Tag Archive: neighborhood



The Last Days of the Hood

My last days as a child in the ‘hood were a time of chaotic confusion laced with grief, horror, and sorrow, and tremendous changes which would sweep me and my family into a strange land of isolation and filled with new experiences which would profoundly affect my life for the next four years – and beyond. Some of the changes were to be in God’s hands – or fate, or karma, or whatever you want to call it. One change I saw coming, but could not control. I suppose I could have controlled my response to those other changes, and in doing so have made wiser choices, but I was young, having just turned eleven. I did not know – could not know – the effects of my choices. In some respects I wonder if I really had a choice in my reactions; or perhaps my reactions were the only reactions a child could have. Looking back, I can see where I went wrong in some cases, but in other respects I realize: wrong or right, how I responded to those changes was to determine who I am today.

The changes started with an announcement by my mom late in the fall – mid-October, to be precise. It was simple and direct, as most of her announcements were. She was never one to beat around the bush, or break things to us boys gently. She just sat us down at the table and stated things as they were.

“You’re dad got orders. We’re leaving in thirty days. We’re going to Germany for four years. I’m going to need you boys help to get ready . . .”

We had just returned from North Carolina the year before, so the idea of moving wasn’t alien. After asking my mom some questions about Germany (yes, Michael, it snows there; you were born there) – I was a bit enthused about the idea. Moving was exciting, though we had only moved twice in the past five or so years – up to North Carolina and then back. The moves of the past – before we’d arrived at the ‘hood – were forgotten memories. For me the ‘hood was my childhood, my home – and while deep down I felt a dark foreshadowing of the loneliness and grief I would feel at leaving my friends and the neighborhood where I had spent so much of my childhood, the prospect of seeing snow (so rare in Georgia!) was foremost in my mind. Little did I know. And four years. How can a child conceive of four years? I figured it would be just like before: go away, come back, and it would be as if nothing had ever happened, nothing ever changed. As far as I was concerned, it would simply be another jaunt to someplace else; nothing major. Boy, was I wrong!

I remember standing in the sand alongside the road, talking to my best friend, the boy next door, telling him we were going to Germany.

“It snows this deep!” I exclaimed, holding my hand half-way up to my shins. (Little did I know: it got much deeper than that, going over my head in drifts sometimes.)

“No!” he exclaimed in disbelief. “It never gets that deep!” Him,being born and raised in the south, and knowing no other place in than the ‘hood, could not conceive of snow deeper than our ankles. We argued about it for awhile, and then put our argument aside – still unresolved – and went off to play. If I’d only known what was going to happen next, I would of hugged him tightly – maybe even kissed him on the cheek – and done the same for the rest of his family. Because what happened next – what happened next is what shook our end of the ‘hood to it’s foundations.

It happened just a few nights, maybe a week before Halloween, late in the evening. Before I go on, let me explain a few things.

Next door, where the teenager lived (if you’ve read some of my stories, you know more about him than you’d probably like to know) – was the poorest family in the ‘hood. Make do and do without – that was their name, their lifestyle. The father, a hard working construction worker, was a huge, rotund man – strong as an ox from lifting brick and masonry all day, he always had a huge smile for us kids, and would lift four of us up at one time on his thick, brawny brown arms. He was quick to laugh – a huge laugh, as big as the man himself. We will call him “Mr. C.” His “help” was a man he’d rescued from a ditch years and years before – an Army retiree who’d been mugged and left for dead. That man – old and stinky with his cigars, would sit in an ancient lazy chair on the porch while us kids wheeled around him, begging for abuse by taunting him. We will call him “Mr. S.” I remember my best friend “loaded” one of his cigars one day; the look of amazement on his face when it exploded – his bushy eyebrows arching up towards his balding pate, and his thick fingers clamping down on the shredded remains as he peered over his glasses at us kids, looking for the guilty one – remains with me to this day. We all kept our distance from this man – if you got too close, he would catch you in a head lock and thump you on the noggin’ with his thumb, leaving a knot on your head. And the wife of the construction worker – another ‘second’ mom to me – meek and mild; hard working yet never complaining, running herd on a passel of rough and tumble kids. Even when she was scolding she was soft spoken, and the words were spoken with love. So much unlike my mom, whose words were often harsh and loud, and full of spiteful hate and vengefulness. It was to these folks that disaster was to fall – and disaster of the worst kind.

It was night, and we were getting our last drinks of water before going to bed when my mom came in through the kitchen door. She was pale and shaken, and we could tell right away something was wrong – bad wrong.

“Mr. C. (the construction worker) has been in a wreck,” she said. I guess she told us kids because – well, because they lived right next door, and I guess she needed someone to talk to. “Mr. S. (the old cigar smoking fellow) – is dead. The teenager got hurt, too. He was driving . . .”

And so the story came out – how they were coming home that evening from a job in Mr. C’s old pickup truck, the teenager driving (he was old enough) and Mr. S. riding in back with the shovels and equipment. Apparently the truck hit something or someone hit them, and a wheelbarrow hit Mr. S., breaking his neck and killing him instantly. Mr. C. had a hole in his leg – “big enough to put your fist through”, according to my mom. He had been rushed to a hospital. The teenager was “fine”, but pretty badly bumped and bruised. This had all happened a long way from our home and theirs – a long night’s drive away – and Mr. C. was in a small hick town hospital.

“I’m going to leave you two boys here,” she said. “Mrs. C. needs me.” Shaken, my brother and I could only nod our heads and agree. Mr. S. dead? Mr. S. dead?? That thought rocked my socks off. I had only played with him (or around him) the day before. And I liked the old man. While he didn’t put up with any of us kid’s nonsense, you knew – just knew – he was fond of us all the same. And that fondness was returned – in our own way. Just as he would thump our heads for ‘bothering’ him (and then let us go) – you could tell that if you didn’t ‘bother’ him, he would get sad. Mr. C’s being injured didn’t bother me as much at the time – I had been hurt before, and was convinced that the doctors could fix anything. And my friend, the teenager – well, I’d started having mixed feelings about him after the things he had done. But my best friend – the son of Mr. C – I almost panicked about him. I knew he had to be really upset.

Every day after that when we’d get home, my mom would fill us in. I don’t know whether it was because we asked, or if she just knew we were concerned. My best friend would still come out to play – but the family was subdued, as were our playtimes.

Three days later – on Halloween night – came the news.

“Mr. C. is dead,” my mom said as we prepared our Halloween costumes. “When you go out trick-or-treating with them tonight, don’t tell them. The kids don’t know yet, and we don’t want them to know. We want them to enjoy tonight without knowing their father is dead. Okay?”

And thus began the worst Halloween I can ever remember.

It had been a week of shocks. A month of shocks. First going to Germany – and soon. Then Mr. S. – our precious friend! – dead. The wreck. And now this. On Halloween.

I think my brother and I must have been in shock – shock after shock hitting us. But Halloween was upon us, and it was evening. All around us the ‘hood was coming to life – little kids wandering around, parents here and there – and us. I felt like someone had punched me; like a zombie, mindless. My thoughts were only about four things: Mr. S. being dead, and Mr. C. now dead – and my best friend – and this terrible secret we were suddenly burdened with keeping.

I remember us going out into the front yard. It was already dark. We waited awhile, then my best friend and his big brother, the teenager, came over. The teenager was the one who was going to take us on our rounds. Odd, now that I think of it, here, now, writing this. My mom had always accompanied us before on our Halloween rounds. This was the first time ever that she didn’t. Looking back, I can think of only one thing: she’d gone next door to Mrs. C’s house to comfort the poor wretched woman, and perhaps take care of the trick-or-treaters coming to Mrs. C’s door. After all – I imagine Mrs. C. was in no condition to do that herself. It would have been just too much, too tragic – to have to see a bunch of happy kids staring at her, some in death costumes – when her husband had just died – and her with no job, no income, probably no savings or life insurance – and four hungry mouths to feed.

We left the yard, the teenager being kind of quiet and curt with us – he seemed almost distracted. We had not even crossed the other next door neighbor’s yard when we saw the thing – something which still sticks out in my mind to this day, as graphic as if I had it sitting in front of me. I even gave it a name.

Flat cat. That is the name I gave it. For there, in the neighbor’s driveway, was a kitten, almost fully grown – smashed flat as a pancake by a car. It was laying on its back, and the only thing that stuck out were its eyes – huge and bulging, staring up at the night sky. I suppose at any other time it might have been comical, but on this night – Halloween night – with my best friend’s father suddenly dead – it was a horror.

