Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Richer Life

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust and apparently isolation to isolation to isolation. At least it so seemed the case in 1956. Isolation isn't just a solitary landscape like a desert, or in The Kid's case, a swamp. Isolation can be ostracization and it can be insulation. It can be a cell your mind has placed you in created both by outside pressures and inner escapes. At 15 The Kid had built a fortress-prison of isolation around his soul. As M. C. Hammer so famously sang, "You can't touch this".

In the beginning he was isolated by war, separated for years from his father by thousands of miles and surrounded by a world of regular tension and anxiety. (Refer to my post in Bends of the Brandywine, "When Sirens Ruled the Empire".)

In my last two posts here ( On My Fences and Lost In Transition) I spoke of The Kid's isolation in space and place from his contemporaries and then the ostracism when he was back among them; an isolation by small town parochialism. In 1956 The Kid was moved once again to apparent isolation in space and place.

Unlike the earlier house, this one was not in shambles and did not sit behind a marsh. It sat up on a knoll close to a main highway; any closer and it would have been a traffic hazard. It was a ranch with three bedrooms. His bedroom was in the middle back and looked out over a field to the trees lining the rear of the three and half acre lot. For the most part that was all there was to see about, more fields and more woods. Coincidentally, there was a small marsh to one side, until a decade later when it was converted to a man-made lake by the farmer-owner.

If on that first summer day, tossing a rubber baseball against the back wall, The Kid felt he had returned to his past it was soon dispelled. A boy his height, but stockier stood upon the lip of the yard. The Kid had taken no notice until a gruff voice said, "Hi." 

The boy ambled down the hill. The Kid stood staring, eyeing him, wondering what to expect. He had a tough guy aura about him. The Kid's instincts were battling between fight or flight. He certainly hadn't expected anyone to pop in around here.

"Wanna have a catch?" said the boy.

The Kid nodded and a friendship began. The boy's name was Rich and he lived in a house a quarter mile up the highway.  He had a younger brother and sister, born of a different father who was now his father by marriage, but in a sense lived in isolation himself. The arrival of The Kid gave him someone his same age within walking distance. 

Strange the keys to friendship, when The Kid had moved to town his closest friendship evolved out of the economic convenience of trading comic books (Bends of the Brandywine: "The Kid Met Him in the Funny Pages"); here it was formed by the short walking distance of a stretch of road. (There had been a brief friendship involving a boy with a younger sister and a short stretch of highway before. It had led to tragedy. See the post, "Real Nightmares" in the Blog, Bends of the Brandywine.)

Over that summer the two boys spent much of those school-less days together. They went from one's house to the other's, played a lot of catch and rode their bikes distances down the country roads. Sometimes they even biked as far as a swimming hole along that main highway, probably about five miles south. The Kid's family had sometimes come to this man-made lake and picnic park even when they lived in town. It was called Kirkwood and sometimes in its day, Hillbilly Bands would play on a small bandstand across from the lake. (Kirkwood Lake and Picnic Park no longer exist.)

But even this idyllic picture of a young family swimming together was framed by fear and unhappiness for The Kid. He didn't know how to swim. His inability at this was what had slowed his making First Class Boy Scout before the move that ended Scouts for him. His father had slowed his learning the craft.

We need to understand this man. The Kid would say his old man had a John Wayne Complex, a cowboy attitude toward the world, a solitary figure fighting the odds and never flinching, doing what a man has to do. It many ways this was so, but The Kid's dad had grown up tough doing what a man must do while still a boy. 

From his birth, The Kid's father was estranged from his paternal grandparents (and eventually disinherited).  It was not anything The Kid's father, Will, did, but was caused by the disapproval by the family of Will's mother. Will's mother was 26 and his father was 19 when they married and she was already pregnant with Will. The woman had been employed by the family and now the grandparents viewed her as a conniving gold-digger who had seduced a naive teenager. The wrath and resentment of these people fell heavy upon the son of this union. 

His economic well being would have been better served if not for this, especially when his own father died during his teens and he had to support his mother and two younger brothers. 

Will had been the brunt of putdowns himself. He dropped out of school early. One day as he sat upon the side of a nearby bridge, a teacher pointed him out to the class saying, "Do you see that lazy ne'er-do-well sitting there. He'll never amount to anything." When Will's father died, he enlisted in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) to build roads in Virginia as a means to support the family. His grandmother was furious, calling him forth and upbraiding him with, "You will not go and embarrass us. That is not for white people, that is nigger work." But he joined and went anyway. Notice for all the prejudice and insistence that this was not a proper way to earn his living, no offer of help to his family was offered or given. Even in her dying moments, when Will came to her bedside, his grandmother asked, "What, is that hooligan Will here?"

His early circumstances were not good. When he courted The Kid's mother he had little in the way of prospects. He walked the fourteen miles from his home to hers to visit, often sleeping on her front porch over night. When they married they were so poor they lived in their separate family homes for a month until he could secure enough where they could live together. This first home was the bug infested apartment next to the railroad tracks. They endured this for about a year, until The Kid was born and a month afterward, they moved in with her parents.

One can understand this man had something of the same view as the man in Johnny Cash's, "A Boy Called Sue". One had to be tough and self-reliant to survive in this world. The man had a sink or swim attitude toward life, which became the stumbling block to The Kid learning to swim. Whether at Kirkwood or more often at the lakes in French Creek State Park (my photo of Hopewell Lake pictured), his dad would insist he learn to swim and try to pull him into the deeper water. This terrified The Kid and he would pull away or run to shore.  These instances led to arguments between his parents, and what few arguments The Kid ever saw his parents have were about him. 

His mother would eventually tell his father to, "Leave the boy alone" and his father would reply, "Stop coddling the boy." Then his father would turn with a huff, look at him and threaten to throw him in. "Then you will either sink or swim," he said.   And The Kid would run away out of reach and so he didn't know how to swim.

Then that first summer with Rich he learned. 

He and Rich had planned to ride to the lake, but Rich was being punished for something or other and grounded, a fairly frequent occurrence. The Kid decided to peddle out to Kirkwood anyway. When he arrived at the park there was no one there. There never had been any lifeguards. There were signs tacked to trees saying, "Swim at Your Own Risk". There was no fee to swim there, no gatekeepers, no park attendants he ever was aware of. On this day there weren't even any bathers. 

It was quiet, warm, a slight breeze rippled across the lake. The Kid dropped his bike and walked along the stone wall that edged the water toward the diving board at the far end. No one came. He stripped off his shirt, took off his shoes and jumped into the deep end, twelve feet of water. If he failed to learn no one would see and embarrass him with jeers. If he failed to learn, though, he would drown. He didn't fail.

Come the end of summer, The Kid had to be off to a new school and the butterflies fluttered with memories of his last school. How would this go? He was the new boy on the block again, except there was no block. This time the school wasn't next door or even a 15 minute walk away. It was five miles and he had to ride a school bus again. Although Rich was his same age, he would not be there to help The Kid make this adjustment. Rich had been held back in some of his grades and was still in junior high. The school The Kid was off to taught only grades ten through twelve. Rich went to a school many miles in the opposite direction. The Kid was on his own again. 

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