Of all the things I’ve mentioned so far in this blog, there was no greater adventure than going Behind the Fence. It didn’t have any official name, it was just Behind the Fence. Everybody knew what that meant, at least in our little corner of southeast Patrick Henry Village.
Unfortunately, Behind the Fence doesn’t exist anymore. Taking a look at this google maps view, it has been replaced by two additional baseball diamonds just south of the one that existed even back in my day at the end of the 1970s/start of the 1980s. That building in the lower left, where South Gettysburg Avenue curves from north-south to east-west, is where I lived for the majority of my time in PHV, so we had prime access to Behind the Fence. Perhaps there are people from other parts of PHV who didn’t even know this area existed.
That view is shocking to me because of how small an area it actually is. I remember Behind the Fence being a vast wilderness with several different areas or ecosystems, and it was like going on safari each time you ventured in.
In layman’s terms, Behind the Fence was an undeveloped area of land wedged in between PHV and the A5 autobahn. It was separated from PHV by what I recall as a barbed-wire fence. The only current equivalent in PHV I can find by scrolling around the google map view is this section in the northeast corner. Perhaps kids today are exploring that small wooded section, probably without the approval of their parents just like we usually did.
Point of Entry
From our building directly across from the area, gaining access was a cinch. There was a particular tree right up against the fence which gave you something to hold onto while you negotiated the barbed wire. Those barbs never stopped us kids, although our parents may have wondered about a few unexplained rips and holes in our clothing sometimes.
Once you crossed the fence, you’d find yourself at the base of a long hill running north-south. It was mostly overgrown, but intermittently you would find dirt trails leading to the top. So after conquering the barbed wire, the second obstacle was to climb the hill.
The only thing I really remember about this side of the hill is that we seemed to find a lot of snails here, particularly during wet conditions. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, PHV was crawling with snails.
Once reaching the top of the hill, you’d find that it was flat and treeless. I think it was actually a maintenance road which was seldom if ever used, so it was overgrown with grass. This road gave you quick access to the north or south areas, but wasn’t as fun to navigate as the many foot trails criss-crossing the area. It also gave you a good vantage point to observe the field and the autobahn beyond. Given the road on top, I assume the hill probably started life as a man-made wall of dirt, perhaps from the construction of PHV, and had become overgrown in the years since.
One time we came out here with our dad and pitched a tent along this roadway and actually spent the night out there! I’m sure that was breaking some sort of law or ordinance, but we kids were oblivious to all that and just thought it was a grand adventure.
After climbing down the other side of the hill, you’d find yourself in a wide open area of tall grasses and weeds. They were taller than us kids, which meant that it didn’t feel wide open at all when you were venturing through it. There were trails crisscrossing the area; I don’t know if they were natural dirt areas, or animal paths, or created by all the PHV kids who ventured back here, but I recall using them to run through the tall stands of grass playing a sort of waterless Marco Polo game.
There was a foot path at the base of the hill, and it was known to pass through patches of the notorious Sting Weed. I don’t know if that’s really the plant’s name, but that’s what we called it. It carpeted the ground and had leaves that came to several sharp points. If you touched it, you’d get a stinging sensation and you’d have a rash-like bump which would last a few days. I’ve seen plants in the States which look exactly like my memory of Sting Weed, but they are harmless to the touch.
One day we were hiking this particular trail and, through horsing around, I ended up falling directly into a patch of Sting Weed. That put a quick end to our adventure that day. I remember the pain and want to say I was covered with this stinging rash from neck to foot, but it probably wasn’t that extreme. I remember my mom covering me in Calamine Lotion to try and ease the stinging, and we actually had dinner with neighbors that evening. I couldn’t really wear clothes because of all the lotion, so I went to the neighbors’ apartment in my yellow Big Bird bathrobe which I’d gotten when having my tonsils removed at the hospital in Heidelberg.
The other main memory I have of this field area is that there were a lot of large ant hills. There were red ants and black ants, depending on where within the field you looked. I remember one time another kid brought his dad’s shovel and scooped up an anthill of one color and dumped it on an anthill of another color, just so we could watch the red ants battle the black ants and see who was strongest. That sounds a little messed up to me now, but kids do crazy things.
I’m just remembering now that this area was also full of grasshoppers which we used to chase, and we’d freak out when one of them landed on us because their sticky feet just felt weird on your skin.
The North Wood
I don’t think we actually had a name for this area, and I think we ventured there less often because it was getting pretty deep into the wilderness at this point (and “deep” is clearly relative to your age and experience, if you recall how small this area actually is in the google view I linked at the top of this entry). This was an area of evergreen trees, and I distinctly remember the red-orange color of the ground due to the layer of pine needles covering everything.
