The Buddy System

Big mounds of dirt. My most memorable field trip was when I was in 3rd grade, and we went to see big mounds of dirt.  One of the mounds was around 50 feet high and flat like a plateau.  There was a metal staircase stuck to the side of that mound, and we took it single file all the way to the top.  Once atop, we ran all around (the mound is nearly the size of a football field) and looked out at the rather plain, southwest Georgia landscape of grass and trees.  My “field trip buddy” (we were partnered-up for safety) was a boy.  I don’t think this was a random pairing.  I think he liked me, and we chose each other.  We had to hold hands as part of the “partnership”, and I’m pretty sure he could have let go once we got back to the bus, but he didn’t.  We were young and innocent enough that, although I had an awareness of his boy-ness that was obviously strong enough that I remember the hand-holding experience thirty-some years later, there was no nervousness or sweaty palms (other than from it being southern springtime).  Sweaty hand-holding didn’t happen until 5th grade. But later that evening my aunt, who must have gotten word of the scandal from my teacher, told me that next time I went on a field trip I should choose a female partner.

During the trip though, being a kid and also maybe distracted by my budding sexuality, what I’m certain I didn’t appreciate was that my partner and I were holding hands and tromping around on the raised, earthen pedestal of a long-gone ritual temple and, from that vantage point 2000 years before, we would have been looking out over the largest Native American society north of the Aztecs.  In the small visitors’ center, which had an underground feel since it was built right into the excavated side of one of the mounds, we learned that the smaller mounds were used for burial, sometimes of human sacrifices.  In the dimly-lit, air-conditioned hall I walked hand-in-hand with my partner along the railed platforms, peering over at the artifacts scattered around the ground, a few only half unearthed as if someone had just been digging them up and maybe stepped out for a bathroom break.

There was pottery galore, but I’m pretty sure the highlight of the trip was seeing the replica human skeleton lying half-embedded in ancient, red Georgia clay, the real skeletal remains having been re-buried. I don’t remember anyone telling us they were replicas during that trip, and maybe they weren’t at that time. After seeing them and emerging from the cave back out into the hot, bright, humid day, the mounds dotting the hazy horizon looked mysterious indeed.  And from how I feel thinking about the trip, it was downright eerie.  I was eight years old, so not an age that I could truly conceptualize death, civilization, ritual and antiquity, but I can still feel today how I felt being there.  The best way I can describe it now with my adult words is that I had an ethereal feeling…of things not feeling all there…maybe like the trees and grass and sky were a thin mirage concealing something empty.  Or maybe I’ve watched too much Indiana Jones since then, and it’s flavoring my memories. Or maybe I should have been on medication as a child. But that’s the feeling that made me think Kolomoki Mounds when I saw this prompt.  That and the holding-hands business.

–RemembeRED prompt– A memorable childhood field trip

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Middle Class Yard

I was in 5th grade, and it was the first time I had hung out in the yard of our new house after moving in.  I was there with my two sister-aunts and my brother-uncle. The easiest explanation of this classification would be to say I’m from Alabama, but that’s really just a mean stereotype.  The actual explanation is that my grandmother married a man with two daughters and a son, and since I was living with them, these kids felt like siblings to me.  But technically, being my grandma’s step children, they were my aunts, who were only two years older than me, and uncle, who was actually a year younger than me.  Ah well. It still sounds strangely sordid.  All six of us, two adults and four kids, had spent our first year together cohabitating in a two-bedroom house that could be described generously as 1300 square feet.  That’s before the attic was transformed into two additional bedrooms. And by ‘transformed’ I mean they put two beds up there, and we had to pull the folding wooden stairs down by the string in the hallway ceiling to go to bed.  It’s funny now, but at the time it was a kid’s dream. It was like a tree house.

