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To Start the New Year, a Story

2020 is gone and 2021 is a mystery, so how better to begin it than with a story. I just put this one together to entertain you. Enjoy it.

Playing

By Dan Smith

Eb smelled the bacon first thing as his eyes made an attempt to open. Then the coffee and the biscuit smells wafted into the tiny, cluttered bedroom. His mother yelled, “Get up!” and he knew that was the first of two general alarms before she marched into the bedroom with the glass of cold water to dash on the stragglers.

Eb was not a morning boy, but the bacon was the better choice here. Cold water would send him bolt upright and could make him pee in his underwear. He threw the cover back on the narrow bed and dropped a leg over the side, careful not to put his feet on a chilly pine floor. He rubbed his face and passed his hand over his burr haircut, blinking open his eyes. He took a deep breath of bacon fumes and put both feet on the floor, picking up his jeans and sliding into them. Eb pulled a plain white T-shirt over his head and slipped on his worn white Keds. No need for socks in South Carolina where the temperature would reach 90 before this September day waned into evening.

“Mornin’, Mama,” he said, taking a seat at the dining room table, just off the kitchen, where his mother seemed to spend the bulk of her life. He was the first of the five McCourry kids to reach safety from the cold water.

His mother smiled. “You want cold water duty this morning?” she said.

“No, Mama. That’s your job. They’d kill me.”

Dane McCourry chuckled as she let a spatula full of bacon drip back into the frypan before placing the crisp strips on a newspaper to drain. “No guts this morning, huh?”

“No, ma’am. Can I go over to Mike’s after breakfast? We want to go to the pool and then maybe play some war or baseball or something.”

“Where you getting’ the money for the pool?” she said.

“You know: We pick up Coke bottles from the neighborhood and take them over to the A&P for deposit. Only takes five to get the 10 cents I need. If I find five more, I can buy a frozen Zero bar. Mike taught me about it.”

“How’s he know that? His family has money and he always seems to have his share of it.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Mama. Can I go?”

“Yes, but come home for lunch and be careful. I don’t have to remind you that little Timmy Edwards drowned there last year.”

“I was there, Mama. You know that. And, no, you don’t have to tell me every time swimming comes up. I think about it all the time.”

She placed a plate loaded with bacon, fried eggs, two tomato slices, a biscuit broken in half and covered with gravy, and a glass of milk in front of him. He quickly picked up a strip of bacon and stuffed it into his mouth. “Miss Graybill lets Mike drink coffee,” he said. “Can I have some?”

“No, Eb, it’ll make you nervous and it’ll stunt your growth. You don’t need either of those, so eat your breakfast.”

He made a whiny “awwww” sound and bit into another strip of bacon as he cut a bite of gravy-biscuit. “They have toast with real butter, too,” he said.

“Will you shut up and quit comparing what we have with what they have? Just eat. And go play. Be back here at lunch.”

On the radio, Tony Bennett sang, “I go fwom wags to wiches …” and she softly whistled to the music, turning over a frying egg.

*

The screen door was standing open and the front door was ajar, so Eb walked into Mike Graybill’s house with a forceful knock and a “Hey, Mike!”

“Back here,” came Mike’s voice from the kitchen. “I’m making coffee and toast. Want some?”

Eb had just finished eating about a quarter of his weight but didn’t hesitate. “Yeh! Great!”

Mike poured half a cup of coffee for Eb in a large white mug, leaving room for cream and sugar, and tossed a piece of dark brown toast onto the table near the butter.  Eb quickly picked up the toast, smeared it with soft butter, and took a large bite. “Mmmmm,” he moaned, picking up the cream and pouring his coffee cup to near the rim. He put in four teaspoons of sugar and stirred, then chased the toast.

“What you wanna do today?” he asked Mike, who was stuffing in a piece of toast.

“I dunno,” Mike said. “Swim, maybe? Mom says there’s a hurricane named Flossy coming up this way from down in the Gulf of Mexico, so it’ll probably be raining tomorrow. It’s going to be hot today.”

“I got my bathing suit, but the pool don’t open ’til 9:30 and I gotta get some money.

