July 22, 2011

Wheeled Freedom

There is only one date on a child's calender, and that is the first day of summer, that taste of hope and freedom long awaited.

My hometown has changed some in the last 30 years, becoming a bedroom community for a much larger city 50 minutes away, the population growing. When I go back I often wander around the places I played as a child, finding only bits and pieces that are still the same. I get to one neighborhood and see a kids bike and remember a mountain.

My hometown was at the base of Western mountains that I would not ascend for many years, our house in the slow rise up to the base, a valley of safe adventure. As kids we were not allowed up into the steep hills, the roads there much too treacherous for bike and car to share. But oh, we would ride everywhere else. We'd play spy vs. spy, soldiers and cowboys, chasing each other all over the streets which had sprouted up around our place. I loved to ride my bike. One can't help but be drawn in by the composition of the rhythm of leg and wheel, taking freedom from the movement, understanding without regret that it is only your effort that is making you fly. The harder you work, the further you'll go, determination outpacing antiquated spokes and wobbly tires, watching the world come into view and then passing away again.

The streets attested to the power of this drive, kids racing like kamikazes up and down driveways, over curbs, with the requisite occasional crash and burn. We wore our bandaged knees like medals, for running home crying to Mommy would brand you a coward as quick as any action of your life. You held in your pain, and closeted it with the secrets you only told your best friend.

From the streets, we'd head to the wood that rose like Oz from areas that had been cleared to put in the homes of the baby boomer generation. The bikes would be abandoned at the edge of our play. Crime didn't exist out here, at least not the kind that would take some poor kids bike. They were abandoned, piled up like kindling wood, with nothing but footprints leading out into the trees. There we continue the games out in the wild, screaming our lungs out with a war cry, chasing shadows as far as our legs could carry us. From the woods, the cry of a predatory bird, challenging us. We'd stay out all day, a handful of cookies, some raisins, stuffed into pockets, and consumed, smashed, gritty and sweet.

It was in those expeditions, in an open track of land hidden by trees that we found it. Our very own mountain. In a transitory, enchanted moment we held our breath and slowly approached, the sun shining down as we approached with delighted awe that stirred like bees. It was a tall form of dirt and rocks, adventure as high up as we could climb. There were no adults to tell us to go home, no signs about trespassing. We left out bikes and made our way to the top, climbing over stone and scraggly plants, reaching the top where we stopped to stare. There, off in the distance, though we couldn't see our house, we could see our future, air rushing past us there in that new discovery, that still, fierce potency that satisfies hunger not yet known as desire.

We called it Taylor's Mountain.

We're not sure where the name came from. Perhaps the first kid that successfully got his bike to the top and rode it down without breaking a limb. I'm not even sure how long it had been there, but we liked to believe we discovered it and soon laid claim to it. That mountain was anticipated glory and we'd gather at its base after breakfast and move up and outward, a posse of potential. In its assault we ripped more than one pair of knees out of a pair of jeans, which our mothers would patch, not replace. We exposed our bellies to the sun, offered up skinned elbows to the skies, gaining confidence in our movements, in ourselves, breathing deeply, nourishing ourselves on the scent of fresh pine as we laid out artful battle plans worthy of Sun Tzu.

We had no curfew, we played until the light waned and our stomachs told us it was near to supper time, and then we'd go home to the second best part of summer vacation, the family barbecue. Whether it was perfect, burnt or dried out, it was just good, because it was made on the grill. It was made by Dad and we got to eat it outside if we wanted. I guess it was that willing suspension of disbelief that you have as a child, that no matter what happens, your Dad will somehow ensure the end result is just fine, that dinner will be saved from the flame, and all would be well in your world.

How well I remember those days, when the air is burning hot, the whiff of lighter fluid in the air, the dark nuggets of briquettes, overhead a badminton bird flying over, the only sign of motion in the still summer air. Laughter as my brothers and cousins play. Shadows on the grass as we ran and played under branches from which smoke drifted like a soft touch. Shadows that got to those trees before I did, then faltered, so I could stomp them into the grass under my bare feet.

That summer we found Taylor's Mountain was one that stands out. Not in the sense of the nostalgic, which holds with it some sense of time passing, a litany of hours of my time, my life, passing before my eyes in quiet dreams. It stands out as if it stands with me, here in these last few weeks where time slipped through my fingers like water, its loss felt on my hands in its very dissipation.

It stood out, as this month has stood out for me. A time in which loss and discovering were intertwined, when time and years really didn't matter, only the throb of life still beating within me, capable of hope.

For there was more than smoke in the air that summer of Taylor's Mountain, something I was too young to understand, but I could sense. There was a war, and one of the boys in my family was there. A country I had never heard of. I didn't understand the details. I only sensed those urgent conversations in the kitchen amongst the adults as they prepared the food for the fire.

I knew my Dad had been to war and that he came home safe. Yet why were the women so worried? But I had watched enough reruns of Combat and old John Wayne movies to know more than I should. What I didn't know, I asked, though I did not get the answers I sought. Sometimes you have to work out your own answers, taking a small piece of puzzle and turning it and turning it, til you see where it fits. Although it was 20 years before I learned the true scientific methods of investigation, I read, I gathered up every little newspaper clipping I saw, I watched the news surreptitiously out of my eye while playing with my toys. When a war movie was on TV, I'd watch the adults' faces out of the corner of my eye to see if something showed through, fear, worry, skepticism, waiting for a "that's not the way it was, it wasn't that dangerous, see, I came home!" But no one said anything. All that was in the room was the sound of gunfire and rockets on the TV, and a clock ticking in a long undiminished parade of time we pretended not to hear.