Things get fuzzy from here.

I don’t know who said it, when it was said – and I’m almost certain I’m the one who said it – but somehow it came out.

“Your daddy’s dead.”

“I know,” the teenager said, his eyes rising to the midnight horizon. It was if he had suddenly forgotten we were there. I could feel my best friend flinch next to me.

“No he’s not! He’s not dead!” My best friend’s protests cut me to the quick.

I don’t recall exactly what happened next. I can only remember turmoil. When I was talking to a shrink about this (she laughed at the picture I drew of the flat cat, thinking it was funny – and really angering me) – all I could say is that I remember people running around. But it was Halloween, which would make sense. But in my heart I think what happened was this:

My best friend ran to his house, crying.

The teenager watched him go, looking real sad, but took us on our rounds to collect candy anyway. I don’t remember being happy, not happy at all. All I could feel was a deep upset and a sadness which wouldn’t go away. If I had to put it into words, it was the sensation of wanting to rip one’s heart out, to somehow go back in time – but as a child I hadn’t the words nor the concepts, only the feeling that lay within.

When we got home we told my mom: we spilled the beans. My mom was not happy about that, but I don’t think she did anything to us except tell us that we should of kept it to ourselves.

It was not a happy night.

We went to the funeral. I recall being dressed in my Sunday best. I could not understand why Mr. C. had died – it had only been a leg wound. How could a leg wound kill anyone? I didn’t understand; didn’t want to understand, but I wanted to know. Why was my best friend’s father – a man who I really had liked – dead? (And I loved Mr. S. I almost hate to say it, but I loved that grumpy old man.) She explained it thus:

“He got a blood clot and it killed him. The hospital he was in wouldn’t treat it. He didn’t have any insurance to pay . . .”

I don’t know why, but there and then I hated the insurance company – without even really knowing what such a thing was – only that they could have saved Mr. C. – but because he didn’t have enough money, they let him die. I was angry at them, but too confused to express my anger. How could they let him die?, I remember wondering over and over again. How could they do that? To this day I feel anger about that, and don’t have much more love for insurance companies than I did at that moment.

The funeral was like any Southern funeral. There was a nice church – we sat in back – and there were lots and lots of flowers. We never saw Mr. S. again. I guess no one went to his funeral, or (more than likely) – he was given a military funeral somewhere else and we didn’t go. I was sad – but I couldn’t cry. I just couldn’t. I remember feeling really guilty about that, and somewhere during the preaching in the church, I managed to force one tear. One single tear for the men who had died, a father I had known, and one of few grownups I knew and liked. Nothing more.

I’ve never been able to cry much since, except for one time, and that would come a few years later. I feel grief, but cannot cry. I don’t know why that is. I’ve been told that it’s a bad thing, but I think it’s just the way society views us men; the way I was raised. Big boys don’t cry, and men – never. It’s just “the rules”. And even many women, who in today’s society say that men should be “more sensitive” profess that the sight of a man crying bothers them, disturbs them, and makes them think less of the man.

I remember us going down to the passport building at the local fort to get our passport photos made. I remember that small building well; could even take you out there and show you where it is (or was). A squat wood planked building set high on blocks to thwart the termites, the white paint a dozen or more coats thick; four by eight paned windows, their panes like dots on dice – all the buildings were like that – their dull monotony even worse than blades of grass – and having to sit on my momma’s lap while the photo was taken. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t have my “own” passport, but they said I was too young. My mom still has that passport – I’ve seen the photo since then. Black and white it shows a smiling young woman and a somewhat doubtful blond headed boy. She is looking at the camera; I’m looking slightly to the edge, because I was watching the photographer, and not the lens. I’ve always been that way: unable to directly meet people’s eyes without feeling disturbed, and unwilling to look into a camera lens. That’s caused problems in the past (people think I’m lying) – but it goes back to my past and psychology. You didn’t look my parents in the eyes when you were answering them. To do so was to make them angry – they saw it as a challenge. So I don’t like doing that unless I am challenging a person. Otherwise I’m taking in the details – the things around me. I’m very detail orientated like that, which I guess is part of the reason I remember all the little details of things (like that we were facing WEST in the room; the building’s door faced SOUTH, you walked to the RIGHT to sit in the chair, the floors were green linoleum, there was a clock on the wall with a black edged frame and a bubble glass front, the chair was a green or gray metal, the pads on it green vinyl, the windows wood framed, white painted, with four rows of panes across, four rows up, double hung; there was an office in the building facing the room you came in; there was glass in front of the office, and a chipped brown board under the window to rest your arms while you talked to the person inside, the door to the office was to the LEFT as you faced it . . . little things like that.)

We got our shots about the same time. I remember the pediatric clinic well: faded and chipped children’s pictures painted on the walls, the same type of hard framed metal chairs lining the middle; wooden benches like church pews along the walls. There were always people smoking – looking bored, reading newspapers, flipping through well worn and oft times ripped magazines. My brother – crying and wailing before they even came to get him; me sitting there watching the other little kids, my mom beside me, her black purse pressed against my side . . . . a yellow manila folder in her hand. Watching in fascination as the doctor stuck needles in my arms; how sore it made my arms for a few days afterward.

We left the hood a few weeks later. I have a ‘snapshot memory’ of us packing – my mom showing us how to pack glasses (“stuff them full of paper, then wrap them in paper. If you don’t stuff them with paper, they’ll break.”) Most of our stuff was going into “storage”, where the Army would keep it for the years we were gone. When we came back, most of it was missing, especially my toys. Those old G.I. Joes would’ve been worth a fortune by now. And my mom’s Corningware – something she still gets angry about ‘losing’ to this day. I guess storage isn’t as well guarded as we’d been told, despite being an “Army” institution.

And then, boarding the big jet plane in Charleston – we were “outta here” – away from the States – and everything I knew.

Life as I knew it would never be the same.


Odds & Ends From The Hood

Before I get to the last story of my last days in the ‘hood as a child, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t include the odds and ends of recollections that I carry in my head like eggs in a basket. The ‘hood defined my childhood more than any other period; that time between the ages of five and eleven. What came before and what came after . . . was something different. Profound changes lay in my future; I was unaware of what awaited me and the huge impacts these changes would have. But for now, for this, I include – and conclude – my time in the hood, with the exception of one more story; one to come, entitled “The Last Days of the ‘Hood”.

You will pardon me if I ramble a bit, skipping back and forth through time – a period roughly between 1963 and 1971. These memories are pure flashes; smaller stories of that time . . .

Pre-hood Tidbits

I remember being very small, sitting on a concrete driveway somewhere and picking the flakes of rust off the bottom of the door of my father’s car. I loved the gritty feel and the irony taste when I’d put my fingers to my mouth. My dad, I remember, was washing the car one time while we were in the driveway. He fussed at me about that – picking holes into the bottoms of the side panels – but despite the aggravation he smiled and left me alone . . .

I remember when we first arrived in Georgia. There was no home for us. The Army put us in a a barracks style building out on Fort Gordon. We were given steel framed beds – cots, it seemed – in a big room with other families, similarly displaced by their father’s move. . . . My teddy bear, which my parents had bought for me overseas when I was born was my only companion. My mom is amazed I remember that place.

I remember as a very small child creeping into my parent’s room at night. We weren’t allowed to go into their room. It was strictly forbidden – very much so. But I would lay down next to their bed, taking comfort in their presence – and then getting caught in the morning, scolded, and sometimes spanked. By the time I was four years old I knew, and would sleep in the hallway, pressed tight against the door like a dog waiting on his master. Even that was punishable, and by the time I was five I had given up on the idea, shivering in bed with all the fears of childhood while storms raged outside, or just hurting inside because I wanted to be near my parents . . .

I remember my brother running into the first house we had, before the ‘hood, screaming. Blood was running down his face. He had picked up a baby blue jay, and landing on his head, the parent pecked a bunch of holes in him. After seeing that, there was no way I was going to mess with a baby bird. . . .

I remember going to the neighbors one evening after supper to see if the kids could come out to play. Their front door was open, but the screen door was shut. Just as I raised my hand to knock, I looked down to see a giant snake crawling into a vent. With a scream, I burst through the screen into their living room, where they were sitting with TV trays eating dinner and watching TV. I didn’t even bother opening the door. Boy, did they look surprised – but they were not nearly as surprised as I had been by that giant snake. . .

