(Posted on Tokoni, June 6ish, 2009)

Escape From the Hood


Late in 1968 I escaped from the Hood. Or rather, we escaped. My father had gotten orders assigning him to Fort Bragg, outside of Fayetteville, North Carolina – and for once we were going along. We would only be there for a year, first living in a fine brick house in a real neighborhood, with a paved road, modern school – and away from everything I had come to know, the definition of my childhood. Later something would happen – I don’t know what – and we would find ourselves living in military quarters. Maybe it had something to do with our dog eating those cats. Maybe it was something else. Chances are I’ll never know. I’ll have to ask my mom sometime, before old age and Alzheimer’s comes along and eats up her memory. (It’s already starting.)

We packed, the moving vans came – I remember my mom packing everything quite carefully, showing us how to pack glassware. Big yellow vans they were; trucks, actually – and bidding farewell to our friends with shouts and promises to “see you next year!”, we left the Hood, with it’s dusty road, twin row of houses, and the pine barrens behind.

I have a few stories to write about ‘there’, that place up in North Carolina. But even now it represents what it seemed to me then: a visit by a cave-child to civilization, a place of wonders and normalcy, a place where I learned how utterly strange the place I came from was; how woefully behind, how primitive, how crude. How others lived – and it seemed so strange. Everything was new and amazing, from the smoothly paved asphalt streets to the school I attended. Even the kids were different; more organized, well behaved. There were no woods to run in; everyone wore clothes – real clothes, not the threadbare rags and bare feet I had become accustomed to living in, and they wore shoes all the time; not just for church and school. How bizarre it was! There were houses next to ours – brick houses, not the small masonite sided homes I was used to. There were cars parked on the street – shiny machines, much newer than the ones in the ‘hood. All the kids had bicycles; I was given one. It was necessary for the one mile ride to school. Everything was different, and I was struck with wonder. Like I said: a caveman who has come to town.

The teenager wasn’t there, my best friend wasn’t there, so the sexual abuse stopped immediately, as soon as I got into the car to leave the hood, like a door slamming shut on a chapter in my life. He was there when I returned, of course, but something was different. We won’t go into that here. This story is about another place; this place, this life in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

We left in the late fall; we always left in the late fall, if we were to go somewhere, because that’s when my daddy’s orders would come in. I guess it had something to do with his enlistment date. We arrived early in the school year, and I was already behind.

The bike rides to school: get on my bike, books in the basket, and leave the cul-de-sac that the brick house sat in. Through the neighborhood, other kids joining me along the way. The hard pedal up through the streets lined with houses. The long, long hill that offered a straight shot down; a narrow path, built just for pedestrians and us early morning cyclers. The long puffing ride up the other side. And there lay the school – a huge building, unlike the school I’d come from. It was ran by the military, I think, but I don’t know for sure. And in the gym – they had a gym! – on rainy days the coaches would have the students gather round a huge red and white parachute – and grabbing the edges, we’d all lift it high; then bringing it down, send it billowing in a huge striped dome. Over and over again, we’d lift and drop that huge, tremendous thing – exercise for our arms, I guess, and a pleasure for me.

I’ll never forget one coach and the day he taught us students to walk. Have you ever seen little kids walk? How many of them will hold their arms stiffly down by their sides, walking like little automatons? That was many of us, and this one day in the green mowed field outside (not dirt! Not muddy clay! So unlike the school of my childhood!) – he finally yelled at us in disgust.

“You kids need to learn to WALK. Like PEOPLE.” And arranging us in a line he had us begin to walk around and around the field, showing us how to swing our arms.

“NO! Not THAT way. LEFT arm out with the RIGHT foot; RIGHT arm out with the LEFT foot.” I dutifully followed his instructions – and have been walking that way ever since. So many instructions; so many things for the little primitive caveman to learn.

