Like so many other kids my age, my mother told me “China is on the other side of the world.” From this I understood if you stick a pin in the ground in New York (a very long pin), it will emerge in China. Later, I realized the needle would more likely show up in Melbourne, Australia. That was the other side of the world. But, I was young and didn’t have a globe, so I believed “if we dig a really deep hole, we will be in China.”

I figured me and a few girlfriends digging together could be in China before you knew it. I had just read a book about Chinese children called “Lin Foo and Lin Ching, A Boy and Girl of China.” It was all about their difficult life living somewhere in the northern part of China (I never knew where because the book never said) along the Yangtze River. They were poor and had to haul water home from the river every day. I thought, if we dug hard, we might get there quickly and invite Foo and Ching to come to live in New York.


I corralled my girl friends — the other two girls who lived on the block — and suggested, it being summertime and our not being in school — that we should ask some neighbors (who had a filled in pool) if we could dig there. Just until we got to China. Of course.

They agreed immediately. How they managed to not laugh, I don’t know.

We went looking for digging implements. Everyone’s garage had gardening tools in it. All garages were free of cars. No one used a garage for a car. What a waste when there were so many other things that needed storage. Everyone found a shovel or a spade. Someone found a pickaxe that looked like a good implement for breaking up hard dirt or removing rocks.

Mind you, we knew nothing about how to use tools. Back in those days — 1950s — parents didn’t hover over their children they way the do today. We didn’t have cell phones or walkie-talkies. Once we had escaped from home, if you couldn’t hear your mother or father calling, you were free except you had to be home in time for dinner or before the streetlights came on. Otherwise? Your free time was free.


We began “The Great Dig” the following morning. By the end of the day, we didn’t seem to have dug very far. It looked more like we were hoeing the ground for a garden than digging a tunnel to China. We were also surprised at how little progress we made on days two, three, and four. Around day five, we were getting tired. Before quitting and going back to Monopoly or figuring out what you could do on the trapeze in Carol’s backyard, we decided to give it our last best try.

We’d already discerned that China was further than we thought. I decided to try out the pickaxe.

This was the first time I broke something in my back. This heavy pickaxe, probably not heavy by pickaxe standards (whatever they are), was not meant to be used by a little girl. I picked it up, and swung it backwards over my head. My back made an ugly, cracking noise.

I limped home. Several horseback rides (and falls) later, my back was ready for the surgeon, but that was another 11 years down life’s road.

The next day, we gave up digging. In the afternoon, there were thundershowers. We retreated to Mary’s front porch and pulled out the Monopoly board. I believe all the arithmetic I ever learned was by playing Monopoly. I can still recite the price per house, with any number of houses or a hotel on it. I also still know the mortgage price per property. When once in a while, we really play, I am always the Scottie.

That was summer in Queens, a piece of New York which was not yet citified. Flushing still had a couple of farms. We had a farm directly behind our house. A little one. They raised chickens. Down the street, they had geese who sometimes wandered around on their own, honking energetically as they walked up and down the sidewalks.

There was a horseback riding school two blocks away. I wanted desperately to take classes, but my mother wouldn’t spend the money. She was saving for my college education. That was another thing about the 1950s. Certainly among the girls I knew, we were expected to go to college. Our mothers and fathers had not gone, so we were the ones on whom expectations were placed. We would be going to college and we would have all the advantages our parents didn’t.

We are also the first generation of Americans to earn less than their parents earned. College was a great idea and I’m glad I went, but it wasn’t the life-changing, career-building experience I expected. I needed college, though. Not for the coursework, but for the discipline of writing papers and turning them in on time. I needed to learn how to do research, create indexes, footnotes, and glossaries. I didn’t learn anything which specifically addressed my future as a technical writer and other kinds of writing, pretty much everything I experienced became part of my writing — one way or the other.

Three little girls on their way to China

Back to the big Chinse dig. While I was reading a novel, she and her hero found themselves in a tunnel he had dug. In Alaska. Near the North Pole. She looks at the tunnel and says “Ah, the tunnel to China. I know it well.”