My parents bought me a luxurious toy – a pedal powered tractor with an umbrella and a wagon. I was four. It was my pride and joy. My mom had to chase me down several times when I decided I could compete with the traffic in the street, and would be madly pedaling away. . . .

I remember the floor furnace in the living room of that old house. In the winter it was something to be wary of. If you stepped on it when it was running, it would leave a pattern of burns that looked just like the grating covering it. How I hated that thing. It would roar and murmur, with its red eye looking out at you from the darkness of its innards, and even in the summer it would tick and chuckle to itself . . .

I loved my pajamas with the footies. I wore them out . . .

In The Hood

Like many children I had a soft “blankie”, or blanket. It was blue. It disappeared sometime early on while I was in the ‘hood, becoming nothing more than a memory by the time I was seven. I missed that ‘blankie’ for years. . .

I remember us kids piling into the station wagon – that trusty Ford Grand Torino – and going to “Kelly’s”, a fast-food restaurant some miles away. It was always a special treat for us to go, and we only went when my father was home. Each time my dad would order for us all – and ordering something I liked, and something I hated.

What I hated was what my dad insisted we ALL would eat: the chili dogs. I hated chili dogs with a passion, but he would order them for us anyway – and then make us eat them. No matter how much we complained (and we didn’t complain too loudly) – chili dogs it was. I can still see the place – it had grand illuminated arches, not like McDonald’s, but different – and it was always a cool place to go. But those chili dogs – I was in my late twenties before I got over my aversion to them.

My love? The soft drinks. This was the only time we ever got soft drinks: when we went to Kelly’s. Otherwise they were non-existent. We didn’t even know what they were called – just that they were fizzy with wonderful carbonation – and so sweet! Like any kids, we slurped them up, washing those disgusting (but probably pretty tasty to a grownup palate) – chili dogs down.

I remember the teenager next door stringing a fifty-five gallon barrel between two trees and tying a bunch of ropes to it. Challenging anyone to ride it, he and his friends would yank on the ropes, giving us an “authentic fifty-five gallon bull ride”. It was hard for us little kids to hang on with our short legs, and many took a tumble. But it was great fun, a huge lark, until his father had him take it down.

I remember (bad child that I was) – sitting in the sand of our driveway with a magnifying glass, trying to burn holes in the tires on my father’s car . . .

I remember us stringing used inner tubes between the mailboxes as part of our “wars”. We would use the inner tubes like giant slingshots, capable of hurling dirt clods way over the roofs of the houses – well over a hundred and fifty feet – and bombard our enemy with surprise. This kept on until one day when a kid got hurt by a huge dirt clod, delivered with deadly force at close range, which sent him crying all the way home. After that the grownups forbade the use of the “slingshots”, reducing us to throwing by hand once again. . .

War. God! Was that the only game us boys played? Sometimes it seems that it was. “Nazis and Germans”, “Vietcong and G.I.’s”. My father brought home some old helmet liners and used disposable rocket launchers (which looked like bazookas, complete with sights) from the fort where he worked. We were in high heaven. We waged war in dead earnest – we dug pits lined with punji sticks, attempting to cripple each other. Fortunately we had no real way of digging, and no knives to sharpen our “stakes” – thus no one ever really got hurt – or at least not badly. “Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat!” we’d yell, dodging across the yard. We were too poor to afford toy guns, so we usually used sticks. “You missed!” someone would always cry, and continue to run across the grass. Amazing how many imaginary bullets missed their mark – leading to other, and much more real fights sometimes. (“I DID shoot you!” “No you didn’t!” “Yes, I DID!” “No, you MISSED!”) . . . and I ambushing a boy and breaking a fallen pine’s trunk as thick around as my arm back then across his back, and leaving him breathless in the sand. We played for “keeps” when we played war . . .

Speaking of “keeps”, I remember the teenager teaching us how to play marbles, and the endless marble games in the sandy driveway . . . the teenager usually won the “pitch to the line” games, whereas I was a deadly shot in the “knock it out of the circle” . . .

I remember busting in on my dad in the tub one time to ask him if I could go somewhere – and my fascination with that dark mass of hair – “there” – and his look of surprise. He managed to remain calm, asking what I wanted. But that sight is still frozen in my mind. I knew I had done something forbidden, busting into the bathroom like that. By “their laws” (my parents), I should have been severely beaten. . . . .

I remember watching the man across the street beat his wife with a garden hose. What started off as a game grew to something else – a something violent. I think he was drunk, or well on the way getting there. Swinging the hose in big circles he kept smacking her until she cried in pain, that just seemed to spur him to greater efforts. Her kids and I were standing around, occasionally dodging the hose. He didn’t seem to even see us. Eventually my mom came over to save her best friend (and my “other mom”) from him. He smacked her as well, until they were able to overpower him and striking him, took the hose away.

I remember in the same yard us kids gathering around to watch “Prince”, the big German shepherd, mate with a smaller dog. Most of the kids didn’t know what was going on. I knew too well, and it disturbed me.

I remember taking piano lessons from the woman across the road who was beaten with the hose. My parents even bought a old piano! I was thrilled, and remember watching the repairman tune it. I would go across the dirt road every few days, then come home to practice. When I was with her she’d sit right next to me on the bench. Whenever I hit a wrong note, she would pinch the nerves in my knee, tickling the crap out of me, and she always gave me great big hugs when I left. My favorite songs were “Born Free” and Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Often I would sit there pounding out Beethoven’s Fifth as loud as I could, over and over again. Now I can barely find “middle C”. So much for piano lessons and the aspirations of a parent . . .

I remember my dad “testing” me for worms. Coming in early one morning and waking me, having me roll over. Spreading my cheeks and taking a swab and swabbing me “down there”. I think I remember that so well because of what the teenager was doing. It reminded me too much of him. But I was too sleepy to be embarrassed or afraid. . . .

I remember when I caught worms. My mom didn’t tell me what to do with the suppositories; handing me the tinfoil wrapped ‘pills’ she told me sit on the toilet and insert them . . . down there. I didn’t know the tinfoil was supposed to come off . . .

I remember my mom slinging my most precious toy of all – my teddy bear, my constant companion and friend from birth – out of the car window one day. I was so devastated and crying so hard that she eventually turned around and got it, shoving it back into my arms with an angry scowl. . . .

I remember how badly I wanted to be a “good soldier” for my dad. I remember trying to impress him with my prowess in fighting, my toughness. Polishing his boots (and not meeting his standards). Wishing he would teach me more (he taught us very little). Seeing his pride when he made Warrant officer – and how he scolded me when I went to touch his magical uniform.

I my brother and I kissing, laying in a tight embrace on the floor. This was no child’s kiss; it was my first “grown-up” kiss – you know the kind. I didn’t like it, but did it anyway . . . I was glad when he quit. I didn’t like him much anyway. . . .

I remember the bus monitor, a ornery and bossy teenage girl. She was well developed with spade like hips and very full breasts. Her “boobs” fascinated us little boys. Getting off the bus on spring day, I reached up and “swung” down the stairs by her breasts like a monkey swinging on drooping vines. Outraged, she chased me across the road into a yard and threw me to the ground. Leaping onto me like a panther, she pinned me down. With a confused look of dawning awareness that she was about to beat up a little kid, she told me: don’t do it again, dammit. Laying there in breathless laughter, I watched her get back up and go back to the bus. I never messed with her again. . . .

I remember the teenager patiently trying to teach us little kids to play football. He taught us how not to get “taken down” by shaking your butt when someone grabbed you around the hips. That was a lesson that was to come in handy . . .

I remember us playing football as well. Due to my aggressiveness and lack of skills catching – or throwing – the ball, I was always put on “forward rush”. Small as I was I was quick and nimble, and would bust through any force. Often I would get a bloody nose and never notice. The other kids respected my talent for breaking through the defense, and even the teenager (who always played quarterback) learned that he should run.

I remember a big kid, all full of himself, coming into our yard. He was new to the neighborhood. My friends were all around. This kid started saying how he could whip anyone. My friends told him that he couldn’t beat me; that I was the toughest kid in the neighborhood. He laughed and faced off with me, doubling his fists and talking trash. Before he could throw a fist, I kicked him in the shin and he fell down, crying and begging and swearing his leg was broken and for me not to beat the living crap outta him. He lost any respect he would of gotten that day . . . from me, or any of the other kids in the ‘hood.

