A Day in the Hood(Tokoni 05/12/2009)

Imagine, if you will, the Georgia pine barrens among what is known as the “Sand Hills” south of Augusta, Georgia. These hills are the ancient remains of primordial beaches; the red and white clay that often rises in veins and underlays the sand is the remains of the old diatom and silt that washed down after Pangaea broke up into Laurasia, which is what gives us the Northern American continent today.

Imagine, if you will, a neighborhood of about a dozen houses built upon this old land, away from everything, in the steamy hot Georgia countryside. None of the houses are more than one story tall, and most of the lots are a quarter acre. The houses, all small, most ‘paneled’ with clapboard or Masonite, a few with wood (like ours), are all set back the same distance from the road – about fifty feet or so. There was only one brick shod house in the neighborhood, and that lay across the road from us (the envy of all the neighborhood.) I would hesitate to call these homes ‘ranch homes’, because the term ‘ranch home’ conjures a vision of something much more luxurious than these houses were. More like a cross between a clapboard shack and a small plain home, I reckon, and most of them fairly ‘new’ at the time. The road to these houses is a huge horseshoe, looping in from one old paved country road, around to the neighborhood, and then after cresting the hill, goes back down to the paved road. This road is unpaved sand, often ankle deep; sometimes deeper. The sand is white to tan, depending upon conditions, and where you are digging. (And we did a lot of digging; more on that later.) During the rain you can go outside and stand in bare feet, pumping them up and down, and sink into the sand until it comes up to your knees, just like the beach — that’s how soft it was. Like I said: beach sand, laid down millions of years ago.

Surrounding these houses, and back behind them, are scrub oak – small, spindly stuff, not the kind of thing you think of when you think “oak tree”. No more than a few inches around. That, and tender young pines, no bigger around than a man’s arm or wrist. Others? Huge giants, with trunks extending an easy four and five feet in diameter, if not more, with gray-brown scaly bark, and towering thirty, fifty, or more feet overhead. In our back yard there was also a hall tree, one of my favorite climbing places as a young child, because there was a crotch in that old tree where I could lay back and see everything – out over the farmer’s field (and the scary supposedly haunted house that lay there), down to the old lady and man who came around every day or so selling live chickens and eggs; then back up, through the pine barrens, and across the yard of my best friend’s house. The farmer’s house lay on the corner of the horseshoe, down towards the bottom of the hill; nobody messed with him. You didn’t cut across his field, and you didn’t go to the haunted house there – not if you valued your life. He was just as apt to come out there with a shotgun and send some rock salt your way if you did. And needless to say, us kids eventually did. (Ouch!)

So you have the setting. Now the weather.

It rained – HARD – at least once a week, usually in the afternoons. Huge, torrential rains, filled with thunder and lightning, which would send all of us kids scurrying to the nearest shelter – usually a carport on one of the houses. (No one had a garage. No one could afford one.) We kids didn’t seek refuge in the houses – that was forbidden except at lunch time, if there was one. I hear arguments for and against climate change, and I can tell you: the climate has changed. We didn’t have the huge long droughts here in the South back then; rain was a dependable condition; you knew you were going to get some each and every week, as sure as the sun rises.

Each day would start the same, even in the school year. Quick breakfast – usually oatmeal, with raisins if you were lucky (or unlucky – I hated raisins in my oatmeal, but knew better than complain). Cream of wheat sometimes, because my mother is from out West. Milk mixed with that if it was available, brown sugar crumbled on top. Dry toast, plain (jelly was unheard of and butter was for cooking). French toast was the best, using the thinned down syrup that had been cut with so much water that it only slightly retained its sweet taste. (I remember watching my dad ‘boil up’ some syrup endless week after week – adding more water and sugar to the remaining syrup until it was just a pale clear liquid. For years I thought syrup was supposed to be clear.) Eggs were a pretty common thing; fried, not scrambled. Better yet, mom would cut a hole in the bread with the rim of a glass, and dropping an egg in the hole, fry it all up as one. These were usually brown eggs, bought from the old couple who lived around the corner. “Real” eggs – the white ones from the store – were much too expensive, and were only bought for the occasional baking needs, or when the chickens would run dry. Pity the chicken that did — the farmer would come around then, selling them as fryers — squawking and still alive. Then – out the door. If there was school, you went to school, meeting the bus on top of the hill. If not: then outside to play. Momma’s orders: get outside. NOW. And don’t come back until you are called or dying.

