THE IRON KINGER
Several decades ago, throughout the Northeast, there grew towering groves of American Chestnut Trees. It was an era before the blight that almost doomed the species to extinction. These noble hardwoods rose sixty to seventy feet in the air, with large umbrella-like leafy canopies, that blocked out the sun and provided welcome patches of shade from the Summer heat.
One such grove of these magnificent Chestnut Trees grew in Cazenovia Park on the South side of Buffalo, New York. The trees grew right across the street from St. John the Evangelist Elementary School, where most of the kids from my neighborhood were interred for ten months of every year. We noted the coloring process, of the leaves, every day as Fall approached. We were watching the development of our chief source of ammo for the months-long “Kingers” Games that would occupy us into late November. The victors in these games would win bragging rights for the entire year. It was serious competition among the various bands of young boys from the surrounding neighborhoods of this small community. Billy Peterson and the Theresa Street Irregulars were particularly obnoxious rivals and we tried in every manner possible to best them in all such competitive endeavors.
During the Fall Season, these leafy giant Chestnut Trees would produce a thorny, egg-shaped, seed pod. It is brilliant green in color, and has milky white spikes all around its exterior. The thorns are very sharp. The chestnuts were formidable projectiles when directed at a human target by mischievous rascals . But, that was only a secondary value. Inside the pod was the treasure that we were really after.
Securing these green, spiky, projectiles was no simple task. We were of course in competition with those pesky squ
irrels, who were laying the nuts in their nests as Winter stores. That, and the fact that the chestnuts hung from the branches, of these imposing wooden chestnut towers, far above us.
Resourceful as most children are, we fashioned a makeshift type of boomerang that could be thrown upward at the targets, knocking them loose from their branches and into our eager little hands. It seemed like we would do this for hours on end until darkness chased us in doors.
The real treat for us lay inside the pod. After you succeeded in prying open the thorny seed-pod and peeled back the inner membrane, there lay an egg -sized, mahogany chestnut that was smooth to the touch. It was rounded in shape, with an irregular, flat, white patch on its bottom. Some were larger and tougher than others. We examined them carefully, like jewelers looking for the perfect diamond. We then chose only the toughest and most resilient nuts for use.
The deep, chestnut-brown coloring is appealing to the eye and pleasant to the touch. More importantly, the nuts were the raw material for our “kingers” game. A nail would be driven through the smooth surface of the chestnut and a length of twine or a shoelace inserted through it. Then the string was knotted on either end of the nut, securing the nut in place.
The rules of the game consisted of using the chestnut on a string as a swinging projectile, that smashed into another such instrument held in the hands of your opponent. Each in turn, we would smash our favored nut into that of the challenger. Usually at about the fifth blow, one of the nuts would begin to crack open and then finally shatter completely against the surface of the harder nut, spraying its green fibrous innards all over the ground. The remaining nut was awarded a “Kinger” for each victory. A knot was tied on the upper portion of the shoelace, after every victory, to symbolize each “Kinger.” Those who were lucky enough to find a harder species of the chestnut, and thus be awarded several “Kingers,” were held in considerable admiration.
Like medieval knights in jousting matches, it was a source of great pride, and bragging rights for the neighborhood, for someone in your band to own a nut that had many “Kingers.” The much-knotted instrument was carried with reverence by the valiant combatant. It was a rosary-like, holy grail that others, from far away streets, would come to view in awed silence. Only the bravest or most fool hearty would dare issue a challenge to such a fearsome weapon as a multiple Kinger.
As the competition increased, and the perceived social status associated with it intensified, many of our gang, The Seneca Parkside Rangers, resorted to artificial means to strengthen
our chestnut lances. It became a particular imperative when faced with what was to become known as “The Iron Kinger.” The title was bestowed on an unusually resilient chestnut, owned by Billy Peterson from the next block over. He and his band were our chief rivals in the continuing battle for status in the crowded dead end streets surrounding St. John The Evangelist Elementary School.
Try as we might, all of our attempts at victory fell before the iron surface of Billy’s chestnut. Our first method, soaking the nut in vinegar, proved ineffective and shattered in just six blows against Eddie O’Gormans hardier nut. Then, a neighbor of Billy Peterson’s told my Mother that she had heard that Billy baked the nut in the oven to give it strength. So, we dutifully roasted a dozen nuts, in Mom’s oven, for over an hour. The cooked nuts looked tougher to us after this process and we were momentarily heartened.
Surging forth from my kitchen, the Rangers sought out our detested rival in Cazenovia Park and issued a ringing challenge for battle. Alas, the brittle surface of our chestnut shattered against the “Iron Kinger’ in seven blows. The jeers of the Theresa Street Irregulars rang in our ears for days afterward. We were at low ebb and facing the prospect of another year’s loss of youthful esteem..
Another confidential informant ( Billy’s Sister) told us that Billy froze the nut to give it strength. That sounded good enough, so we froze a dozen, of our dwindling supply, to challenge Billy’s iron kinger. With great fanfare we issued a formal challenge, delivered on a rock that we threw at the. Theresa Street Irregulars. It named Saturday , at High Noon, on home plate of the Softball Diamond in the Cazenovia Bowl, as the place of combat The formal challenge was accepted later that day, via a rock that the Theresa Street Irregulars threw back at us. The match was on.
