Memories of Tomorrow
The ground was barren and desolate. Even the ghosts, it seemed, had moved on. Only a crumbling foundation – the remnant of a long forgotten time - lay as a monument to all that once was.
But, as he stood there, among the locust and cottonwood trees that framed the haunting scene, it seemed in the trees there clung a canopy of memories of better times and better days; days when on the foundation rested a vibrant, living organism; an entity that crept quietly into the lives of all who passed its way: an abiding presence they would never be without.
Certainly he felt it as he stood on the hollowed ground that, he was confident, still remembered his footsteps from decades past. What was gone and what still remained were but a blur – easily eclipsed by the living memories which hung over every inch of the small plot.
How could such a large part of one’s life just disappear? He was certain that somewhere in the vaults of time all the memories still existed; as real and tangible as they were so many years ago. The Great Keeper of Time and Memory could ill afford to lose such a valued treasure. Surely, times of such sweetness were not created to be enjoyed but once. Surely, somewhere in future eternities he would be back here again. And, again, all would be as it was forever meant to be.
But, for now, it was obvious time had horribly violated the unspoiled maiden of memories that called this sacred place home. And, until it was restored in eternities yet to be lived, nothing would ever truly be right for the land - or for him.
One of life’s most daunting tasks is the taking of precious memories, as real as when they were real, and breathing new life and existence into them. For only by such resurrection can those who follow be led to believe – to see – to feel – to know.
Each man gifted with long life unfailingly births a desire to leave the past as a gift for the future: a desire that oft leads to retracing familiar paths strewn with dormant memories and unfulfilled desires.
Perhaps it is a journey incumbent for any life to be complete.
In any such journey it becomes apparent that every generation assumes the responsibility of building its monuments and habitat based on the progress and ingenuity of those who have gone before. In each culture’s deepest reservoirs of belief there resides an illogical yet absolute conviction that this group of time creatures has reached the zenith of progress, leaving little room for advancement by generations yet to come. It is a belief as common as each individual’s surety of physical immortality.
But, time makes liars of all men. Deconstruction of such deeply treasured beliefs hastens to a soon and certain end. All that remains is for those who have these beliefs of ultimate progress and sure immortality to recognize and bow in humble submission at the altar of always victorious time.
No more painful or disconcerting admission can be made by any man than the acknowledgement that time – the ultimate foe - has won. Remaining are only memories, made more precious by the realization they are singularly each man’s and will soon go with him to an abode where time is no more.
He will take nothing else from this life, but, could he, in taking these, become the ultimate victor.
He remembered it as nothing more than a white frame building looking as though the cottonwoods had stepped aside to make a place for it to rest. It nestled between two hills sitting quietly in the lush, green valley. One of the hills, in particular, jutted skyward with a resolve not present in its nearby kindred. Noting its brashness, early settlers had dubbed the hill, “Stony Point”, to the never ending disgrace of the surrounding outcroppings, none of which was so honored with special designation, thus condemning them forever to be referenced collectively as simply “hills”.
His memory of the first time he saw the little plot was hazy; but as he stood there that day he vividly recalled the peaceful valley guarded in the Springtime by the whispering cottonwoods and fragrant locust; and a small white building with steep roof; an “ante room” protruding out the front. Tall windows lined each side ready to openly admit the playful prairie breezes that danced down the valley.
The design was replicated ten thousand times across the hills and prairies of Middle America in the first half of the 20th century. It was the accepted design of the storied one room country schoolhouse. Before the land was settled, the early governments had decreed that every two miles an acre of land would be set aside on which a schoolhouse would be built, usually by the local farmers the structure was intended to serve. The saturation of such institutions guaranteed eager, and not so eager, students could easily walk to school, as well as assuring attendance numbers would always be small enough for one teacher to shepherd all 8 grades.
Behind such buildings settlers usually constructed a small non-descript structure, in all locales dubbed the “coal house”. It was a necessity to keep the monthly deliveries of coal dry and ready to be used in the pot bellied stove situated toward the front of the building, serving as the large room’s only source of warmth. Older boys were sent after coal, hence the house became an area rarely frequented by the teacher: a fact not lost on students with secrets to share, or life’s mysteries to explore. There were days the silent coal surely witnessed more learning while in the shed than when removed to the schoolhouse.
Also resting behind the building was the requisite “cistern”, an ingenious creation that served to supply water for thirsty mouths. The cistern was little more than a hole dug into the hard ground and usually lined with stone and mortar. Rain falling on the building’s steep roof rushed downward to be caught by gutters suspended from the lower edges of the roof. The gutters were funneled into tin pipes which guided the rain water downward through a charcoal filter, thus “purifying” it (an act likely more psychological than actual) before sending it down the cistern hole. Thus it was stored and kept cool by mother earth’s own refrigeration system.
To bring the water to thirsty mouths, an equally ingenious system of small buckets was used. The buckets were attached to one another in chain-like, circular patterns and hung from a rod above the water. A handle on the rod allowed the buckets to be turned as they descended into the water pit and then ascended again full of the precious liquid.
