Let New York Decide
Parting shot

War in the Closed World 24

Sunday Night Journal — September 12, 2010

It won’t surprise anyone who’s read much of this series, or of my blog, to hear that I’ve never been one to entertain nostalgic visions of a golden age of childhood and youth. I was always inclined to be melancholy and anxiety-ridden, and that doesn’t make for entirely happy memories. Some years ago I saw a cartoon by Gahan Wilson (famous for grotesque and macabre cartoons) which made me laugh out loud because it summed up one aspect of my personality: a little boy is walking down the sidewalk past two women, one of whom is saying “There goes that little Wilson boy, all alone as usual.” But the little Wilson boy is stark-eyed with fear of monsters that only he can see hovering all around him.

That was far from the whole story, though, and really there’s some ingratitude even in mentioning it, because I’m sure my anxieties were disproportionate to anything in my life that might have provoked them. If I don’t look back toward a golden age, I certainly have at least my share of golden moments. I think of my early teens, the years from roughly twelve to fifteen, as a happy time, a time when I had the good fortune to be a boy with two good friends, and miles of countryside to run around in. I was thinking about this the other day, as I read something about the suburban kids whose lives are entirely organized and closed in: they’re always at school, or in some organized activity, or in their rooms watching tv or playing video games or wandering around on the web or talking on the phone. The thought is almost suffocating to me.

My friends were named Johnny and Lynn, and they both lived in Belle Mina, which meant that I went to see them more often than they to see me. And anyway, there was more to do in Belle Mina, tiny village though it was. Johnny lived in the same top floor of the same old house that I had lived in as an infant. His father farmed, and was a bit rough—not mean, but strict, and accustomed to using language that wasn’t allowed in my family, apart from the occasional outburst by my father. His mother had what I recognized even then as a somewhat faded prettiness, and radiated kindness and warmth. And that impression is not just a product of the youthful tendency to think everyone else’s family is nicer than one’s own: I think it was a universally held opinion, and when I saw her again after a lapse of many years, when I was in my thirties, it still struck me.

Lynn’s father ran a service station, the old kind that you don’t see much anymore, that sold gasoline and did repairs, major and minor. He must have had some hired help, but I don’t recall anyone except Lynn and his older brother being there consistently. He was a small, intense, strong man, whom I remember as always wearing a coverall grimy from the shop, and generally smiling if he had no particular reason to do otherwise. Lynn’s mother was jovial and friendly; I cannot summon an image of her in which she is not smiling. (It is women like these, by the way, that I think of when I see the pre-liberation 1950s and 1960s portrayed as unrelentingly oppressive.)

My memories are always an imprecise jumble; I can’t pin down exactly when or how often I spent time in Belle Mina; I only know that it was in the period when we were old enough to roam around on our own, but still young enough to be in school together at Mooresville-Belle Mina (which is how I arrived at the roughly-twelve-to-fifteen estimate).

What did we do? None of it sounds like much, but we had a great deal of fun. A railroad line ran through Belle Mina, and there was even a little train station there. I’m not sure whether it was still in use at this time or not, but it seemed to be empty most of the time. There was a platform surrounding an office. The platform had a long ramp, and we used to ride bicycles up it and then fly back down. Lynn’s house was no more than a hundred feet or so from the tracks, and I remember being startled awake by trains when I spent the night there (which is a little odd, since a few miles east the same track ran behind my house, though maybe three times as far away—enough to make a difference in the sound, obviously).

Half a mile or so east of Belle Mina is Limestone Creek. In some places it would be called a river; I was surprised once, on a trip out west, at the small size of some of the bodies of water that were called rivers there. The creek was slow, green, and muddy, thirty or forty feet across, maybe fifty at its widest. We swam there, having walked or ridden bicycles through the fields that lay between the town and the creek. There was a wide shallow spot where there was a raft, a platform of boards built over oil drums, which was moored in the middle of the creek specifically for kids to jump off of.

