The secret archives of boyhood projects

Bob Huber

You’ve probably never heard of the World War II coastal fortifications on Long Island known as the Marginal Line, built to keep the European forces of evil in check. Frankly, I hadn’t either until recently when secret archives of that great project were opened to me. What happened was…

Two patriots, Don and Bob, were boyhood pals growing up on Long Island, NY, when nails cost 8 cents a pound and windshield wipers petered out if you drove uphill with a heavy foot. They were typical kids in that their Depression-weary parents kicked them out each morning and overlooked their shenanigans until suppertime.

Hard to believe now, but back then Long Island was the boonies, complete with summer camps and retired gangsters posing as gentlemen farmers raising dahlias and vegetables on seven-acre plots. That particular spring Don and Bob built scrap wood forts all over the place as a buffer in case European wars snuck across the Atlantic.

Their fortifications weren’t very good. In fact they were little more than wobbly shacks. Chickens would have refused to live in them. But the boys built them everywhere, even in trees. If they’d thought of it, they’d have built them on water.

Then one day Don said, “I keep thinking we’re forgetting something. What is it?” Bob’s face lit up, and he said, “We don’t have a bomb shelter, do we?.”

It just so happened that a vacant piece of land overgrown with tall weeds squatted between their houses, and that’s where they dug. In quick order they carved out a cavern with a five-foot ceiling supported by stout studs and rafters.

Tall weeds hid their entry in case anyone got curious. I won’t go into detail about where the boys disposed of all the dirt they dug, but both their mothers, looking back, called that spring the Year of the Clogged Johns.

Then summer came to Long Island, and the boys put the bomb shelter in the backwater of their summer agenda, because their families went on vacation. Not until summer’s end did they think again of their project, and only then because when they arrived home they found the vacant lot barricaded and cluttered with policemen, construction workers, heavy machinery, and an odor of diesel fumes.

A cop told them, “Some construction company was clearing the land to build a house when their Caterpillar fell into a sink hole, and they can’t get it out.”

Sure enough, when Don and Bob took a look, a giant machine was jammed into their bomb shelter. It couldn’t get traction enough to maneuver out of the hole, and Bob said, “You think we ought to just run away from home or throw ourselves on the mercy of the court?”

“You nuts?” Don said. “They’ll send us up the river and throw away the key.”

So the two boys set up a Kool-Aid stand on the lip of the hole and covertly watched all day as a steam shovel struggled to free the Caterpillar. It took two days to free the machine, and when it was finally loaded onto a truck, the construction people accompanied by police and a neighborhood gallery went away, never to return, fearful of more alleged sink holes. All that was left of the bomb shelter was a hole in the ground, a few scraps of splintered wood, and an 83 cent profit from Kool-Aid sales.

Bob later went to the Merchant Marine Academy, retired as an engineer, and settled down in Portales. I won’t tell you his last name in case a few spare Axis spies are still around, but he sat across from me at lunch recently and recalled the incident. I asked, “Did they ever find out about you guys?”

“Not really,” Bob said, “but Dad cornered me one day and hinted plenty.”

“What did he say?”

“He wanted to know if I had anything to do with that hole, and I said, ‘What hole?’”

Then, according to Bob, his father nodded, a little smile on his face. Fathers had a way of doing that in those days having been young once themselves.

But when he spoke, he was all parent again. “Well, don’t get all wrapped up in some new project and forget about supper. Your mother fusses at me if you’re late.”

Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.