Moving around the top of the rod and handle they would drop the water into a spout from which a bucket hung. All that was necessary to draw a bucket of water was to turn the handle. The inner workings were contained in a tin cover standing three feet above the water pit and sealing it against dust and debris. He recalled with some amusement the times frogs were fished from the water; an event which in no way interfered with the waters continued use.
Buckets of water were daily carried into the school house for drinking and cleansing of little hands, although he remembered little cleansing actually taking place.
There were in prairie life a myriad of “coming of age” rituals beginning at the earliest stages of life and stretching nearly to its ending. One of these for young men was being asked to fetch a pail of water from the cistern and later a bucket of coal from the coal house. At the first such request all knew his budding strength was being recognized and never again would he be thought of or referred to as one of the “little kids”. As he remembered his first recognition of such growth and ascension, the thought crept through his mind that again being one of the “little kids” would not be as negative as he once felt it was so many decades before.
One of man’s most fervent quests is the resolution of all mysteries. From first breath the new world doles out a continuing parade of the unknown, tantalizingly luring every man to search for more and more. Each feverously rushes from one wonder to the next, sure that happiness rests with the final resolution of all.
It remains for age to teach that the “wonder years” are the most glorious of all and that resolution of mysteries adds nothing to life. Instead, tragically, as each mystery is solved, its total is subtracted from the individual’s limited reservoir of wonder. Perhaps the most damning of all lessons waiting to be known by the young of our peculiar species is this one.
Once lost, the mystery and awe of youth can never be regained.
But, nary a man has walked the earth that did not spend his life in a fruitless attempt to pull such magic and wonder of the past into the present so it could be grasped and held tightly to his bosom – as if by the holding, eternal youth – and endless wonder– could be his.
Each recognizes the quest has ne’er been successful; but such realization only faintly dims the ardor of each crusader’s life-long quest.
His glance now wandered to the far end of the abandoned plat. In each such development there always rested two small square buildings, separated as far as the land would allow. No one had to ask their purpose although only those fortunate enough to frequent them realized that in them, also, developed a culture; one quite different from that of the schoolhouse and surrounding playground. The small outhouses were the places of conversations relating to the most guarded of secrets between the closest of friends.
In addition to their social function they served as educators in the fascinating field of sexual development. Comparisons were made as older boys and those of the same age could be slyly observed, comparisons and changes waiting in the future carefully noted. It was a game all knew was being played but none acknowledged. Although unspoken, older boys relished using such facilities with the younger, basking in the admiration of those less developed than they. Although such learning and exploration did not always stop with observation and discussion, most often it did.
For one and all, the small facility and the daily discussions conducted therein, combined with observation of the farm animals around them, were the source of most education of a sexual nature they would receive. Certainly the subject would never be broached to them by embarrassed adults.
For the young men the little house on the opposite side of the plot was always a place of mystery and wonder. Speculation was rife at what must be occurring there. But it was, to all, forbidden ground, never to be violated or some unimaginable punishment surely waited. None knew what the punishment might be since no one had ever crossed into the forbidden territory or, unlike some such areas, even claimed to have. Oh, there were legends of those of the past who had made successful forays, but those repeating them and those listening knew legends were, indeed, all they were.
Only those, such as him, fortunate enough to live close enough to the hallowed acre, would ever cross the thresholds of the forbidden. And they, only when school was not in session and they had meticulously surveyed the surrounding area to assure they were alone for their dangerous adventure. Once inside the forbidden place, imaginations ran wild as to what must occur in the little hut. Overshadowing this was, however, a grudging disappointment that nothing particularly mystical or even titillating was discovered.
But, even by those few who dared such exploits – as he had once done – it was never spoken of or bragged about. Such a venture was less a badge of honor than a somewhat desperate and shameful secret, not to be shared even among closest of friends. And so, after his personal journey of discovery, he said nothing, but willingly played along with the speculation of mystery that still thrived among the others. Few entities hold the fascination and power to the degree that does the unknown. And few are wiser or more compassionate than those who possess the ability to destroy the mysterious, but refrain from doing so. In deciding to hide the truth each learned a new life lesson: often mystery is far more engaging than reality and one does no one a favor by disturbing the fantasies of the unknown making end runs around reality in another’s mind.
He also discovered that, with the refraining comes a fervent attempt to rebuild the vanquished mystery in one’s own mind and pretend, or forget, that it had ever been dispelled. Only then can one again truly be a part of the circle of seekers, and only then can the trove of mysteries be rebuilt, if only by willing self deception.
Certainly this was not the only mystery allowed to be perpetrated by those who knew better but, like their elders, were fain to disturb their culture or its sacred legends. Wanting to believe precious legends and grasp them tight seems to somehow make them more real and postpone true reality for at least one more day.
Many hard lessons awaited each of the young; lessons that would soon enough replace mystery and wonder with stark reality. Postponing these as long as possible was a service of untold value.
