The Washington Avenue Gang
1947 - 1950
by Russ Lancaster
When I refer to the Washington Avenue Gang, I do so in the context of a "gang of kids" as it was meant in the forties and fifties. The gang to me meant a group of kids like "Our Gang", "The Little Rascals" and "The Bowery Boys" like we saw in those old black and white movies back then.
And though we didn't necessarily refer to ourselves as "The Washington Avenue Gang", that is exactly what we were by nature if not by choice.
You already know the characters if you have read many of my other stories of growing up in that special area of Washington Avenue and its adjacent streets way back then. But, just in case, Ill try to mention most of them here again to refresh both your and my memory.
Kent Hicks was our leader. He was a year older than most of us. Donald Harris who lived over on Spring Street was another leader bowing only to Kent. Martin Brown who was big for his age back then was our enforcer. We eventually all grew to at least his size. David Lee Smith lived upstairs over Kent’s house and was a fighter and the best looking. George Glenn was the shortest and fastest of our group. Johnny Hamrick was our singer. Jimmy Pollard was our scientist. Mike Gray was our marbles champion. Jackie Booker was a fighter. Buck Tarlton lived over on Hamlet Avenue but often joined us and was our bully.
We had our girls too but they weren't really part of our gang, at least not when we were getting into trouble willingly or unwillingly. I wont name them here since they were not part of this story or the trouble and danger we got into.
Our first underground adventure was Kent Hicks’ idea. He decided one summer that we were going to dig a tunnel and underground clubhouse in the Washington Court Apartments area near Walter Milliken’s house. It was summer, school was out and we had time on our hands.
We began by digging straight down through the sand and clay watching the colors of the soil change from gray to red and yellow. Once we had the initial hole dug, we began to tunnel towards an area we would later carve out into a circular club room.
It took us about a week or two but we finished the project. The ceilings were shored with wood we found around the neighborhood.
We would enter the tunnel area and crawl in darkness smelling the damp sand and clay until we reached the circular clubhouse area. Once there, we had candles placed and kitchen matches to light them with.
There was enough room for about eight or so of us to sit and talk. We had comic books, a harmonica and other stuff for entertainment. But our main entertainment was just plain old boy talk.
We mistakenly thought the adults didn't know about our hideout. It wasn't easily visible to one not looking for it. My dad knew about it though and would soon let me know he knew.
One afternoon we decided to teach one another curse words we had heard somewhere, sometime. So, we took turns, each saying a word… the others repeating it and we would laugh each time. It was fun until the first hint of something wrong.
I felt sand falling from the ceiling on my hair and down the neck of my tee shirt. Someone was standing above ground right on top of our club house. I heard my dad call my name and knew I was in trouble.
I didn't answer right away but after the second calling of my name I slowly crawled out of the tunnel. My dad took me home and asked why I had been saying those awful words and laughing about them. I had no explanation. He didn't ask who else was in there with me but I suspect he knew.
He then explained to me why curse words were useless. He said they were a sign of ignorance. He told me that a person who could not express himself intelligently would resort to curse words to get a point across. It made sense to me and there was no punishment involved. I'm not going to say I never cursed again, but whenever I did or do, I remember that conversation and the ignorance I am showing.
My last trip into that tunnel that summer was a scary one. As I said, you had to first crawl through the dark tunnel part in order to reach the clubhouse where the candles were. One afternoon as I was making my way through there I bumped into something big and furry. I backed out as fast as I could and was followed by a big old stray dog who had found his way in there probably to cool himself off. I never went in the tunnel again, school soon started back up and we never made another one.
Our second underground adventure was probably more dangerous but also more exciting.
We used to come home from the Saturday matinees at the Hamlet Theater using a short cut through a field of brush and woods that lay between the Hamlet Hospital and the Sanitary Cleaners on Vance Street. There is no telling how dangerous that might have been considering the kudzu vines that covered most everything in that area.
One particular day, while using this shortcut, we came upon an open manhole cover there in the midst of nothing. There were iron steps leading down into a culvert of some sort. Kent suggested we go down there and see what was going on. He was our leader, we followed.
One by one we climbed down into the culvert and began the snaking walk to unknown places. There was just enough light filtering through each curve to allow us to see our way. We were walking in some kind of brackish water with a strange smell, that of disinfectant and other odors I didn't want to think about it and it didn't concern us at the time.
We walked for a long time, heads slightly hunched over to keep from bumping them on the top of the pipes until we found another manhole type opening. We climbed up and found ourselves near the railroad tracks at Raleigh Street.
Back down we went and continued our journey for a long time until we found the last opening. We were beneath the railroad bridge crossing Spring Street near the City Lake.
We got out and walked home talking about our strange discovery. But we never made that journey again. We should be thankful we got away with it the first time. It was probably a sewer system that ran from the Hospital down to wherever. That would explain the disinfectant smell as well as the other odors I didn't name. That we came out of there without some kind of disease or being hurt is probably some kind of miracle.
But, that's the sort of things we kids of those times did to pass the day. Of course we played "normal" games too but Kent’s adventurous side carried us to many strange places. I may write about some of them at a later date but the two underground shenanigans remain vivid in my mind.
Kent, Martin and the others may remember this incident or may not. If they do, they may remember them slightly differently than I do but that is the way things were to my knowledge.
I'm glad our parents were never told about the underground trip from Vance Street nearly to the City Lake. And I hope my kids never did such stupid things… It was truly dangerous.
But I remember all those guys from Washington Avenue and the way we stayed together for so long a time.
And most of all… I remember Hamlet
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
1 post • Page 1 of 1
Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest