Doug Bruns

“…some good sacred memory…”

In Family, Memoir on July 31, 2009 at 1:09 am

You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…some good sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.

Alyosha in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

There was a field behind the A&P in the neighborhood where I grew up. It was a slightly hilly, broad and open field, like most of Indiana. At its west edge grew a small copse of trees, none big enough to climb. They were spindly trees that trapped wind blown trash and corrugated cartons from behind the grocery store. Occasionally we found empty beer bottles littered among the trees, left behind undoubtedly by a recalcitrant teenager, or worse, a tramp or deviant. Our mothers had warned us of such people. We did not spend much time at that edge of the field among the trees. It was dirty and out of sight of our homes and simply did not feel right.

More often we played with our air guns in the open, amidst the straggly grass and large stones. My best friends, the brothers Rick and Jeff, and I would traipse through the field until we found a patch of earth scrapped clean of vegetation. We would break the hard ground with our heels, then pound our air guns into the dirt, clogging the barrel so that when pumped and fired the guns would launch bits of earth and small stones that stung when they found their mark. It was strictly forbidden to do this. A person could put an eye out.

I owned an air rifle with a built-in ricochet sound. This was unique option to the standard air rifles in the neighborhood. It seemed far superior to Rick and Jeff’s rifles. Then it was pointed out that a ricochet was a miss, therefore the whining wail of the errant bullet. A gun that cannot hit its target, consistently careening its projectile off a rock and into the atmosphere, is not a good thing to be shouldering in open field warfare. At some point I believe I traded the rifle for a standard issue model to an unassuming new kid in the neighborhood.

One summer day while Rick and Jeff and I were exploring, Rick stepped on a yellow-jacket nest in the ground. He immediately took to hopping and dancing about like he had stumbled into a fire. Three black and yellow bees secured themselves to his T-shirt and, while he screamed helplessly, ensued to attack. Bees send out a squad, usually of three, to investigate disturbances. They then report back to the hive. Soon more of the meaty evil things launched. Jeff, the younger brother, fled as soon as he made sense of the commotion. He was allergic to bee stings, and his mother had warned him to stay clear of them at all costs. I soberly watched, too fearful to help, too afraid to attempt escape. More bees found vent for their fury. Rick at last managed to rip loose of his shirt and run shrieking home. Somehow one bee managed to affix itself to the middle of his smooth tan back. He tried to swat it as he sprinted away, this thin arms flailing over his shoulders like pathetic featherless wings. His mother came running and embraced him halfway home. She looked over at me from behind her glasses. Her eyes were wild, like a startled animal’s. She wore an apron. After that the field became a place of hidden and sudden danger. Our adventures took on an air of ominous mission. There could be land mines.

In winter, snowplows scraped our streets clean. They woke us in the dark early morning with a great rolling sound like the distant growling of a great beast. They shoved the snow to the side of the street creating an embankment tall as my father’s waist. What snow was left was collected and plowed down the street to the corner of the field. Depositing their load the plows would search out more snow and return, driving it in huge churning waves of white, pushing it higher and still higher into the field until it became a mountain as tall as my parent’s second-floor bedroom window. Then the plows would leave, their haunting scraping dampened in the distance. Left behind in the gray still morning sat an abrupt geological creation: a mountain of snow standing like the result of a great and nocturnal tectonic struggle.

School was canceled, the weather being bad, and we met at the corner of the field now anchored by Snow Mountain. In winter we lived in anticipation of this day and the sport that accompanied it, King of the Hill. Our group, Rick, Jeff, Ron, Bill and myself, sometimes Kevin McCleaster, would circle the great white peak, our vertical battleground, studying the routes of ascent. Cagey and suspect of one another, we mapped our sure path to the summit. The only diversion from summiting was to ensure the failure of another, for there can be only one King of the Hill. I was the largest kid in our group. Bill Preston was strongest and more physically mature than any of us. He was the first guy in grade school to smell of body odor (and not long after, the first to cross over the foggy bridge to manhood). We crawled like ants up that mountain, grabbing at the heels of whomever crawled above us. If we caught hold of someone, we would pull him down and throw him down the slope, kicking and kneeing him as he slid past. We tossed bombs of hard snow after the fallen warrior. After several hours the weaker combatants, Rick and Jeff and Ron, would lie sweaty in their snowsuits, exhausted and broken at the base of Snow Mountain. They looked like fallen snow angels from the top. Bill and I, the survivors, positioned for battle royal. I could use my weight for leverage; Bill being smaller and more athletic was faster and had more cunning. It had all the elements of classic hand-to-hand combat. Seasons later when we had grown taller and stronger, the game become more unruly and violent, with all of us using our heads less and our physical attributes more. It was to be a pattern not everyone abandoned in adulthood.

