During the past couple of years I’ve noticed a trend on YouTube, adults playing games of hide and seek with each other. On the surface it seems like an utterly ridiculous thing for grown men and women to be doing, emblematic of a Millennial generation of Peter Pans. And while I admire the creativity of some of these videos (one group actually played it at the world’s largest trampoline park) they’re not exactly practical. Many take place in ten million dollar mansions and chain box stores, so unless you’re a millionaire or comfortable getting thrown out of your local Home Depot, you’ll have a hard time replicating the trend. Good luck finding anybody else to play with you either. I don’t know about you but if I tried to recruit my family and friends to play hide and seek, they would likely assume that I’ve been drinking again or am in desperate need of a psychiatrist. Despite all of this, I must tell you that I thoroughly enjoy these videos. As our world grows increasingly violent, bitter and cruel there is something almost irresistible about the notion that you can return to the games of youth and perhaps recapture a spirit, an energy that has been lost.
When I was a boy, my older brother Patrick was better than me at almost every conceivable game on God’s green earth. Whether it was him running over me in a pick up football game, outmaneuvering me on the Monopoly board or getting an absurd number of red shells in a row in Mario Kart, Pat always seemed to have my number. But, when it came to hide and seek, I ranked him. From an early age, I took to hiding like a duck to water. Whether I was playing or just trying to avoid going to church, I could be a sneaky little devil. For me there was no thrill like the heart pounding tension of footsteps approaching your position, or the immense satisfaction when they couldn’t find you. Sneaking around wasn’t just for fun though, it was also a necessity. Growing up in a house lined with creaky floorboards, I had to learn to be light on my feet. My bedroom was at the far end of the hallway on the second floor. In order to get to the bathroom at the opposite end I had to pass by my parent’s room.
Imagine if you will the Mulcahy household at 2a.m. on a Tuesday morning. A seven year old me has been awakened from his slumber with an immediate need to pee. Standing in my doorway I look down the hall, lit only by the amber glow of an ancient table lamp. The entire hallway is covered in well worn pink carpet. My parents’ door is cracked a quarter of the way open, and any loud noises will result in a very cross mom or dad. Naturally the creakiest boards are right in front of my door and concealed by the carpet. What follows is a carefully choreographed tip toe routine precisely measured by myself in the daylight hours. But inconceivably, a creak has moved and after a loud groan from the floor I remain frozen in place. Sweet Jesus I need to go, but I dare not move another inch until I am certain that I have not been discovered. After counting to one hundred I get moving again. It takes me five minutes but I successfully traverse the hall and find glorious relief in the tiled bathroom.
I was also under the tutelage of the greatest seeker a kid ever knew, my dog Clancy. He was an English Springer Spaniel, a born hunting dog who, despite his portly stature was remarkably fast, had a good memory and a legendary nose for food. Clancy and I used to play a game where I would toss half a biscuit down into the basement and run upstairs with the other half. After devouring the decoy Clancy would come thundering up the stairs in hot pursuit. My objective was to see how long I could hide before the dog located me and insisted I relinquish the treat. Clancy was a cleaver boy and it usually didn’t take very long. If I wanted to last more than thirty seconds I had to get smart about it. First lesson I learned was never use the same spot too often. There was a broom closet in the hallway I used to hide in all the time, so naturally Clancy started heading straight there. I also learned to control my breathing, even after running around because the dog’s sensitive ears would detect me if I was huffing and puffing. This enabled me to remain deathly quiet and keep from giving away my position.