It is incumbent on each one’s existence that some attempt be made to assure that all they are will be forever remembered by those who trail behind them on life’s arduous journey. Often such attempts seem pitifully small and foolish, yet each must, in his own way, attempt to fulfill this universally assigned task of life.
For, if nothing be left behind – no matter how insignificant – one must be left to forever question whether what now is possesses any true merit or worth.
Each one room school served to create its own culture and legends which combined to mold a functioning organism unique to it; and perhaps for those bound in its tentacles it was both a more necessary and more enjoyable reality than reality itself.
There were the ever growing stories of those who had gone before. Often their names were found carved into the old wooden desks or in some step board or tree, as if by so doing some measure of eternal existence was assured. Of course, legend mandated to all who followed that the exploits, talents and daring of those of past days far exceeded those of any pilgrims of today. There is a strange sort of comfort knowing there is no expectation that any of today will meet the amazing accomplishments of those of times past. And, there is comfort knowing that the steps one now travels have been blazed afore and therefore there is no unknown danger lurking ‘round the next bend.
Many of those storied forerunners continued to live in the little community. Now married with families of their own, their jobs became to help their impressionable offspring enjoy a time of life that was all too fleeting and all too little appreciated by those speedily moving through it. Each probably sensed that this life was too soon to end. That fast approaching were times when such simplicity of existence would be trampled by the heartless beast called “Progress”. And so, by the very edge of their finger tips, they clung to what had always been and what they vainly wished could always be.
But even the most ambitious dreamers among them knew better.
Humans are created social and cultural animals. Each group, be it one or one million, soon establishes a unique living atmosphere of rules and practices by which the group exists. The untold number of such groups throughout human history has little in common other than the unshakeable belief that their particular culture is the best that any could devise.
Most fascinating of all is that each cultural group may be divided into an infinite number of sub cultures: unique, functioning units peculiar to the physical location and changing make-up of the sub group.
The result is each individual living in a myriad of differing cultures; happily functioning in each in ways that would render him unrecognizable if he was to carry the same traits into another sub culture in which he exists.
Instead, each person learns chameleon like abilities allowing one to smoothly move from one culture to another, becoming a person unique to each.
As he stood on the hallowed ground, memories of past days flooded his soul. So many returned that he was sure they must be coming from the trees and earth rather that from his own mind.
He smiled in some amusement at the memories, each seeming to picture a very different person central to each group. He realized he was not unique in having existed in many differing roles, depending on where he was and what was expected. Yet, he still felt somewhat guilty in the deception that became his life. Most troubling of all, he could not remember which of his several roles was, in reality, who he was. Perhaps it was a combination of all; perhaps it was none and each was simply a role in an elaborate play, leaving who he was to the dark dungeons of his innermost thoughts and motivations.
To those his age but outside of his group of innermost friends, he was the chosen leader: a leader well liked and respected who seldom wielded the power of his position to the determent of others.
To the adults of the community he seemed a shining example of all good and right; someone to point out as a representation of what their particular youngster should be like.
In his small church he was a quiet, shy member of his group, easily submissive to the leadership of others, never summoning the courage to attempt to lead until young childhood had passed him by.
To his family he was an easy child to raise, seldom disobeying – at least not in areas where parents might become aware. Among the family he was late in achieving social maturity. He was shy among strangers and more willing to remain close to home than be exposed to new places and people. Little of the leadership, bravado, or obvious example was apparent in his home life. He seemed compliant and willing to conform to whatever his parents expected arising from an exaggerated need for their approval.
Among his closest friends, a far less exemplary incantation emerged. Still a leader, but one desiring to be accepted by those older than he and to show all around him a tougher, rougher and more worldly nature. It was in this sub culture that more profane and vulgar language became a common trait. Remembering his church training, he was careful to never actually use God’s name in a casual or profane way. But, little else was off limits. Reflecting most groups of young men of his age, sexual topics dominated a majority of private conversations and he learned to take the lead in this area also.
He remembered at the time feeling much satisfaction that he never let his persona in any one sub group slip over into another and thus successfully played the many social and cultural games he was called upon to play.
Man is, indeed, a strange animal. While most other forms of life with which he shares this watery orb spend their brief existence fighting the eternal battles of survival and perpetuity, man is gifted with so much more. Or is he really? Can the existence of this eternal being really be summed up by nothing more than a simple game?
Or is the game all there really is, and all else nothing more than elaborately constructed viewing stands?
Or is it simply man’s most cherished dream that this could, indeed, be as things really are?
Buried deep within most men there seems to be a tightly guarded, yet infinitely important, “field of dreams.”
As he walked slowly over the acre that seemed strangely smaller than in the days of his youth, his eyes fell on a rotting relic of bygone days. In the center of the school yard, equally spaced between the two outhouses, was the crude baseball backstop constructed to save too many trips under the barbed wire fence chasing errant hits or throws. He wistfully fingered the rusting steel framework as he remembered the central role it played in his life.
Few would comprehend the place of baseball in the cultural fabric of his time. It was the only game of any import and was, in fact, much more than a game: it was a microcosm of life – with all the challenges, successes and failures wound around a sport so dominant there was no concept it could be other than an essential part of life itself.
