“We are in this fight to win, and if you don’t mean it, or aren’t willing to give it everything you’ve got, get out and go home!” That was my brother’s opening speech and call to arms every summer at the beginning of the peach wars. These wars were the highlight of our summer months, and something all of the neighborhood kids anticipated with great enthusiasm each year.
I am not sure how everyone knew to show up, nor do I recall how sides were chosen. Being two years younger than my brother, I just followed his lead, and stayed by his side throughout the process. He was the natural leader who rallied us all together, created the plans and strategies, encouraged, disciplined, and led the troops into battle. He also was the one who would call it a day, and send us valiant warriors home at the end of our hot, sticky battles.
When one had a peach orchard for a backyard, and all the neighborhood children spent their summer days outside playing in heat that often was well over 100 degrees, it is not difficult to imagine the attraction the orchard held for them. It was cool and shady, delicious ripe fruit hung on every branch; and at harvest time, the most glorious wood crates were left stacked in neat piles throughout the entire orchard. The crates mysteriously appeared at the beginning of every harvest, and stayed until the picking was done. Everyday, new ones were added, until one morning, they would have vanished; the harvest complete, and the fruit pickers gone until next year. But during that time, after the workers were done in the early afternoon, the orchard and crates were ours. The wars would begin.
We started each afternoon battle by building a fort. My brother would have drawn up plans, and he directed us in the construction of our fruit fortress, which meant we stacked the crates at his bidding, and built a sturdy, durable defense against our opposing enemy. After the fort was completed, we gathered all the peaches we could from the orchard floor, and placed them inside. We never touched peaches still hanging on the trees; those were for the pickers. We only used the ones which had fallen to the ground; the smooshed, juicy, often rotten, sticky fruit that would be the missile we fired at the fort and soldiers inside, just a few feet away from us.
I am amazed at the civility exercised by all involved in those fruit skirmishes. No one threw a peach until each side’s fort was complete, and a good supply of peaches gathered and stacked inside. We worked hard and fast, and waited patiently until everyone was ready in both camps. After all the preparations were complete, my brother would politely ask if all was done. When the answer was affirmative, he would shout, “Let the peach wars begin!” And each of us would begin hurling rotten fruit at the other fort with all our might.
We would have to stand and look over the top of our fort to throw the sloppy ammo, and in so doing, exposed ourselves to incoming fruit. It actually hurt a lot to get smacked in the face or anywhere else, for that matter, because the pit still remained inside even the most decayed peach. If one did get hit, the only rule to which we adhered fervently, was no crying. We were soldiers, and brave ones at that. No. There was no crying. Ever. It just was not an option, even when it hurt a lot.
There was no set time limit for our battles. We all fought hard, throwing, hitting, and receiving with equal measure. And then we were done. At some arbitrary time of his choosing, my brother would hoist a blue bandanna he had tied to a long stick, and declare the day’s battle was over. He also would declare who the winner was. I never knew, nor thought to question, how he selected the winner. No one else did, either. We accepted his decision, and cheered for whichever team he chose; and interestingly, his choices always seemed fair and accurate.
Then, as quietly as they all showed up, the peach war kids wandered off toward their own homes, probably thinking about the victory just won or lost, and certainly, as in our case, strategizing how we were going to get into our house. We were covered from the top of our heads to the bottoms of our bare feet with peach pulp, fuzz, and gooey mud. There was no way our mother would let us inside if she saw us first.
Usually, she was in the kitchen preparing supper, and would hear and see us before we reached the back door. She knew we played out this war game every summer, yet not once did she forego expressing the horror and outrage at our appearance and the amount of work she would have to go through to get us and our clothes clean. My brother and I knew the price we would pay for the fun we just had, so he and I stood strong, shoulder to shoulder, and listened to her 100+ decibel harangue at the mess that was us.
After she was done verbalizing her displeasure, she picked up the garden hose, and squirted us one at a time to remove the peach residue. As she grumbled, we stood still, relishing the experience. It was cold water, but felt so good to have the valley heat of mid summer washed off of us along with the remains of our peach war. After the hosing off, we were allowed inside, one at a time, to shower and change clothes. For kids who had become a bit immune to our mother’s earsplitting approach to parenting, her scolding was not too high a price to pay for an afternoon’s play in the kingdom that was our orchard. And we definitely would repeat this scenario every day until the harvest was over.
A few years ago, I returned to my hometown. It was on the anniversary of my brother’s death that I revisited our old neighborhood, and walked down the alley that once was our childhood domain. The orchard had been removed years earlier, and industrial type buildings were in its place. Nothing remained of the haven of trees, fruit and dirt we knew so long ago. But, as I stood silently, remembering the joy we experienced there, and how fiercely we fought for our imaginary kingdom; I could perfectly recall my brother, his leadership, fairness, and will to take his warriors safely to victory. And I was certain, on the breeze of that autumn day, I heard a little boy shout, “Let the peach wars begin!”