Around us in air, water, land and fire, there are realms that for the most part go unseen by many. These strange and fascinating worlds exist beyond the fabric of our periphery, dwelling within the wilds of every race and culture, and revealed by the greatest unknown, to them with minds utterly open.
The Ridgewood stories began in 1970 when I was 13. Some were typed, others were handwritten, and all were compiled in several three-ring binders, then put away in storage after high school and forgotten until my mother telephoned one day in 2001, said she had cleared her attic and found a large box filled with items from my teenager years. Curious about its contents, I drove to her house and found a time capsule containing photographs, high school report cards, 45-rpm records, baseball cards, comic books, paperback novels, newspaper articles I’d written, pen and pencil drawings, and three-ring binders bulging with crudely composed stories from my high school years.
I spent weeks reading those stories, time traveling to make-believe worlds I’d forgotten about. My stories were episodes, almost a diary of events with my characters, told in sequence from day to day, month to month, and year to year. I grew with my characters and they grew with me through good and bad times, and everything between. My fictional world, which I named Ridgewood, became a second home until I graduated high school in 1975, quit writing, and concentrated on a career as a visual artist.
When I opened that box in 2001 and read again those once-upon-a-time tales, I knew I wanted to share them, which began a slow process of transferring thousands of pages to my personal computer and editing them to the books now called The Ridgewood Chronicles.
The day I created Leonard Campbell Stevens in 1970, I played no sports. I say this because I modeled him after myself and did not become active in sports until the following year. Until then, fishing and listening to Pittsburgh baseball games on my transistor radio were the only things close to being sports active for me. I fished to relax and have fun; so did Lenny, which is how we “met” in the first story I wrote.
Lenny’s first, middle and last names are a mix of my three names (although Leonard is a stretch of my middle one). His personality is mine as well as my two best friends at the time—the three of us buddies since fifth grade. We were outdoorsy and rugged, curious and adventurous. Where one liked to hunt, trap and fish, and the other liked trudging through fields and woods and collecting interesting looking bones and rocks, I observed and took mental notes for my stories.
Meeting Lenny, Dave and Amy … Again
I met Lenny on a pleasant sunny Sunday afternoon in September, sixty degrees and the blue sky mottled in places with clouds that looked like white cotton candy shreds. Church was over (for us both) and 13-year-old Lenny had just asked his parents for permission to go fishing at nearby East Myers Creek (now called Myers Creek). Like me, Lenny lived in a town of creeks and bridges, so he had his favorite fishing holes. I knew which one he planned going to, so I rode my bike and beat him there, then bobbed my fishing line beneath Cherry Street Bridge while I waited.
He gave me the once over after he slid down the embankment and entered the narrow strip of grassy underside below the steel bridge. I stood far enough away so I didn’t intrude on his favorite spot.
“Hey,” he said, friendly but with a note of suspicion.
I said it back, then left him alone until he had cast his hook and bait to the deep middle and a few cars had rumbled by overhead.
“Fish here often?” I asked when the disturbed dirt and dust had settled.
“Yeah.” He played his line. “Never seen you around before. Why’s that?”
I considered how to answer his question. “I’m visiting my grandparents,” I said after a moment. “They moved here recently from New Cambridge.” (New Cambridge is that city I mentioned before, twenty-nine miles north of Ridgewood, bigger than Ridgewood, and still under development inside my notebooks when Lenny and I met).
Lenny quickly caught three brook trout to my none (though I got a few nibbles), and he wrapped the fish in newspaper. Looking at the paper, I spotted an interesting news article on one of the pages. The parents of 16-year-old Laurie Burnett had received a ransom note earlier that week asking for $250,000 in exchange for the girl’s safe return. She had been last seen at a soccer game at New Cambridge High School and her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Timothy Burnett, became concerned when she did not return home after the game. The New Cambridge Police Department was notified and an investigation followed. No leads had been found.
“Wow,” I said, “wouldn’t it be cool if one of us found the kidnappers’ lair and foiled their plans? We would be heroes.”