All we could do was continue on with our family traditions, our faith. By day we'd ride to our mountain and conduct the warfare of youth, with plastic guns and pine cone grenades and sound effects that burst up out from our lungs, not some video game. We may have played life and death but those afternoons were filled with time, so solid we could have picked it up from the ground to place in our pocket with other treasures. Time so solid we could part it like a curtain, stepping into a dimension of imagination there on that tall, rock hewn mass of earth, stepping onto mass that upheld us. We laughed on that mountain and we bled, from an assortment of childhood cuts and scrapes worn like badges of honor.

That hopeful play burst out of something within our own minds, no batteries required, shouting forth as we charged the next hill with plastic weapons and the occasional toy soldiers. To us, with the agile minds of children, it was all real. We scurried between small valleys and miniature cliffs. An empty Styrofoam cup with a string became a communication system, a dead tree trunk became a tunnel, a scoop of dirt became a foxhole. Overhead all we could see was the drowsy bowl of the summer sky, filled with possibility and tinged with smoke from battlefield fires that only we could see. The sound of the barrage was both remote and near, our childlike voices providing the sound effects, a vibration in the earth sensed with our minds, rather than felt, as our battalions moved onward, taking more ground.

I was the recon team, moving fast, making no noise, not crying no matter what. Head down, in leaves that smelled of old newspaper, I tried not to think about Frank and when he'd return from duty, when he'd pick me up and swing me around, laughing. I only tried to be a stronger soldier, better truer, to keep my men safe, even as they had declared a ceasefire in the discovering of a particularly large frog.

Time, dense and strong, would stop on those afternoons, suspended as we only registered the sound of fake gunfire, the dog's bark, the artillery fire of a lawnmower. Then, only then, faint and insistent, the call to home, the rumble of stomachs long past lunch.

There were days that due to hard rains we didn't get to the mountain for a few days, the barbecue covered. When we quietly gathered in the house around the table for meatloaf or pot roast. Nights when I'd politely ask to be excused as soon as I was done, so I could go back outside, to where I wanted to be, despite the rain, a mist that had dampened that nights attempt to cook out. I'd walk on down to the pond, stopping to stare down into the water, down where I could see almost to the bottom, the last rays of sunlight playing like orange fire on the surface. There on the surface, a leaf. After a long time in water, the tissues of the leaf decay, leaving only the fiber, swirling in the surface like soft bones, light from the last of the days sunlight playing on them like flame.

Nights when I'd think of a mountain, of a tall form of a young soldier, wishing he was here, to gather me up with a smile and make everything all right again.

And so that summer passed, the badminton set forgotten for lawn darts, one less place at the table. And with my growing, came knowing. I think we spent so many nights out at the picnic table thinking that if we were out back and someone in uniform we didn't know came to the front door, we would not have to answer it.

For that season we had our new mountain playground and we had the barbecue, a communion of family shared with bread and lighter fluid. I would sit in quiet, as we all would, in prayer, for a plank of salmon laid on a bed of bacon and grilled, for unintentionally extra crispy beef, for extra pickles, for another day of safety for those we loved. As we said Grace, I turned towards the coals, looking deep and hard so they wouldn't see a tear, watching the blackness turning to red and light and fire. Then my Dad would look at me, put his hand under my chin and say "it's going to be OK, we have hamburgers that I didn't burn.", and I would smile, knowing what he was trying to say.

There in that end of a day of play, in that simple meal, in those rituals we could maintain, there was solace. We couldn't change the outcome of what was happening worlds away but we could hold on to each other, in play, in prayer, in squabbles over the last cheese slice. We couldn't change fate, but we could fight with it, in the form of dirt and rocks, and wind and speed. In the form of a cantankerous piece of controlled fire, with tools, and tongs and curses and sweat. We could at least conquer the day and put dinner on the table. Dinner together as family.

It was one of those sticky days in late August,when the thought of another day of play was tickling my conscious like a pilfered cookie. From my room I could hear the siren call of those last bronze days of summer, moving like music, flowing like honey in bright sunlight that danced against my window. It was time to seize the day, as school was starting very soon. For now though, there would be Bear Claws studded with almonds, for cousin Frank was home from combat safely and the whole house was celebrating. My Mom would be up, and there would be laughter and the sun. Oh, the sun. Bright, trembling with the remnants of heat, laying in open fields. The air lush with the smell of turning trees, blowing for a hundred yards against the vagrant air of summer vacation. It was an invitation no kid worth his salt could resist.

But Taylor's Mountain was not there. Over the weekend, while we traveled, it had been torn apart by construction equipment. For Taylor's Mountain really wasn't a mountain, in anything other than the eyes of children it was a humongous pile of dirt and rock left some previous summers by a developer, only to have the subdivision plans go dormant in a time of war. But the economy was picking up, and the grounds of our play would be sacrified for space for homes for those returning. Taylor's Mountain was gone, but it was still within us, a form that uplifted us that summer, as we scrabbled over it, acting out our worries and our fantasies under the summer sun.

It's not what we've lost that matters, but what we find, each day of adventure we are granted. Days where you look at something you'd never noticed before, compelled into creative consideration you haven't quite grasped the gift of yet, face to face with something correponding to your measure for wonder. Mountains hurdled, hearts opened, worries vanquished in the embrace of wind and speed.
- Brigid

Posted by Brigid at July 22, 2011 10:59 AM

Absolutely lovely! One can feel the excitement of that glorious summer day(s) thanks to the beautiful descriptions. Wonderful story. Thank you for sharing!

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