The Pond itself was a minor Wonder of the World to Eb’s young mind. It was about 30 yards wide and 100 yards long with a peeling painted aqua concrete wall surrounding three sides. The side near the woods was the most natural, falling off from the edge of the miniature forest, a creek running straight into the Pond and sycamore trees lining the banks on each side of the emptying creek. As one moved to the left from the bathhouses and walked toward the creek, the water turned dark green, and vegetation, including some lily pads, became more evident. The usable portion of the pond—the best part for swimming—was probably 30 yards wide, making the swimming pool a square and the swimming hole next to it—complete with mud bottom—a long rectangle.

Eb suspected that the water was dangerously nasty, but apparently, it was suitable for swimming because occasionally, when the pool opened in the morning, Eb watched as lifeguards took out water samples in glass containers. They were, he imagined, tested, and pronounced swimmable, if not drinkable.

“Let’s go find some bottles,” said Eb as he took the last bite of toast and looked at the toaster.

“Want another one?” said Mike, knowing the answer. A minute later, he tossed another slice at Eb, who buttered it and ate it in three bites. He loved that stuff.

The boys prowled the neighborhood for bottles, walking barefoot on the hot pavement, occasionally crying out when stepping on a sandspur. In half an hour they had found two Royal Crowns and a Nehi orange, all of them in Carrie Baker’s garbage. They still needed two bottles to cover admission and five more for a Zero bar.

North Augusta’s town’s tiny shopping center just across the bridge from Augusta, Ga., on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, was half a mile away and on the way to the pool. Eb and Mike had picked the neighborhood clean over the summer, but the businesses still threw away bottles every day, including the A&P where they took their collection for the deposit. Didn’t make sense to Eb, but he wasn’t going to argue because they were paying his way into the pool. And buying him a Zero.

At 9:30 on the dot Martha Hampton, a pretty cheerleader at the high school and a lifeguard unlocked the pool gate and smiled at Mike and Eb. “Come on in, you two. We’re going to have to give you boys jobs since you’re here every day anyway,” she said. Eb looked embarrassed and Mike said, “You paying us?”

“Come on in and get in the water,” said Martha, adjusting the strap on her pink striped bathing suit. In less than five minutes, they were out of the bathhouse and standing in the white sand near the edge of the pool.

“Watch this,” said Eb as he darted for the shallow end of the pool and launched himself into a straight, flat swimmer’s dive hitting smack on his belly and skirting like a flat rock out into the water. Mike followed closely and Martha yelled from the lifeguard chair, “You boys know better than to dive in the shallow end!” They looked embarrassed and swam toward the raft in the center of the pond, the one where little Tim Thompson had caught his bathing suit on a nail the year before and drowned. They closed the pool for a week after that because when a five-year-old dies, everybody pays attention, Eb learned.

It was 11:30 when June Manchester, the tall, willowy teen-aged blonde with the soiled reputation showed up in a teal bathing suit that was too big on top. People whispered about June and Eb never understood why. She was nice and she was pretty and she always spoke sweetly to him, as she had this morning. She placed her towel on the sand 30 feet from the edge of the pool and went to a spot near the diving board where she sat with her feet in the water.

Eb looked at Mike. Mike looked at Eb. They scrambled out of the water and slowly started a lap around the pool, slowing significantly as they approached June. They moved closer and June bent toward the pool, scooping up a handful of water and rubbing it on her shoulders. As she bent, the boys’ eyes went straight to the top of her bathing suit, and there it was. Breasts. Nipples. All of it. Eb nearly fell. Mike did.

They walked slowly past June, then turned and went back. She bent forward again and got another scoop of water, put it on her shoulders, and turned toward the boys, knowing exactly what they were doing. “You boys find what you’re looking for?” she said, smiling sweetly. Martha laughed. Girls lying on towels nearby laughed. The snack bar manager laughed. They all knew.

Mike’s and Eb’s faces were the color of barn roofs and they broke into a run for the bathhouse. “Did you see that?” Eb said in a loud whisper as they entered the changing room.

“Boobs!” said Mike. “Yeh, I saw it. The left one, then the right one on the way back. Both of them. Nipples! God!” Both boys looked down at their erections and laughed. Nothing could possibly happen the rest of the day—maybe the rest of the summer—that would top this. Nipples. Lordy mercy.