“You watch too much TV,” Lenny said, handing me the other fish and picking up his pole and tackle box. We headed toward his house and made a stop at a Little League baseball field along the way. Lenny told me that his friend Dave Evans was playing first base for The New Gospel Church in a softball game sponsored by the Ridgewood Church Youth League. He pointed out Dave who waited to bat. He stood in the on-deck circle on the left side of the infield and swung a couple of bats. He wore a blue shirt and cap with NG sewn on them—white on the cap and solid blue on the shirt. The opposing team, The Nazarenes, wore red shirts and caps. And all the players wore blue jeans and tennis shoes.
I followed Lenny to the top row of the bleachers behind home plate and sat a few feet to the left of a very pretty girl. She had light brown hair tied up in ponies on either side of her full moon face, and she clapped her hands while she cheered for Dave’s team.
“Who’s winning?” I asked her kindly. There was no score on the scoreboard in center field.
She stopped cheering and addressed me with a cool look. Then, “Bottom of the seventh,” she said. “Nazarenes are up five to four.”
Lenny cleared his throat and introduced me to Dave’s twin sister Amy.
The pretty girl from my notebooks— Amy Elizabeth Evans—nodded at me but kept her look cool. Lenny began cheering for Dave’s team and I followed. I suspected New Gospel would come from behind and win. But stories have a way of writing themselves, so I sat back and watched with butterflies in my stomach.
Dave began the final half-inning by fouling a pitch from Nazarenes’ ace pitcher, Johnny Blake. According to Amy, Blake had thrown change-ups and heated fisticuff strikes all game long. I admired his determination to win, but it was Dave’s determination I admired more. Like most of his teammates that day, Dave had gone hitless against Blake’s fastball.
Dave fouled the second pitch, which cleared the backstop and practically landed in my lap. I gave the ball to Amy.
“For you, mademoiselle,” I said when I handed it to her.
She screwed up her nose, threw the ball back on the field, and then slid away from me, putting several feet of space between us.
I shrugged at Lenny and turned my attention back to the game. Dave’s team was animated inside the dugout at the third base side of the field, all calling for Dave to hit the ball. For a skinny guy, he had broad shoulders and muscular forearms. And if he had strong wrists, he had an excellent chance to clout a four-bagger and tie the game, which is what I hoped would happen.
But Johnny Blake’s next pitch dropped before it reached home plate. In his excitement to get a hit, Dave swung the kind of windmill swing that embarrasses even the professional ballplayers, and missed by the proverbial baseball mile. The ball scooted under the catcher and zipped straight toward the backstop. Dave, aware of his mistake, never hesitated. He raced to first base as the catcher caught up with the ball at the backstop and threw. The speedy Dave Evans beat the throw to first base by two strides.
I looked on surprised while at third base, Pastor Wilkins, who was coaching, yelled out a strategic plan to the next batter who headed toward home plate.
“Just make contact, Pauly,” Amy called out. To us, she said, “Pauly’s not very good, but he singled in a run in the fourth inning.”
“He should bunt,” I said, offering Amy and Lenny some of my baseball expertise gleaned from years of listening to baseball games on my transistor radio back home.
“Trying for the long ball,” Nazarenes’ third baseman yelled when Pauly stepped into the batter’s box. A few infielders snickered.
“Throw him the heat,” the shortstop said before he laughed and pounded at his glove.
Pauly hit the first pitch—wham, bam—into the third baseman’s poised and awaiting glove. In a matter of a second, he had lined out.
The next batter grounded into a quick double play: 6 to 4 to 3.
The teams met at home plate in a game ending ritual of slapping hands and saying “Good game.” Lenny stood and announced to Amy that he I had to go. “Tell Dave I’ll be out to see him in an hour.” Then he headed down the bleachers.
I looked over at Amy who had stood and was stretching the kinks out of her back.
“Nice meeting you,” I said, smiling.
She scowled at me and said, “Please go away.”
Despite her cutting dismissal, I kept smiling, even after she did a quick about-face and practically sprinted down the bleachers.
“Pleasure to meet you, anyway,” I said to her fleeing backside. Then, moments later, I, too, headed down the bleachers and caught up to Lenny.
We rode to his large Victorian house where he told me on his long, gabled front porch of his plan to ride his bike to Myers Ridge and look for gold dropped from Norman Myers’s mines years ago. Then, after we drank some freshly squeezed lemonade, he asked me to come along, to which I accepted eagerly.