And suddenly, my Chinese Tunnel digging days came back to me. I remembered the pickaxe, the old stone garden that had been a pool. Not a swimming pool. Maybe a Koi pond.

I remembered it was great to be young and completely free for a few hours on a warm summer afternoon. When we were young.

Categories: #Photography, Anecdote, Childhood, old photograph

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29 replies

  1. We were free range kids also. When you heard your mother calling you for dinner or the street lights came on, it was time to go home.
    I remember digging to get to the bedrock which was supposed to be pure marble! LOL kids.


  2. I’m in the large camp of folks who wanted to dig to China. I was also always on the lookout for kids from China digging through to me.


  3. Oh, how this took me back! Not to Queens in the 1950s but to a west London suburb in the early 1960s. We too ‘played out’ all day with friends, trusted to come home for dinner but otherwise free to make our own fun 🙂 But in our case we were told that if we dug far enough we would reach Australia, not China. I must have been a sceptical child, because I looked at a globe and quickly realised that I didn’t have the digging power to get that far, so never tried 😆


    • No one had a globe at that point. When I got one later I considered Australia but doubted I was up to 20,000 miles (give or take a few hundred miles) of digging. But at 7, it seemed like a GREAT idea.


  4. My parents also told me that China was on the other side of the world. They told me, as well, to eat everything on my dinner plate because children in China were starving. That never made sense to me at the time because I didn’t understand how eating everything on my plate would help starving children in China. I figured that if I didn’t eat everything on my plate, giving my leftovers to children in China would be more helpful. But since my parents said it, I figured it must be true.


    • I am sure that EVERY child in the U.S. was told to eat their food because children were starving and EVERY SINGLE KID asked if we could just pack up the mashed potatoes and send them to wherever people were starving. I actually had a mental image of what my old mashed potatoes would look like after traveling around the world in an envelope. I’m sure this was proof that we were born to think. Maybe that was the first time we realized that maybe our parents weren’t always right.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember getting the same idea about Romans. I read a book at school about them and when I found an old brick in the garden I somehow thought it might be a part of a Roman house and that if I dug I could find it. That was probably the beginning of my interest in archeology. I was disappointed not to find it.


    • I kept a real interest in archaeology which was part of the reason I loved living in Israel. The country is a giant tor. You can dig literally anywhere and you’ll find something old, very old, really really old and wow, this is about as old as things get. Most of my little finds never made it back here. I had Roman and Greek coins, bits of pottery from around year zero (I still have one tiny piece hiding on a shelf), Roman glass. The harbor at Caesarea which was built as a Roman resort city had — in Roman times — a much bigger harbor as well as an aqueduct, but a storm pushed the beach back and the aqueduct collapsed, so the front of the harbor is full of all kinds of stuff.

      It turns out, just a LITTLE bit of digging is needed, but you have to dig in the right location 😀

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  6. I loved being transported back to the 1950’s on words flowing like yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. It was a memory I’d lost, but then I read the line in a book and realized “we ALL tried to dig to China.” What was great about the 50s — for everyone, every race, everywhere — was that we got to do what we wanted. We didn’t have parents hovering over us all the time. We didn’t have to call home every hour. We got some genuine freedom. Today’s kids don’t know what they are missing. Maybe kids who live in really rural areas get a taste of freedom?


  7. Marilyn, I just love your story! I am imagining what it was like to live in the 1950’s. The world was a much safer place back then, I’m sure!
    Kids had imagination! Nowadays they don’t seem to!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. How funny, I believed the very same thing too. China was just VERY far from our home and up to today I still don’t know what would be exactly opposite the Zurich region of Switzerland!!!!
    I winced about your ‘back story’ – if only one would know more ‘then’ – we would be more careful, or probably not….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly, the one thing that might be important in the story is that kids get injured while playing, whether it’s formal sports or just “doing stuff.” You can’t protect them all the time, but many parents don’t seem to realize that a high school football injury can last a lifetime. Even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal, if a kid say something hurts, it might be worth having someone take a look at it. I don’t know if that would have helped my back, unfortunately. Backs are fragile and hard to repair.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Ah, to be young and believe everything

    Liked by 1 person

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