I remember when I went outside to feed the cat during a thunderstorm – and a lightning bolt struck right between the houses, only a dozen or so feet from me. Screaming at the top of my lungs, I fled inside, bowl flipping up over my head, and scattering cat food from the carport to the kitchen. My mom and dad, sitting at the kitchen table, laughed and laughed at the food everywhere. Us kids found a fused piece of sand there the next day, where the scorched mark lay. . . .

I remember my mom teaching us to shoot her bow and arrow – a light weight bow, cream white. We became very good at the thing, drawing it back with our strong seven year old arms. . . .

I remember we were so poor that my mom took pity on us and made uniforms for our G.I. Joes. After a few years of play the feet and the hands would come off of the G.I. Joes (my brother and I each had one) – simulating injuries for them. . . . she also made clothes for our most important stuffed animals, and each night I would change my bear from his day clothes to his red night pajamas. They were a one piece with snaps made of soft fuzzy cotton, kinda like the pajama I wore as a young child. My brother’s bear had an “Army” uniform I can recall; overalls with a patch on the front from one of my dad’s uniforms . . .

I remember my mom spent a lot of time sewing late into the night; sometimes it seems like she was constantly in her room, making clothes or alterations for money. She made custom dresses and skirts, blouses and things for most of the neighborhood women, and not a few of the neighborhood kids. She made our clothes quite often as well. They always fit better and lasted much longer than store-bought clothes, but even still . . . us kids were not happy with them. If it had been up to us there would have been but one outfit: a t-shirt and shorts; nothing else, not even underwear . . . flashing bare feet and a smile . . .

Shoes were a constant concern. How happy I would be when we’d go shoe shopping in the fall! Red Goose Shoes were my “usual brand”, though I always had my heart set on a pair of the Buster Browns. I loved the feel of the soft suede leather, but my mom wouldn’t let me get any. For one thing they cost more, those Buster Browns with the boy’s smiling face that I liked – and for another, suede was just a bad idea for a country child who like to go trompsing through field and stream – with red clay no less! – and living beside a dusty road out in the sticks. Not that I would have been allowed to wear them except to church and to school – but with the playground that we had (or rather should I say the one we didn’t – it was just a big red empty field) – I would have been brushing those things until the leather wore off instead of learning to polish them the way I did . . .

I also hated getting new shoes – and by that I mean the good leather ones that were supposed to last me all year; not the tennis shoes I wore some of the time. They were stiff and made my feet sore after a summer spent running around in bare feet with calloused treads, and when you’d first put them on it was like having weights on your ankles: they drug me down, slowed my steps, tired me out sometimes. Plus I had high insteps, which made loafers – which I really wanted – even more impossible. I wanted a set so bad – you could just see it! – slipping your feet in and out rather than having to tie your own shoes . . . as a kid they were quite appealing, but we never could find a set that could fit me . . . until we finally gave up on the thing, consigning me to lacing up my shoes for a long, long time.

And I remember the Red Goose Kiosk – the one with the big fat goose within. Feed her a quarter and she’d give you an egg . . . nothing major, just a really cool thing as a kid . . .

and my fascination with those measuring machines the clerks all used – the things to measure how wide your feet were – how cool those smooth metal boards would feel beneath my feet! And how strange and suddenly important I would feel, making sit up just a little bit higher as this clerk – an adult human being! – tended my feet. It felt strange every time . . . but I always used to relish the feel of that smooth cool metal against my feet, and that little thing they used to measure the width with . . .

I remember other things; unimportant flashes through time. A boy inverting a bicycle and spinning the back tire, letting it rub him ‘there’. “I’m gonna make myself a girl!” he proudly crowed. Strange child . . . that was at my birthday party and I sat there wondering “What the hell?”.

I remember my best friend and I, thirty feet up in a tree.  He’d brought sex catalog of some kind; it was in black and white.  We looked at it for awhile, him and me; I think I was about nine years old.  I remember the wind, soft, coming over the platform’s sides of the treehouse we’d built up there; the sky so blue you couldn’t hardly stand it; the warm breezes . . .
and then he and I began to have sex; the oral kind.  And when I was giving him the pleasure he sorta started laughing and I felt a trickle come and I jerked away . . . he busted out laughing; he’d almost peed in me . . . something his brother, the big one did when he would anally rape us sometimes . . . I hated him for that sort of thing.

I remember me and my best friend smashing one another’s faces in and laughing insanely while we did it . . . we gave each other bloody noses and puffy lips, and then hugging chest to chest, eyeballing the damage we’d done to one another, we both agreed we were still tough and I could still “whoop” his ass when it came down to it . . . and we walked off to the hose cooing over our injuries and in a mutual arm-over-shoulder buddy embrace . . . we thought our friendship would last for all time (and it nearly did in some ways . . . not that I’ve ever seen him except once or twice since . . .)

I remember an extensive underground fort our teenage friend dug and built . . .

I find it disturbing just how many of us children he ‘abused’ . . . molesting his 6 year old little sister when he was about 13; me and my brother; his own brother, some other kids across the ‘hood . . .

I actually went to his wedding.  And I didn’t say a thing.  I was about 14 then and he scared the shit outta me.

I remember getting buried a couple of times.
I remember when a stack of concrete blocks fell on me.

I remember THE Halloween party my mom threw. She dressed up as a witch – which she told everyone she was. We played a 45 rpm record of “Icabod’s Last Ride” all through the night. The neighborhood was invited over; there was the classic game of “this is the dead man’s eyes” (grapes), and “this is the dead man’s brains” (spaghetti). To this day Halloween remains my most favorite holiday, even more than Christmas. . .

Speaking of Halloween: being so poor we could afford to buy costumes . . . using an old bed sheet instead I came up with what seemed to me the most horrifying monster I could be: the ghost of a werewolf. I had a hard time coloring “bloodstains” on that old bed sheet with a crayon . . . and had to explain at every doorway exactly what it was I was supposed to be. . .

The ‘hood. A place. A life time and a childhood.

Seemed quite normal to me.

(Note: we here are getting close to the end of the “Tales from the ‘Hood” . . . not much more to go from here . . .then comes the really scary part in some ways . . . both in writing and our therapy . . .)


Taking On The Bullies In The Hood

There was a family of bullies on our street. They lived in the fourth house up the dirt road from us – I can see their white single story house plainly, set behind a chain link fence. In it lived a group of teenagers ranging from about sixteen to nineteen (I was eight or so), and they didn’t get along with anyone except (perhaps), themselves. They wouldn’t hesitate to stop a little kid walking along the road and beat them up. Even the teenager next door didn’t get along with them, and he was a favorite among both us little kids and the grownups. They had parents, I’m sure, but we rarely saw the parents – and no one ventured into their yard. It was certain death – or at least a good thrashing if one of them even saw you looking at them too hard.

Now we had a game we’d play when I was a little kid – “Hockey on a Stick” – which had absolutely nothing to do with hockey. Instead, a kid (usually one of us littler ones) would get a stick, and finding a pile of dog poo, would load up the end of the stick and begin chasing the others with it – all the while yelling “Hockey on a stick! Hockey on a stick!”. I haven’t a clue where that term came from, but I do know this: whoever had that stick was someone to run away from – for if they got too close, down would come the stick, and the next thing you knew, it would be ‘hockey on ME!” Fortunately, I was fast on my feet, and agile, too. That was a skill that was to come in handy for a long time in my life. Especially in this next part.

One hot summer day I was walking up the road going to visit a friend when I noticed the teenagers busily waxing their nice white hotrod (okay, maybe not a hotrod, but definitely their car) – in their driveway. To this day I don’t know what compelled me to do what I did, I only know that I did it – and loved every minute of it.

Finding a stick, I loaded it up – “hockey on a stick” – and loaded it up GOOD. And then I waited until they began putting up their rags. Walking casually ‘past’ their driveway gate – I’d of been whistling if I knew how – I suddenly rushed in, brandishing my poo-loaded stick over my head, and with a loud Indian cry, yelled: “Hockey on a stick!”

And with that I dropped that big load of smelly doggy poo right there on the car’s shiny white hood. I can still see it now: a nicely curled poo, thick and fecal.