*

One Saturday the previous summer Eb got back to the pond about two o’clock and everybody was bunched up in a circle on the beach. People were crying and screaming at each other. “Give him some room!” somebody yelled. “He can’t breathe! Back up!” An ambulance roared into the parking lot, its light flashing urgently and two men in white clothes came running to the beach, carrying bags and a big board. The crowd opened and the men ran to the center. That’s when Eb saw Timmy Edwards lying there lifeless, his tiny body not moving.

Timmy was the newly-adopted five-year-old son of Dane McCourry’s best friend. He swam like he was born in the water and was a fearless little guy. He laughed and played and was a happy, curious little boy. He was lying in the sand light blue, limp, dead.

Allen Simmons, a pitcher on Eb’s Dixie League baseball team, stepped on Timmy as Allen climbed up the ladder to the raft at the center of the pond. Allen then went under water to see what he’d stepped on and found Timmy, his bathing suit hooked on a protruding nail, drowned. Allen, a big kid, pulled Timmy loose and swam with him in his arms to the shallow water and then walked him to the beach and lay him down.

Mike and Eb left Panic Pond that day with their heads down. The sun went behind a big cloud and the pavement cooled as much as it could, so the somber walk home wasn’t interrupted by the usual yelps. As they passed Mike’s house and he peeled off, Eb said, “See you tomorrow,” and Mike said, “Yeah, OK,” without much feeling.

They closed the pool for two days and the boys didn’t have anything to do for those days, but they didn’t mind so much because it was sort of a way of honoring Timmy for being a good little guy. Dane McCouorry did a lot of cooking for Timmy’s parents and she was gone more than usual for a while, over at the Edwards’ house, talking to them, Eb guessed. Eb heard his mom and dad whispering late at night and for several evenings, and he heard what I thought must be his mom crying. She almost never cried.

*

An adventure first thing every day was the daily goal, even before he got out of bed on occasion. Today’s was not the kind of adventure he sought this late summer day, one that was too hot.

Adventure would come and the possibilities were nearly endless: swimming at Panic Pond, war games in their many iterations, an all-day baseball game at the playground, sledding with a cardboard box on the pine needle hills, climbing to the top of the kudzu-covered trees and looking up at the sky. Eb didn’t own a bike and his family had neither telephone nor TV. But there was no lack of things to do with his fading summer vacation.

In the southernmost regions of the United States, snow is a theoretical concept, but the lack of snow has never discouraged the Children of the South from sledding in winter. The young tend toward resourcefulness and those of the west-central South Carolina piedmont regions are expert sledders.

Creative games were often an exercise of flying in the face of convention, sometimes just making do with something different. In the 1950s, Southerners took what was essentially an upper-crust, elitist, rich European playboy’s sport and turned it over to chicken farmers and moonshiners. They created NASCAR.

On this morning, Eb and Mike opted for sledding, which required proper preparation—again combing the neighborhood for proper materials, this time a cardboard box of sufficient size. People’s Drug Store and Carolina Furniture Outlet provided the boxes. The medium-sized boxes, flattened out with all seams unglued, were best for 10-year-olds. They were sleek, fast, and easy to maneuver for the boys who knew how to bend the front corners and cup their hands on the box’s steering wheel.

The front flap, which already had a crease, was pulled to the knees of the sitting boy and curled slightly over them. Then the corners were bent forward so they could be held as the driver leaned right or left in steering.

That hill, covered in long, slick Southern pine needles, made its way through a heavily wooded section, and running into trees was a hazard, especially near the bottom when maximum speed was reached. But if Eb or Mike could make it to the bottom, the reward was a quick upward slope that allowed the box and the boy to become air-born for seconds of “Yaaaa-hoooooo!” thrill.

On this day, Eb hit the up-slope just right following an uninterrupted run straight down the hill and landed in a small bush about 20 feet beyond the ditch, flying through the air just long enough to yell, “Geronimoooooooooooo!” Eb lay stretched like he was doing a snow angel at the end of the run, as Mike slid in beside him. “Again?” said Mike. The boys jumped to their feet and sprinted to the top of the hill where a group of younger boys was gathered with their boxes. “Watch us,” said Mike. “Learn something.” He put picked up his box, held it out in front of him, and ran to the downhill starting spot, diving onto the pine needles – and straight into a tree.