We’d stay outside all day, running and playing. You were forbidden to come in – to any of the houses. This went for all us kids, or at least the ones I was friends with. The older kids could come and go as they pleased; but us younger ones – we were turned out like sheep onto a lawn, cattle in the field, squirrels in the woods. And play we did!

Building forts – that was our main occupation, when we weren’t just running around. Deep underground caverns that eventually someone would get trapped in. A lot of kids died (not in our neighborhood) from these forts caving in; I know me and a good friend of mine very, very nearly did. (That was a very close thing; very very close. Another story for another time.) We would dig a pit, cover it with old boards, rocks, dirt – anything we could find – until you couldn’t tell there was anything there – and then crawl in. The stupid ones would dig right into the side of a cliff – sure death, eventually. I remember one that was so large it had rooms, and we’d dug ‘candle holders’ into the sides of the walls. A huge thing, until the grownups made us fill it back in. They were always warning us about the dangers of these constructions, and I guess it kept them worried. They were always having us fill them in – and we’d just go and dig another one somewhere else. I did get buried a few times, but there again: another story, and not a nice pretty one.

Tree houses were also popular – but rare. Wood was a precious commodity, as were nails or any other building supplies. I remember one the teenage kid next door built, out on the farmer’s land. It had windows (real glass!) and everything – but then the farmer found it, and looping a thick rope around it, pulled it down with his tractor. We were some pretty sad kids at that time, watching that big old thing come down. Most of the trees, though, were unsuitable for tree houses. It’s that scrub pine thing; way too small to put a board in, much less a wooden platform. And the big pines – they don’t have branches down low to help you on your way. They were always a tough thing to climb, and for the most part, unclimbable. (Though eventually we did manage to make one – all us kids working together under the direction of that teenager, in our own back yard! Joy of joys, and the neighborhood wonder.) Another kid, climbing one, nearly had his eye poked out by a broken branch while falling down. A very serious thing – and we ALL knew about THAT branch – because we’d recognized the hazard early on. He was just unlucky.

I was a runner. My mom says I would spend all day running up and down that hill, chasing the other kids on their bicycles. (Thinking here of the tale of Forrest Gump. I was like him. I ran everywhere, and all the time.) And I was FAST. No kid could get away from me if I decided to come after them. After all, if the only way you have to get around is on bare feet – and the other kids have bikes – you learn to run fast if you are going to keep up with your friends. And don’t piss me off. I’d run up behind the ones who would, legs pumping like pistons in that hot sand – and I’d grab their bicycle seat and throw them down. Hard. They learned: you can’t get away from Mikie, even on a bike, and don’t ever – ever – piss me off. I never learned how to ‘quit’ while I was fighting, which became sort of a problem – and neighborhood sport for the older kids. Not that I was a bully – far from it. I wouldn’t fight unless you hit me – my mom had taught me that – or unless I saw another kid getting beat up. I’d always go in to rescue the underdog. And I would quit as soon as the other kid started crying – something inside me would soften up, and I’d feel sorry for the kid. I was quite a famous fighter in that neighborhood – because I had to be, I could take tremendous pain, and I wasn’t scared to go against even the bigger kids, the teenagers. And I never lost except one time, against a younger kid who surprised me. (another story, another day.) Not that fighting wasn’t a popular sport – me and my best friend would fight at least every three or four days or so – big bloody bouts – and be best friends again right after. I guess it was just the thing to do, and neither he nor I ever harbored a grudge against the other, not even when he lost (which was every time. But I was gentle on him. After all, I loved him. And, I think, he loved me as well.)

We played constantly – war games were one of the top games (this was during the Vietnam era) – but generally we played “Nazi’s”, or just plain “war”. And they were rough games. I remember breaking a thick pine branch across one kid’s back – and then just leaving him there gasping in the woods, that fine white sand sucking up all of his tears. That was part of the game, because when we played, we played ‘for keeps’ and serious. There was also football – not the team kind of sport, but more “kill the man with the ball” by taking him on – and then “dog pile” with a dozen kids piling on top of him. I was on the bottom of one of those dog piles one day. It squashed all the air right out of me. I was seeing big ol’ black splotches in front of my eyes before I got unburied. My brother got on the bottom one day; he became unconscious. We just waited around until he woke back up, and never did tell the parents. After all – it was just normal play for us, though I can almost see some of you shaking your heads in horror. In football I was always given the position of forward rush, because of my quickness and ability to take pain – and the teenager was usually the quarterback. He taught me a lot; and more than I should know, but that’s for another, much darker tale. After all – he taught a LOT of us the same thing, and we’re not going to go into that, not here, not right now. (Keep it light, Mike, because this has been a rough day.)

