Sunday, July 26, 2015

Circling Back

As a kid, you don't need much of a reason to be friends.  You're friends with whoever sits next to you in class, or because some kid's mom invites you to his birthday party, or because you live in the same neighborhood.

But even though there were other kids in our neighborhood, it was the three of us -- me and Chris and Chuck -- that stuck the closest.

Chris and I were only a year apart, occasional rivals but always friends.  We were Tom and Huck.  Our neighborhood surrounded by woods on three sides, the creek that ran by the sewage treatment plant our Mississippi.  (In fact, if you followed the creek long enough, it would eventually lead to the Tennessee, just on the west side of the Wheeler Dam.  We never followed it nearly that far, but we did try making a raft once.  Didn't float.)

And little Chuck, with his old man name and his shock of orange hair, a few years younger but always determined to keep up.  He was the little brother Chris and I never had, much to his chagrin I'm sure.  We picked on him mercilessly, but let anyone else try and they'd better be ready to fight.

We raced tricked out bikes around that sleepy circle, pretending they were motorcycles, Indy Cars, or the General Lee.  Played football in the empty lot, baseball with ghost men, and golf with tennis balls and utility poles for holes.  We were Joe Montana and Roger Staubach, Jack Nicklaus and Calvin Peete, Mario Andretti and Danny Sullivan.  (I was Roger, Jack, and Mario.)

We had Ataris, but almost always preferred to be outside with our imaginations.  "Red Dawn" and "The Day After" weren't just movies, but very real possibilities.  We practiced for war with pop guns, canteens, and pine cones for hand grenades.  The woods, creek, and the old rock crusher a Soviet battlefield.

We were gymnasts in the '84 Olympics, taking the swings off an old swing set, using the frame as a high bar and practicing our dismounts.  When we were thirsty, we drank water from a hose.  When we were hungry, we asked one of our moms or scrounged around someone's kitchen for cookies or a popsicle or, in especially desperate times, loaf bread.

Chris's boom box played Run DMC, New Edition, Midnight Star, and Prince & The Revolution.  And of course there was the time Chris's older sister (kinda cute, but bossy) said we should start a band and she would be our manager.  New Addition.  That was the name she came up with.  And with that, her career in talent management was over as quickly as it had begun.

Scarce was the tree we couldn't and didn't climb.  We made a thousand mudballs out of the red Alabama clay and threw them at each other, built forts out of pine straw, and used an old chicken coop as a clubhouse.  We got skinned up knees and stung by bees.  And sometimes we fought, but were always friends again by the end of the day or the next afternoon.

We heard (and repeated) cautionary tales about Mr. Sampson, the neighborhood peeping Tom who none of us had ever seen.  He was our Boo Radley.  And we steered clear of Crazy Alice. One day an ambulance was in her driveway and my parents said she had taken too many pills and then nobody lived in her house again for a long time.

Still, those never seemed like legitimate threats.  They were more like urban legends.  Stories that grew tall in the movies of a 12-year-old boy's imagination.

We picked apples from the tree in Doctor Thames backyard (without permission), and played in the playhouse that had belonged to his kids (with permission), by then all grown and moved away.  We traded baseball cards and turns riding Chris's go-kart around the circle.  Once I accidentally ran it off the road and into Mr. Sampson's yard.  I had never been so scared and never told a soul.

The world felt so much safer then.  Or maybe we were just naive.  We'd leave home and be gone for hours, our only instructions to be back in time for supper.   We rode our bikes to the sewage treatment plant, past where the paved road turned to gravel, far beyond the last house in the neighborhood.  I think about today and my nephews and how I'm afraid to even let them out of my sight.

We moved away from that neighborhood when I was 13 or 14.  Mom and Dad didn't have health insurance.  So when we had our car wreck, the bills from the resulting hospitalization and various surgeries made it so they couldn't afford the house anymore.

I remember being a little upset when we left, but of course I wasn't nearly able to grasp the gravity of it then.  We moved into a trailer across town.  Chris and Chuck came to visit a time or two, but it was never the same.

One day not too awfully long ago, I made a familiar turn beneath a blinking yellow caution light and drove back through the old neighborhood. I figured most of the people that once lived there had moved or passed on during the past almost thirty years, but I was fairly sure Chris's parents were still there.   As I passed, I noticed some kids toys in their yard.  Grandkids.  I smiled.  Next door, a house had replaced the empty lot and it made me a little sad.

That third of a mile seemed so much shorter than I had remembered, the yards smaller, the hill we coasted down on our bicycles not nearly so steep.

I came to the stop sign at the end of the loop.  Years ago, a gangly kid with sandy blonde hair and a chipped front tooth would have turned right, beginning the descent down the hill, quickly gaining speed and always a tad nervous he wouldn't make the curve at the bottom.  Not looking back.  And never really noticing any time passing at all.

But on this day, he turned left to head back to the two-lane state road, stealing one last glance in the side-view.

"Objects in mirror are closer than they appear."

If only it were so.


  1. Tag and I lived probably a mile and a half, MAYBE two miles from one another. We would set out - about the same age you're talking - from both of our houses and meet up, then go the rest of the way to the others. I'm pretty sure I'd have to move back to Hometown, USA to feel like I could ever let some future child do something like that now :)

    Isn't it funny that kids today listen to childhood stories like this and wonder how anyone survived without cell phones and iPads, thinking we were SO deprived, and most of us look at their childhoods and think they're so deprived?

    1. I remember walking home from school (about a mile) and staying by myself for a couple of hours. Perhaps that's where my love for alone time was born.

  2. Helluvan ending you worked us to there, Talented One. Soooo good.

    I have a soft spot for Chuck--with that old man name and shock of orange hair.

    It's not too late for you to revive New Addition, you know. Maybe perform at some county fairs.

    1. Thank you so much. I love the idea of reviving New Addition! There aren't enough non-instrument-playing, all-male trios who had their genesis on a 4x8 plywood stage, in my opinion.

  3. agreeing with TC about how things have changed so much. Recently someone posted about tagging your best friend from when you were 8 years old. I was able to find all of her brothers, but not's pretty hard to find old girlfriends if they got married though.

    1. it's pretty hard to find old girlfriends if they got married though.

      I wouldn't know anything about that...

  4. I have similar memories of my childhood. I hope my daughters will have some too to tell their children.

  5. wow! you're an amazing writer! this brought me back to my childhood in such a good way. Your writings are so visual, so moving bone. One of my fav. shows was the wonder years, this touching post could have been one of their outstanding episodes. How you ended it REALLY tugged even harder on my heartstrings. This needs to be published somewhere. maybe a family magazine? do people still read magazines? I want it to reach more people so others can feel like Im feeling right now. Sigh, smile, memories galore, bittersweetness. if only. big hugs buddy xox

  6. I had similar memories but we acted like we were Harmon Kilabrew, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale (I even threw a sidearm for while) and listened to Who, the Beatles, the Stones...

  7. I'm a little late to the party on this post, but as always your writing takes my breath away and makes me jealous in equal proportions. For your childhood perhaps but definitely for your writing ability. "Roll Tide!" (it's getting close to the season and I figured it was time to say it) Also, for some weird reason as I read this I kept hearing Skynards "Sweet Home Alabama" in my head...