There were no tryouts, no sexual discrimination; skill and ability were the lone prerequisites for a spot on the little school’s team. As soon as one was able to catch, throw and hit he or she became a part of the squad. It was a rite of passage of such significance that although one knew there was baseball and there was life, there was some confusion as to which was more important and real.
On any warm day when the teacher rang the recess bell there was no question as to where all scurried: to the small diamond in the center of the playground. There they swiftly slid into the game that never ended. Players might change teams as sides were chosen but somehow the game was unaffected.
He smiled as he remembered his early days on the team. Several times in the Spring and Fall, games would be scheduled against neighboring one room schools. These were the highlights of the year: a chance for all to play together and evaluate their skills. The competing schools were much alike and games often evenly matched. The camaraderie was such that, since not all members of either team could afford real gloves, when a team left the field they left any gloves behind for their opponents to use.
Coaching was an unheard of luxury. It was left to older players to pass their knowledge and skills to the younger. Thus, in an unbroken lineage spanning many generations, the teams continued as they always had; swiftly and unemotionally replacing the heroes of today with eager young heroes in waiting.
He cringed a bit as he remembered a time when he had finally achieved a place on the coveted competition team. Games against other schools were played on school day afternoons and were times of great community-wide excitement. There was always a question of who would umpire. Of necessity, one official handled the entire field from behind the plate. Because his dad was a recently retired Navy officer, he seemed to be the ideal fair arbiter. Soon he became the regular official for all games played at the little school.
All was fine until the game against the school’s chief rival. The score was tied in the bottom of the final inning. Tension hung high over the field. Life was being played out and its outcome hung by a thread. The opposing team had advanced a man to third base, but there were two outs, so extra innings seemed assured. He remembered playing short and seeing the ball hit to his right. He moved effortlessly to snag the grounder, straighten up and throw to first. The batter was fast and the play was obviously going to be close.
It appeared to all on his team that the throw was a fraction of a second ahead of the runner. Assured of the call, he and his teammates dropped their gloves and headed for the sideline. Then he heard what he couldn’t believe. His father’s voice rang out, “Safe”! The winning run had scored. It couldn’t be. The crestfallen players stood rigid – statues frozen in time - as their opponents celebrated the victory.
To this day, he was not certain of his reaction – what it was or should have been – when his father waited until the other team had left, then called all his team together and explained that the play seemed to be a tie to him and that “ties always go to the visitors” out of respect for them. He often wondered where his father acquired that logic, although he had to admit it seemed to him like the “right” thing to do. Others in the community were less sure. After all, this was baseball…
After that day he didn’t recall his father again being called on to umpire.
Each year a particular ritual took place: election of a team captain for the year. It was a position of great importance since the captain determined who played where, the batting order, substitutions, etc. There was usually little suspense. An older eighth grader, the team’s best player, was always chosen. They had paid their dues and were the oldest and strongest leaders.
By his seventh grade year he was the team’s starting pitcher. The speed of his pitches was becoming known and no one really challenged him for the position. Two eighth graders were on the team. One was somewhat sickly and wielded little influence. The other was a husky, blond headed lad with a burning ambition to be the leader of both the team and the school. The position was rightfully the older lad’s. The election held the promise that, finally, he would have the leadership he had so long coveted.
As the captain election neared he remembered thinking that surely the older, stronger lad would be chosen. Yet, somewhere in the buried recesses of his mind was the realization that, in reality, the other students looked to him as the leader of the school. It was not something he flouted, in fact, he willingly stood back and allowed the older boy to make decisions for the team. It had occurred to him that tradition might be ignored and the others might choose him as captain, but it had never happened before so he quickly dismissed the thoughts. He didn’t desire the position because he did not know what reaction that would cause from the entitled lad. He certainly couldn’t stand up to the older would-be leader, having already skipped a grade in school and hence being two years younger than the eighth grader, who had already began his adolescent growth spurt.
Election day dawned. The teacher took up the slips of paper on which each had written their choice. She slowly counted them and announced that he - a seventh grader - had been elected Captain. Everyone seemed happy except, of course, for one who saw his hopes of ever being a leader disappear in a few moments.
He realized all that saved him from the 8th grader’s wrath was the grudging acceptance that to openly challenge or attack him would seal the older boy’s fate and forever eliminate him earning any respect from his peers. So, without words or even a glance a truce was negotiated. It was clear the older lad was resentful but it never boiled over into physical confrontation.
Now, with his fame as a pitcher growing, baseball assumed ever greater dominance in his life. With the 8 months of school over and much farm work to be done, he still found time each afternoon, as the family rested during the sweltering heat of midday, to go into a corner of the garden where he had stacked old hay bales and built a crude pitching mound and pitch to imaginary battlers in imaginary games. After each pitch he had to walk to the bales and retrieve the only ball he owned. Even on days exceeding 105 degrees he would be at the mound, throwing the last inning of some future World Series. (Although, as he matured, the pitching sessions decreased in duration and time was made each afternoon to also retire to his room for both rest and for those personal things common to young men of his age.)
