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.
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.