It was readily apparent to all of us that what was now required was someone with a military-like background who was capable of planning and executing a strategy that took into account the lay of the land and the size and inexperience of our group. The only kid in our group who fit that description was Tommy.
Tommy was the closest thing to a military strategist in our little group of friends. He wasn’t a great military leader like Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, to be sure, and he was nowhere close to General George Patton. Heck, he wasn’t even a Corporal Agarn from F Troop, for that matter. Whenever we’d play games of war, Tommy liked to use words like “ambush”, “reconnoiter”, “flank”, and “camouflage”. The rest of us boys were pretty impressed at first that he knew and used such big words, even though we had no clue what they meant. It finally occurred to us around the thirty-fourth time we heard him shout “Suppressing fire! Lay it on ‘em, boys!” that Tommy was more than a little full of it. We finally learned that his vast knowledge of all things war-related came from watching old World War II movies with his dad.
Monster movies were my bailiwick at the time and Channel 4 out of Bloomington/Indianapolis was the main source of late night horror entertainment. At school my friends and I all looked forward to Friday night, mostly because we could stay up past our bedtimes, but also because of Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater. While I really enjoyed the old horror movies presented by Sammy, it was the science fiction based horror films presented on Saturday nights that I truly loved. King Kong, Godzilla, Them!, and several other classic monster movies were aired late at night every Saturday. My old friend Brad and I would watch them whenever our families got together. We had seen some of them so many times that we could recite the dialogue seconds before the characters did. We never tired of them, though, and were just as scared the thirty-fourth time we saw Godzilla tear through Tokyo as we were the first time.
If it had been monsters that kept us from getting to the nudists’ house I would have been the man for the job. Is King Kong in our way? Get some sleeping gas grenades to knock him out or a beautiful blonde woman to draw his attention. Godzilla? Find an Oxygen Destroyer and throw it into the White River while the monster sleeps. Can’t find one? Forget the nudists and run like hell! Giant mutated ants? Shoot the antennae! Shoot the antennae! Sadly, it wasn’t monsters blocking our path, so my knowledge of how to defeat them went to waste.
Tommy took his knowledge of reconnaissance and of the terrain of the woods and devised a plan. He led us on a circuitous path from Dennis’ backyard, leading us along the river through the woods until we were directly behind the new house beside the nudists. He then blazed a trail directly to the new house, stopping a few feet short of the edge of the woods. It occurred to me that we could have reached our current position if we had just crossed the empty lot between Dennis’ house and this new one. I gave a look to the other fellows that suggested this. They just shrugged their shoulders in agreement.
Tommy signaled for us to stay put as he crept forward through the deadfalls and overgrown brush to find a better vantage point. He came to a dead stop and jerked his head as if he had heard something. The rest of us waited breathlessly until he continued on a few more feet. He stopped again, waited a few seconds, then signaled for two of us to come forward. Johnny and his younger brother Joey went first.
Johnny was a year older than Tommy and me and, by most accounts, was a big kid for his age. He was brash, loud, and considered himself to be a badass. He wasn’t used to taking orders from others, especially from someone like Tommy. Joey was two years younger than Johnny. He was more mild-mannered than his older brother and not nearly as loud and therefore was the easier of the two to get along with. Like many brothers, they loved and defended each other to a fault but would fight each other at the drop of a hat. Joey’s temper, vis-à-vis his older brother, had an incredibly short fuse and his older brother was more than happy to ignite it.
Johnny led the way through the brush, forgoing the stealth that Tommy had shown. He tromped through like he did in everything else in life. It seemed as if he sought out and stepped on every stick and dry leaf in the woods to get to Tommy. In the meantime, Joey followed his brother doing his best to keep as quiet as possible. Johnny showed no care in ducking beneath the low-lying limbs of the younger trees and brush. He was pushing them out of his way and carelessly letting them swing back behind him. It only took two snapping sticks and one limb slapping him in the face to light Joey’s fuse.
“Damn it, Johnny! You’re doing that on purpose!” Joey shouted in obvious anger.