There were also the endless “dirt clod” fights. This sand, packed by rain water, would form large ‘clods’ that would break up upon impact, showering their victim in sand. Some had rocks; we weren’t supposed to use those — an unspoken (and sometime spoken) rule among us kids. We’d get in the ditches lining parts of the road, like the old trenches of World War One, and lob them across the road at each other. Pity the kid who got up and run; he’d be pelted with sand before he got ten steps. We learned to duck and hide real early; a handy skill for a long, long time.

There was also “Ol’ Granddad”, the underground pipe, but that came later, and I’ll tell the story of “Ol’ Granddad” when the time comes. Lets just say it was a repeating adventure into darkness and traps, and of watching cars go by from our secret location. Very scary, that one, for us kids at the time.

Some things to bear in mind, if you haven’t read “The Hood”. We were all poor. Us kids never had any money – not a dime between a dozen kids. A few had bikes – assembled creations from other bikes that had been assembled from bikes before. I had no bike; wouldn’t get mine until I was about 12 or 13, in other place and time. No place to skate, no place to go. Movies were too expensive. Toys were rare treats – something for all the kids to come see and get jealous about. And I was ‘tough’. I wasn’t ‘mean’, though – friendly, nice, and everyone says I was sweet to be around. Dirty all the time; we played outside in the sand all day, and our mothers would hose us off with garden hoses at night before we’d be allowed to come in. Only two military families there – mine and the ones up the hill. Hot sun, high humidity, a bunch of rough and tumble kids, dressed in nothing but cutoff shorts – that was us. The gang. The group. The place I would call ‘home’, and which defines my childhood in so many ways.

Years later – many years, about forty – “we” of the neighborhood; that is, the people who lived there during that time, had a ‘neighborhood reunion’. That’s how tight we were; how bound together we were back then: these people (many of them) were ‘family’ to me – more so than any real family of mine (meaning aunts, uncles, and cousins). My other two ‘mommas’ were there – old Mz. W., and Mz. RW. The guy who had ‘abused’ me wasn’t there (thank god – I don’t know how we could have or would have handled that one). My best friend, Mz. W’s son, wasn’t there either. (I would find him later on my own – a poor day-to-day living redneck with a son (I think) – and I couldn’t help but wonder if my friend would perhaps be molesting his son . . . or if his brother would, for in talking the two are still ‘brothers’. . .

What stands out in my mind though, are two things. Mz. W’s demeanor, and a photo that I saw . . .

Mz. W. was (and still is) sooo soft spoken – beaten would be the proper word for it. I could see it in her slumped shoulders; her downcast eyes. She simply sat there during the part – and I went up to her and let my little one out and he told her how much he loved her, and that she had been a momma to him . . . she just apologized for how her younger son (my best friend) had turned out . . . and seemed to be amazed at the depth and breadth of love and affection that we ALL – all us kids now-turned-adults – had for her and were bestowing on her – as though she did not deserve this level of love and affection. My heart still sings for her . . . with sadness, love, and a deep desire to understand her more; to know more of what went on in her household when the neighborhood wasn’t watching; what happened behind closed doors . . .

The other thing that stands out was that photo. It is a simple photo; black and white from the late 1960’s of all us ‘kids’ – all the neighborhood ones – standing together in one big group. There I am; there’s my brother – there’s the boy from next door, and his friend. All of us. And we’re all the same: sun-browned, dusty, dirty, dressed in T-shirts and cut off shorts (made from our school clothes from the previous year – usually hand-me-downs from someone else’s hand-me-downs which were hand-me-downs before . . .). All of us are barefooted, standing there staring directly into the camera – full body shots, there below the pines. Some of us look lost or distant; others (my teenage friend especially) have eyes intent . . . but the camaraderie is there; the sense of “here’s a gang together”. . . a wonderful thing . . .

and a sad thing as well . . .

for those times are gone . . .

but the memories remain.