Pelham Bay Wilding 1957

Hunting was not great on this cloudy day as summer moved toward fall. The strong breeze had a chill to it for the first time and the leaves looked tired of it all and their trees ready to stand down after a long season of cleaning the air and supporting life. So we kept on moving. I was excited to be introducing a new friend to the wonders of this little known and slightly unusual world. Rory seemed to be keeping up and enjoying it. Maybe because of that, I decided to take him all the way to Pelham Bridge, a place I knew well. There was a stable where you could ride a horse, pay by the hour; where I rode recalcitrant and intractable old nags and an occasional crazy discarded race horse, a place where I knew odd characters from the Bronx: Puerto Ricans, blacks, drunks, rodeo riders. That was not something I wanted Rory to know about; it was too much, too seedy for a good boy, but it did give us a destination, just to get there and observe it from up on the embankment of the railroad tracks and then go back home since it was already getting into the afternoon and the days were shorter now.

Sharp rays of light broke through the clouds in the west as we got near our destination and could see the stable below and the corral and some riders moving their horses onto the bridal path. It was a group of two older boys and their girlfriends dressed in the punk gear of the time, the boys in leather jackets with lots of grease in their black hair combed back into duck tails and the girls in white synthetic jackets and curlers in their hair, scarves covering it all- typical Bronx teenagers with attitude, because the Bronx was tough and still is. Growing up there was not easy. Even in Pelham Manor we had to fight but in the Bronx it was scarier.

Since it was getting late we turned around, following the railroad tracks overlooking the bridle path. After a few minutes the riders overtook us below. We could see them but their attention was on their horses and the trail. For some unknown reason I put two pumps in my pellet gun- a harmless charge I thought- and, giggling stupidly, took aim at the rear end of the last horse, one being ridden by the trailing, gum chewing Bronx babe. My aim with that rifle was like Davy Crockett. I had so much experience with it and for such a long time. It would be impossible to miss and with only two pumps the pellet would just feel like a bee sting. But I was laughing so hard to myself that I did miss and the pellet hit the girl on her left arm, on her naugahyde jacket, thank God, but it made a big “whack” and she screamed and the tough guys saw us and charged.

train tracksThe long railroad embankment stretched for at least a mile forward before leveling out. On our side there was a large marsh of reeds, phragmites, those long graceful stems standing eight feet tall with wispy feathery ends blowing in the breeze. They were part of the giant marshes which surrounded New York in earlier times and became the Jersey Meadows a little farther south. Remnants still survived in certain places and this was one of them.

As they galloped up the bank I led the retreat in the opposite direction at the speed of light, down the incline and right into the marsh. It was wet and sticky. Rory lost a shoe. “Forget about it!” I said “Move”! We ran as far as we could and ducked down just as the riders reached the top of the embankment from their side. “Down,” I said. “Don’t move.” I was tough with him because I saw Rory was terrified and about to give himself up which I knew would be a very bad mistake. I knew more about the Bronx than he did. The horsemen were on top now looking down on us, scouring the landscape with their eyes. I was sure they couldn’t see us where we were if we just didn’t move. It was getting dark and I doubted they would have the presence of mind to follow our tracks. But I was wrong. I saw one of the guys gesture to the other and point to our trail where we had knocked down the reeds getting away. Then they were on their way down the embankment. They started into the marsh. Stopping a moment, they scanned the horizon again trying to get a glimpse of us. They were only thirty or forty yards away now and I prayed they would just give up and turn around. But they kept coming. I grabbed Rory and whispered “Don’t move!” I could see he was ready to bolt but I still felt that this was our best chance. We weren’t going to outrun the horses. The swamp right now was our friend. They guys moved into the reeds, following our trail, encouraging their horses forward.

Just as they were closing in and only twenty or thirty feet away and with us flat down in the muck, the sticky wet swampy marsh gave way under the weight of the horses and they sunk into it up to their bellies. Now I knew that we could get away from them on foot because we were both fast enough and because I knew every inch of the territory. As long as they didn’t see us, the hound seeing the hare, and as long as the marsh mud protected us, I felt they would turn back. Also they knew we had a rifle of some kind. I thought about that too but never had a chance to pump it up again, the seven pumps it would take to defend us. So we held our ground glued to the marsh. And it was a good thing. I could hear the leader talking as he pulled a pistol out of his jacket, “Those fuckin shit kids deserve to die.” And he aimed his pistol just above our heads and shot six times, the reports echoing across the marsh and the bullets zinging as they cut through the reeds. “Let’s go Frankie”, the other guy said. “The girls are waiting for us and we got to see about Janey’s arm.” “Fuck them anyway,” Frankie said. They turned around and struggled back over the embankment, this time leading their horses.

We didn’t move and waited a long time because I figured they might just hide and wait a while for us to expose ourselves, thinking we were out of danger. That’s what I would have done. It was almost dark when we got up from the mud shivering and then, crouching down, made our way through the marsh to the border where it meets the parkway, all the while stopping and checking for tracks to see if perhaps they might have circled around which could have been possible if they knew the territory. We were nervous until we crossed under the thruway and into the protection of Pelham Manor. I don’t remember that we said another word that day or even later about the incident and we had no more outings together. Rory stumbled home very muddy and missing a shoe and I headed to my house, in the back door, silently up the stairs, to the sanctuary of my attic room.