I’ll never forget the look of disbelief that came across those teenage faces as I spun and bolted out of the drive, kicking sand up at my heels. After that I wasn’t looking anymore – I was headed for the only safe place I knew: the safety of ‘home’. And like I said: I was fast. I didn’t waste any time hoofing it through the door – and instinctively knowing I’d done something ‘bad’ – I bee-lined it to my bedroom, threw a couple stuffed animals down, and began to ‘play’ as if I’d been there all along.

It didn’t take but a moment, and my heart sunk as I heard the doorbell ring. I could hear angry teenage voices, and my mom’s voice, and I knew I was in for it – big-time. And big-time with my mom – well, read some of my other stories, and you’ll know it was something to be feared. Really. It could be downright life threatening. Literally.

Anyway, I hear the back door shut, and a few minutes later my mom comes to my room. I look up, trying to portray the perfect picture of innocence (still seeing my hands paused over my bears), deathly afraid I’m about to be beaten. I remember looking to see if there was a belt or spoon in her hand – that I remember real clear. Checking to see is she was cocked and loaded, ready to go off.

“I heard what you did,” she said, scolding. But there was an amused glint in her eye and a smile twitching at the corners of her thin lipped mouth. “You know that was wrong.”

Gulping, I answer her all meek and mild, as I’ve been taught to do: “Yes ma’am.”

“Well, I don’t want you to do that again. You leave those boys alone.”

“Yes ma’am.”

And with that my mom turns and walks out of the room. As she goes down the hallway I can hear her chuckling.

Why? Because she knows me: her stupid and daring son. And she knows those teenagers: rough boys who pick on anyone smaller than them. And I guess she figured I’d dished them up something that was not only something they deserved – but exactly what the whole neighborhood thought of them. To this day my mom says she went into the other room and laughed so hard it brought tears to her eyes.

Of course, that led to one of them trying to get revenge.

About a month later I’m sitting in the sandy ditch – we called it a ditch though it was no deeper than the road – playing with my nice new metal Tonka dump truck. You know the kind – big steel thing with plastic wheels and a bed that actually ‘dumps’. It was my pride and joy – we got toys so rarely back then – and I was busily filling it with sand and dumping it, amazed at the smallest details – the yellow cab with the open windows, the smoothly working hinges, when . . .

Along comes one of the teenager bullies – a boy of about sixteen, seventeen or so. He is nonchalantly walking along the road, on my side, in the ditch – and probably would’ve been whistling if he’d thought about it. He stops just across from me and stands there for a moment, looking. I, being a trusting kid who never holds a grudge, look up at him and smile.

And with that he snatches my truck up by the cab, and with a big backhanded swing, bashes me in the face with it.

Normally I guess a kid my age would of jumped up and ran shrieking in the house. But – hell, I was anything but normal. Pain was rarely a factor for me.  I didn’t waste one second – not even a microsecond. I had taken teenagers on before; I wasn’t afraid of them – or him. So I did the first thing that came to mind.

I jumped on him like a vicious little monkey, grasping him with clawing hands around his shoulders, wrapped my legs around his waist – and burying my face in his chest, I bit. And I bit HARD and DEEP, shaking my head like a dog and savagely growling like the animal I had become – the animal he had made me.  He started screaming and yelling and trying to push me off, but no – I shake my head like a shark wanting a piece of the kill and come away with a ragged chunk of flesh big enough to fill my already bloody mouth. Turning my head, I spit it out – I can still see that little crimson crescent moon with skin on one side rolling across the sand, getting covered in grit – and then I dropped from him like a rock, arms still raised with clawed hands to jump back on him and go another round.

He didn’t even pause to look. Grabbing his bloody chest – the blood was just pouring down – he took off up the hill, racing for home and safety – away from the angry little beast I’d become.  I think they actually had to take him to the hospital to get some stitches . . . SOB.

As for me: After he left I sat right down with my truck and started playing again, perfectly calm and happy, as though nothing had happened at all. (In this day and age I know what happened: I’d ‘switched’ to one of my more vicious DID selves – and then switched right back after the threat was gone.)

It was only later when my mom called me in for supper that she noticed the dried caked blood on my face, and how my gums had gotten cut back above my front teeth, making them seem even longer than before. She asked; I told, end of story.

Except for one thing.

Those teenagers never – NEVER – messed with me again.  Me giving them the ol’ stink-eye was often enough to give them pause; you could SEE the fear in their eyes . . . it was well known all about the neighborhood:

You don’t mess with Mikie.  No matter how much he seems at peace and play; no matter that he’s just a small boy – because once I started there was no ‘quit’.  I would keep on going until either I was dead or you left me and my friends alone.  Unfair fights didn’t matter to me; they just made me fight all the harder, mad me even more mad.  I had already fought bullies against tall odds many and many a time.  I guess that one learned it too.  At the expense of a scar he probably carries on his chest to this very day, reminding him: you don’t go bullying the children of the ‘hood.  One of them might “get” you.  The way I did that day.  By biting hunks outta your chest – and out of your heart and courage as well . . .

Southern Snowballs


Southern Snowballs: The Dirt Clod Wars

When I was a kid growing up back in the ‘Hood, we lived on a sand road. The road, a big old horseshoe shaped thing, stretched for about a mile through the scrub woods. It connected at both ends to the same road,  just a stone’s throw and a skip or so from Tobacco Road. It was even more undeveloped than Tobacco Road, though – saw less traffic, was much less famous – was pretty much a nothing neighborhood in the sand hills; cut through the pine barrens and dotted with scrub oak and the occasional house and farm.

But that road was the life of the neighborhood – it connected everyone and everything. It led out of the hood (a forbidden area to us kids in the hood, until later on) – and it led in. It was lined by sandy ditches and it was a sandy road.

We used to stand in the rainstorms out in the sand – in the disappearing ditches (for they would disappear as they filled with sand – and in those ancient escarpments we would plunge our feet again and again – sinking down through the sand until we were up to our knees.

Our mom talks about that thing – how funny it would be to drive by and see this row of kids, all up to their knees in the sand – ‘standing’ on their knees. Of course we were all in bare feet – us boys wore nothing but underwear and cutoffs – not a stitch more; not out of comfort (though that was there) but out of necessity. Clothes were too precious to be tearing up; shoes were for indoors, not out. They were something to be put up for special occasions – like going to the store, or church. Nothing for everyday wear. That was too expensive.

And during those days – those dry days in the hood – the dirt clod wars would begin.

There was something special about that sand in the hood. With just enough ‘binder’ to hold things together, the sand clods would explode on impact into ‘smoke’ – sand and dust – showering their victim with sand. How many times did I show up when the dinner bell rang with my head full of sand – hair, nose, ears, eyes – everything – and covered from head to foot in a grimy layer of sweat soaked and dry caked dust – runnels of dust, layers of dust, with sand dibbling from my drawers . . . my ears . . . my hair – everything.

But those dirt clod wars were fun. We would get in the ditches (they were much deeper at the end of the hill) – and sheltering in them like trenches, we would lob dirt clods at one another.

Now there were several rules to this dirt clod war – and they were basically understood. (Those who did not understand them were taken aside and made to follow our own rules.) First: no rocks and things which could hurt you. Second: no throwing of dirt clods in someone’s face – you could blind them with sand and all. (It would be a bad thing if someone ran home crying and sobbing that someone had thrown a dirt clod in their face. All of us kids would have heard about this thing, and some of them – including us – would have been scolded, if not downright punished – whether guilty or not – and none of us wanted the parents to outlaw our dirt clod wars because they were so much fun . . . and because there was so little else to do. (Which might explain . . . well, never mind . . .)

Other than that, it was “game on” – all the time. A dirt clod war could break out any time you got two or more of us boys together. And they escalated from there on up. A boy, seeing two throwing dirt clods at one another, couldn’t resist picking one up and popping one himself. There’s a fulfilling sense of self-satisfaction in seeing one ‘blow up’ on someone’s back or head. (Head’s were allowed, as long as it was the back of them. And yes: accidents do happen. But no one complained – or rarely did, as we were careful as hell not to hit someone in the eye with one of those things.)

But dirt clods are friable – they are hard to carry around. It’s not like you can stick one in your pocket and walk around. All you’ll end up with is a pocket full of sand. And loading a bucket up with some doesn’t work as well; the dirt clods underneath begin disintegrating under the weight of their brethren; you just end up with a bucket of sand – with a few dirt clods floating around on top, like little ships of their own.