The summer of 1996 proved to be one of the high water marks of my childhood. That summer our neighborhood held our first (and only) wiffleball world series, my brother and I putting aside our fierce sibling rivalry to defeat the Zabady brothers in six thrilling games. In August, my family would travel to Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore, a trip that would generate some of our most beloved and retold stories. The most vivid memories I have of that summer, however, are the nights I spent playing manhunt. For context, the game is basically a combination of tag and hide and seek, we just thought manhunt was a cooler sounding name. In the twilight hours, after dinner was finished the neighborhood kids would gather on my front steps. Because the front porch of my house was sizable and well lit it was always used as the safe zone. Whoever started as the seeker (or hunter if you will), would count to sixty while everyone else scattered into the darkness. Once time was up and the seeker went on the hunt, your sole objective became getting back to the safe zone before getting tagged. At the end of the round whoever got tagged or, if the hunter was good, the first person who got tagged was now it.
The game format presented a challenge for me, as I was a husky lad who wasn’t particularly fleet of foot. Meanwhile the rest of the neighborhood kids were almost uniformly athletic and fast. In order to avoid being perpetually it, I had to outwit and outlast my opponents. From my earlier experiences of sneaking to the bathroom and competing against my dog, I was well prepared. After the count had begun, one strategy I employed was to let the hunter hear me running in one direction, then take my shoes off and sneak in the opposite direction. Another tactic I used was shouting out and taunting the hunter, then swiftly moving to a pre-planned secondary location once their attention was drawn (and I was far advanced in my swearing so it wasn’t hard to goad my opponents, particularly my brother). Ultimately though, the spots you chose would make or break you.
I had a couple of principles when it came to this, the first being that you never picked a spot with only one way in or out. Hiding on either side of my house, for example, was a bad move as gates and natural impediments ensured that you’d be easily bottled up if spotted. You always needed to have an escape route, that’s why bushes and cars were particularly popular. The second principle was pick a location where you could maintain a visual on the hunter. I rarely if ever picked spots where I couldn’t see the hunter coming from a distance. It’s why I personally preferred the driveway of my neighbors the Casella’s. They had a sunken driveway lined by bushes and no motion activated flood light so it stayed dark. If discovered, I also had no less than least three different escape routes I could utilize. Most importantly, I had a clear visual of the hunter from across the street and always knew when they were coming my way.
My final principle was knowing my distances and who I was facing. The younger of the Zabady brothers, Chris, and my own brother were the two fastest runners on the block, so I’d need a considerable lead if I was to beat them back to the safe zone. When those two were the hunters I hid in preselected spots where I knew the exact distances I would need to be able to outrun them. As soon as they hit a calculated mark, I booked it for the safe zone. I once hid almost all the way down the block, by the old Douglas house. When Chris passed me and crested the street light some twenty yards away, I knew I had him and took off at full speed. He managed to close the gap to within an arm’s length but I beat him back dammit!
I wasn’t always successful though. My brother was armed with superior speed, familiarity and a ferocious desire to shut down his annoying little brother. He probably tagged me more than anybody else, so when I was able to outfox him I made sure to shout “Olly olly oxen free!” extra loud to taunt him further. Come to think of it, considering how fast we all ran to reach the safe zone, it is downright miraculous that nobody ever tripped and crashed into those concrete steps (I’m looking at you Patrick).
In writing this piece I’ve had so much come back to me. I’d almost forgotten how beautiful it was to see dozens and dozens of lightning bugs float gently in the air, like so many neon green snow flakes. Or how wonderful it was to take in that warm summer air, filled with the scent of flowers and lush greenery. The spike in your heartbeat as the hunter approached, the frenzy of the chase and the unbridled elation you felt when you safely made it back to base, these were some of the great thrills of my life. More importantly though, running around a darkened Douglas Place with the neighborhood kids I was doing something I loved, I was apart of something, and I was home. As fate would have it, the summer of 96′ was also when my mother’s cancer diagnosis changed everything, and doubt and darkness crept into my world for the first time. When I look back on that time now, for the briefest of moments I can close my eyes and smile, remembering that I wasn’t always a bitter and cynical person. There was trepidation and a fair amount of tears to be sure, but there was joy too, a sense of wonderment, an infectious laugh and a spice for life. I hope I can find that again someday.