The ‘Hood
(Tokoni, 05/11/2009)

We moved to the place I have come to identify as my ‘childhood’ when I was five, maybe a tad bit older. The fact that we were only there about five or six years (with one year spent in North Carolina) tells you just how ‘short’ I perceive my childhood as being. I grew up fast in some ways. Had to.

I’ll never forget this neighborhood. Never. We had a ‘reunion’ of us ‘neighbors’ about eight or nine years ago. We came from all over the state. It confirmed a lot of what I knew. The fact that we had this reunion – almost forty years after ‘the fact’ – tells you something about how tight we all were. Tighter than most, I guess. After all, how many neighborhood residents do you know come together after forty years to celebrate their friendships, talk about their life in some other place? Very few, I reckon.

I remember when I first saw this place. Imagine a sand road running through the Georgia pine barrens. There was the house up on the hill, a house ‘across the street’, and a house next to the lot we were going to be on. There had to be other houses, I just don’t remember seeing them right away. I do remember seeing that lot for the first time. There was nothing but a foundation. The next time we came back, the house was built, but someone had vandalized the bathroom. I remember that. Foul words scribbled on the inside of the electric space heater built into the bathroom wall. Then somewhere along the line we moved in.

This neighborhood – one shrink said it was a ‘sick’ neighborhood, but I don’t know about that. There was love aplenty here and there, but my dad was gone most of the time. I think the first time was about a year after we moved in. He went to Vietnam, and then later again another tour. I’ll have to sort it out. I still have his letters from there – the fold-over kind with the address on the outside, plus the Vietnamese money he would send us from there – strange coins and dollar bills. They tell me not to worry, that he is being careful, and to be good for mom. One year he went to Thailand, but that’s another story. There are a lot of stories revolving around this particular neighborhood, and I’m going to tell them over time, as best I can. Of particular interest are the neighbors who lived next to us, and the ones across the street. The ones on the hill are also important; I still see them sometimes, and they have given me clues as to my childhood.

Apparently I was a friendly and gregarious child. My mom tells me I used to talk to strangers all the time. One of her favorite stories is how I would lean out the car window when she was in some store, holding the wooden spoon she used to whack us with from the front seat, telling people about it. According to her, I’d tell them, “See this spoon? My momma beats us with it. See the blood?” – because there were stains on the spoon. Wooden spoons were one of the least of my mom’s ‘weapons’. (She broke one – a half inch thick thick butter paddle – over my brother’s butt one day – and then proceeded to beat him some more for ‘breaking her spoon’. I laughed; he cried.)

The neighbors across the street had a large southern country family. Three boys, an alcoholic redneck dad given to bouts of extreme violence, and the only ‘brick’ house in the entire neighborhood. They were often admired for that, though they, like everyone else in the neighborhood, made a country field mouse look rich. During the reunion they joked about how the whole neighborhood had just one loaf of bread – they’d just trade it around so that they could say they had some bread, one giving that same old loaf to another. Yeah, we were poor. Very poor. But so were they.

One of my memories from that neighborhood is that we kids wore only cutoff pants. Nothing else. I do remember owning a floppy wide brimmed hat for awhile, until I wore it out. Hard to wear those kinds of hats out. I wasn’t sure about this memory of how we dressed until I went to the reunion. There, in a picture of all us kids, I found my suspicion confirmed. We all are standing there in that old black and white photo – shirtless, shoeless, and wearing cutoff pants. Those were the only clothes we owned, except for our “Sunday-go-to-meeting” and school clothes, most of which were handmade. And the older adults; the ones who raised us confirmed it. Yes, they said. That’s all we had to wear.

The people next door were perhaps the poorest in the neighborhood. Their father, a huge, wide man with a perpetual smile and friendly ways, was a brick mason. They had a ‘barn’ out back, not a huge one, but an open faced lean-to. He drove an old pickup, and had a friend who lived with them – a guy named Sarge. I never learned what his real name was. All of us kids called him “Sarge”. The brick mason had found Sarge alongside the road one day, beat up and robbed after getting out of the military, and took him in. Sarge lived the rest of his life with them. That I know because I remember the day when Sarge and the brick mason died. Sarge was a gruff old man who barely put up with us kids, and would thump us with his thumb on the head if we got too close, or too aggravating. We loved Sarge, and I think in his own way, he loved us as well. He’d sit out on their carport in an old overstuffed chair, smoking his eternal cigars. Great man, I think, in some ways, though he did keep us kids at bay.

These people next door had a bunch of kids and a pack of chihuahuas that ran loose around the neighborhood. When we moved in they had a daughter named V_, who apparently was in some sort of “60’s” trouble – I think now she must have been pregnant, left home, didn’t come back except to fight with them. There were two other girls as well, and two boys. Okay, I’m not going to talk about them, not right now. Too hard to bear.

There were other people there as well. The German couple with their two drunk dogs who lived behind a chained link fence, and never mowed their yard (but would burn it off once a year.) Very mean and antisocial. The bully family up from them. (I got pitted against their teenagers a time or two – and won.) The obese girl up the hill across from my old friends. A few other families. But there were only two military families – ours, and the folks on up the road. It was kinda funny. When my dad would be gone, the father of the other military family was responsible for punishing us (he never did to my knowledge, or if he did, it was so light as to be forgotten). And when their dad was overseas, my dad would be called on to help discipline theirs. This neighborhood was isolated, no stores or anything for miles. In many ways it became its own village. And the people there instinctively lived the old saying: “It takes a village to raise a child” – for all of us kids knew – any grownup could punish us, and would, just as if we were their own. And the parents we okay with that, which was good. They helped each other, helped us, and everyone pretty much stuck together. We had to for survival. Same with us kids.

This neighborhood would become my home. This neighborhood defines my childhood. This neighborhood, where some very, very bad stuff happened, would be my life for what seemed many years – and those years were both wonderful and hard. It was both a very difficult time – and the most wonderful time – of my life, or at least back then.