It’s kind of funny. We’d wear out all of the clouds in front of our house, as well as several others – and then we’d have to go down to the “real ditches” where clods were available full time. However, you had to be careful there. There were stones in those clods from when they formed the road, and some of them were made out of a very special kind of dirt. Down here in Georgia we call them “clay clods”. They are hard – they can get almost as hard as a brick (which makes sense, since bricks are made out of them) – and they could hurt you. Or actually someone else. And you didn’t want to do that because then they would begin to use those kinds of dirt clods on you. And you didn’t want to do that; go down that kind of road. That would have led to war – the very real kind, with kids using sticks as clubs and trying to kill one another. Yeah – we weren’t always kind.

But we would stand impatiently, waiting for the rain – staring up at the cloud puffed sky – in the loose sand beneath our feet. For when the rain would come we could sink up to our knees in the sand – and the next day the dirt clods would be there. Sugary crystals (though they certainly didn’t taste like sugar! I should know: I ate many of them – the hard way!) – all packed together in a layer you could skim and break up into many, many clods – or several great big ones.

The wars went on for years, off and on. It developed to the point to where we made a giant slingshot. And then things kinda got out of hand.

Using two of the mailboxes up by the road (and with the teenager’s encouragement and direction) – we rigged a slingshot – a big one. Taking an old bicycle inner tube, we strung it between the two mailbox posts and begin having a war over one of the houses. With that giant thing we found we could sling a dirt clod or two a long way – completely over the neighbor’s house and on into their back yard. And so the war began.

And it all went well – we spent a couple days at it, off and on between playing at something else – lobbing those big ol’ clay (sand wouldn’t work too well; it would fall apart on the way ‘up’) – clods over the house. Until someone noticed something.

There was sand all over everything. All over the house and cars. All over the fence. Huge clods (some of them weren’t breaking) all over the yard. And while we had found we could use the big slingshot for some of the sandier clods – most of them were filled with clay. And so when the neighbor would get mowing (not that they had much to mow; after all – everyone had basically a ‘sand’ yard) – he’d be hitting these big ‘dust clouds’ as he’d be mowing on.

So the parents had us put up the thing – no more slinging clods across the yard. Or the house. Or into the next door neighbor’s yard. And that was pretty much the end of it . . .

But –

I still enjoy a good dirt clod fight. Always have and always will, I suppose. It’s the Southern version of snowballs is the best I could explain it. And done right it can be so much fun.

Little kids – and little boys – playing in the sun; showers of sand – laughter – running, good times; the feel of sand beneath my feet; the cool water playing around my calves as my feet sank down through cool dirt –

Sometimes things were good.

Islands In The Sky


Islands In The Sky

One day the teenager next door came across a boon – a sheet of plywood. In those days such a thing was a problematic treasure. We had no way of cutting the thing, but it was there, huge and grand. Often we would use such things as the roof an underground fort, but we had just built a huge underground fort, only to have the parents make us fill it in again. I don’t know how long the teenager debated what to do with his treasure, but I do know this: once he made up his mind, we were his workforce, his day-laborers, his busy and willing hands. And us kids, he was our hero, the one who played with us, and we would do anything he asked, no matter how difficult or dangerous it might be. Sure, he abused his power sometimes*, but we loved him, respected him, wanted to be accepted by him, and were all too willing to please him in any way we could.

It was mid-morning when he came over, and somehow or another, he managed to wheedle permission from my mom to build a tree house in our back yard. I don’t know how that went; I rather imagine he just asked my mom, “Hey, do you mind in we build a tree house in your back yard?” – and my mom, typically indoors during the muggier portions of the day, probably just said yes, trusting our safety to his common sense. Sometimes the parents trusted him a bit too much.

So the teenager herds us kids together and states his plan.

We are going to build a tree house. And not in just any tree, but in one of the towering pines – one of the unclimbable giants, those ones with no limbs for at least twenty feet up, covered in rough and scaly bark. And this particular giant is unusually devoid of limbs at the lower levels; we are going to have to haul that sheet of plywood to a span of branches over thirty feet in the air.

Us kids are dumbfounded as we eyeball this tree. It seems to rise on forever; too wide to get our arms around, not the first hand grip or footing anywhere, unless you count the crevasses of the friable bark, which gives way beneath the least amount of weight, or a clawed finger’s pressure. We look at him; he looks at us, and says, “Come on, let’s go get that sheet”.

So we all go over to his yard, and it takes a half dozen of us, huffing and puffing, to drag the thing along. The teenager has the front end, he’s lifted it off the ground, making our jobs somewhat easier – but this thing is heavy! I know my doubts grew with each step; me being only eight years old. The pine tree seems to grow right before my eyes, reaching unscalable heights. “How are we going to get this thing up there?” I silently wonder, running my eyes up and down the tree’s formidable length and eyeing the fork above. But as it turns out, the teenager has a plan.

“Ya’ll wait right here,” he says, also scrutinizing the tree and our small group. He can see our doubts, hear our whispered words. “I’ll be right back.”

So he goes into his yard, back into their barn, and disappears for awhile. Us kids, we approach the tree, trying to scale it – wrapping our arms around it’s girth, but we can only reach a third of the way around. We try to climb it, like rats trying to climb a slippery pole, but it’s obvious to us; something we’ve always known: these forest giants are indomitable; you aren’t going to get up one easily, especially not this one. The only one in the neighborhood that we’ve ever managed to climb is one across the road, in the front yard of our neighbor’s house, due to its unusually low pitched branches. And even then, it almost took one kid’s eye out when he had tumbled down. But there was nothing like being able to get there, all the way to the top – eighty some odd feet in the air, the tree softly swaying – suspended between the ground and the sky. To be able to manage to climb this one – I wasn’t ready to give up, not yet. The idea of having this platform in the sky, in my own back yard, seeing far and wide – it was too appealing to me, and to the teenager as well, I reckon.

Eventually the teenager comes back, with a pocket of nails, some boards – and a long, long rope. Going up to the tree, he begins to nail the boards on, forming a ladder. Up and up he goes, coming back down between boards to get more boards, nailing them on, one at a time. Us kids crane our necks, watching as he climbs higher and higher. Finally he reaches the outspread limbs, and throwing the rope over one, drops both ends to the ground. He climbs down and looks at us. I look at his ‘ladder’ as he takes one end of the rope and ties it around the sheet of plywood. The boards are almost haphazardly nailed on.

“Okay, I’m going to pull the rope,” he says, propping the plywood against the tree. “You kids are going to have to help me.”

So we all get on the end of the rope, and we pull. The ply sheet rises a few feet. We pull. The ply sheet rises a bit more. We keep on pulling – but eventually we can make no more progress. The ply sheet is catching on the ladder, snagging on the bark, and we are all gasping, hands raw from the rope, muscles sore from the constant pulling. It’s hot; the sun has come up full, it’s midday by now, and we’ve only managed to get that board about fifteen feet in the air.

“All right,” the teenager says, staying the rope with his body. “Ya’ll are gonna have to climb up there; help me lift this thing.”

And so we do. Like a swarm of ants we attack the tree, climbing up the rungs of the ladder. Some of us get above the board, others get down under. There are about six of us kids, up in the tree, and we begin to try again.

It was a Titan struggle; a case of many little Davids against a huge Goliath. Those above pulled and kept the board from catching onto the tree, those beneath lifted it with our shoulders, those on the side grasped and tugged with their free hands. So many times we almost fell! I remember almost toppling away, laughing at my brother, watching his legs tremble from exhaustion beneath the board’s weight; his embarrassed anger as he looked down and snarled at me. I had never seen muscles quiver that way, but it goes to show how hard this task was. By the time we got the board up to the branches, my own shoulders and arms were trembling as well. It was hot and exhausting work, with chips of pine bark falling in our faces, covering our half-naked bodies. As always, we were in bare feet and cut-off shorts, but our bodies were toughened and inured to pain; scrapes and cuts and bruises weren’t going to faze us, not in our attempt to please this teenage friend of ours, the one we loved who ruled us.

It was with great difficulty and peril that we finally got that board up there and balanced it across those outspread branches. Climbing out on one limb, toes gripping the bark; delicately balancing thirty some odd feet above the ground, pulling that board – inch by inch – like determined little monkeys, intent on our task, we gave little thought to falling, except when we’d teeter near destruction. Finally we had the thing in its proper place, according to the teenager’s instructions, and he climbed up, nails in his pocket, hammer in his hand, and secured the thing to the branches.