“Shhhh! Would you be quiet! What are you talking about?” Johnny shot back in an unusually hushed tone for him. Johnny was a master at playing with his brother’s emotions. I had seen Johnny play his younger brother like this dozens of times by now. Sometimes it was a joy to watch. Now though, just a few feet from getting a peek at the inner sanctum of the nudists was not one of those times.
“You know damn well what I’m talking about!” Joey wasn’t lowering his voice for a second. “You do this kind of crap all the time, you jackass!”
Johnny was barely trying to conceal the devilish grin on his face as he told his younger sibling to shut the hell up and keep moving. He then let another limb swing back to connect with Joey’s forehead. Tommy was up ahead shushing the two of them as Joey unleashed another tirade at Johnny, who was again snapping as many sticks as he could find. The sound they created was deafening compared to the hush of the woods.
I was still at the rear of the group awaiting my turn with my face buried in the palm of my hand and shaking my head back and forth, all the while wondering why I hitched my wagon to this particular star.
When the two brothers reached Tommy’s location they proceeded to get into a pushing and shoving match that threatened to blow the entire operation. Tommy was trying his hardest to quiet them down, but it was to no avail. We had all been witness to these two going at each other like this several times before and had learned long ago that trying to stop them meant having them both coming down on our own heads. The only thing we had ever seen that could end one of their fights before it ended bloodily for one of them was their mom’s intervention.
Until, that is, we heard the swooshing sound of a patio door sliding open.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Johnny and Joey were pushing and shoving for what seemed like an eternity until we all heard the nudists’ patio door sliding open and closed. As one, we all ducked down into the brush for cover. Daring not to make a noise, we sat there straining to hear what was happening inside the privacy fence. First there was what sounded like a glass being placed on a glass table top followed by the sliding of a chair on the patio. The chair was scooted a couple of inches, presumably closer to the table. I was going crazy from my rearward position. My breathing sounded as loud as my Granddad McCord’s John Deere tractor up on the farm. I held my breath to keep from giving up my presence.
We heard the glass on the table top a few more times before the chair scooted back and the patio door opened and closed once more. By some miracle, Johnny and Joey remained quiet like I prayed for them to. After a few minutes of silence from the nudists’ patio we were satisfied that whoever had come outside was now inside for the time being. I carefully made my way up to the other guys.
“What do you think?” I asked Tommy in a whisper. “Should we keep going?” This was, in truth, a rhetorical question. With or without these guys, I was going to reach that privacy fence one way or another. The thought that a woman like Miss December 1971 could have been sitting in a naked state on the other side of that fence while sipping ice cold lemonade from a glass covered with condensation that was dripping onto her… her…. oh, boy.
Tommy’s reticence wasn’t very encouraging. “I don’t know. Whoever that was could still be out there. Or they could have gone inside for just a minute. Or there could have been two of them and only one went back inside,” he tried to reason. “Or…”
“’Or’ nothin’,” I spat back. “We might never get another shot like this one and I’m takin’ it.” I turned to Johnny and Joey. “You guys with me?”
Joey was shaking his head before I could finish the question. Johnny, on the other hand, was as eager as I was, maybe even more eager. I wondered in silence who his Miss December was. It didn’t really matter. There was no way, no way at all, that she could compare to my Karen.
“Let’s go,” I said to Johnny, motioning towards the privacy fence with my head.
Tommy made one last ditch effort to regain the leadership of our little group.
“Guys, wait. I suggest a strategic withdrawal. Retreat in this situation is not dishonorable.”
I was beyond ready to shove the military jargon back down his throat. Looking Tommy square in the eyes I told him, in no uncertain terms, “Bull. Shit.” I found that separating the word into two parts gave it the added emphasis needed in this situation. With that, Johnny and I turned and continued on to the privacy fence, leaving Tommy and Joey to cower in the brush.
Whether it was the thrill of discovery or the fear of being caught, I never learned, but Johnny was now unusually quiet and cautious as we crept towards the fence, stopping every two or three feet to get a sense of whether it was wise to continue with this course of action. It took us about ten minutes of this stop-and-go movement to finally reach our destination. We now found ourselves crouched right behind the privacy fence in what we believed was a position that was directly in line with the patio door. We were mere moments from becoming legendary figures in our neighborhood.
