Acorns can make you blind…
I remember summers full of energising, no breeze, warmth and sunshine. Of lines of
vision distorted by heat vapours fooling our young minds that everything around us;
houses, cars, even people, were melting. Summers full of bugs and horse flies, of wasps and flying ants. Of ice cream van jingles and cold milk headaches. Of clean, vertical lines on dirty faces, forged by beads of running sweat. Of football in the park, bike rides on dirt tracks…and of acorn wars.
Our gang, your gang, one o’clock in the recreation ground..basic rules of war apply.
The recreation ground, or ‘the rec’ as we knew it, was a once utilised but now
abandoned sports facility consisting of an over grown soccer pitch, complete with
rusting, net-less goal posts and a dilapidated wooden pavilion that was no more than a large garden shed. The rec was flanked on all four sides by huge old tree’s, horse chestnuts, oaks, sycamores and silver birch. It was a flat grassy area that seemed to be forgotten by most, like a lost garden, but to us it was the perfect battle zone.
We turn up ten minutes early: the art of war. We ammo up, pockets bulging with the
inedible fruit of the mighty oak.
Leadership was never a foregone conclusion. We were a modern army and today was
Cookie didn’t carry the image or demeanor normally associated with leadership. He was the shortest in our gang, and the puniest. He had dirty blonde hair that seemed to be eternally greased flat to his scalp. He had a lazy eye and he wore round national health specs, the right hand lens covered in white plaster tape hiding his good eye in the hope of making his affected eye improve. He came from a long lineage of idle dole-ites. An alcoholic mother..a jailbird father. A family so rough even his grandmother had the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed across her fingers. Possibly one hand for tender kindness, the other for harsh punishments.
We didn’t care about any of this. We were a bunch of ten year olds and any sense of judgmental discrimination was yet to infiltrate and tarnish our innocent minds.
Cookie was one of us. Together we stand. He was susceptible to the cruel torments of bullies. An open target. A sitting duck. So we made it our duty to protect him, to fend off the verbal and, at times, physical attacks that some of the more fortunate and discriminatory savvy thought funny to bestow on him. He was one of us and todaywas Cookies day. Today he was Captain Cook.
He pointed out strategic positions behind tree's and bushes, and of course, the pavilion and ordered us there by name, and once positioned, there we waited for our foes to arrive.
The enemy showed up twenty minutes later, squeezing their way, as we had done, through the hole in the wire fence, a secret entrance known only to acorn warriors. We had done battle with this same gang a few times before, the tally of wins somewhere near equal. It was obvious since the last time we encountered them that they had done some recruiting. They were older than us by one year and had now moved on from junior to senior school. They had new faces..new warriors.
One year earlier they had been ‘cock’ of our school..the eldest kids there..and they had made the most of all the advantages that this position offers; stealing dinner money from the lower forms, ripping up school books of those they disliked, ritual beatings and intimidations of those that they knew would find it hard to fight back.
I recognized one of the new recruits as being a ring leader in these bullyings. He had a swirling mass of black curly hair which had earned him the nickname Mip Mop and soft youthful features that belied the cold and callous nature of his heart. He’d probably been an avid smoker since the age of six and, if rumours were true, he had been excluded from the last year of junior education after being found in possession of a hip flask containing Bells whiskey. He was a wrong ‘un.
Before his expulsion he had taken an unhealthy dislike towards Cookie. Whenever they happened upon each other or, for one reason or another, found themselves in the prescence of each other in the playground or a classroom, Mip Mop would always use the situation to intimidate Cookie as much as he could. A heavy punch to the back. A twisting of his arm. On one occasion Mip Mop, upon finding Cookie in the boys washroom, had kicked his victim for so long and so violently that Cookie’s legs, from ankles to knees were turned blue with bruising, something that was noticed by Mr Wainwright, the head of sport, during a PE class. Of course he had to act upon his findings and when the events that lead to Cookie’s injury’s came to light Mip Mop was given a caning - as was the way then - and detention, one hour after school for a whole week. He didn’t take to his punishment at all. He blamed Cookie for this infringement on his liberty and resented him even more because of it, a resentment that manifested itself on a number of occasions before his expulsion. Now here he was, recruited by the enemy, and he was up for war.
We gave them time to ammo up. All is fair in juvenile conflict. Once ready we set to battle.
