Back in My Day
Childhood in fifties America was an experience that I doubt any other generation has had the pleasure of feeling. It was a time when the adults, although young, had proven themselves in war. Their parents had also proven themselves in war. And because of those things the country they lived in ruled the world.
The booming American economy drove all the excesses of victory to the American household. Movies, cars, music, sports… We were at the birth of an age of entertainment. But it was widely not intended for children. Children were expected to find their own entertainment while the adults lounged in the luxury of their new domain.
I ran with a small group of friends. There was Harry, Joe, Will, and me. The four of us spent most of our summers in the forests of east Texas. Hot and sticky summers spent before the commonality of air conditioning. It was my first experience where I felt like I was a part of a group. Harry and Joe were brothers. The summer I was twelve, Harry was twelve, and Joe was eight. Will was two years older than me and Harry, but his maturity did little to point this out.
I remember feeling like we were a foursome that could never be separated, but I just didn’t understand life yet. I can still smell the spruce out where our fort was hidden in the Davey Crockett Forest. I would come over the hill to see our shelter we built around an existing tree to the sounds of my friends greeting me.
“Bobby.” Joe would say calling out to the rest.
“Bobby Bobby.” Harry or Will would say.
The last of the group would start low and quiet, building a crescendo of open o’s. “Booooooooooby!”
I would wave as I walked down the slope to our little fortress against the world.
Joe was typically outside the fort digging around in the dirt. It was just one of the many quirks he had that brought attention to the fact that he was younger than the rest of us. Harry and Will would be inside typically playing a fictional baseball game with baseball cards.
“Mickey Mantle belts one into deep right field.” Harry tried to give a northern accent to match the radio broadcast he listened to.
“Gus Bell leaps, but the ball is out of reach!” Will finished the call.
“Poor Cincinnati Redlegs.” I said entering the small, dark room.
Our fort was sort of a big wooden teepee. We had found some old twelve-foot fence slats and nailed them to the tree in a circle. Then we covered the openings between the slats with blankets and quilts and whatever else our parents wouldn’t kill us for stealing.
I took my seat on the only grass patch left in the fort while Harry finished making the Mickey Mantle baseball card run the imaginary bases. “Thought we could go down to the pond today.” I was looking for something fun to do that didn’t involve wasting the day away at our fort.
Will questioned as he wrapped a couple strings around the baseball cards. “The one by the church or the one by the graveyard?”
“I was thinking the one between that other church and graveyard. You know, down where the creek does that U-turn?” The suggestion was a bit absurd. We only made it that far away from home a couple times, but I was up for an adventure.
Harry still using his New York voice chimed in, “If we are going to swim why not the pond over the hill. Its only two minutes from here.”
I would not be turned down, “You want to risk running into the Hellfire Chaps while we are swimming? What if they steal our clothes? What if they decide to drown us?” The Hellfire Chaps were a gang of older kids that we always tried to avoid, but in reality, they didn’t even exist. Some inside joke at school that turned into a legend.
“You are right.” Will replied. He was terrified of the group of kids. He had sworn he saw them chasing us once or twice. Harry let out an exasperated groan as he knew there was no rebuttal for the Hellfire Chaps when Will was concerned.
We all stood up and Will called out to his brother, “Joe, come on. We’re going swimming.” We headed down the side of the creek looking for the pond that I had the strange urge to spend the day at.
It was a long walk filled with awkward jumps across slippery rocks and fallen trees. As children it felt like we traversed miles upon miles, but looking back it was probably less than a couple of kilometers. But, it was away from the farm community we lived in due to the winding roads leaving no way to reach this area by car without a twenty mile joyride.
Sometime around midafternoon we reached the bend in the creek that signified we were reaching our destination. To anyone from any other town they would not have seen any difference in this little boggy pond and the one near our fort, but we knew that we had gone on a quest to find this place.
As young and innocent as we were, we all stripped to our tighty-whities and jumped into the pond. I don’t recall what we played, submarine or Marco Polo most likely. But we spent hours splashing around.
After a while I got out and laid down by a tree soaking up some of the late day sunlight. I could see the tiny church off in the distance and the little cemetery next to it. There seemed to be a graveyard every time you found a new church. They only had a dozen or so families in each one, both the parishioners and the residents of the graves.
As I listened to my small group of friends call out what kind of splash they would make when it was their turn to jump back into the pond, I noticed a little girl kneeling at a headstone. She had her head bowed and she was letting flowers fall from her hands.
The sight was mesmerizing. Even from the immense distance that I was, I could feel the heartache in the girl’s soul. There was an extreme loss that she was dealing with and I wanted nothing more than to make that feeling go away.
I tried to wipe as much of the dirty pond water off me as I could. I slowly put my clothes back on while keeping an eye on the girl, I did not want her to leave. Once I had returned to my proper dress, I looked back at my friends who were still playing in the water. “I need to go check something out. I’ll see you tomorrow if I’m not back before you head home.”
They did not seem to notice and as the night started to descend, they didn’t come looking for me. As much as I felt like I was a part of a tightly knit group, I was really just alone with some friends. It was no matter. My life would start in earnest that day.
I hopped through the tall grasses and weeds moving away from the pond and towards the girl that I had this strange connection with. As I made my way closer the feelings of her loss become clearer. I could not make it out into words as to what actually happened, but my gut knew that it was a personal pain.
I eventually stepped into the graveyard, pushing open a little wooden gate that protected the outside world from the dead inside, another pointless symbol that only protected those who believed it to be security. I walked firmly and determined until I reached the girl. She was close to my age and weeping on her knees at a headstone that was not as old as the rest of them.
Unsure of what to say or how to console a person I knelt down beside her. “Who were they?” I looked down at the dirt trying to be respectful.
The girl gasped in shock. She had been so focused on her pain that she had no idea I had sat down next to her. “I’m sorry.” She wiped her eyes and rose to her feet in an awkward posture as her joints had stiffened from her long-time kneeling. “It was my…” She paused and looked at me suddenly annoyed.
Her change in emotion threw me for a loop. I could feel the heat in her ears as the sadness took a backseat to something more temporary, something that was very in the moment. It wasn’t anger, or was it?
She kicked a bit of the dirt, that had not yet been resodded, at me. “What do you want? Why are you talking to me?”
The twelve-year-old me wanted to say ‘screw you’. I wanted to run back to my friends and forget this little girl that was being so rude, but the connection I was feeling with her emotions wouldn’t let me be so juvenile. “I’m sorry. I saw you crying. I wanted…”
She tried to interrupt me, “I wasn’t crying!”
But, I continued, “to help.”
She suddenly realized that I was not being a bratty child. I was not going to pick on her and make fun of her. She fell to her butt with a thud and sobbed into her hands. “My baby brother.” The words were jumbled and soggy, but I understood nonetheless.
I did not understand what it meant to have a sibling. I never had that connection, but I understood family and belonging and I assumed that the connection with a sibling was a strong one. I had seen Will stick up for his annoying younger brother time and time again. When there was no reason for any of us to put up with his little kid games and songs, Will would always make sure that Joe was not hurt. It was a type of companionship that I could only compare with my parents.
The girl had been through a lot. I could feel it and I could now see it. I wanted nothing but to help her. “I don’t have a brother. And I’m sorry you lost yours.” It was a pathetic attempt at compassion, but she did not know any better. She sobbed and lunged at me, holding me tighter than I was accustomed. Her warm wet tears soaking into my shirt made the cool wetness of the pond I had just left seem like a different world. I held her. And that was it.