The first thing we picked up on was the faint sound of water. We simultaneously recognized what it sounded like and mouthed the words to each other – “Swimming pool.” Bug-eyed with anticipation we frantically sought a way to see inside the fence.
Our initial efforts were concentrated on looking for a space between the boards that was wide enough to look through. Unlike the so-called privacy fences at the duplexes – those “privacy” fences were about as effective as a screen door on a submarine – this fence was built for real privacy. We couldn’t see anything through it, not even a ray of sunshine. We looked to the top of the fence which was way out of reach for either one of us. I realized that the top of the fence was further out of reach than it should have been so I looked down at the bottom of the fence and saw that our feet were a few inches below the base.
A quick survey of the area showed that the back edge of the fence reached all the way to the point where the property dropped off towards the river and we were standing a few inches down the hill. It also revealed a small patch of sunshine a few feet down on our left flank. I looked back at Tommy and silently cursed him for intruding upon my thoughts.
I tapped Johnny on the shoulder and pointed to the small patch of light. I slowly moved to the patch and then lowered myself down to my belly. Johnny followed suit. Lying there parallel to the fence, we were sharing the one-foot space under the fence to see what we could see.
The view was dominated by the slab of the patio. In the small sliver of space between the patio and the bottom of the fence we could see what must have been the edge of the swimming pool, a few inches of the legs of the table, and the same for a few chairs. Beyond the table legs we could see the bottom of the patio door and naught but darkness inside. It wasn’t much, but it was our first look at what life might be like for the nudists. We nodded to one another and gave each other a satisfactory grin, a grin that was quickly cut short by the sound of the patio door sliding open again.
We looked under the fence again, trying to bury our heads in the dirt to get a better look. My eyes were darting back and forth, scanning what I could see of the patio. We could hear someone walking around the patio, stopping for a second or two in a few spots. The anticipation of the moment was killing me. My pulse was racing. There were more footfalls until they came to a stop right at the space we were looking at. My heart nearly burst out of my chest as we were now nearly eye-to-toe with a bare right foot.
Johnny clamped his hand over his mouth to suppress a barely audible whimper. I hid my eyes as if that would prevent me from being caught. We could hear the sound of the person watering a plant. I risked being spotted and looked through the space once more, just in time to see the foot move on to the next plant. A minute later we saw a pair of shapely bare calves enter the house again through the patio door. It wasn’t conclusive evidence that she was nude, but it was enough to believe that she was.
Johnny and I were stunned. We sat up and leaned back against the fence as we tried to calm down and catch our breath. “Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod,” was all I could get out. Johnny was once again uncharacteristically silent. Tommy and Joey were down the tree line going crazy, pleading for us to tell them what had just happened. Their curiosity got the best of them. They threw caution to the wind and came crashing through the trees and brush to join us behind the fence.
“What happened? What happened?” Tommy pleaded.
“What did you see? Was it the woman? Was she naked?” Joey was always one to cut through the crap and get right to the point.
Johnny and I sat there in silent awe of what we had just witnessed. We agreed that we had just seen a pair of beautiful legs, at least from the knees down. We differed on whether or not this was proof positive that our neighbor was a nudist. Johnny was convinced of it. I, on the other hand, felt that she could have been wearing a shirt and shorts or a bathing suit. Joey and Tommy, after weighing the evidence, were equally split. Joey sided with his brother. Tommy agreed with me.
The four of us sat there quietly arguing the facts. It seemed that Johnny and Joey wouldn’t be persuaded until I hit them with the most profound thought of my young life: “You know in your heart-of-hearts that you don’t really know, but you’re too scared to admit it. You’d rather go on imagining that you know instead of learning the truth. And then when you reach your death bed you’ll finally realize you’ve been living a lie. Is that what you want? Not me, boy. Not me.”
Tommy, Johnny, and Joey looked at me with shocked looks on their faces. I had to admit that I, too, was more than a little surprised those words came out of mouth, surprised and a little bit proud of myself, too. My oratory was enough to sway Johnny. Joey remained unconvinced of the obvious truth. He was satisfied that the residents of that house were nudists and headed back to his bike to go home.
Tommy, Johnny, and I plotted our next move.