For the remainder of the week there was a constant buzz, about the contest, among the various bands from the far streets bordering our neighborhood. Word of the contest, on Saturday, had spread all of the way over to the next Parish. There was much apprehension on our part as to the outcome. In school, Billy Peterson just smiled that “Billy smile” of his and was as unflappable as ever. He always looked like he knew something that we didn’t.
On the day of the appointed match, we took our treasured chestnuts from the freezer and fashioned a mighty weapon that we hoped would finally bring the Iron Kinger to an end. We marched confidently over to the Cazenovia Park Bowl and readied for battle. Billy’s band was there waiting for us. And so were a hundred or so other kids from all of the surrounding streets. It was to be the match of the century.
With great solemnity we met and prepared for combat. As the challenger, we were awarded the first blow. With a mighty swing and a short curved arc, our chestnut crashed into the iron kinger with, what seemed to us, a killing force. Alas, It left but a scratch on Billy’s Kinger. Billy’s first blow was respectable, though not fatal. It made a noticeable dent in our chestnut. It was then I realized that we were in for it. We kept trying valiantly, blow after blow to shatter the “Iron Kinger.” Except for a few scratches, the iron chestnut lived up to its name. As the battle wore on, we could see our frozen nut succumbing to the Iron Kinger. Our mighty frozen chestnut finally shattered, amidst loud “oohs” and “ahs” from the many excited spectators, on the twelfth stroke. The victorious Theresa Street Irregulars jumped up and down shrieking victory chants at us and everyone. We walked away from the field, and the crowds, disconsolate at our loss. After that, we gave up all hope of ever defeating the Iron Kinger that year.
At School on Monday, Billy was most gracious in victory. He told us we had put up a good fight. He again looked like he knew something that we didn’t. But, we knew and he knew that we were the losers and would forfeit bragging rights, for the year to come. Then the challenges would begin again, when the next batch of shiny green missiles emerged from the trees during the following Fall. Try as we might, we were never able to pry the secret from Billy as to the source of the strength of his “ Iron Kinger.” Billy enjoyed his well-earned status for the remainder of the year.
The following summer, Billy’s parents moved to California and he took the secret with him. In the ensuing years, no other Kinger like Billy’s ever surfaced. The memory of Billy Peterson’s Iron Kinger was a much repeated story in the neighborhood, shared every Fall with newer players to the game. It became a rallying phrase for us when we needed to achieve the impossible. It caught on so well that several years worth of our local, little-league sports teams were known as “The Iron Kingers.” The legend grew, like all legends, until only a part of the fable had any ring of truth to it. Still, it was a good story.
It was many years later that I discovered, by accident, the secret of Billy Peterson’s “Iron kinger.” I was waiting for a plane in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, when the loud speaker asked if passenger William Peterson would check in at gate #34. It was the very gate that I was due to leave from. The name brought faint stirrings of memory to me from many years in the past.
Curiously, I looked up as a tall, broad-shouldered man, about my own age, reported to the ticket agent at the gate. I didn’t really recognize him until his face broke out in that broad “Billy Smile” that I remembered from so long ago. I approached him and introduced myself, asking somewhat hesitantly if he were the same Billy Peterson who had lived in Buffalo, New York so many years ago. He replied in the affirmative. It was indeed the same Billy. We shared a cup of coffee in the nearby Lounge and traded various family information and all other such data that is standard fare for two friends who had not seen each other in many years.
As we talked, the memory of the “Iron Kinger” rose in my mind and I asked Billy for the secret of his invincible Chestnut. He looked at me sort of surprised and a little guiltily, stating that he had not thought of the “Iron Kinger” in many years. I again prodded him as to the source of his nut’s unusual strength. Somewhat sheepishly, Billy said rather casually “Well actually, I sort of carved the nut from a piece of oak and stained it the color of chestnut brown. You couldn’t have beaten me unless you had one made of steel. The explanation hit me like a ton of feathers. I didn’t know what to say. All of those years looking for the source of strength behind the Iron Kinger. All of those boys telling and retelling the fable of the many contests won by the invincible chestnut. And it had all been a fraud. Our conversation, after that point, was awkward. I could tell that Billy was embarrassed over the incident, even after all these many years.
Luckily, Billy’s flight was called then and hurriedly we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. He smiled that “Billy smile” at me and waved goodbye as he walked down the jetway to his plane.
On the way home, in the air, I thought of the fable of “The Iron Kinger.” So many of us had been encouraged and sustained in our many endeavors by the example of invincibility portrayed by the Iron Kinger. And, it was all a sham. The match had been rigged.
A few days after I returned, a registered letter arrived at my home. It was a short note from Billy expressing his pleasure in seeing me again. Included in the note was a receipt for a very large donation to the Boys Clubs of America. The donor was listed as “The Iron Kinger Foundation.” It was a nice gesture on Billy’s part and it made me feel much better about him and the whole incident.
I never said anything, about our conversation, to those many comrades who gathered at the various reunions and social events emanating from friendships formed in that close knit community of South Buffalo. And when I overheard some fancifully exaggerated version of the “Iron Kinger” fable, I nodded my head and smiled like the rest.
Some stories just ought to be true regardless of the facts.