Just when you think you’ve got it, things twist up. Take for instance, that day in the summer of ’68, when the only care of the moment was who might declare themselves the winner of the neighborhood fort fight. Not that it would hold any meaning for the rest of us—as a matter of fact, it would only fortify our resistance and urge us by ‘right of title’ to come back for more the very next morning.
The day was not unlike any other summer day on the horseshoe which connected Oak and Ash Lane. We took our role quite seriously. Some days were set aside for ammunition formation, while others—well, they were made for all-out rampage. This one was a designated truce-style day. I ended my part in it with a self-inflicted exit wound—the tine of a pitchfork poking its way through the top of my black racer-style track shoe.
As I was transported to Dodge’s version of four-wheeling Care-Flite, the shock of the incident had pretty much taken hold. There was the humiliation of being carried, Cleopatra-style (with a rake in your foot…), by the parents of your friends and foes to the emergency launch pad, otherwise known as the bed of a truck. …Momentary flashbacks of the day’s events as though this one, by way of injury and embarrassment, might very well be the last.
We frequently met at the creek bed—the “gully” we liked to call it. The term itself was so rich with grit. “I’ll see you back at the gully!!” we’d scream into the summer’s evening air. It was nothing more than a veiled, disruptive threat that might cause them to be off their game the next day. We’d plan our next assault—our strategy if you will. Some days were spent fortifying our position, while other times we simply basked in the glory of having won (or survived) the last battle. Winners sat perched in the well-protected and root-endowed ‘elbow’ of the gully, where anyone who was worth anything could enjoy that delicate balance between respite and smirk. Others were left to simply—and longingly—look on. In the anatomical realm of the gully, I most often found myself around the knee.
Enjoying a moment of victory was always short-lived. We meant business. We were there to settle a score. THIS was not about fellowship—not that we could see anyway. Our battle plan permeated our conversation—and our lives. We oozed a scent of tribal arrogance. We lived to detest our perceived enemy—and filled our days with torrential downpours of drama. Just when the harsh sting of a bitter defeat washed over us, one of our own might be coaxed into joining the opposing side. That was tantamount to the work of a Soviet double agent.
As I recollect those times on the horseshoe, I am reminded of the seemingly endless summer days we enjoyed. We often engaged in ordinary childhood activities—swimming and biking—and crawling through the cavernous, serpentine-like storm drainage system designed to accommodate the newly built homes nearby. It seldom mattered—the residual water sometimes found in the large culvert pipes—we’d spider-crawl our way deep into the midday darkness, losing ourselves in the cool underworld of a sizzling summer afternoon. For hours, we would lurk and explore and oftentimes—eat lunch there—while the world above us carried on its usual pace.
What I would give to go back to the conversations that transpired in those pipes. As the war in Vietnam raged on and social consciousness morphed into utter chaos, we held our own in the catacombs beneath the horseshoe. There surely must’ve been talk of boys, unless, of course, there were some of those there… And who could forget Mrs. Pasteur—the fiercest, meanest real estate agent this side of E-Z Way Market and second cousin (thrice removed) of the Loch Ness Monster itself. Her mission statement in life was to inflict misery on us at every turn. How she came about the knowledge of the Great Beaded Bathroom Curtain Heist, I shall never know. One bitter glance into the plate mirror in the model home told the story and caught the reflection of the end of our willingness to live. She was revered. She was feared. She was there. As I reached out to pluck my first strand from the window, I saw her. Arms folded; steely glare on. “Where do you think you’re going with THAT?” she asked in her sonic boom-style voice. The introspectively clever and high-pitched response of “Uhhhh…nowhere??” came to my mind and out of my mouth…
My accomplices had scrammed. There I stood, facing the wall of a torturous and almost certain death. Would she contact the authorities? Would I be paraded down the street—her heavy hand about my neck—guiding me to the front door of our home to report the incident? It can be said without much speculation that this outcome did nothing but fan the flames of an already tense situation. She became our number one nemesis and the focus of an ongoing dialogue on how we might one day settle the score on something that had clearly taken its seat already in the annals of “horseshoe history.” It made for great fodder.
Life’s obit. Our story. A collection of moments and times that make, shape and complete a lifetime. A series of snapshots within ourselves which serve to remind us of our beginning and where our travels through life’s journeys take us.
Hardly a time would go by when I wouldn’t crane my neck in the direction of the gully as I passed by that spot years later. I wondered as an adult, how things had held up back there. Memories of a bygone era which had yielded so much enjoyment to those of us who met there on a fairly regular basis. I wondered too—what had happened to those early buddies—those demons of grit, dirt and determination. I wondered if they held the same remembrance of those times and if they too, ever returned to the neighborhood, where mystique and maturation unknowingly came together under that hot Texas sun.
My curiosity had gotten the upper hand. I had stopped one afternoon to visit with my friend Bettye, whose home was adjacent to the gully lot. Bettye and Gil had been a staple of our adolescence, generously and consistently offering their pool to us, beginning at 9:30 in the morning and often running well into the evening hours. I certainly had to wonder years later, if my mother had negotiated a monetary compensation package to Bettye for her taking on our entourage on a day-in/day-out basis. I knew better. It was a different time—free of worry or petty concerns—where adults utterly and sincerely enjoyed seeing children—not just their own—lapping up every last bit of summer. We often trailed into the house for lunch and played Johnny Cash and Tom Jones on the stereo at volumes we wouldn‘t dare to have tried at our own homes. It was a getaway—a destination I would always look back upon as one of my favorite trips.
As Bettye and I talked in the front yard under the late September sky, I found myself gazing in the direction of the gully. Succumbing to those nagging tugs of curiosity, I found myself retracing the route as I remembered it. The path we had worn down was long gone—filled with briars and brush and places I did not recognize. Changes in topography I simply could not recall. As I crept deeper and deeper into the area, I searched—almost frantically for that ‘elbow’ in the gully. It was such a bastion of prowess and power, making it difficult to now imagine its absence. As I crunched across the dried leaves of early fall, it was clear that decades of peace and tranquility on our old battleground had rendered it unrecognizable. I wondered if anyone else had ever come along and dominated the gully as we had or were we the only ones to have seized the territory and the moment at that one point in history. As I reconciled myself once again to the inevitable changes we experience throughout life, I was comforted by the wonderful memories of all the great times we shared there as kids. I considered momentarily, how things might be if the gully were once again identifiable… It wouldn’t have mattered, for the times and the players had changed and moved on, but the recollection of those carefree days would remain with me a lifetime.
As the end to another summer some forty years later gave way to fall, I was reminded that maybe ‘life’s obit’ is not an abridgment of what we leave behind…rather the experiences and bonds that enrich our time while here. The people and places that unknowingly impact our lives. The fellowships we form and enjoy, often without knowing their immediate significance. The reminders of a different time. The reflection of a life well-lived.