I feel a bit disappointed that we’d forgotten it was April first today, and as such missed out on the opportunity for some good April Fool’s day trickery, but in the end that hardly matters when I look back on the joy of our weekend.
On a whim I’d driven Elihu ten miles across town to visit a friend on Saturday afternoon. No one had been answering the phone at his friend’s place, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be home. Elihu’s pal has three siblings and just about any given day there’d be at least half a dozen kids outside in the tiny yard riding bikes or kicking a ball around. I figured it was worth taking a chance. My ultimate goal had been to pick up Keith then swing by another classmate’s house, thereby getting all three boys together to try out an idea I’d had for an act they might do at this year’s talent show (I’m in charge of running the thing this year – I’ll undoubtedly be making a post or two on that experience. While I’m confident I can bring out the best in the kids’ performances, the logistics have me more than a little nervous.) We were surprised to find the whole family out – but his Aunt Sharon emerged from the tiny house, cigarette in hand, and told us to check back in about an hour. So up the road we went to pay a visit on his other pal.
Ever since I was a small kid I can remember being intrigued by the ramshackle homesteads scattered throughout the community here. Tiny compounds made up of various outbuildings, ancient rusting cars and every manner of household cast-offs laying broken and unused in every direction, weeds and brambles growing up around the whole mess. At the center of the property there would most often be an ancient, equally neglected trailer. I remember thinking how incredibly depressing it looked, how desolate and hopeless a place in which to live. It made me literally sick in the stomach to imagine what that reality might feel like. But did these people think so too? Were they trapped by their own hopelessness? Could they find no inner resolve to tidy up their land? Or – were they actually perfectly content to live like this?
Shortly after we moved here three years ago and befriended some of Elihu’s poorer, more rural classmates I finally got to know some of these places from the inside. Finally, my anthropological curiosity would get some answers. Elihu’s pal Colty lives in such a place. And you’d never guess. This boy is just about the cutest, most charming little kid you could ever hope to meet. He is one in millions. Cheerful, loving, sweet and unedited in his joy for life, he is clearly not bothered by the place in which he lives; I believe he is inspired by it.
He lives in a trailer, one which has been added on to over the years, resulting in a choppy profile from the outside which leaves the first time visitor wondering which door to approach. Even after having been there several times, I ended up choosing the wrong door. This is Colty’s dad’s place – and I know he stays here on the weekends. During the week he lives with his mother across town. His dad is out right now, and the kid is thrilled to see us, as some teenager has been left in charge and sits on a sagging couch mindlessly watching The Suite Life on Deck on an enormous flat screen tv. Colty immediately begins to give us a tour of the place. He takes off down the dark corridor and beckons us to follow. We arrive in a room (added onto the trailer to the side) where his dad keeps all his hunting stuff. It is filled with things I can’t quite identify and the windows are covered with ratty pieces of cloth. There is a lot of camouflage about. I can’t make out much in my quick look around, but at once I can recognize the smell of wet linoleum and mildew. It is a scent that I have known since I was little. A smell that has always reminded me of my own childhood when I too would visit my poorer neighbors and tour the interiors of their musty homes. After showing us this side porch he returns to the main room where a mounted ten point buck’s head serves as a hat rack for an assortment of brimmed caps. I remember that once his dad had made an old 60’s console tv into a fish tank. I didn’t see it on this visit, but forgot to ask about it as I was so busy taking in all the other details. Now our inside tour is finished, so Colty asks the teenager on the couch if he can go out and play. I assure him I’ll stay with the boys. He nods his ok, so off we go, leaving the blaring tv behind.
Colty is lucky to live on one very fine piece of property. Once you leave the trailer, the hound dog in his kennel, the chicken coop, garage and assorted vehicles behind, a vast field stretches out before you, gradually sloping down to a good sized pond at the far end. The sight conveys a thrilling sense of being in the wide-open. The horizon is hilly and pine-covered, and with everything visible in one frame, it almost seems as if you’re looking at a tiny diorama. The trails that his father has carved thru the brush for his four wheeler invite the adventurer on. Colty is thrilled to give us a tour. “I know this place like the back of my hand” he says, and begins to list off the sights he can show us; his worm farm, his pet mouse hole, the coyote den, the best place to find crayfish – he assures us he’ll be happy to show us anything we want to see.