We bought our first new car there. I’ll never forget the thing: it was a Ford Gran Torino station wagon, and it had – wonder of wonders: seat belts and an electric rear roll down window! There was even a third seat in the back; you could fold the floor up and sit and instead of seeing where you were going, see where you had been. I’ll never forget that new car smell – how utterly foreign and yet delicious it was; nor the smooth vinyl seats. Clicking the seat belts on – and wondering what they were for. My father driving it out of the lot that night, for it was night – proud as a peacock, my mother sitting just as proudly beside him. That station wagon was to see a lot of miles, both cross-country and later, back in the ‘hood, hauling all the neighborhood kids around. But at that moment it was a new machine – and it lasted until 1979, when my brother drove it into the dirt on a three day haul to California, breaking an axle and blowing the engine in order to avoid being thrown into jail for being a deserter.

It was there in North Carolina that I joined a team – a REAL team, a baseball team – though I wasn’t any good at the game. I’d hadn’t ever seen a baseball before, which explains part of it, plus my dad wasn’t given to ‘playing ball’ with the kids. That’s one thing that didn’t change: the constant terror and beatings that my brother and I were given, topped with a big ol’ heapin’ helping of mental and emotional abuse. But the sexual abuse; that was one thing. It stopped right there at the ‘hood, and would begin again when I returned.

It was there in North Carolina that I had my toughest fights. One my brother started with a teenager, and I almost lost. After that, I never stood up for my brother again. There’s a story behind that, and I’m going to tell it soon as part of this chronological series. Another story is when my momma taught him to start fighting instead of standing there screaming, waiting for me, his younger brother to come rescue him while some other kid pounded on him. And a third fight I’m gonna tell that lasted two days. It left me torn and tattered, and I really think I lost. But that in part is because I was all too trusting, and never one to hold a grudge.

This is just an overview of the time I spent there, with my family and a black dog named Caleb who would eat anything. Of a little country boy come out of the woods to visit the great big city – only to have to return again. And of all the things that stand out in my mind about this period was how different this new world was; how far ahead and civilized it seemed compared to the one I had come from. It was mind-blowing and bewildering in many ways; wonderful and marvelous in others, confusing and strange as well. Like I’ve said: it was like you’d taken a cave-child and suddenly jerked him into this century. A ‘beyond words’ type of feeling; of being lost and being someplace weird and wonderful at the same time.

Escape from the ‘hood. It was the first time, but it wouldn’t be the last.

(And this is from now, October 20, 2011:

We’ve learned since then several things.
One – and we remember this – we started in a house, but ended up in base housing – apartment quarters, stacked three high and I guess four units wide – cookie cutter apartments, each a mirror of the last, and all the buildings the same.

I’d always been confused: that transition there.  First we’d been in a nice house with a chain linked fence for the back yard – as always we’d moved there in the fall; I can “remember” it quite perfectly – the beautiful russets and browns of the fallen leaves, all of them hardwoods – not like the pines we had back home.

And then something happened.  I know “my” (or actually my dad’s) dog ate a litter of kittens – we lived down at the end of a cul-de-sac courtyard, a regular turn-around – I remember there was a lot of trouble and stink about that one.  Must have been something bad – or worse, for a few months ago my brother and I got to talking and he mentioned that dad had done something bad – gotten in trouble with the Army – and they (the Army) had forced him (and thus us) to move out of our nice little house – a REAL house with brick and all, and a paved driveway! – into those noisy dusty apartments where the enlisted dependents lived, and there was often trouble.

But that explains it all: why we’ve always had two sets of confused memories about that time we spent “up north” (though it was to get a lot more “Northern” later on) – a set – nice and calm, some beauty – some terror (gee, suddenly got some cold chills from ‘inside’ that house – and “we” don’t remember the inside at ALL) – so definitely some bad things happened there.  Just the beautiful back yard and those rides to school and back . . . then NOTHING . . . and suddenly “we” are in the apartments scraping it out and building block forts out of old moving boxes . . .

Strange . . . some of the things we’re missing.  Makes us sad . . . and makes us wonder: what else was going on?  Why are there those ‘gaps’?  We don’t know, and we’re trying to figure it out . . . while we sense a child fallen, weeping somewhere inside . . .