and threatening to engulf it. Windy Hill was that parcel of land that Man hadn't figured out what to do with yet. A natural oasis that men set their eyes on, imagining their future as only they can, wanting to tame it, bend it to their will with bulldozers, two-by-fours, and cement. And they had already given that a whirl. Windy Hill was mutilated and existed only as a hill due to unnatural influences. It was an aborted land development project. Bulldozers had moved some earth around in what looked like a haphazard fashion. Windy Hill was simply the consolidation of all the loose dirt that had been churned up.
I was the kid who gave it its moniker. I took it straight off the cover of a book I had to read in 4th grade at Lincoln Elementary. I'm pretty sure it showed a silhouette of a hill, with a jagged lightening bolt tearing the night sky above it. At the top of the cover, was the title: "The Ghost of Windy Hill."
I followed the space program as a kid. When I discovered the newly formed hill, I felt like Neil Armstrong in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. Like any explorer, I was inspired to give it a name. And I was further inspired by its resemblance to the hill depicted on the book. I know, a hill's a hill. But how many hills had I seen in my twelve years of life?
The open area surrounding Windy Hill even resembled the surface of the moon. The dirt, if deprived of rainfall long enough, would be ground up into a fine powder under our shoes and mini-bikes. Even Neil himself would have to admit that the imprints in OUR moondust would compare favorably with those left behind by him and the yet-to-be-deployed lunar rover.
Windy Hill even had what was a barn at one time.It suited us better to think of it as a vacant house, and, therefore, a haunted house. The torn-up ground around our house made it hard to imagine it in any context that made sense. As if a giant hand had plucked it from some mysterious place and arbitrarily set it down in the middle of desolation. It faced, with sagging roof, certain demolition. But who could say when, as weeds and grass took root on what should have been a short-lived Windy Hill only a few yards away from it.
The hill was viewed as Mt. Everest by mini-bikers. It was there, so it had to be climbed. It wasn't long before the less timid among us cut a path up the hill on its steepest face. Andy Hawbecker regularly enthralled us with his skills and daring. Some who weren't lucky enough to own a mini-bike had to be satisfied with dreaming. Or maybe some kids found it a relief NOT to own one, thereby avoiding having their prowess and nerve called into question. Me, I eventually got one. But I was too conservative a rider to be a crowd-pleaser like Andy.
At the bottom of Windy Hill one day, we found a rare and exotic treasure. They were curious delicate glass tubes that we were convinced held deadly gas. We salvaged them and took them into our haunted house and stored them carefully in a closet lest some imprudent kid find them and break them. No kidding, I think we believed we were safeguarding the public. They were just florescent light bulbs that somebody dumped there, for cryin' out loud.
Outside the house one day, I heard the sound of laughter echoing within the empty interior. And THUNK. THUNK. THUNK. With a pause of several pregnant seconds between each THUNK. We came back later that day with the courage to go in. We found evidence of the trespass. I stared at it thinking, "This is too good to be true." I savored the tingle that ran down my spine.
Embedded in the floor was a hatchet.
No doubt it once belonged to some unhinged individual who had not been welcome in decent places. A conclusion arrived at so swiftly it couldn't be wrong.
Days later I came back and found the house in flames. I couldn't get over the incongruity of Camp Hill firemen standing by nonchalantly while their sworn enemy claimed another victim. If the firemen torched it on purpose, it seemed an extravagant way to rid the property of an unwanted structure. I mean, why not bring in a bulldozer that could level the joint with a few taps?
I knew the truth could be more sinister. Maybe the madman with the hatchet had really gone off his rocker and put a match to it. I tried to scare myself into thinking that some evil spirit had spontaneously combusted with the fires of Hell itself. And maybe the hatchet-wielding maniac's tortured spirit was somehow being exorcised with the towering flames shooting through the sagging roof. And maybe if I looked closely enough into the inferno, I could see it.
The fire didn't deter us. With some surviving timber from the ruins, we built a ramp that launched many a lucky bicyclist into the air. But soon that was too tame. We collected all the dried-out weeds we could find, piled them up by the ramp, and ignited the fuel with a match. Into the evening hours, long after we could see nothing but fire, you could hear off in the darkness some kid really laying into his pedals, the bottom of each power stroke kicking up cinders as he approached the ramp at what was hoped to be optimal speed. The possible result of injury brought to our minds the exploits of Evel Knieval, famous for his motorcycle jumps over a row of automobiles. Didn't he break every bone in his body?