He had only one coach, Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean, who daily broadcast the St. Louis Cardinal games over the radio and talked endlessly about the art of pitching. Ole Diz’s advice was legendary. One tidbit he repeated over and over was to, “never aim the ball, just rare back and fire it.” It was advice he took to heart, and it stood him in good stead until…
His small school was playing a larger school close to a neighboring city. His team had minimal hitting, but his pitching had carried them that year. Some of his opponents this day noted he threw harder than any pitcher they had ever faced. He knew this and it should have eliminated any possibility of trying to do anything other than throw the ball passed them.
But, late in the game, their top hitter approached the plate. He had struck out the large teen twice on fastballs to the inside part of the plate. The temptation to try and assure the pitch would be inside was too great. Diz’s words were forgotten as he wound up and carefully aimed the ball toward that narrow area of the plate…
He remembered turning his back to the batter and watching the ball sail comfortably over the deep center field fence. Diz’s words came back loud and clear – but one pitch too late.
His passion for the game, however, never waned. He played at every opportunity. He often talked his dad into hitting flies and grounders to him on hot Sunday afternoons. He was always ready to continue even when his father tired. He acquired a rubber ball the size of a baseball that, for hours, he threw against the side of the garage and fielded the ricochets – imagining with each return that some all important game hung on his making the spectacular play.
His only real baseball regret was when, as a teenager, an opportunity came to attend an open tryout for the Philadelphia Phillies. The intimidation of being from a small country school competing against all the big city players, kept him from going. So, although baseball was not what had been determined as his future by the Determiner of all such, he still was always left to wonder…
Now as he walked the long overgrown diamond, days and years rolled back and, once again, - for a brief moment – baseball seemed more important than life. It was not an unpleasant feeling, for life had been much simpler when baseball and ringlets were all there really was.
How does one roll back the discarded curtains of time and reveal events those of a later generation cannot possibly comprehend? Time performs many services for those ambling through its unfathomable corridors. It can erase memories no longer needed or longed to be forgotten. It can shield the future so the pilgrim can dream dreams of any magnitude or duration.
But, this faceless conductor on the transport of life hides two secrets from journeyers young and old:
All are blinded to what awaits around the next bend of life’s journey –a secret time holds dear, never to be revealed to man nor beast.
In like manner, is guarded the knowledge and understanding to fully comprehend those events crafted by Timekeeper during the countless eons of existence before the weary pilgrim was thrust into the relentless march toward his destination where, for all, time will be no more.
It requires little consideration to conclude each traveler is much happier lacking knowledge of tomorrow with all its challenges and sorrows. It is more difficult to comprehend why a complete understanding of the past is kept from each pilgrim as he travels along his way. Perhaps such knowledge is reserved as a special reward for those completing their journey, when the realization is thrust upon them that the past is all of time there will ever be.
In spite of this dearth of understanding of that which has gone before, each man feels past events can surely be judged and understood by what he encounters in today’s experiences. This ill-conceived confidence is a special form of ignorance and arrogance that has spawned a myriad of tragedies and, at its ugliest, demands all who have gone before purge themselves of the wisdom of experience and bow at the altar of “today”.
A historian once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” If this be literally accurate, mankind is sprinting happily onward every bit as content as a caged hamster enjoying his wheel – enthusiastically running… but going nowhere.
He couldn’t recall what began the confrontation but the event was forever seared in his memory.
A particularly large 8th grader had recently enrolled in the little school. The lad had, perhaps, missed some schooling in his past or even failed to successfully complete some number of grades. This was not that unusual for his time, but this situation would soon prove to be anything but the norm.
He could remember a heated argument between the teacher and the older student as they stood at the back of the small school’s interior classroom. As it escalated the other students gathered around, speechless at what was occurring – each frozen in his place by fear and fascination.
He was hazy on what escalated the confrontation as well as what originally precipitated the event. But, suddenly the teacher and her student were rolling on the floor in an epic wrestling match. He didn’t really know why none of the students intervened, perhaps it was fear, perhaps each was frozen in total amazement. He felt his reason was the latter. Never having encountered anything like this before there was no automatic reaction programmed into his being.
He also didn’t really recall what ended the brief scuffle, but eventually the teacher and unruly student both regained their feet – although regaining their composure would take a bit longer. The students returned to their desks, each wondering what the eventual outcome would be. Their wait was not a long one.
The teacher went to the new phone which had just been installed in the little school. She called the President of the School Board – a large, brawny man at the height of his physical abilities. He only had to travel about two miles, so he was at the school before all could completely return to normal.
There was never a question the young man was not going to challenge the newcomer. He was quickly put in the man’s truck and driven away.
The lad returned to school after some period of time and all seemed to be forgotten: an occurrence not difficult to understand in that time, but unfathomable today.
The incident was never mentioned again by the teacher or offender and soon slipped into a forgotten past even for the students.