The new house didn’t have the tree house style, but it was much classier and was smack dab in the middle of middle class. It was brick and had three large bedrooms and an enclosed garage that we made into part bedroom, part den, part office and part storage for fishing clothes (that for some reason we had gobs of). The only way we could afford to buy the place, I believe, was that almost everything we owned was second-hand, garage sale.  All our furniture.  All our clothes. My grandma was a master garage-saler. Saturday mornings we were up with the sun, armed with our classified ads and the well-worn map, and headed to the local military base where there were always plenty of families moving away and selling off their stuff. The furniture was nice. Our clothes were another matter.  I am not kidding when I say I had a bathing suit once from the 1950s. As cool as that might sound now, it wasn’t then. We were teased mercilessly by the middle class neighborhood kids. We learned we didn’t belong in that middle class neighborhood. We didn’t have the clothes to pull it off.

But of course, all that was yet to happen at the time we were hanging out that day in our new yard.  And the fact that we were in our new yard wasn’t what will forever make that day stand out in my mind.  A girl I didn’t know and never met, riding her bike by our house, was the reason that day in the yard is in my head.  We were goofing off there in the yard, and I vaguely remember the girl passing by on her bike. There was a loud thump, someone screaming and a man from across the street running like lightening to the ditch in front of our new house. From what I learned later, the girl on the bike had wobbled a bit just as a car was passing her, the car caught her front tire and launched her into the ditch.  They told us she was alive but wouldn’t let us anywhere near as we waited on the ambulance.  I learned what a compound fracture of the femur was that day.   And I learned, most likely for the first time, what it felt like to care about a complete stranger.

–RemembeRED prompt–  ‘The first time I __________ed after _________ing’

White Shag Carpet

Back in 1977 when I was about 6 years old and living in a mobile home parked on an acre of rural land near Webb, Alabama, I spent a lot of time standing on a straight back chair in my small white-shag-carpeted bedroom. I did two things while on the chair and both involved records I was playing on my record player. When on my chair (a.k.a. “stage”) I would either practice Spanish using my grandma’s Spanish language records (I loved how the guy at the start of the record would announce in a deep, rich, heavily-Spanish-accented voice “Spanish in rrrrrecord time!”), or I would pretend I was Elvis. My grandma had every Elvis album ever produced and had drawers full of RCA 45’s and quite a few yellow-labeled Sun 45’s, but my favorite album to “perform” was Elvis On Stage. (“ON STAGE” was in Las Vegas lights across the album cover with a photo of a mature Elvis earnestly singing, and my small mind was wowed).

During this time I had a babysitter named Ena. Ena was kind of a hippie and gave me a real mood ring and my first book of poetry. Most notably for me at that age, she helped me dig exciting although non-functional rabbit traps out along the back edge of the yard. I think the holes were probably only a foot deep, and we would cover them with some sticks and grass to fake out the rabbits.  I was so sure I was going to catch a bunny.  Every day…several times a day…Ena would walk with me to check the always-empty traps. She was the coolest, even if her traps were bogus. One day Ena and I were watching tv, and the news broke in that Elvis had died. I remember this being such a shock for me, and I’m sure my Elvis-time on the chair increased for a while after that, as some sort of 6 year old’s tribute.

I catch a lot of flak around my house during the holidays for playing my Elvis Christmas record (which used to be a record, then a tape, then a cd and now an mp3), but it’s just not Christmas until I hear that mellow voice singing “got no sleigh with reindeer…no sack on my back…you gonna see me comin’…in a big black Cadillac”. So a couple of weeks ago I made it to the gates of Graceland at 10pm on a Monday night. I took a couple of pics of the gate and looked at the house for a few minutes and thought back to my Elvis impersonations and living in trailers in rural Alabama and Ena and all the rabbits we never caught. Just like that famous hound dog.

The pics at top are a scan of one of my grandma’s Elvis Sun label records and some photos my grandma took of him at a concert (1956).