There is no regimented format to Acorn Wars. No finesse in battle. Not even organized chaos. Just lots of screaming and shouting. Lots of running around, headless chicken-like. The sounds of acorns hitting tree’s or the ground, like being caught in an extraordinary downpour of hail stones. When they hit they hurt..slightly, and momentarily. Adrenaline is a great anaesthetic.
I took one to the left ear and it stung like a bee sting. I felt my ear go numb, felt it burn. I looked around trying to pick out the likely culprit. He had one hell of a throw whoever it might be, one hell of a swing, but there was no obvious candidate. There was no individual laughing or smirking with pride at such an effective shot. Nobody throwing a clenched fist victorious into the air. Just the usual melee that ensued in this kind of set to. Then I saw him, Mip Mop, still and statue like, half shielded behind the thick trunk of an oak tree. He had a dead pan expression on his face, yet his eyes were narrowed and focused..taking in the chaos before him..drifting over the protagonists involved as if singling out the next target..the next victim. His eyes locked on someone but with bodies rushing to and fro it was hard to make out who. Then something flashed in Mip Mop’s hand..something caught the reflection of sunlight as he drew his hand up and held it, eye level, in front of him. Something steely and almost horse shoe shaped but with a handle at the bottom that was enveloped in Mip Mop’s tight white fingers. A catapult, loaded, cocked and ready. I drew an imaginary line from Mip Mop’s aiming eye, across the centre of the catapult and over the small expanse of grass that separated us from them. I instantly saw Cookie who was standing twenty metres away, maybe taking a breather from the madness, maybe re-stocking his depleted ammo supply. I called to him but there was too much noise for him to hear. I shouted louder, started to run towards him but I was too late.
It was a clichéd moment of slow motion. Everything else around faded and fuzzed out of focus. The only clear images as my head flipped from one to the other and back again were Cookie, standing unaware, and Mip Mop and his catapult. Although I now realize it is impossible I could have sworn that I saw that acorn fly across the air, heading like an exocet, slow mode and freeze frame towards Cookie. I swear I heard the small chink of glass as the acorn smashed its way through the untaped lens of Cookie’s spectacles, and I know, because it has stayed with me for years, that I remember the dull silence that fell upon the recreation ground, a silence that seemed to last for an age but was surely only a split second before Cookie let out the most agonizing, haunting scream I have ever heard or ever want to hear again.
He fell to his knee’s, his hands cupped over the broken lens, blood dripping from the fingers on his shaking hands..and still he screamed. We stood there motionless, trancelike, in shock. Mip Mop had dropped his catapult and ran, disappearing almost unnoticed through the hole in the fence. I rushed over to Cookie and crouched beside him, wrapping my arms around him. I screamed an order to no-one in particular and two or three of our gang ran as fast as they could to Cookie’s house.
They returned five minutes later with Cookie’s mother. She was distraught, crying almost as much as Cookie himself, an emotion none of us had witnessed in her before. Her hard shell had cracked and she was at that moment destroyed. She took my place next to her son and grasped him in her arms, and there they huddled until fifteen minutes later an ambulance arrived, followed by a police car.
I don’t remember what I felt at that moment. Sadness? Anger? Guilt? I was too young to comprehend and it was so long ago. I do remember that most, if not all of us present began crying.
We all gave interviews to the police, each one not differing much to the next. Mip Mop was eventually caught and incarcerated in a home for young offenders. His mother, a single parent distraught and guilt ridden at her sons actions, herself became a victim of pointing fingers and accusations of bad parenting. Cookie was taken away to hospital that day and we never saw him again, although the mother of one of our lot said that shortly after the event she saw a removal van parked outside the council house where Cookie and his family lived.
We never played acorn wars again after that day.
Some years later I boarded a train for a six hour journey to the far south of England. I flicked through a newspaper I had bought for the trip and was suddenly frozen..transfixed and drawn to a story, or at least the picture that went with the story. He was older now, his soft youthful features replaced by a haggard, rough expression. But his eyes hadn't changed at all. Narrow slits focused on the camera that was used to take his mugshot. Mip Mop. Life imprisonment for the murder of a male pensioner..a mugging gone too far.
It seems not everybody present on that day learned from the experience. Not everybody.
Acorns can make you blind