So, with a sworn promise to Mrs. Stevens that we would stay out of the mines and return in two hours, we rode off in search of overlooked wealth.
Lenny brought along a coil of rope from the garage, and while we rode our bikes west to Myers Ridge, my thoughts churned with the notion of Lenny finding a gold nugget and being in the spotlight. So far, he lived a life overshadowed by his older sibling’s achievements. Susan and Clay Stevens were born 10 and 7 years earlier, respectively, and had moved away. Susan, who had been high school class president four years and class valedictorian, was a Pittsburgh elementary schoolteacher. Clay had been a high school champion football quarterback, a high scoring basketball shooting guard, and an ace baseball pitcher, and was now in the Army, drafted during the Vietnam War and already decorated with a Purple Heart for wounds received in action against the enemy and for meritorious performance of duty. He was now in Major League Baseball’s Triple-A league, pitching and playing ball in Indiana, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and a local hero once more, particularly to Lenny’s best friend Dave Evans, whom I would soon meet.
Myers Ridge was a woodsy hill at the western edge of Ridgewood, with a couple of dairy farms, many cow and horse pastures, and miles of secondary woods and brushy new-growth meadows caused by centuries of heavy tree cutting. Erosion was destroying the hill’s surface, and acid rain was washing out its insides, enlarging its tunnels and caves and making topside areas dangerous places to live because of cave-ins and sinkholes.
Lenny and I rode past many abandoned farms before we reached 30196 Ridge Road and a white and vintage two-story farmhouse (circa early 1900’s). The lanky boy from the softball game had changed into a solid white T-shirt. He waited for us at the foot of a long dirt driveway.
David Nicholas Evans was in the same grade at Ridgewood High as Lenny. Like Lenny’s brother, Dave enjoyed playing the three major sports—football, basketball, and baseball—for the Fighting Eagles. He had blue eyes, medium brown hair, and was almost a head taller than Lenny was. (Like me, he would grow to 6’ 2” by his senior year.) His complexion was tanned from being outdoors year round and he wore glasses like mine that often needed mending with tape or glue … like mine. We hit it off right away and headed off in search of riches. We rode abreast with me at the far right and Dave in the middle. He was humming an unfamiliar tune when we turned from the road onto what I can only describe as a cow path that meandered along a swampy outcropping at the eastern edge of Myers Ridge.
We left our bikes hidden in tall grass near Ridge Road and followed the path for almost a mile until we stood at the edge of a cliff. Twenty feet below us, water trickled from the hillside, fell and splattered on rock, and fell again to Myers Creek far below.
“If there’s gold,” Lenny said, “this will be a good place to look.”
Dave and I got busy with the rope Lenny had brought. I tied my end to a young hornbeam tree, a hardwood tree called ironwood by the locals, and Dave harnessed his end to Lenny. Then we helped lower him to where the water exited the side of Myers Ridge. I watched him dig around at the wet ground, pull up rocks, look at them closely, and toss them away. After ten minutes, the process became boring to watch, so I returned to the hornbeam tree to make sure my knot was holding. It was.
Past the tree where the ground turned swampy and muddy, I watched a red squirrel inspect the inedible raw leaves of a small patch of skunk cabbage, likely looking for the plants’ hard, pea-sized seeds to carry back to its nest. That is when Dave called me back.
We hoisted a grinning Lenny to us and he proudly displayed a three-inch chunk of bright yellow rock. It was cold and heavy when I held it.
“Think there’s more?” Dave asked. His eyes were wide as he looked at the gold, then down at the cliff and back at the gold.
Lenny shrugged and blew into his hands. “Should have brought gloves,” he said before taking the rock away from me.
“What are you gonna do with it?” Dave asked.
Lenny shrugged again. “Melt it, maybe, and make a bracelet for my mom. I’ve been reading up on how to make jewelry.”
“Tomorrow, let’s come back,” Dave said. “We can all bring harnesses and go down there and look for more gold.”
“Can’t,” Lenny said, frowning. “I have a dentist appointment after school. Besides, since it’s too dangerous to hang from the cliffs, a better place to look would be down below in Myers Creek.” The frown deepened. “But maybe not. The gold’s high density will have caused it to sink.”
