It was nice out today so we went for a ride. Out thru the country to the town where I used to live. Here's the street I lived on. See how the trees form a roof over the road? That white house is where the Wilsons lived, I wonder if they still do? That's our house over there, the big gray one with blue trim. Good...some of mom's flowers are still there. And look in the back...they have a big garden in the same place dad did.
There's lots of toys in the yard. That's good...it means kids live here again. I hope they're as happy here as we were.
See that big maple? The one in the corner of the yard?
Our tree house is still there. We spent many a day up there as look outs, keeping watch for pirate ships trying to sneak into the harbor or Indians sneaking up on the settlement. We were good look-outs and no one was ever able to sneak past us. There were bloody battles but we were invincible and always defeated the bad guys.
That tree house heard many ghost stories on summer nights when we were able to talk dad into sleeping out there with us. Mom would just shake her head at our excitement and say we boys, she included dad in that, were crazy for wanting to sleep with mosquitoes when we had nice cool beds to sleep in. I'm not sure mothers appreciate self generated fear. The delicious fear of monsters and ghosts so savored by boys. The fear which is not to be feared but is meant to be enjoyed.
There were times when we slept out there alone or with friends and we would hear wild animals scratching at the base of the tree, growling and snuffling, looking for a meal of boy flesh. There were times we heard the deep voice of a monster, looking for boys who wouldn't be quiet and go to sleep. If he caught you, he would steal your voice box and leave you unable to speak. We would giggle with half real fear and with the bravado of youth tell the monster we were going to pee on him if he didn't go away. Everyone knows the best way to chase a monster away is to pee on him. This threat always worked and the monster would leave. Soon the lights would go out in our house and we would lay and talk until, one by one, we would drift off into the sleep of the innocent.
See the fence behind the garden where it’s all smashed down? That was the shortcut to the woods next to the house. The path through the woods is almost gone now. It’s overgrown and sad looking. This path didn’t use to be there but after Mikey’s parents bought the house on the other side of the woods, we soon had a path worn into the ground from all the trips back and forth that first year. We were the same age and, after we met, were soon best friends. Where you saw one of us ,you’d usually see the other.
Dad caught me climbing the fence in that spot one day and said that was it. He told me to go get Mikey and come straight home. I just knew we were in deep doo-doo. When we got back to our house, dad had a bunch of tools out and sent us scavenging for wood. We spent that afternoon with dad learning about stiles and actually helping build one. When it was finished it was a little…ok, a lot, shaky and unsteady, but it served us for a lot of years. It’s one of my best afternoons ever.
The stile is gone now and so is our friendship. There have been a lot of changes in my life and I’m not the only one that had trouble accepting them. We had a good six years as best friends though and soon I’ll look him up and tell him I understand. Some things are hard to handle at any age and, at twelve, they can be world shattering.
The woods are still there though t hey don’t seem as big as they did back then. They only cover four lots but to us they were a great wilderness to explore. The sassafras saplings we used to boing and where Jason broke his arm are to big for boinging now. What? You don’t know what boinging is? It’s one of the pleasures of boys everywhere where there’s a stand of sassafras saplings. And get your mind out of the gutter…it’s perfectly clean and great fun. One of the bigger boys would climb as high as he could in the sapling and start the tree swaying back and forth. Soon he’d reach the point of no return and his weight would slowly bend the sapling down so he could climb off. When his weight was removed the sapling would snap back into place…boing!!!
Some of us were too light and small to bend the sapling, so we’d wait until a bigger kid would get it bent down and we’d climb on and hang on for dear life. When he’d climb off we were given the ride of our life as the tree snapped back upright. No amusement park or carnival ride was ever more exciting. More than once we would lose our grip and be catapulted from the tree. That’s how my youngest brother, Jason, broke his arm. We told mom and dad he fell out of a tree…sometimes it’s not prudent to tell your parents the whole truth.
The raging river that runs through the woods is still there. It’s a spring fed branch that only runs a few blocks until it meets a larger creek and from there the Middle Fork of The Saline River and eventually empties into the Ohio. Many messages were put in old soda bottles and sent to people living in New Orleans and points in-between.
There was always water in it, even in the driest of years, and it was paradise for us. The pools were only a couple feet deep and were perfect for cooling off on hot summer days. There were minnows to trap and crawdads to catch. During my Hornblower years, we would use Elm or Chokecherry leaves as boats and our BB guns were our canons. We had to sink those enemy ships trying to get by our shore batteries.
Many epic battles were fought in those woods. Most were imagined but some were very real.
“You’re dead! I shot you!”
“No you didn’t! You missed!”
“Yes you are…I got you right between the eyes!”
“Nuh Unh, your bullet went over my head!”
There were a couple old apple trees near the edge of the woods. An old homeplace used to be there somewhere but was long gone now. All that remained were the two old trees. These were perfect for climbing and apple wars. You never heard of those either? What kind of childhood did you have?
You would divide into two teams and pull the bottom of your tee up to make a pouch and would gather as many apples as you could hold. This was your ammunition. Then you’d climb into the two trees and the war would start. If you were hit with an apple you were dead and had to leave the tree but could give what ammo you had left to your comrades. If you were lucky enough to nail someone with a rotten apple it was considered a grenade and they lost two soldiers. Not only did you take out two enemies, but they lost all the ammo the two had because it was lost in the explosion. The group with the last soldier in place won the war and then it was off to the branch to clean up and get rid of the rotten apple smell. This was another case where you don’t let parents know what you’re doing.
The lady is real nice and invited us in but I won't do it. I'm not ready to see someone else's furniture in our living room or another boy's toys and clothes scattered on my bedroom floor and posters on my bedroom walls. I'm not ready to hear boy's voices coming from my brother's rooms when those voices aren't my brother's. I'm still struggling with the new reality,
a new life, unwanted change. I'm not ready to say good-by to my past or to face and accept the finality.
There's a young boy, he looks about two years old, playing with a basketball in the front yard. I sit outside and watch him struggle with a ball, almost as big as he is, while a puppy nips and barks and tries to steal the boy's attention away from the ball.
"Look at me! Look at me!!" the puppy is barking, "Leave that stupid round thing alone and play with me!"
As we get ready to leave and Gramps is folding the ramp back into the van, I’m looking at the house. It doesn’t look sad and lonely like it did the last time I saw it. That was the day I had to leave and move to Nevada with Gramps. Now the house looks happy and loved. It may be the whine of the hydraulics as the ramp folds in on itself but I swear I hear the words, “Y’all come back soon.”
They say you can’t go home again but that’s not true. This house will always be my home in my heart. Now though, it has a new family and is alive with laughter and fun again. The woods have new boys to explore them. The branch has playing kids to send messages to far away places and the sassafras saplings are a challenge for a new generation of thrill seekers. Yes, you can go home again but things change so it’s only for a visit while you’re taking a break from the real world. And that’s as it should be.