“Now we need to make some walls,” he announced, sitting up there with us puffing kids. “To make sure none of you fall off.” Those walls, I was to discover, were to hide another activity, but that is for another time.

So he goes down and gets some odds and ends of plywood – again from that mysterious barn – and brings them over. Like ants once again, we go up and down the ramshackle rungs of the ladder, bearing our burdens, while the teenager sits above, nailing them into place.

And then finally, suddenly it seemed: we were done. The afternoon sun, already dropping down towards the horizon, shown across our new creation. From the ground I could see it – small as a postage stamp way up there – a small boxy construction, with walls that were only knee high. It was the best we could do with the wood we had, wood being such a precious thing – but it looked like . . . well, it looked unlike any tree house I had ever seen before, or have seen since. In my grownup’s eye it resembles something more like a deer hunter’s stand, with those low walls and wide platform. You couldn’t lean against the walls; they were nailed onto the sides of the platform, the nails driven into the edges of the plywood. If you leaned against them too hard, they would simply give way and send you tumbling down. But they were there, and it was there, and we were all quite proud of ourselves, even if at the time we were too exhausted, dirty and sore to take much joy in our creation. That would come later, the next day, when we would start using this thing.

It was about supper time, for about that time – before we could climb up to enjoy our creation, my mom called us in. After she squirted us off with the garden hose we went inside, our minds full of dreams, our imaginations in the sky.

That fort would become the neighborhood attraction. Not all kids were allowed to go up there; many mothers rated the climb ‘too risky’. But my own mom, in her own way, was proud of us boys as well, for she let us go up there any time of day, and often my best friend and I would go up there to ‘do things’. What kinds of things I won’t say, not here, but this I do know:

It was the hardest work, the hardest job, that the teenager had ever assigned us. It wore out us slaves, the teenager’s servants, building that island in the sky. And today I know: I would of never let my own kids take such a risk, not in that tree, not doing those things. But at the time it was a wonderful thing.

Odd how times change. Or how we’ve changed.

I don’t think we ever considered the risk at all.

Marking Time


When I was a kid living in the ‘hood we all played outside almost all the time during the summer – from dawn to dusk, as soon as the breakfast feed was done we were outta there – skipping out the back door to see our friends, get into things, play, and generally just run around. We’d play in the woods, build forts, climb trees, fight sometimes – crawling in ditches waging our dirt clod wars; riding bikes (for those who had one), playing ‘war’ (our most popular game) or wandering the pine and scrub oak woods.

Come lunchtime our mothers would bring us in, either collectively to eat at someone’s house, usually on the carport outside, or one at a time, us kids dispersing to our various homes only to quickly reappear – running down the dirt street kicking dust up from the road, wandering ‘them woods’, and mostly having fun.

There was no internet, nor TV – TV was for viewing at night and Saturday morning cartoons – the only time cartoons came on back then. This was long before the era of Sesame Street and kid’s channels running 24/7. We weren’t allowed to talk on the phone; using them was a strictly regulated thing with the parent overseeing the entire process, or at least in our childhood. I can’t speak for other folks. I suppose other kids used the phone. I didn’t, except when Mickey came over for babysitting and we would sit and make prank calls.

We would play until the same time every day: five-thirty, when our father would come home. My mom would be busy cooking – and shooing us kids from the kitchen if we came in – and as soon as he’d gotten changed out of his military gear we’d be sitting down eating. That’s where the dinner bell came in.

My mom got the great idea early on to do something about us kids and our wandering habits which made us so hard to get hold of sometimes during the day – and to regulate when it was time to come in, or simply go on home.

She’d got this big iron triangle – a big one, the kind you use to call the cowboys home on the range. It was thick and heavy with a long iron rod – and she’d take that rod and beat that thing, clanging it in a circle. You could hear it all over the ‘hood. You could hear it in the borderline woods, you could hear it in the fields. Sometimes you could even hear it ringing down in the underground forts – and while soft and muted, its clanging was as demanding as thunder.

It wasn’t long before someone else in the ‘hood got the same idea – no doubt from hearing it clanging down her street. It was a good friend of ours; a family of friends, actually, and the only other military family around. They were our friends, and despite our difference in religion (they were Jewish), we came to treasure them – as many families treasured ours, and each others – as a sort of extended family, as it were. Everyone became part of one extended family. You know what they say about it takes a village to raise a kid – the hood was a village of ours; one we lived in, and helped make sometimes. Certainly there were some outsiders – for instance, the house next to the one that we owned. It was a renter’s house, and was occupied by different families during different times. And then there were the other outsiders – the ones who belonged there, but didn’t take part in our life in the hood. And then there were the social rejects and outcasts – the one up the hill: the fat girl, who was plagued by weight issues during her young life, and the Stevenson’s, who were at times some bullies, and then there was the Proctors, who were German – or at least lived like they were. Their dogs were usually drunk, wandering around rolly-eyed lost in the tall grass (the Proctors would never mow it, preferring to let it grow tall during the year, and then burning it all down come fall – another reason the neighborhood disliked them). Then the dogs would fall down or get lost – or one of the Proctors would come stumbling out and collect them . . .

But that bell . . .

It started simply enough – those bells would call, the mothers marking time together – hell, their husbands sometimes even rode together, they worked at the same Army installation, and it was no joke that our families swapped dads when it came time for discipline (though their father was never as mean as our dad). And us kids – the army ones – would go home. After awhile the neighbor next to us – the one with the mason’s son, the family of my dear friend – began to eat dinner at about the same time. Before the week was up so were my friends across the street. Then it seemed to spread to almost everyone. Typically those bells would ring about five-thirty or six o’clock – and then all the kids would go in. Soon there’d be dinners eaten – and if it was summer or during the weekend, some more time spent outside – then in for your baths and your bed. For us it was at eight o’clock – we were to have one of the earliest bedtimes in the ‘hood, I later learned as an adult – and as a result I missed a lot of TV. I know we used to go to bed when the Red Skelton Show came on.

But from that time on – from the moment my mom got that first triangle – it set a pace in the hood. Not a new pace, no – but a timing and a beat which eventually caught on between all the families in the neighborhood. Between the woman up the street – she lived at the very top of the hill – and our mom, living two-thirds of the way down, there was no missing or mistaking dinner’s call; nor it’s demand. If you heard one of them calling – the one up the street being for my military friends, and the one down being mine – you’d better get on home.

I note this to give you some idea of life in “the ‘hood” . . . how intertwined and connected things were; not only by time and proximity, but by the very emotions and heartbeat of the ‘hood. It was an unusual community, even for its time – a throwback to an earlier time, perhaps as much as a hundred years earlier when communities were small (this one was); alone and isolated (this was true as well, to some extent – especially for us kids). Neighbors helping neighbors raise their children, aiding one another, looking out for the other one. I remember my mom talking about how the man across the street – a good friend, and like a rough and redneck (and sometimes drunken) father to us would come over, checking our cabinets to make sure we had food, knowing how our father was (typically this was while he was overseas spending his money on charities and whores).

They say it takes a village to raise some children, and in this case ‘they’ (the grownups) certainly did. I can’t say how all faired for certain. I know most certainly survived, and while we (the young ‘uns) don’t keep touch with each other, we were like comrades, best friends when we were kids. Strange how things change: the old neighborhood is still there, but it’s changed. It was changed the moment I got back from Germany . . . or maybe it changed that Halloween. The one before we left to go overseas . . .

A lot of things changed back then.


Back to the ‘Hood        

 

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you know we left “the Hood” to do a year’s stint in North Carolina – yanking me from one culture and dropping me in another.  And even there we were yanked around.  My dad did something which removed us from ‘civilian culture’ – a nice newish brick house on the end of a cul-de-sac – to the rough and tumble world of enlisted housing (in apartments, no less – my first experience with them as well!)

As we’ve determined, these moves (coupled with the physical, mental, emotional, and social abuse) contributed towards the fracturing of my “child’s personality”.  It seems for each ‘place’ – the longer ‘we’ stayed, the more apt I was to build a ‘person’ to handle that place, those circumstances, and a whole bunch of other things.  This is a continuation of that tale . . . Tales from the Hood, I reckon I oughta call them . . .