“So we’ll need some way to go underwater and stay at the bottom and dig,” Dave said.
“Do you mean like scuba diving?” I asked, sensing danger. “Wouldn’t it be safer if we inspected some of the sinkholes up here?”
Dave’s eyes widened again, but not in a good way. “Are you crazy? Some of those caves are infested with rattlesnakes.”
“I’m not saying we go in the caves. I’m saying that the ground of the hole may reveal more gold. After all,” I puffed my chest, “virtually all the gold mankind has discovered is considered to have been deposited by meteorites which contained it. And since gold was found inside Myers Ridge, don’t you think there’d be more showing where the ground has broken away?”
“I don’t know,” Lenny said. “Sinkholes are as dangerous as the mines and caves. You never know when the ground is gonna collapse.”
“We could use your rope,” I suggested.
“Use your rope to hoist me down,” Dave said, tying it to his waist. Lenny and I lowered him down and watched him search the cliff side for several minutes. Then Lenny looked at his wristwatch.
“I gotta get home soon,” he said. “Do you wanna meet this weekend and dive Myers Creek?”
I agreed and he asked for my phone number. “I’ll call and we’ll discuss this further.”
“Not sure of the phone number,” I lied. “We got a new listing. But I’ll be in town this weekend.”
Dave hollered that he had found some gold. We pulled him up and he showed off a nugget smaller that Lenny’s piece but just as shiny. We left, the two boys grinning and Dave talking about us getting rich. Back at his driveway, we decided to meet at noon on Saturday at his dad’s farmhouse. The place belonged to Parker Evans, who had separated from Dave’s mom earlier that year. Parker and his wife, Elizabeth, would reconcile and separate several times until finally divorcing in 1974.
Meanwhile, back in 1970, Lenny left Dave the rope, we said goodbye at the farmhouse’s driveway, and Lenny and I headed south along Ridge Road, toward Russell Road that would lead us back to Ridgewood. We had gone more than a quarter-mile, perhaps 600 yards, when I spotted the flash of sunlight reflecting off the chrome of a green sedan off in a field to our left.
Lenny saw it too, so we stopped.
“That’s the road to one of the mines,” he said to me.
I knew the road was an abandoned one, hidden by a field of teasels, wild grasses and ragweed, having drawn it on one of my maps in my notebook a week ago. The grasses were indented where another vehicle had passed recently.
“My Spidey sense is tingling,” Lenny said. I chuckled at the comic book reference, and then stopped short when I saw a green sedan backing up and turning around. Lenny saw it too.
“Hit the deck,” he shouted. We dove for cover among daisy fleabane and a large clump of purple and yellow New England Astor. I pressed myself close to the ground and hoped the handlebar of my bike would go unnoticed by whoever was inside that car.
The driver stopped the car for nearly a minute when it reached Ridge Road. We were ten yards away and a horsefly had found the back of my sweaty neck. I clenched my jaw as it bit into my skin and sucked my blood. I waited no more than thirty seconds after the car pulled away to slap at the fly and rub at the welt it had left there.
When I raised my head and looked around, Lenny was scrambling his way down the overgrown road, heading toward the mine. I followed, groaning and moaning about the fly’s sting. I caught up to Lenny at the boarded up mouth of the cave. We pulled the boards away easily and broke our promise to Mrs. Stevens. We entered a musty smelling cavern that changed quickly to cool dampness and became darker the farther we went. We passed an old rail cart covered with burlap.
A thought came to me that we should look inside the cart. Then, as though he had read my mind, Lenny went to it and pulled away the empty burlap sacks.
We found 16-year-old Laurie Burnett bound and gagged inside.
Lenny and I rescued Laurie from the bad guys’ clutches. The police wound up catching the men after Laurie identified them as associates at her father’s bank. Lenny became the town hero, despite his broken promise to his mom, and I stayed away during that time so he could take all the glory. I returned a month later to see the bracelet he made for his mom by melting his chunk of gold from Myers Ridge. It was beautifully crafted for a 14-year-old.
He and Dave did go diving Myers Creek while I was absent, but they found no gold there. We talked about going back to the cliffs, but we never went. The ghosts of Myers Ridge had other plans for us.