There seems to exist in the male DNA of this strange species called human, a primal longing to be recognized for daring and courage above and beyond that of his peers. This irresistible force may be channeled into positive acts that often result in great benefit for his fellow beings.
Or, it may be channeled into acts designed to show the courage of the male by breaking the rules or even imagining an act so unique no rule touching it has ever been devised; or needed. Once imagined in the mind of the perpetrator wheels are set in motion “to boldly go where”, at least in the planner’s mind, “no man has gone before.”
In the mind of the actor, such an act, once conceived and committed, will live forever in the folklore of the culture in which he exists – no matter the culture’s size or extent. For, in its essence, self worth is determined by the smallest of cultural units in which the individual roams and, as the size of each unit increases, the measure of influence on the individual’s self worth lessens.
This truth is no better exhibited than with the realization that the essence of self worth is determined in the mind of the one being judged, not those doing the judging – hence the term “self worth”. Next above that level of judgment self worth is often influenced by the attitude and outlook of the individual’s family, followed by whatever small peer group in which the one being judged has placed himself or been placed by others. Often, for the young, this peer group is populated by members of the educational institution his parents have chosen to provide his early training.
But, no matter the size of the group passing such judgment, each boy dreams of an act that, once successfully accomplished, will live forever in the mind of each member of the group and, most importantly, in the soul of the one who originally conceived it. And the young male realizes even at an early age such an act will be destined to play no small part in forming the person the individual perceives himself to be.
Most importantly, every boy realizes the importance of the fact that filed away in the recesses of each adult man’s memory, or in the file of unfulfilled desires, are acts on some level – physical or intellectual - so bold and daring they will, forever, cement his claim to the elusive concept of manhood.
The mind of a boy is home to an innate desire to be remembered as years skip by; remembered for some unique action, personal attribute, obvious bravery or some feat considered, at least by his peers at the time, immortal.
Those populating the little school shared in this age old desire with each boy finding his own means of challenging the future to remember him. These desires normally gurgled not far under the surface of each boy’s mind. As years passed for each lad and it became ever more obvious that the one room country school experience was drawing to a close, such desires for immortality in this setting grew daily more pressing.
It was likely such a desire that motivated one of the older students to devise a plan guaranteed to cement his courage and imagination into the eternal record of the peaceful country school.
The electric fence that surrounded the school yard was there as a barrier guarding against escape of livestock. The fence was capable of dealing out a stinging shock but, in spite of legend, not strong enough to threaten any’s life.
The older lad realized that since the only restroom facilities on the acre were two outhouses located on the far corners of the property, it was no small feat to use these facilities on regular PTA nights with no lighting in the small huts. Yet because most of the hearty souls that populated the surrounding area had grown up with such inconvenience it was hardly regarded as a real problem.
But the fact that those needing to use the facilities after dark entered, felt around for the stool and sat down – never really seeing where their posteriors were headed – spawned an idea in the older lad’s mind.
What if a small strand of wire were draped over the electric fence, carefully fed into one of the outhouses, draped around the top of the stool, and left there on the night of a PTA meeting. The very imagination of the culmination of this was almost more than he could contain.
And so, the deed was carried out. Strangely, he couldn’t really remember whether some unsuspecting wayfarer actually sat on the electrified wire or not. In reality, it probably didn’t matter. The very conjuring up of the idea assured the creative lad of the immortality he so fervently sought.
Although most, if not all, of the young men who populated the school knew of the plan and certainly the one who devised it (for had they not the plan’s very purpose would have been negated), the perpetrator’s identity would forever be safe. For each boy realized a rite of passage had been accomplished – and each looked forward with a mixture of anticipation and dread for the time when the bony finger of the hand of fatewould point in his direction. And, it would be his time to step out and devise some act that could threaten to cement the memory of him and his feat in the eternal record of the little school.
And so with the silent assent of each of the young men – and perhaps nature itself - another chapter was added to the book of memories that – in spite of the temporal fate of the little school – would themselves prove to be immortal.
There exists in every man a spark of God or goodness which forever holds the hope of a life that matters not only to its possessor but also to those whom he encounters on his terrestrial journey.
If this spark were left to flicker, only awaiting the day when it would burst into full flame, all lives would be of endless benefit to each they touched.
But, such is not to be. For reasons never to be fully comprehended, the Great Designer has decreed, or allowed, that co-inhabiting each will be a potential for evil and degradation on an unimaginable scale. All of life is little else than battle for supremacy of these two eternal forces.
The best that can be hoped is that the former burn brightly enough that the latter’s attempts to snuff such out would always come to naught. But, alas, such is not to be. There will be those times when this overwhelming beast of pride and arrogance holds sway.
In such times one is left to attempt the age old rationalization that what sprang forth was not really from the inner most parts of his being, but surely was the result of temporary possession by some eternally evil and infinitely irresistible force.
It is mankind’s final rationalization and most enduring lie.
Perhaps what had changed least from the time the schoolhouse held sway was the dusty road that silently passed. The schoolhouse had long since abandoned the road to its own thoughts and memories. Some of the road’s reason for existence had fled with the demise of the school. But the memories remained - in some ways as vivid as the memories of the schoolhouse itself.
