Monday, September 10, 2012

A Touch of the Idyllic

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

A Touch of the Idyllic

My childhood had its happy moments, too. In the midst of the moral panic about latchkey children, I let myself into the house after school without incident for years. The ritual was comforting and allowed my imagination to roam freely. Home was probably no more than a mile away, but I took enjoyable detours along the way. I enjoyed jumping fences into strange backyards, varying my route each afternoon.

After crossing the street, safely escorted by an adult crossing guard in a reflective vest, I took a familiar path. I ducked behind a firehouse on a beeline to the Coke machine. Prior to leaving for school in the morning, I’d beg my parents for fifty cents, the price of one soft drink can. In the South, the vernacular makes no distinction between brands and products. Everything carbonated and sugary is referred to as a Coke.

As I exited the rear of the firehouse, I walked past well-worn sandy pits, designed for the game of horseshoes. A few horseshoes lay forlornly where they’d been abandoned at the conclusion of the last game. While sometimes I accompanied my playmates home, I usually made the trips solo. That way, my mind was freed up to conjure a thousand grandiose fantasies.

I can’t remember all of them now. There was a time before all the agitation and fright of adulthood clamped down on my sense of play. Though I don’t expect to get it back, I do often seek to push the clutter and distraction out of my mind. When I think of my childhood, my memories often seem as though they belong to someone else's life.

My mother had returned to work. Otherwise, she’d be at home waiting for me, as had been the case for most of my early years. I remember her purchasing a backpack for me with an inside hook built in, perfect for hanging the key to open the front door. How many kids my age were purchased the same product by nervous parents? Parental guilt, in my opinion, is often overrated and predicated on the flimsiest of evidence. We managed perfectly well.

I didn't focus enough on this period of my life. As is true for many precocious children, I was in too much of a hurry to grow up. But I do remember things as they were. It would be easy to heavily gloss over what I experienced, fooling myself into believing it was really all fun and games. Kids can be cruel to each other, especially if they don’t fit seamlessly into the framework. In my early years, as an athlete, I was largely left alone. But, quite paradoxically, alone was the very thing I needed least.

The renowned children’s author Roald Dahl was a childhood favorite of mine. Once, in an interview, Dahl was quoted as saying that he never wanted to give anyone the impression that life was just a bowl of cherries. I heartily concur.

My passions were solitary more often than not. Even today, I dream about walking through a beautiful and awe-inspiring landscape, far from civilization. Aside from two or three other people, present to keep me company, I am more-or-less alone.

This frees me to contemplate a breathtaking vista or two without someone's constant running commentary and an excessive amount of stimulation. Though I need a throng of people from time to time, I am much more content when in the company of a bare minimum of other people who I can trust.

In my school days, I took winding paths through the backyards of complete strangers. They never saw any reason to complain. In those days, outside was a little more than a large jungle gym. Twenty years later, I can still visualize every nook and cranny of my journey. I remember the house that always gave the best Halloween candy. I remember the man who arose early in the morning, seven days a week, to throw newspapers into adjacent yards.

In particular, I remember the concrete heads of a growling lion that bookended the driveway of the only black family in the neighborhood. I always found them somehow sinister and disturbing, but they added a novel touch to the neighborhood. Proof that times had changed in the South, their son and I regularly played together.

I made a joke once in his company to which he took severe offense. He wrestled me to the ground with an unexpected force that took me by surprise. Then he immediately apologized. I wasn’t aware that I’d said anything wrong. To me, I was just relating an observation. This was the one and only time that race became an issue between us. In the future, I was much more conscious of what I shared and did not share.

The brief contentiousness stemmed from my retelling of an anecdote. The few black people in my majority white suburban hometown displayed a particularly ornate-looking air freshener in the back windows of their cars. The air freshener was shaped liked a crown, one meant for royalty, I mean. This was in the days before the term bling was in common usage.

I was probably much less tactful about my description then I should have been. I found the effect amusing because it seemed so different and mysterious. I imagine my friend must have been constantly aware of being not like everyone else. I’d touched a sore spot with him. It is no wonder that he felt edgy and out of place.

Years later, I worked in a predominantly African-American workplace and felt like a fish out of water every day. Cultural expectations and societal differences, subtle and less-than-subtle, do exist and do keep us separate. I believe that people can live together in harmony, as part of the Kingdom of God, but I am very aware of the difficulty of the challenge.

At home at last, I finally got a start on my homework. My sisters and my mother arrived later. At this age, I had not yet opted for my own private rebellion. Unlike many of my peers, who placed their emphasis upon being social, not studious, I pretty much did whatever my parents asked of me. Later, in the middle of the worst of it, my father would vocally long for the day that I kept no secrets from him.

One probably can’t go home again. A couple of years ago, for nostalgia’s sake, I drove through the old neighborhood. What seemed impressive and memorable once now seems small and unexciting. One can’t replicate the times where everything was new, novel, and electric. It’s the mindset I miss, not the landmarks.    

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