Now and then we went camping along the creek, hiking off through the fields, laden with a ridiculous set of gear and food that we could not possibly have hiked very far with—but then we didn’t need to hike very far: canned goods, and a cast iron skillet for heating things like chili. I don’t recall that I’d ever eaten chili before, and it instantly became one of my favorite foods; only in recent years has Hormel reduced their chili to something I no longer find very palatable (or was it always this bad, and is it only I that have changed?). We slept in the open the first few times; later on Lynn got a pup tent which we used once or twice.

The first time we did this, we shared our no doubt very limited store of scary stories with each other—not ghost stories, exactly, just brief, frightening sketches, urban (or in this case more or less rural) legends, like the one about the man with the hook. We went to sleep uneasily, and not long afterward were wakened by a lot of crashing and stomping in the brush, and had a few moments of real terror before we realized that we were being disturbed by some farmer’s mule coming down to drink from the creek.

When we were a bit older—at least fourteen, I suppose—many of us got motor bikes. Lynn, if I remember correctly, was the first: he had one of the little red-and-white Honda 50s (Honda’s first presence in the U.S. market, as far as I know), barely fast enough to ride in traffic, but exciting for us. My father had a standing offer to his children that he would match money we earned toward the purchase of something expensive; that’s how my brother and I got our Daisy Golden Eagle BB guns. I’m not sure now how I came up with the hundred and fifty dollars or so that were my half of the cost of the slightly sportier Honda 50, a black and chrome version that looked somewhat more like a motorcycle. We rode those bikes all over the southeast corner of Limestone County, and, amazingly, never had a serious accident. The worst I remember happened before I got my own bike. I sometimes rode an old Cushman scooter that belonged to some relative of Lynn’s, and one day we were playing chase on the dirt roads of the state agricultural experiment farm. I was in the lead, and, having just made a sharp left turn, took advantage of the angle to look back and see where the others were. When I looked again at the road in front of me I saw a barbed-wire gate stretched across it, no more than twenty feet or so away. I remember vividly the instant of hopeless panic; it was far too late to stop, though I suppose I slowed myself a bit, and I went right through the gate. But it must not have been very securely fastened: it gave way and I landed in the dirt with no more than a few scratches and bruises, nor was the scooter much worse for the crash: it had looked pretty beat-up already, and it still worked, so no harm done.

I remember reading Mad magazine at Johnny’s house, and listening to the crazed southern humor of Brother Dave Gardner. I remember—and this was later, after Johnny’s family had moved from Miz Tolley’s house to one of their own—the three of us in Johnny’s room, reading aloud to each other from From Here to Eternity, flipping through it looking for the bad words and the sexually suggestive scenes, laughing hysterically at the former, which we had never seen in print, and being fascinated by the latter. We were still half-innocent, preoccupied just short of obsession with girls and sex, but not being entirely sure how it all worked.

On a few occasions we took the train to Decatur on a Saturday afternoon to see a movie. It was possible for me, in Greenbrier, to flag down a passenger train that would not otherwise have stopped (there was a little platform, and a sign that said “Greenbrier,” and if anyone was standing on it when the train came by it would stop.) Johnny and Lynn would get on at Belle Mina. It was a longish walk to the Princess Theater from the station in Decatur, but that was ok. The only movie I specifically remember seeing on one of these trips was Teenagers from Outer Space, a title which seems a little prophetic now. Sometimes we stopped on the way back to the station and looked at guitars in the music store. Johnny and I were fascinated by guitars, and he had a real Fender electric, and an amplifier, of which I was deeply envious.

Most of this companionship ended when we graduated from Mooresville-Belle Mina at the end of the ninth grade, in 1963. For various reasons specific to each family, the three of us all went to different high schools (one could choose back then): Lynn to Decatur, Johnny to Tanner, which was where most of our classmates went, and I to Athens. It became more difficult and less frequent for us to visit each other. Our lives had begun to diverge permanently.