A curiosity in this area were a couple small craters. At least, they looked like craters…they were perfectly circular and bowl-shaped and seemed oddly out of place. We used to run down one side and out the other. One of the other kids once said that they were bomb craters from World War II, and I took him at his word since at that age I really knew nothing about the war. I have since learned that Heidelberg surrendered peacefully to the Allies and was spared the bombing that devastated many German cities, so I’m not sure if the bomb crater theory holds water or not.
During one adventure through this area, we ventured down a trail between two tall bushes and found ourselves standing on the shoulder of the autobahn. Just a small strip of grass separated us from the cars zooming by. This surprised me because I didn’t realize how far we’d gone, but I didn’t have much time to take in the sights because there just happened to be a Polizei car parked right near the trail end, and two officers were on foot walking around the area!
I assume this was just coincidence, and that they didn’t actually get a report of kids wandering around near the highway. At any rate, my fight-or-flight response took over and opted for flight, so I turned and ran as fast as I could. My brother was actually on a parallel trail on the other side of the bush, so I yelled at him to run and he followed even though I don’t think he knew what we were running from at the time.
We flew through the field area and over the hill, which was not as tall in the northern area of Behind the Fence. We hopped over the barbed wire and found ourselves at one of the marble courts which were popular at the time (as I detailed in my first post for this blog). If you look back at the google map view of the area, this marble court would have been right about where you can see a small playground in a dark rectangle of soft ground material…in between the old baseball field in the north and the two newer ones to the south. The marble court would have been an irregular dirt area where the grass had been cleared away by legions of kids’ shoes as people played marbles there over the years. It may have been designated as a picnic area because there was a concrete picnic table right next to the dirt area; however, these picnic tables seemed to be deposited randomly all over PHV, so who knows.
We were in luck that day, because there was some heavy marble action happening…there was a crowd of probably 15 or 20 kids all gathered around to watch or participate in some game. We rushed to the picnic table and plopped down, and tried to act casual. No sooner had we done that, then the Polizei car appeared on South Gettysburg Avenue and screeched to a halt. The officers scanned the crowd of kids and watched the fence to try and catch the perpetrators as they emerged from the forbidden Behind the Fence area, but we’d been too fast for them. After a few minutes they drove off, and we were left to shake off the adrenalin from our brush with the law.
It actually would have been easier for us to escape them today than it was back then, because the entrances to PHV used to just be straight roads with a guardhouse, and I’m not even sure if the guardhouses were always manned. But apparently since the September 11 terrorism, security has been really beefed up at military bases and now the front entrance is a maze of speed-reducing curves which would have given us more time to scurry off.
The South Wood
This area, which butted up against the entrance/exit ramps at the southeast corner of PHV, was an entirely different biome than the aforementioned north woods. I recall it being very green and white, so I assume it was made up of deciduous trees instead of evergreens. In Germany I recall a lot of trees with white bark, similar to Aspens but without the requirement of being at high altitude. This is probably why I remember the color white. I think the ground was covered with moss or green grass.
The only real memory I have of this area is that we ventured there one time with our older neighbor who was decidedly more mischievous. He said it was a great area from which to throw rocks at the passing cars, and he proceeded to do so. I didn’t understand the impact at first, until I heard a thud and a screeching of tires as someone stopped to see what had happened to their car. This was another time when we fled Behind the Fence with all due haste, and I remember feeling a little horrified about the deed even at that age.
The Soccer Field
This wasn’t Behind the Fence, but I thought it was worth a mention since it was in the same general area. If you go back to the google maps view one more time, you’ll see that my old building has a small parking area on the south end which extends further back than the building itself. In my day, this was just a concrete slab ending where the building ends, where the metal dumpsters sat and where the coal truck could pull up to the small metal hatch (both of these things are described in my In-Depth post about a typical apartment building).
Back in the late 70s, there was a soccer field which extended roughly from the southern end of that apartment building toward the southwest, probably ending right about where that large square building begins — that large building didn’t exist back then. Besides playing soccer here, I also remember playing tee-ball or softball with a bunch of kids and parents. I’d only used wooden bats, but some other kid had a blue aluminum bat which he let me try. I remember smacking the ball with that bat and it going much farther than I could normally hit it. Somehow I ended up buying or trading that bat from him because to me as a 1st or 2nd grader it was just amazing, and I held onto it for many years. It may still be hiding somewhere in a box or closet.
I also recall us creating a strange obstacle course by taking the bottom of the goal net and throwing it up over the top of the goal, forming a sort of elevated, netting-walled tunnel. We used to challenge each other to try to navigate this cave from one end to the other, which is harder than it sounds when you’re really young and are still mastering the coordination of your own body.
One last memory of the soccer field is that I practiced learning to ride a bike here, borrowing one from a girl who lived in my building. I recall crashing into a goal post at one point and bending her handlebars, which of course she was furious about and is probably why this memory remains in my head.