I think it was June, 1946. Something about this evening’s after-dinner, back deck chat triggered a vivid memory from my childhood. I had told Rip to come over for oven-fried chicken and creative leftovers with Stephen and me. He arrived with an empty old crockpot under his arm—I recently complained that I no longer have one that size—a very thoughtful gift for me. A glass or two of chardonnay had put us in a reminiscing frame of mind, and we were going at it: moms and dads, ex-wives, kids, rectors we have known, the usual fare.
And it is nice out on the back deck, even if modest. I have as usual put myself out to get the sun and shade garden going, put planters on the deck, and now feed the downy woodpeckers, gold finches, and still hopefully, the hummingbirds. And so we were talking about this and that, and watching the comings and goings of the available birds. It was cool and refreshing, but not too cool, even with the gentle breeze that kept rustling the canopy of Cleveland pears above and ringing the two wind chimes. And there was the Chardonnay and the conviviality.
It must have been the combination of these things, the cool breeze stirring the green leaves above, the still-warming sun, and the peaceful feeling, that catapulted me right back to that early June day in Marietta, Ohio the year after World War II. In those days, the streets of Marietta were lined with American Elm trees. These were very tall, graceful, and vase-shaped, so that the branches of trees on opposite sides of the side streets would touch and even intermingle. They were, unfortunately, all wiped out by the Dutch Elm Disease that spread like a plague across the U.S.A. in the 1950s. Another great thing about the American Elms that lined North Fourth Street where I lived was that the tree roots sank very slowly into the ground, and hence formed naturally sloping ramps. I used to see how far up these huge roots I could run, and I fantasized that I could continue and run right up the side of the tree.
Kids in those days didn’t have a lot of toys to play with, and so we had to make creative use of our environment, including the trees. For example, we thought we were very lucky to have an abandoned old falling-down church building on one corner of our block and a “pipe yards”—stacks and stacks of huge commercial piping—on the other corner. The remains of an old fireplace we made into a castle on a mountain, and the pipe yards were a space landscape on which we fought side by side with Flash Gordon. This picture gives a pretty good picture of me in my element. I always looked kind of slightly goofy in my pre-teens. I hung out with the girls a lot (but I did have some guy buddies, too). And I was really rather skinny, and not too well-put-together, either physically or mentally. In the photo, you can see me holding with one hand onto a sprouting Tree of Heaven—we used to call them “stink trees”—and with my other hand stuck in my pocket. Now the picture doesn’t really have much to do with the memory that I am going to tell you about, but I wanted you to see the little guy who had the real experience that leaped back into this old codger’s mind 63 years later.
We lived on one side of a small double house, just two doors north of my grandmother’s place. I had a very small room on the second floor with one window that overlooked the sloping roof over the small back porch. I especially loved summer. No school, and I could just get up and go outside and play. I remember that I slept naked, and that I really liked the fact that I could just wake up and pull on my jeans and tee shirt without even any underpants. It was just such an early June morning that I remembered. I went outside and not much was happening. No kids were on the sidewalk. But I remember that I sat right down on the sidewalk in front of my house, on a place that had been warmed by the sun, even though now it was in the shade. The elm tree leaves far, far above were swirling and swaying in the wind, but the air was clear and fresh. The temperature was just right and felt good on my skin. I remember just sitting there by myself, thinking how nice this all was, how good it was just to be sitting there on a warm sidewalk, without a care in the world, and letting the perfect breeze move over my body.
I won’t go so far as to say that there was something “out-of-body” about this experience. Still, in my memory, I have two views of myself. One, that I saw through my own eyes, looking up at the trees, hearing and feeling the cool breeze and the warm sidewalk, smelling the fresh air. Another, perhaps a memory, perhaps not, where I am looking down on that small, peaceful boy from the tree branches. And you know what? I love him.