But Lynn and I were still hanging out together, still riding around on our motorbikes, when the Beatles appeared in 1964 (I would not be 16, and able to drive, until that fall). And when A Hard Day’s Night came out we went to see it in Decatur at the Princess. Afterwards, full of the movie’s whimsical high spirits, we rode our bikes crazily—riding in circles in the street, running up on the sidewalks, getting all the speed we could out of those tiny engines once we got out of town and onto the dark highway, driven by a wild exhilaration that we couldn’t have explained.


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"Wild to be wreckage forever"


Wow, I haven't heard that line for decades. Took me a minute to place it. Maybe some unconscious influence there.

Thanks, glad you liked it.

Our backyard used to back up to the parking lot of our parish. There used to always be a paper drive truck parked on the side of the parking lot closest to our house, and we used to spend a lot of time climbing around on the mountain of papers and magazines looking for all sorts of things, but mostly Mad Magazines. I think it's worth noting that we never found one raunchy magazine.

I can remember the opening night of A Hard Day's Night so well. It was at the drive-in and I went with a car full of girls. The tickets were really big--maybe 10"x6" and had a picture of the Beatles in relief at one end. Here's a picture: http://www.friktech.com/btls/ticket.jpg

Hope that works. It's been a long time since I've been that excited about anything.


That's great. I don't suppose you still have yours? Probably worth a thousand dollars.

I have a feeling I would still think those Mad magazines are funny.

Well, I kept it, along with a dresser drawer full of Beatles' memorabilia--the big drawer on the bottom of a long dresser. I have no idea what happened to that stuff. I guess I just left it when I got married and mother threw it away. I could probably retire if I had it.


Life is short, this sentence should urge everyone to wake up all he wants to do. Although industry does not guarantee success, death can destroy prosperous career achievement, but those who have failed, at least in the glorious palestina, even if he did not win, but also calculate combat.

I think Nike must mean 'Palestrina'. Otherwise she just doesn't make sense.

Ironic that you post this right in the middle of my first reading of Bradbury's 'Dandelion Wine.' A beautifully written book about childhood, it manages to be both nostalgic and realistic at the same time. In a way I'm sorry I waited till I'm 49 to read it, but on the other hand, I might not have 'gotten it' if I had read it in my younger days.

Over the past year or so I've been feeling quite 'Wordsworthian' about childhood and youth -- sad that I've partially lost the sense of wonder and all...

I think maybe we'll get that back in the new creation. Meanwhile, I think Eliot says something really important in the Four Quartets that bears on this--quoting from memory, but more or less:

We had the experience, but missed the meaning
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form

I've heard really good things about Dandelion Wine. Maybe I'll even read it someday. :-)

"fail in the glorious Palestrina" is more poetic, I grant, but I can't get any more meaning out of it.

You know, I think I've really begun to regain that sense of wonder in the past ten years or so. Part of it is living in the country and at least driving through so much beauty everyday. And I have to admit that my science classes have contributed to it also. Cells are so doggone amazing. If anybody had said that to me a year ago, I would have thought they were nuts, so it's ok if you think I'm nuts.


"I think I've really begun to regain that sense of wonder in the past ten years or so"

I had exactly the same thought. But it was immediately followed by "but, well, it's not the same, exactly...but it would be hard to explain how it's different..." And that's when I remembered the Eliot line.

I don't think you're nuts. I remember years ago, when I worked for a company that was doing some then-leading-edge tech stuff, some co-workers made fun of a marketing guy who was always, on seeing the latest thing, saying, "Isn't that aMAZing?" Well, I often hear that in my head when I read something about how cells or stars work.

"Part of it is living in the country and at least driving through so much beauty everyday"

Yes, I can relate to that. I live in a suburb but there is a large county park (1,500+ acres) about 10 minutes from where I live, and then beyond that you're actually into a still fairly rural section of Western Pa. I spend as much time out there as I can. Someday I hope to live in a rural, or at least semi-rural area. Can't move right now though due to family commitments.

My maternal grandmother was from the Washington PA area. I visited there once as a teenager, and remember it as being really beautiful.