As once again he dug his toe playfully into the blond calicle, he remembered the countless days he had walked with his sister and friends down its path to the school. They were times to talk, learn, savor and enjoy. For some reason, friendships seemed to grow deeper walking the old road.
Once more, he stood and was transported back. Again, he and his best friend were walking down the road as they often did, arms around each other’s shoulders, becoming one - as only friendship came make two such. Strangely, he wasn’t sure he didn’t still regard the young boy of decades past as his best friend, though many years had passed since he had seen him. Love is strange that way. Time only seems to grow it stronger and sweeter.
His best friend and he were the same in age, yet because he had skipped a grade, they were not identical in their placement. Next to this special friend, a somewhat younger lad was the closest associate he had. When he thought of him the memories were somewhat less sweet. Although he cared for him deeply there was a hurt that had never left. Nor had the valuable lesson it taught; one that stood him in good stead in later life.
The three of them had grown quite close and spent most free time together. They shared belongings, time and life. Yet, as he and his best friend prepared to enter the teen years, there sprung within them an ugly root of pride and arrogance.
His mother had bought him a huge box of crayons to begin the school year and all three friends had used them as needed. But one day, for reasons he never fully comprehended, when the younger lad had asked to borrow them, he haughtingly told him that he needed to get his own; that these were only for his best friend and him – not for “little” kids. He still wondered where such spiteful venom came from, as he recalled the hurt and confusion on the younger’s face.
But, as with most indiscretions, even a short amount of time glossed over the sin and guilt. Rationalization found a ready audience as it argued to make it seem as though it had never happened. Only the recipient of the ugly blast chose to remember and only because he could not forget.
Within a few days of the encounter the time for a regular PTA meeting came around. As the evening meeting drew to a close he was standing with his mother when the mother of the young lad came over and began a conversation. She noted that she wanted his mother to know what a fine son she had. Of course, his attention was suddenly riveted as he basked in any glory he could take in. She continued explaining how much her younger son thought of him and what a great friend he was to her lad. Everything would have ended wonderfully had she concluded the conversation there.
But, she felt she had to supply an example for her words. So, she related that just before the school term had begun she had been shopping with her young son and asked what crayons he needed for the year. She related to his mother that her son’s reply was that he didn’t need any. As long as your son, his best friend, had any he could always use his and would never need any of his own.
The words struck him like a thunderbolt – so forcefully that he still vividly remembered. His ego, which had been growing exponentially as he listened to the conversation, came crashing to the ground. He didn’t know how to react. What had he done to a friend? More important, why had he done it? It was an early lesson that words, once spoken, are as eternal as the soul. And can be as crushingly cruel as the most horrible of physical threats – real or imagined.
Of many lessons taught in early life, this was one he never forgot. And, he imagined, neither had the old schoolhouse as long as it housed the memories of the generations who walked its floor. Maybe it was good the schoolhouse was gone. For he felt that somehow those words hung menacingly in the air as long as it stood.
Still, along with this painful memory, hung so many precious and wonderful ones…
Mankind’s earliest ancestor paused by a forbidden tree to visit with a shrewd tempter: a tempter created as the most beautiful of creatures, now reduced to borrowing the torso of a serpent – felled by the worship of his own beauty.
The fruit he held out to her not only was of wonderful taste, but of great beauty. Surely sometime during the conversation the thought crossed her mind that anything that beautiful couldn’t possibly be that bad.
The mistake was one destined to be repeated innumerable times by her unfortunate offspring. The lesson seems never to be learned that surface beauty can disguise untold evil and suffering.
So, again and again, man returns to drink from the fountain of beauty with no realization, or perhaps no desire to realize, that the chain connecting beauty with truth is strong at both ends but misses a link to join the middle.
He stood by the fence and gazed as deeply into the forest as the secretive shadows would allow. He was sure he sensed some shy memories hiding in the darkness. He noted that one tree seemed to tower above its brethren exactly as it had in decades past. Its branches were adorned by its own foliage as well as that of a twining vine that found the giant a welcoming host.
His mind raced back to a day when a typical fall had descended on the Oklahoma hills. Crisp mornings and warm days injected new life and vigor into man and beast alike.
Slowly the forests began to spew forth a torrent of color. Reds, yellows, and oranges vied for front stage in nature’s breathtaking panorama heralding the passing of endless Summer.
The teacher had decided to decorate the small school room for fall and, needing some representative leaves sent the two older boys – he and his best friend – to gather some. Since the little school was located on his parent’s land, he knew every inch of the surrounding terrain from the long days spent exploring and engaging the varied acreage. So, finding an ample supply of various shades of yellow and golds was easy. But to make any display stand out in special splendor, the scarcer bright red was mandated.
The vine that inhabited the tallest tree had decided to put forth its most magnificent color in a bright red glory that stood out among its more sedate cousins. Securing these leaves would take some climbing, but the boys were certain it would be worth it to see the beauty of the display with which they could then return.