Before Eb had even finished laughing at and making fun of Mike (“Hey, wanna try that again? Some of the boys missed it”), Eb set said down the hill and quickly banged off a bulky pine knocking his path off-kilter, spinning him around and leaving him disoriented for an instant.

He steered back toward the path, never losing any speed, and overshot it, hitting another tree, skinning his knuckles, going faster with each smashup. As he hurtled toward the bottom of the hill, screaming more intensely with every foot, he saw that he was to the left of the ditch jump and heading fast at a brush pile that would flip him into the gulley. He tugged, pulled, and pleaded with the sled until it turned slightly right, edged into the beaten path, and at the last possible instant, hit dead center on the jump.

Eb jumped up and yelled to Mike, “Show the boys how to do that!

*

Sledding season ultimately waned and, mostly from bored repetition, so it was to the top of the trees for the boys. Most of the trees were about the size of a dogwood because a lot of them were dogwoods. They were covered in kudzu, the Japanese vine brought to the Philadelphia Expo in the 1890s that Southern adults hate and kids love.

The adults know that kudzu grows two feet a day in the deep South and can cover a farmhouse over the course of a long vacation break. They know you can’t kill it any more than you can kill honeysuckle and that kudzu kills trees and dominates everything it touches, including electrical wires.

But the boys loved kudzu because of what it led to: forts in the sky where legendary wars were fought on long days before school became an issue again. When kudzu took over a grove of trees, it grew to the tops and spread out. That created a carpet on the crest of the trees and those weighing about 60 to 80 pounds walked on it, climbed through it, hid above and below it, shot BB guns at each other while hiding in it. Mothers didn’t know the part about the BB guns.

On this day, Eb went to the top of the trees by myself just to lie in the kudzu, springy as a bed, and watch cloud formations, a dinosaur here, a fireman there, a dog and a horse and a castle. This was the summer of dreams.

When Mike and Eb played games with other boys on top of the trees, an occasional head would pop through the kudzu or some kid walking on top would disappear with a yelp.

One overcast day when rain threatened, Marion McCorkle was lying in wait on the roof of one of the kudzu neighborhoods, poking his head down through the top layer and scouting the floor of the woods every little bit, hanging onto his Daisy Air Rifle with a death grip, his hand on the trigger and the gun cocked and ready to put another kid’s eye out.

Eb was one of Marion’s enemies that day—and most other days—and he’d caught on to Marion’s trap when he saw a sag in the canopy and a dark shadow in the shape of a boy, backlit through the layers of kudzu. Marion wasn’t quite as sharp or as treacherous as he imagined.

Mike climbed a tree about 10 feet in front of Marion and Eb clamored up one about 10 feet behind him. Eb had a long rope and when he and Mike reached the kudzu roof, Eb looked over at Mike, signaled that the end of the rope was coming, and threw it through several branches. It was a great throw and Mike caught it as it shot through the branches holding Marion in place.

Eb grinned. Mike grinned. Eb held up a hand and counted off: one, two, three, and they jumped, holding the end of the rope and falling through the trees. Each of the boys stopped as if they were hitched to a bungee cord about three feet off the ground, balancing each other at each end and pulling the roof from underneath Marion, who felt his foundation open up and watched as the floor of the woods rushed to meet his face. Several branches broke his fall, but not his scream. You could hear him over at the grocery store a good quarter of a mile away.

That evening Mom asked me what was wrong with Marion—she’d picked out his high-pitched yelping—and I said, “Oh, nothing. He fell off one of those little kudzu bushes.”

The end of the season was coming soon and Eb couldn’t wait for the guys at school to ask about his summer. Boobs and kudzu and wrecked tanks and a dead little boy. Legends in the making.

 

By admin

Dan Smith is an award-winning journalist in Roanoke, Va., and a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He is an author, photographer, essayist, father and grandfather. Co-founder of Valley Business FRONT magazine and founder of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. On Advisory Board of New River Voice.

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