Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tuesday Rerun

This story was originally posted in February of this year when my readership was composed mostly of family members and a few friends. It is a tale of growing up in an era when things moved slower, and people were satisfied with a lot less, and knowing everything going on in the world was not a possibility. I hope you can relate.


Salty damp air smelling of pine, honeysuckle, and magnolia, surrounded me most of the time. Huge live oak trees with gray ornaments of Spanish moss shaded my world. Every road seemed long. Trips in our old blue Ford coupe seemed to go on endlessly. My sister and I would lie in the rear floorboard sweating, and listening to other cars zooming past on the two-lane highway.
It was 1952 and I was five years old. I planted my feet in the sandy soil of coastal Mississippi. Our wooden frame house was gray. It seemed large at the time, but I later discovered it was very small. We had no television or air conditioning, so we played outside most of the time. When it got dark, our mother would call us inside.
Johnny and Jimmy Myers lived next door. They were older. They pretended to like me when I brought them my dad’s tools or something to eat, but at other times they pummeled and harassed me until I left crying. My best friend, David Harper and his older brothers lived down the street. He was my age. His two older brothers were Thomas and Boogie. John Henry Jones lived next door to David. He was also our age. David, John Henry, and I played together most of the time. The older guys occasionally let us join them when they needed someone to do something stupid or dangerous. They knew we would do anything they asked to show we were worthy.
The sandy ruts we called a road ended a short distance beyond my house at a pasture enclosed by a barbed wire fence. If you walked the other direction on our street you would run into pavement just before you got to town. We occasionally shuffled to town on our summer toughened bare feet to get some treat from the grocery store, but most of our activities took place between John Henry’s house and the woods at the back of the pasture.
The woods were dark and swampy. The creeks and ditches there had black water in them. Slimy things slithered beneath the surface. Occasionally the older boys would challenge us to wade into the black water and scoop out some wriggling creature.
John Henry, David and I occasionally went to the switching yard at the railway station near town. We would walk along side the blistering hot metal rails, and pick up loose spikes. John Henry said it was our “doody” to turn them in. I guess, with a name like John Henry, he felt an obligation to the railroad. He was too small to drive spikes, so I suppose picking up loose ones was the next best thing. In the switchyard there were huge black steam engines that hissed and chugged, covering themselves in billowing clouds of white. We were a little afraid of everything.
Afraid the bull or the cows in the pasture would chase us if we got too close. Noises in the woods made us run for home with goose bumps on our arms. And, we were always afraid that we would somehow get stuck on the railroad track when the train was coming. But, more than all this, we feared the Lawson boys.
We didn’t know where they lived or how they ever found the pasture at the end of our road, but they did.
The older boys said they weren’t afraid of them, but we all made preparations to fight them off if they ever decided to cross into our territory.
The Lawson boys came to the pasture and stared at us across the barbed wire fence. They were dirty and their clothes were ragged. Their red hair was long and curly. We all had short hair. They had real big freckles. I had never seen them at school. Sometimes four would show up, but at other times five came. They were all different sizes, but we could tell by looking they were kin. They never smiled. We stayed in the road, and they stayed in the pasture.
My mother, who told us who they were, said their parents hung out in Honky Tonks. I didn’t know what that was, but mother said never to go near them.
I asked Thomas Harper what Honky Tonks were and he said that he would show me. Thomas and Boogie took David and me on the center bars of their bicycles and pedaled us by a couple.
They were buildings with brightly painted metal signs on them. The signs had words on them like “J-A-X”, and “P-A-B-S-T”. The ground around them was covered in crushed oyster shells. The doors were open and loud music blared all the way to the street. We could see people sitting at tables. The Honky Tonks were all lined up in a row across the street from the railroad tracks.
I hoped that my mother wouldn’t see me, or even hear that I had been there. I also hoped that we didn’t run into the Lawson boys or their parents.
The older boys came up with a plan to build two tree houses. They weren’t really houses, just boards nailed between two limbs high up in a big tree. We nailed flat short boards to the tree trunk to make a ladder. The boards were just a little too far apart for my short legs. I was scared when I climbed up to the platform. I was scared when I got there, and I was scared as I inched my way back down.
The Myers had a big tree in their yard, and there was another one at the end of the road. The branches of the one at the end of the road hung over the pasture fence. Thomas and Boogie said we should build one tree house in each tree.
The plan was to stock the slanted platforms with rocks and sticks. The older guys said that David, John Henry, and I should hide in the tree house at the end of the road. When the Lawson boys showed up, the older boys said they would lure them onto the road where we could shower them with rocks and sticks.
Johnny, Jimmy, Thomas and Boogie would then retreat to the other tree house and hold them off from there.
My fear was we would run out of ammunition and the Lawson boys would climb into our tree while the older guys were still in their tree, too far away to rescue us. I imagined being captured by them, beaten up, and taken to their house. I wondered what would happen when their parents came home from the Honky Tonks.
We built the tree houses, stocked them as planned, and spent many watchful hours waiting for the showdown. I had nightmares about it.
Then one day they came back. John Henry saw them first and sounded the alarm. David and I climbed into the tree house at the end of the road. John Henry soon followed. The older boys stood their ground in the middle of the street. When the Lawsons neared the fence, Johnny Myers called out and told them to come over. He said he had something to show them. They crossed the fence and walked under our tree house. The older boys turned and ran toward the Myers house just as we had planned. The Lawsons just stood in the road wondering what was going on. John Henry, David, and I unloaded on them with a shower of rocks.
Our aim was good and the Lawson boys took a pelting. They scurried for the fence and ran back into the pasture. We climbed down and followed the older boys who had seen that we had stopped the invaders at the first tree and were now giving chase. We crossed the barbed wire fence of the pasture and ran whooping behind our retreating foe. Fortunately, no cows were out that day. We chased the Lawsons until they disappeared into the trees on the opposite side of the field. We all slowed down when we got to there. Moving slowly from tree to tree, we caught sight of the small plywood house that was covered in black tar paper. The weeds grew tall right up to it. We could hear several kids crying. Creeping closer, we could see the house better. Several skinny girls with red hair and ragged dresses were looking at bumps on the heads of a couple of the boys who had crossed our fence. The yard was full of old junk, a rusted car, a broken washing machine, a metal barrel full of beer cans, and two old stained mattresses. The inside of the house was dark. I knew I wouldn’t want to live there. We all decided that we should go home.
I didn’t feel good. I was sorry for them now that I knew where they lived. Nobody felt good about what we had done, but no one said much about it. The older guys never told us how bravely we fought. If the Lawsons had ever come back, we would have treated them differently. They never did.
I grew older, and sometimes wondered how we could have been so cruel. We were just afraid, and like most kids, unable to see how our actions would affect others. Many more childhood episodes molded my character. But, our battle with the skinny, red headed, Lawson boys was the first one where I came to a conclusion about the consequences of my actions without being told by a grownup.
I moved away from my friends shortly after our encounter with the Lawsons, and did not return until I was an adult. The trees were much older, but didn’t seem nearly as big as I remembered them. The bark on their trunks had grown around the boards that we once used as ladders. The road was short, and our house was very small. I imagined that the Lawsons had probably never left, and might be in some nearby Honky Tonk.

He attacked everything in life with a mix of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence, and it was often difficult to tell which was which. -
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