During one nighttime fire-jump session, a large plane came over head and turned its searchlights on. They even scanned back and forth! I had never seen anything like that. Maybe the pilot figured our fire was a distress signal. It was pretty cool, but it rattled us too. We didn't need somebody calling the cops.
Windy Hill was a place for exploration. Maybe the heavy machinery that had turned over the dirt there had summoned to the surface, for the first time in millions of years, a prehistoric bone or two. When I came across half of a rib cage, dry and white in the sun, I examined it and hoped I had a specimen suitable for display in the one of the world's great dinosaur collections. But it was a small dinosaur, no larger than a deer. Okay, it WAS a deer. It took me several days to accept that disappointing fact.
After days of rain, possibly around the time of Hurricane Agnes (1972), I went to Windy Hill alone with my Plastico Boots on. If I had chosen less potent footwear that day, an error in judgment wouldn't have occurred. A part of the hill had collapsed. It was about the size of a sub-compact car, all gloppy and glistening. Blob-like, it sat there. It was fascinating. So that's what a mudslide looks like!
I plunged BOTH feet into the mudslide. It drew me like steel to a magnet. It was an irresistible compulsion. I told you these boots could jack up your feeling of well-being and confidence. Well, after a couple of long strides, I found myself standing in the middle of the blob. But I had underestimated the depth of the mud and found myself sunken in up to my thighs. I stood there a few seconds, satisfied anyway. Then I tried to pull both legs out of the engulfing mass. Well, it was like standing in hardened cement. This was the first time I had been held against my will in my life. This was serious! I was stuck like a fly on flypaper with about the same prospects for freedom. I took a few seconds to castigate myself.
I easily could have been trapped there for hours, and shouted myself hoarse before I was rescued. The closest house was on the other side of a woods maybe a hundred yards away. Then a strange calm came over me. With that calm came the solution, but it involved sacrifice. The same Plastico Boots that had given me the bravado to venture into the muck in the first place would be my salvation. They were slip-on jobs, with a smooth felt liner. I knew I could easily pull my feet out of 'em. SHOOMP, effortlessly, came the first foot. Right out of the boot. But you better believe that boot didn't budge. There was a tremendous suction holding it in place. That scared me a little, so I hurried on to the second boot. The same result.
Clear of the brown slop and in stocking feet, I stood and looked back at the mound. There was no evidence that my boots had ever existed at all. There was no trace of where I had punctured the the mass with the reckless Plastico Boots. The mud had reshapen itself like a giant amoeba, even with the capacity to heal itself. It was a living organism that consumed, and it had consumed my Plasticos. I went home and didn't fess up that I had lost my boots due to misadventure. I managed to keep the whole thing quiet. Then I realized my feet were almost numb from the cold. I went straight to the bathtub for hot water, which of course sent my feet into waves of agony.
Today, the snapping of those flags in a persistent wind was irritating enough to snap me out of my reverie. From the lofty plain of 2007, a year sounding impossible to anyone born in the middle of the 20th century, I surveyed what used to be my kingdom. Even though wilderness had reclaimed it after work was aborted in the '70s, the property developers proved persistent and were back with a vengeance. The place had been cleared of all bushes and trees and leveled. Leveled like a pool table. All recognizable features that gave it depth and character were gone. As if a giant eraser had descended and rubbed out all identifying marks. Windy Hill itself had been dispersed and its divided mighty soil stood ready to be reincarnated as concealment for concrete foundations of condos to come. I tried to reconstruct in my mind all the elements of Windy Hill, but the power of the present was almost overwhelming. Was this the place where I once spent hours a day so many years ago? It seemed impossible. Ah, but the Plastico Boots! They would endure! They would stand as my testament that I had been there!
There's a pair of boots on the floor of the North Atlantic that have survived for almost a century, two-and-a-half miles down, in darkness. They are side by side, about a foot apart, toes pointing in opposite directions. They were worn by a passenger who went down with the greatest shipwreck of all time, the Titanic. Their intact condition has been attributed to some process used to treat leather back then. The body didn't fare as well. Soon after the sinking, a fish, grown transparent never having seen the light of day, had a feast on the soft tissue of the body. But the boots defied nature and lived on.
Maybe my Plastico Boots were spared nature's harshness. Maybe they were liberated from the mud days or weeks before I returned to Windy Hill. But, if somehow they got pressed even farther into the earth than my initial plunge took them over 35 years ago, perhaps under the track of a ten-ton bulldozer, maybe that's better. Maybe hundreds or hundreds of thousands of years from now an archeologist will pull them from a deep stratum amongst great fanfare. And he'll be confused by those phony buckles.