We left Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when I was ten years old, going back to our home in the ‘hood.  Arriving back in the ‘hood was like slipping on a well worn glove – we fitted in seamlessly, as though we’d never been away. Immediately the old patterns re-emerged, the shirts came off, the shoes slipped to the side, and everything was as it had been before — rough, unpaved, and set in the sandy hills of a backwards backwoods Southern neighborhood. During the first two weeks in the ‘hood my best friend and I fought – an agreed upon fight, just to see who could beat up who. I won, maintaining the status quo, and we both walked away – arm in arm, grinning at our injuries, friends despite our battle. Odd how that always went with my best friend and I. No matter how bad our fights were, we always made right back up immediately.

Among the changes when we came back was my father’s horror at the treehouse we’d built, so high in that mighty pine. Declaring it “too dangerous” for boys to climb (despite the fact we’d been using it for years), he went up there and tore it down while all of us kids gathered to watch in despair. We’d worked so hard to build the thing, taking such great risks getting the lumber up there – and he disassembled it in one afternoon. That was my dad – always destroying what us kids had built, whether it be a playhouse, a fort, or our own self-esteem – then walking away to leave us, sometimes for years at a time. He never helped us, not that I recall, except for me, one time,in a fight I was losing. Usually he was caught between ignoring us or beating us; one or the other, and we always at odds with ourselves when he was gone, because he would be leaving us with our sometimes cruel, psychotic and always strange mother.  At least when he was there her anger at men — and her rage at life in general — would be directed at him, not taken out on us quite so often.

Other things, too, had changed. The teenager, who hadused and betrayed me, was pretty much leaving us younger boys alone. I guess we were getting too old for him, or perhaps he’d grown to have other interests – he hung around his teenage friends more, and they’d often go off driving. Not that that stopped us kids from doing what he’d taught us; we had learned more than we should of, that I know. But for me it was something I only did with my peers, and no longer with someone older. There were exceptions, of course – I know sometimes the teenager would have my friends do the things he’d taught us to him.  I know because they would sometimes come to do them with me, afterwards.  But after the way he had shamed and betrayed me, I never joined in again. I was afraid he’d just laugh at me, or hurt me in the way he had. That shame and sense of being used was too strong in me, and is something I still have within, albeit it is confined to the ‘inner child’ of mine, a much too real part of my internal personalities. Since I wasn’t having sex with him anymore (or maybe I was, I just don’t remember: I know I would have if he asked), I can’t be certain how much he was still preying on my friends, I just know that he sometimes still did.  And I know he was targeting the younger kids of the ‘hood, ones that had been my age when he’d started in on me. To this day I think he had a preference for kids between the ages of five and nine; he was always trying to get us to initiate those younger kids into sex, and then bring them to him. And yes, I am ashamed to say that I went along with his plan, but the kid I initiated never had sex with him. He wasn’t that in to it, and I soon quit my behaviors, realizing that he didn’t much care for it – and I’ve never been one to force someone into that, no matter how badly I may of wanted it. I don’t know why I was and am still that way, but I’m glad that I am. The only thing I can think of is that somewhere down the line, early in my childhood, I was forced to do those things against my will – but I can’t remember it.  There are dark spots in my mind and memory – and I’ve learned not to explore. Life can get bad that way sometimes, making your mind hole up and bury the things you’ve learned – when those things are too horrible to admit to yourself, or so bad it decides you shouldn’t know they happened. And from talking to my brother I’ve realized: there’s a lot of things I’ve “blocked out”, and in many cases it was (and is) for good reason.  What I do remember is the times I said “yes”, or begged for my abuser to molest me — a problem for me since it is a problem for my inner selves.  Some of them just can’t internalize that as rape; they see it as consenting, and therefore asked for — a shameful thing.  Oh well.  (That’s my standard statement for when I get hopelessly stuck on an issue: “oh well.”)

While I didn’t know it, this was to be my last year in the ‘hood as I knew it, and the year would end in many major changes, most of them disastrous, and affecting the entire life of almost everyone in the ‘hood. I would come back only one more time, half a decade later, to find that yes, nightmares do sometimes come true.

It Takes A Village . . .


When I was about four or five, the woods behind the house caught on fire. Now these were mature woods, mostly pines, and the forest floor was covered in straw. Really, this was all that was on fire – the pine straw. The forest giants, their bases rooted in flames, really didn’t seem to care. But it was up to us – the whole neighborhood – to go into the forest to put this fire out.

It must have been a really big thing, because my mom came in and got me and my brother, dragging us into the smoky woods to fight this thing – and as I mentioned, I was only about four or five, and my brother six or seven. Everybody was out there, and I remember in the middle of this fire was a really big burning haystack of pine straw. Of course, being a little kid I’m sure it appeared much bigger than it actually was. And I – my brother and I, that is – were instructed to go around stomping out the little fires that kept appearing as drifting embers from the blaze settled across the woods; to go over the burned spots, and stomping on the dancing flames, put the fires out. Meanwhile the grownups are running around, pretty much doing the same thing.

We had tennis shoes on, my brother and I, and it didn’t take long for our feet to start getting a little hot. The gray smoke drifted through the woods like a wafting fog; choking you sometimes, then letting you go free, your eyes stinging from its touch. Some of the grownups had brooms and shovels, and were beating frantically at the worst of the fire, going into flames we dared not touch – they were taller than my waist in some places. So I ran around like a little frog, dancing on the flames, feeling my feet grow hotter and hotter, and occasionally smelling the scent of burnt rubber. I didn’t dare stop – this was an obvious emergency, plus my mother had told me to do this. You didn’t tell momma no, not for anything – not if you valued your life. Literally. (Okay, there’s a reason for that – but that’s another story altogether!)

Anyway, here I am playing ‘duck’ (we call it ‘duck’ now, based on the old joke about why ducks and elephants have flat feet – to stamp out forest fires) – and I glance up to see my brother whaling away at a fan of flames with a pine branch. Only the end he’s flailing is covered in pine needles, and they are catching fire. Noticing the bursting flames, Bro’ throws the branch to the ground (setting another fire), goes and picks up another branch, and begins flailing away again. Stomping on the little flames, I make my way over to him and TRY to tell him (as he slings the flaming branch to the ground, starting another fire) that he’s making a mistake; that he’s doing no good; that he’s only making things worse.

But he’s my older brother. Do older brothers ever take anything their younger brothers say seriously? (He still doesn’t.) Do they ever listen to reason?

Hell no.

He just pushes me away, harshly tells me to leave him alone, finds another branch, and begins beating at the fire again. And of course it eventually bursts into flames, he throws it aside (starting another little fire, which I go rushing to put out), picks up another branch . . . and continues on.

Suddenly this heavyset black lady emerges from the choking fog. Her eyes are red-rimmed – and not just from smoke. There’s a fire in them that has nothing to do with the fire in front of us. She storms over to my brother like a big old bowling ball, snatches him by the shoulder (mid-stroke, branch still flaming) and asks him, “What are you doing?!”

He looks at her with this smirk of contempt, and turning back to beat at the flames, snidely tells her, “I’m putting out the fire.”

She watches him as he slings the now blazing branch aside and goes and picks up another one.

“You can’t put out the fire with that!” she hollers as he begins flaying at the ground again. “Look what you are doing!” She points to where the branch he’d thrown down has now sprouted into a semi-minor blaze. I’m dancing around, trying to put it out and keep my wary eyes on this big woman. She’d dressed in one of those flowing cotton print dresses with the red stripes and white squares; somewhat faded and threadworn. Typical Southern dress.

My brother looks over at where I’m dancing, a sort of languid, who-gives-a-poop gaze, looks back up at her, shrugs, and goes back to beating at the flames. The needle covered branch, bursting into flames is thrown aside, and as he bends down and reaches for another –

She bends down and snatches him up by the back of her shirt, and as I’m watching (okay, smirking a little bit), begins beating his behind with a big beefy hand. The ‘twacks!’, much louder than the crackle of flames or yelling of men, are punctuated by his yelps, and she beats him until he cries, then drops him back down onto his feet with a stern look.

“Now you get yo’ ass over there and stomp out that fire like a good boy!” she thunders, then with a red-rimmed look at me, she rolls off – presumably looking for another victim.

As for me – well, I had a hard time not laughing. A really hard time.

After all, you didn’t want to laugh at my brother. He had a temper nearly as bad as mine – and my mom’s.

Only his turned out to be more deadly in the end.

But that’s another story altogether.

 

Lesson?

I reckon its an example of “it takes a village to raise a child” – along with “it takes a village to put out a forest fire.” Even if you have to call on the children.

And whale on them a few times.

 

A Day In The Hood


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.