Behind Enemy Lines – Exploring Resilience

April 28, 2016

Morning Zen ~ Scott Bryant-Comstock ~ 

It’s early, the sun not yet on the horizon, the blue mist of a morning promise in the air. It’s cold enough that my breath is making vapor plumes – not good for a 10-year-old commando on a mission. The elements of stealth and surprise are critical if this mission is to be successful. I’ve got to calm my breathing – the dash from across the street took the wind out of me. My destination is ten yards away, but those ten yards might as well be ten miles.

During the summer of my tenth year, most days were spent in front of the house with my neighborhood friends playing War – a game where we pretended to be soldiers, just like Sergeant Saunders from the television show Combat! We would choose sides and battle for hours, drawing up intricate attack plans, leading commando raids against other warriors, and terrorizing them with great delight. Then they would lead a charge against us, and we would battle fiercely, dying dramatic deaths, lying still for a few moments and then leaping up to engage in combat all over again. I spent many an afternoon crawling on my belly, reveling in great imaginary acts of heroism, as only a 10–year-old boy can.

Growing up in a neighborhood where the families living around us had money while we were living on stale bread and puffed rice, resulted in some unusual situations. For a 10-year-old boy, fitting in and feeling “normal” was important. So when a bill collector came to our house looking for money or a public-utility truck came to turn off service for lack of payment, it could ruin an otherwise great day – especially if I were standing in front of the house with my friends.

Some days, utility trucks might come down the street three or four times. Ducking for cover when they did make their way toward our house became an almost comical routine for me. As soon as one of the trucks appeared coming down our street I would make a beeline for the house, flinging open the back door and locking it behind me. Then, I would dash over to the kitchen window, heart racing, and watch for the arrival of the utility truck. If the truck stopped at our house, I would crouch under the kitchen window, stealing glances every once in a while, checking to see what was going on outside, feeling ashamed and knowing that I would not go back outside for the remainder of the day.

If the utility truck continued by the house, I would wait a few minutes and come back outside to rejoin the game. Someone would invariably yell, “Hey Comstock, where did you go? Jeeze, ya can’t just leave in the middle of war!” I’d make up some vague excuse and leap back into battle, Kids being kids, my seemingly bizarre actions would soon be forgotten, and the war would rage on.

Ten yards, that’s all I need. But there is movement in the house, and I’ve got to get under the window without being seen. Making my way out of my temporary hiding place behind the bushes, I inch my way across the lawn, flat on my belly, pushing in front of me the two empty milk jugs I have brought with me. My t-shirt and jeans are instantly soaked but its too late to turn back. My heart beats wildly with excitement. Looking up, I see someone’s shadow reflecting off of the drapes covering the window. I hear voices from inside the house. Darn, they’re up already. I hadn’t counted on that.

Now, it wasn’t too bad when the power company showed up to turn off the electricity, because the meter box was on the side of the house, out of view of the street. But the water company – oh, man, that was tough. The truck would pull up and park right next to the main, which was directly in front of our house. It always seemed like the guy would sit in the truck for an eternity before getting out. Once out, he would go to the back of the truck and pull out a long metal rod, about four feet in length, with a funny looking end on it, sort of like a cross. Slowly, he would saunter around the truck, tapping his rod on the ground, making his way over to the water main.

I’m pressed against the wall under the window, soaking wet, but thrilled just the same. I reach up to the spigot to disconnect the hose. Cold morning and cold hands – this is harder than I thought. I make two attempts to undo the connection but fail. My hand stings with pain each time I try to wrest loose the fitting, but I’ve got to get that hose off. On the third attempt, the hose loosens. Pulling my hand away from the spigot, I notice blood oozing from an inch long slice on my palm.

The guy from the water company was cool because he could remove the thick concrete plate that covered the water meter with ease. As if performing live theater, he would wait until the crowd of pre-adolescent boys had gathered around and then would remove the concrete cover. Everyone would press together to be able to see what lay beneath. I would even find myself straining to see from my private spot in the kitchen, peering through the window in the space created by moving the drapes to one side, ever so slightly.

With the hose fitting off the spigot, I bring the first milk jug up close to the opening and give the handle a full turn. The sound of the water running is deafening, or at least it appears that way to me, so I quickly turn it off. Maybe if I turn it on slowly. Much better. I hold the milk jug at a 45-degree angle and slowly fill it with water.

One jug filled and capped, working on the second. The gash on my hand stings from the cold. Lulled into a daydream about my “commando raid” and the “life-threatening shrapnel wound” I have received, the sound of hard rapping on the window above me jars me to my senses.

Hey there, what are you doing?” Oh jeez, it’s Mrs. Baber, and she looks pissed. “Hey, hey, stop that! What are you doing?”

Grabbing the two jugs, I stumble to my feet and run for it in an all-out sprint. Looking back while running across the lawn, I see water pouring from the spigot. I also see Mrs. Baber’s front door beginning to open. In my panic and haste, my feet tangle and I fall to the ground, losing my grip on one of the milk jugs. As I hit the ground, the jug slides across the lawn and into the bushes. For a split second time slows to a crawl as I lie flat on my back watching the water gurgling out of the jug at a dreamlike pace. The sound of Mrs. Baber’s voice yelling at me brings me back, and I realize I have to get away. I grab the remaining jug lying by my side, pull myself up and dash across the street, the sound of Mrs. Baber’s angry voice trailing in my ears. I fling open the gate to our side yard, scoot in and slam it shut. Leaning against the fence, safely back from behind enemy lines, I lower myself to the ground, letting out a long slow sigh of relief.

On those occasions when we had no running water in the house, it was my job to make sure there was at least enough for Mom to be able to freshen up before heading off to work in the morning. Asking neighbors for water or riding up to the gas station on my bike to fill up empty milk jugs was not a viable option – much too embarrassing. No, the best option was to raid the water supply of unsuspecting neighbors, several within a stone’s throw from our house. The predawn hours of early morning offered ideal conditions for such a raid. The street would be quiet, the air calm, and visibility muted at best. Perfect conditions for a 10-year-old commando on a secret mission behind enemy lines.

Quietly letting myself into the house, I tiptoe to Mom’s bathroom and fill the commode tank with the jug of water. The house is still, no one will be up for at least another 30 minutes. Time enough for one more raid.

Back outside I peer over the fence on the side of our house and see that Mrs. Baber has gone back inside. It’s too risky to try her house again. Bringing the milk jug up close to my chest I begin making my way down the street, darting from house to house, using my best commando skills to search for the perfect target. This time, I will not be seen.

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scottScott Bryant-Comstock
President & CEO
Children’s Mental Health Network


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