Rick, Jeff and I found our first dirty magazine in the field one spring. It had probably, by the looks of it, been thrown from a car months before. It was soiled and wet so that the pages were stuck together and could only be turned with great care. We stooped over it, dumbstruck. None of us knew, until that very moment, that such a thing existed: pictures of perfect women, naked. We gazed carefully, reflecting on this new-found notion of female essence. It was a significant find, and it opened a new world to each of us.

Once the import of our discovery was recognized we agreed that our treasure required extraordinary measures to protect it. Carefully, Rick and I lifted the magazine, our four hands supporting it so it would not fall to pieces. We slowly walked in tandem to Rick’s house. We selected a hidden corner of his father’s garage and placed it carefully on a carton, covering it with a cloth. His father’s garage was messy and filled with clutter. He would never see it; whereas my dad’s garage was clean, orderly and even heated in winter. We hoped the magazine would dry sufficiently so the other pages could eventually be unlocked to reveal their secrets.

At dinner that night my mother asked me about my day. I said it was fine, that I had played with Rick and Jeff all day.

“And did you find something in the field today?”

I nodded, about to choke, chewing carefully. My mother examined her fork.

“Was it a magazine?”

I nodded again.

“And did it have pictures of naked women?” the prosecutor asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you know what you must do with it?”

I nodded. She asked that I tell her. “I have to throw it away,” I said.

I don’t know if I wanted to cry because I had to relinquish my treasure, or if I was upset at having done a thing so apparently bad. I shared the news with Rick and Jeff. They were frankly relieved to remove the evidence from the premises. To this day I pause when I see a discarded magazine by the roadside. They hold a dark and youthful promise beyond the glossy magazines found at the newsstand. There is mystery there.

Not long after, most of our field was made over into an apartment complex. We woke one summer morning to noises coming from the field. We met at the corner, Rick, Jeff, Ron and me. We were motioned away by workmen in yellow hard hats. We were banished, exiled and sat mutely across the street and watched from a neighbor’s manicured lawn. Large earth movers leveled the field and backhoes dug foundations. The men molded to their design our landscape. It was an outrage. They looked at us occasionally and waved. We motioned haplessly in return. Cement mixers and long-bed trucks filled with large gray bricks stopped and unloaded. The field grass was trampled under, and the little trees to the back of the field behind the A&P gone. The field was scraped clean. It simply ceased to exist. In the fall, as school began, the construction was completed. The men and their machines left. A gray artless apartment building rose out of the dirt. Soon my Grandmother would move from across town and into one of these apartments. I gave her my parakeet, Mister Greenjeans, for company, and she lived out her last years there—until she fell and began to speak German.

Turtles return to the beach of their birth to bury eggs. The instinct is not altogether removed from the human species; that is nostalgia, perhaps. Several years ago I returned to my neighborhood with my family. We drove down my street and I pointed out the home of my best friends, Rick and Jeff. Driving around the block I showed my children the house where I was raised. My bedroom window was open over the pitched roof of the garage.

The field where I played with Rick and Jeff, Ron and Bill, is filled with apartment buildings. There are smooth green lawns and healthy trees planted strategically about. There is a broad circle drive. It is neatly edged and lined with flowers. The A&P is gone. I wonder what becomes of the winter snow when it needs to be plowed? Global warming has likely solved that problem. Even meteorological permanence is a fantasy.

Those of us who grew up together have not kept in touch. Many years have passed since I last heard anything of Ron. I recall he went to work at his father’s insurance company. Bill joined the Marines after high school. My mother said he once stopped by the house in his uniform, but I was away at college. Jeff came east on business some time ago. He told me that Rick is a highway engineer and has four daughters. We recalled the time we pricked our fingers and mixed our blood. We laughed about it, but a hard-edged seriousness gripped us. Always we will be blood brothers, we vowed that day years previously in the field. The thought imparts a lingering comfort. It is a link of sorts between me and one other kid growing up in the field of our youth.

Some argue that life is a cumulation of becoming. If that is true we must be forever traipsing through fields, searching for that perfect state of being. Seeking the high ground we long for the clear view home, to that part of the field that feels right. Life is a constant dynamic. We discover ourselves in what Eliot called “the present moment of the past.” Looking back, I wonder: What is hidden over that hill, back over there? Where does it feel right and where can my mother still watch over me? Are the bee nests active?

 


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