Your blog needs a "like" button.

You can Facebook-like it. Actually now that I think about there may be a Typepad like button that I haven't enabled. But anyway, thanks.

You know, Will saying that made me realize that while my mother and her parents told us stories like this all the time, nobody on my father's side of the family ever did. That's a shame because there's nobody left to tell them now.


It's only in recent years--maybe beginning with the death of my father nine years ago--that the real significance and poignancy of the phrase "out of living memory" has sunk in on me. Soon there will be no one alive who remembers WWII. Then the '50s. Then the '60s. Hardly news, of course, but yet somehow shocking.

Western Pa. still has a lot of nice scenery and plenty of "undeveloped" areas. Travel an hour east of Pittsburgh and you're in the Laurel Highlands. An hour west and you're in SW Ohio, which is still very rural for the most part.

"out of living memory"

Not too long ago one of the last remaining WWI vets passed away. There are only a few left. This struck me as very sad. I imagine it felt that way in the 50s to some folks when the last Civil War veteran died.

If you teach, it confronts you every year. Most of my current students weren't alive when the Berlin Wall came down.

Yes, I suppose it would. Some college in this country puts out an annual list of "stuff your freshmen don't remember" which is supposed to shock you. For a long time, what amused me most about it was that it was so clearly compiled by baby boomers. "Your freshmen don't remember the first moon landing!" etc. Heck, now their parents may not remember it. Now I'm just blase--if they don't remember something that to me happened in the quite recent past, I just shrug.

But it's the other end that gets me: not that the young ones don't remember it, but that the old ones who did aren't there anymore.

What I've been thinking about lately is how quickly the great majority of people are forgotten. Even most people who were really important become no more than a name to the great majority of people.

Those of you who have published something might have some future fame. "Look, here's this magazine that our great, great, great grandparents used to publish. Aren't these articles quaint and funny. They weren't very forward-thinking, were they?" And, "This is a family treasure. It was written by one of our ancestors. The picture of the city on the front is very pretty, but unfortunately we can't read it because it's written in Chinese."


Yeah, most people are remembered by their families for a while, but then there's no living memory of them, and after a few generations they're just names if they aren't totally forgotten. And yet each of them was the center of a world just like we are. The thought makes death hard to fathom.

Orthodox and Catholics have a bit of extra 'advantage' in this area seeing that we pray for the departed, thus keeping at least their names in memory.

There's a great scene in Ernest J. Gaines novel 'A Gathering of Old Men' in which one of the old black farmers talks about this exact thing in very moving fashion. There's also the scene in the 'Awake My Soul' documentary where the one fellow is talking to the group about those who've gone on before them and have passed the tradition down, and how they live on in the music and in the memories.

In quoting Gaines in one of his essays, Wendell Berry depicts this type of memory to be rooted as much in place as it is in person. We remember the people but we also remember the place where the people were. This sort of memory, however, becomes increasingly more difficult as society becomes more and more mobile and we become ever more deracinated.

Yes, Rob, that scene in Awake My Soul is very touching, and am I mistaken to think that this happens about the same time that they are showing the young boy with his hand on the shoulder of a very old woman?

I think I may mourn the places more than the people, because I know I'll see the people again. If Lewis is right in The Last Battle, I may see the places again, too. I hope so.


Rob--I also meant to say that they have started having sings here, but they seem to plan them on purpose on the nights I am in class.


I don't know that novel. Sounds worth checking out.

I'm really counting on that, Janet (seeing those places again). And it's true, we are totally destroying these very human connections. Sigh.

Yes, Janet I believe that the scene you mention is right at the end of that section where the fellow is addressing the group on tradition.

The Gaines novel was the first by him I've read, and I enjoyed it very much. He seems to be a favorite of Berry's -- that mention in the essay of the latter put me onto the book.

Soon there will be no one alive who remembers WWII. Then the '50s. Then the '60s. Hardly news, of course, but yet somehow shocking.

That *is* really shocking. And somehow, I've never really thought about it before.

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