They were everywhere, begging the question: what do you do with them?
You could kick them, if you were wearing shoes. We ran barefoot.
You could throw them – but they were too heavy to catch. Actually they made fantastic bombs dropped from trees, if only they weren’t so awkward as you climbed.
You could pile them. Scouring the block as a pack, foraying against your parents’ rules into neighboring blocks to haul them in by the dozens, stacking them like cannonballs next to your palm-frond fort in a grand pyramidal arsenal – that was worth doing, once. The maintenance men took them all away.
You could line them across the street as a roadblock. That got you grounded.
So although they were ubiquitous, you basically ended up ignoring them.
Except that, every once in a while – maybe once a month, between scaling trees or running through sprinklers or playing guns, catching your breath until you all decided what to do next – somebody would lift one and give it a good shake. You could hear it sloshing around in there: the milk. Some had more than others; you never could tell until you picked one up.
And if it happened to be particularly sloshy, and if you happened to be particularly bored and out of ideas, you’d decide to open it.
Now, “milk” is a misnomer. Whoever named that cloudy seepage “milk” foisted a great hoax upon children worldwide, because the word holds secretive allure – the mystery of the invisible, magically accessible through a half hour’s work with hammer and screwdriver.
Raid the shed for the hardware. Sit cross-legged, coconut fast between your legs, fat end up. Pry off the stem cap. Wedge the flathead into the divot, aim the hammer – careful! – and whale away. A concentrated flurry of banging and knuckle-knocking begins to rip away a third of the fibrous husk, and then it’s a matter of prying and yanking with the hammer’s claws. The tough coarse strands give way, allowing the finer hairs of the inner shell to beckon for one final steel blow, a blow that breaks through to the pearl-white core within.
Shell chips and hairs will contaminate the loose milk, so swallow cautiously as you tilt the exposed husk against your lips, mindful to leave enough for your friends. It tastes bad – it always does – but, despite your grimace, they will all want a sip because each tastes bad in its own way (bland, tart, overtangy, stale), and you are all connoisseurs, unwilling to relinquish the hope that this one might taste right without experiencing the disappointment for yourselves.
There was something ritualistic about opening coconuts – some form of childhood know-how enacted among us that encapsulated the enduring hope of youth, the undaunted exploration of a world of possibilities that dropped like promises from coconut trees.
Then again, maybe it was just fun banging around with Dad’s tools.