We come upon a pile of old chairs and other household garbage. I can’t help but notice these are some very nice mid century pieces, and I lament their state of ruin. No fixing these. I sit in one as Colty and Elihu run off to look for things that only eight year old boys can fully appreciate. After a while they return and we head for the pond. A nicely-flowing creek runs out of the pond, and the boys run across the bridge and slip down the banks to look for creatures. I sit with my feet dangling over the planks and I drink in the sound of running water, I breathe in the cool, clean air. The boys return with salamanders. For a good half hour they run up and down the banks, creating rules and setting agendas in a world all their own. I lay down on the bridge and look up at the branches just beginning to bud. I like this. Cool, not hot, fresh but not cold. And no mosquitoes. A rare slice of perfection.
The water segment of our tour comes to a close and the boys follow a path through the tall pine trees towards the other side of the pond. I follow. We come out of the woods onto the foot of a great hill of lawn surrounded by giant oaks. Robins are everywhere on the grass. Elihu can’t see them and so I tell him to run – and he startles dozens of them. Happily he sees them as they fly away. As we walk up the hill we discover tiny round fungus of some sort in the grass. Each looks like a tiny stove top jiffy pop container with a hole in the middle. We discover that by either stepping on them or squeezing them between our fingers they emit a poof of dust. The boys do a tap dance on the lawn and millions of spores cloud the air. When this diversion is finished, Colty leads us further up the hill and points out a huge wall of sand in the distance. It appears to be a mountain cut in half, it’s sandy contents spilling out and onto the grass.
At first I hadn’t planned on following the boys all the way up the hill, but in the end it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. I took my time, taking the crude road up the side of the hill while the boys, shoes and coats now flung off, started up the nearly vertical wall of sand to the top. Once at the top of the hill, I was stunned to realize how high up we were. From our elevation I could see my friend’s saltbox house a half mile away, and I could identify the ridge she always mentions when the coyotes call in the evenings. I was on one branch of that ridge. Not quite as high, but from here I could see what felt like forever. I stood on a spot that was now far above the tops of the great oak trees we’d just stood underneath. I found a good spot to sit, my feet braced against a root, and I watched the boys. They tumbled down, they tackled each other, they dug great holes in the sand, they laughed and laughed.
We took a break from the sand and explored the woods atop the ridge. We came upon a spot where each pine tree trunk was virtually identical. It looked simply mysterious and we couldn’t resist leaving the path and meandering through the forest for awhile. Not wanting to end up lost or too far away, we headed back to the sandy wall of the mountain before long. The boys then passed another half hour tumbling down the hill when I decided it really looked like way too much fun to pass up myself. And so I too tumbled down, walked back up and tumbled down again. We three had the most wonderful time; the kind of fun that epitomizes all our recollections of what childhood should be. And in the midst of one joyful moment of many that afternoon, Colty burst out “this is the best day ever!” and Elihu and I agreed.
After a couple hours’ play we headed back to the house. On the way up from the pond we met Colty’s dad, who gave the boys a ride back through the field on his four wheeler. Remembering why we’d come in the first place, we asked his dad if we could visit Keith for a bit. Colty’s got an impressive talent – he’s one hell of a dancer who moves with the kind of ease that no amount of lessons can teach. I’d hoped to get Elihu playing hand drum, Keith doing his beatboxing, and Colty doing his thing as the other two played. So we all piled into my car and went back down the mountain to see Keith. When we pulled in there was a confusion of kids, cars and dirt bikes swirling about. Keith’s dad offered to give Elihu a ride on the four wheeler while Keith and his brother made jumps and wheelies to impress us. While all manner of bikes and balls were flying about I decided to seize the moment. I ran to my car, returning to the garage with a small amp, microphone and djembe. I wasted no time setting it up. I made an announcement in the mic and thankfully could be heard over the whining engines. It worked. All three boys came to the garage, and in a few minutes I was finally able to test out my idea for the talent show. And it even looked promising. This just might work. Elihu got his signature groove going on the djembe, Keithie did his beatbox thing on the mic, and lil Colty did what he could in the small, dirty space, his head, arms and shoulders popping out a cross-body wave to the music.
We set on a plan to get together over the next few weekends to work up an act and practice. I was happy that it would work. Happier still – because it was my deeper, more honest goal in this endeavor – that I’d managed to get two boys to participate in something they wouldn’t have otherwise. Theirs is a world different from Elihu’s and mine. A world of dirt bikes and atv trails, of long, unscheduled time outdoors, a life of rough and tumble boys who wear camouflage and go hunting with their fathers. It’s not a world where moms and dads sign their kids up for talent shows or after school drama club.
Even though this was not our own world, we were always made to feel welcome. And hopefully, I would make these boys feel welcome in our world too. Although these three boys may have grown up differently, they have one thing in common for sure. They are country boys. And what a great thing to be.