I saw the other day that Google Earth had added a new feature that allows users to dig a virtual hole from any spot on earth and see where they would come out on the other side. This reminded me of a popular belief when we were kids that if you dug a hole straight through the earth, you’d end up in China. Somehow, this benighted idea included everyone and everything being upside down on the other side of the earth. Now, I don’t think we were especially stupid or even in the magical stage of cognitive development, but a few minutes with a globe and recall of the facts of gravity would have shown us just how dumb these ideas were. And we weren’t little kids at the time. I remember being about ten years old and thinking this.
For the record, if we were to dig straight through the earth from this location, we’d end up in the ocean somewhere south-south-west of Australia. To come up in China, you’d have to start in Argentina. Not that we let facts get in our way.
One of our favorite places to play was a large vacant lot a couple of houses down from my house. We met there and played all kinds of games, mostly involving throwing things at each other. And of course at some point we decided to dig to China. This quest was made more difficult since none of us had a shovel and had no chance of borrowing one from a tool shed and carrying it down the street for several blocks. Kids couldn’t get away with anything in those days. If our parents didn’t see us, a neighbor would, and come out, take the shovel away and tell our parents we were up to no good. When we got home, our parents would grill us about why we had a shovel and what we were going to do with it. The conversation would go something like this:
Parent: Mrs. Smith said she saw you walking down the street with a shovel this afternoon.
Kid: (under breath) Well, she’s a nosy old bat, isn’t she?
Parent: Excuse me?
Kid: I said, it was just like that…
Parent: What were you going to do with a shovel?
Kid: Dig a hole.
Kid: (under breath) We wanted to dig down to China.
Parent: Well, since you have so much energy, you can dig the weeds in the garden…
So, knowing how this would play out, we were reduced to using a couple of old serving spoons we had found for our excavation. We started digging in the rock hard clay soil characteristic of this area under a blazing sun and actually worked for a couple of hours. By that time we had a hole about a foot and a half in diameter and six inches deep. I thought it was quite an accomplishment for a couple of kids with spoons. By then it was time to eat, and somehow we never got back to our hole to China.
I’m sure there were other absurd beliefs that we cherished, but about the only other one I can recall is the idea that, given the right kind of cape, I could fly like Superman. I adopted the usual expedient of tying a bath towel around my neck and jumping off the front porch. I didn’t achieve anything near flight. I was discouraged from this feat until I saw (on the back of a carrot bag, strangely enough) an ad for a “real flying cape.” This was apparently before the days of truth in advertising. I sent off my quarter and a few weeks later received in the mail a cape made of thin plastic that would have been red if it had been thick enough. I gleefully tied it around my neck and climbed to the top of our shed in the back yard. Flight was just an instant away. I could fly to China! No need to put all that effort into digging! I took a deep breath and launched myself into the air and landed on my feet with a thud. It really hurt and although I was on the short side to begin with, I was even shorter after my jump. I threw the cape down in disgust and gave up on the idea of trying to fly that way.
Maybe we as kids had a kind of underlying interest in other cultures and took China as someplace exotic and different. We were fed a steady diet of adventure stories—tales about Admiral Byrd and Charles Lindberg and Chuck Yeager—and I believe we saw going to China as an adventure. I was thinking of digging to China the other day when it occurred to me that in this area we are surrounded by people from all over the world. So we don’t have to dig to China. China has come to us.