Originally web-posted 02-25-10

Across the U.S. for a hug

Across the U.S. in a 1986 Toyota minivan. From the sultry, flat plains of southern Alabama to the crisp, evergreen-covered mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  It took nearly four (long) days to drive it.  Mississippi and Arkansas looked like home pretty much, but by the time I reached Oklahoma on the second day, I knew I ‘wasn’t in Kansas anymore’.  Hadn’t felt the outside air for hours as I made my way through Oklahoma, pulled up to a  drive thru for food, rolled down the window and wow…it was cold (relatively speaking).  And if the alignment had been good on the van, I’m pretty sure I could have driven the entire panhandle of Oklahoma without steering.  Just point the wheels forward and press the gas. In Colorado I saw green grass and wildflowers next to patches of old, winter snow as I climbed to Aspen.  The first to fall and the last to melt.  Up through Wyoming.  I don’t really remember much about Wyoming.  And not a lot about Montana either.  I’d never seen so much nothing in my life, but the space felt like the whole world had opened up.  But as I got to western Montana the mountains happened.  I’d never seen mountains.  The Smoky Mountains of Tennessee were more like large hills.  And then I was in Idaho and finally at my mom’s.

My mom and my brother had moved to Idaho when I was 10 years old.  I stayed with my mom’s family in Alabama.  They’d been my legal guardians since I was 4 years old.  I have pictures of my family hugging me when I was a toddler.  I remember my great-grandpa giving me a hug and telling me he loved me one night as we were leaving dinner at Shoney’s when I was in high school, and I cried in the car.  One of the most memorable moments of my life.  It hadn’t happened before that night, and it never happened again.  Once my mom came to visit from Idaho the summer after my 9th grade year.  She tried to hug me, and I’m not sure if I hugged her back.  All I knew was that it felt strange, and later she told me it broke her heart that I became stone-still and rigid when she tried to hold me.  But she had hugged me and nobody else had ever hugged me that way.  Like I was the most important thing and she didn’t want to let me go.

So when I was old enough (and brave enough), I drove across the country to her in Idaho, because I knew she had more hugs for me.  What an amazing thing to be at my mom’s house.  The return address on all those letters for so many years.  After a bit, she asked if I wanted to go see my brother.  He was living with friends only a couple of blocks over.  I had missed him so much.  My little, blonde-haired brother that I never got to grow up with, that I had visited with on some holidays and cried so much when he left, that I hadn’t seen for seven years.  He knew I was supposed to get to town that day, and when I drove up to the curb of his house, he came bounding out…6 feet tall and 18 years old…the little boy I had last seen when I was in 9th grade.  He grabbed hold of me and wrapped me in his long, gangly arms like our lives hadn’t been complete until that moment.  And I melted and cried and softened and started hugging.

 

–The pic is of me visiting my mom and brother in southeast Georgia before they moved to Idaho. What is painfully obvious to me is that although it looks like I’m reaching to hold my mom’s hand, I can tell from what I know of myself that I was trying not to let her fingers touch my side.

A Southerner’s Difficult Disclosure

In middle school there was a girl in our grade named Paula, and Paula could really sing.  When we would have spare time between subjects, sometimes the teacher would ask Paula to sing for us, and we loved it. Our favorite song, as little Southerners, was a gospel song she sang about a box of crayons…I don’t know the name of the song…but I can still sing it word for word today even though I sound nothing like Paula (and yeah I’ve tried).  We all thought she was the best. She was fun and sassy and nice and had star quality!  I remember once, even though I wasn’t sure she’d come because she was so popular and I wasn’t a popular kid at all, I wanted to invite her to my birthday party, but it was explained to me that it was ok to be acquaintances with Paula at school but that I couldn’t have her over for my party. Paula wasn’t white. In all honesty, by this time in my life, this restriction wasn’t surprising to me at all.  Because there was another little song I had jingling around inadvertently in my head occasionally that I had learned word-for-word by heart as a child, as well. Continue reading