The reception of teacher and students alike was all they had hoped for. Surely the collection was the most magnificent anyone had ever gathered.
All was adulation until an older girl looked for a long time at the display and
asked rhetorically, “Isn’t that poison ivy?” She referred to the most beautiful of the leaves, the red ones collected only through great dedication and effort. Immediately, his pride raced to the fore. He assured one and all that he knew leaves and these were not poison ivy. In reality, he was not susceptible to poison ivy and hence had never bothered to learn to accurately identify the vine. But, he was not about to allow the smart mouthed girl to show him up. To even suggest he was so clueless as to make this mistake was more than he could stomach.
The teacher and others seemed ready to accept his assurances. After all, he was the leader of the school and certainly no other student was going to seriously question him.
It was left for the following morning when several students and yes, unfortunately even the teacher, came to school with noticeable outbreaks of poison ivy to show his error in judgment. As he recalled, the teacher had him carry the leaf display outside and dispose of it. His pride would still not allow him to acknowledge the mistake he had made. He suggested they must have encountered the poison ivy elsewhere on the playground though, of course, deep down he knew better.
There was little more he could say as he sat in shameful contemplation as others around him scratched vigorously.
The human mind seems uniquely designed with an inability to realistically consider the most likely outcome of considered actions. Perhaps if designed differently much of the excitement and wonder of life would be removed.
So this species seems forever destined to stumble forward often veering from one misadventure to the next. In so many large and small ways, man’s future plans seem so predictable; the events still to transpire will always hold only success and happiness for all. Any plan – no matter how dangerous, foolish or evil – is rewarded only with success and acclaim in a mind transported to a never existent future.
But what a horrible fate it would be could one actually know what lie ahead.
Surrounding the school plot was a 3 strand barbed wire fence designed to prohibit the free range cattle from leaving his parent’s property. But this preventative was not always effective. So, to further guarantee the livestock would not stray, his father had installed a “weed chopper” electric fence entirely around the pasture which, of course, included three sides of the school yard.
The fence was an inconvenience for all when foul balls cleared the backstop and ended up in the pasture, but most soon adjusted to it as a fact of life.
The term “weed chopper” was applied to such enclosures when the electric voltage sent through them was sufficient to burn away any small weed or branch which might fall across the fence, thus threatening to short circuit the electric voltage and render the fence useless.
The power of the fence made it something to be avoided by all. Nasty shocks were the order of the day for any who forgot its punch.
He learned many lessons through such electric fences. One of the earliest was the extreme conductivity of water when electricity is introduced into it. A parallel lesson simultaneous to this one was the inadvisability of urinating on an electric fence particularly a “weed chopper”. It was a lesson that, for obvious reasons, never had to be repeated for anyone foolish enough to actually carry out such a shocking act. He wasn’t sure what he must have looked like walking away from his lesson in electricity but he remembered he would have put the most hardened cowboy to shame should he have entered a “bow legged” contest at that time.
But to most, during a school day, the fence represented a threat they had learned to avoid and thus was seldom thought of. One fateful day, however, all this changed.
His father’s prize bull usually stayed well away from the school yard, busying himself with the herd of cows that roamed the land. But, occasionally, the large animal would venture close to the school playground while the daily ball games were being contested. This created a problem when a foul ball ended up over the fence. He was familiar with the bull and more than willing to go get the balls, but the teacher felt an obligation to keep all safe. Since only one ball at a time ever graced the school diamond, there came the day when, with the bull grazing close by, the ball skipped over the fence.
The teacher carefully considered all possible options, including attempting to reach the ball with a long stick or board and safely retrieve it. All such ill-conceived plans came to naught. So, the only option left was for the instructor to go retrieve the ball herself.
All of this would have been but another simple act noted and soon forgotten except for the fact of the teacher’s size. She was a young woman with an attractive face and sunny disposition. But nature, or her habits, had dealt a cruel hand. He remembered her as the largest woman he had ever seen. Fat hung in great profusion from her arms and legs to such an extent that he often wondered if a real body actually existed under it all. Looking back, even now, he was sure she must have weighed 350 pounds or more.
Getting this girth under a fence to retrieve the ball was going to be no small feat. But, to her, it seemed the only answer. A joint effort of the students pulled the barbed wire up enough for her to barely wiggle under. But then she faced the electric fence. No one could grasp and raise it so she determined the only solution was to attempt to crawl slowly under it.
The first jolt of electricity shocked her entire body and knocked her to the ground – a distance of only the fraction of an inch by which she cleared the fence. The students stood in horror at what was unfolding.
Realizing she could not clear the electric barrier, she attempted to retreat back under the fence. But, to move, it was necessary for her to at least pull herself up off the ground a miniscule amount. This tiny amount was just enough to bring her into contact with the fence and knock her back down again. Over and over this was repeated. He was sure it couldn’t have been as many times as his memory now told him, but the number was not insignificant.
Fear grew on the student’s faces as they observed this unfolding dilemma. Something had to be done, but what? The teacher was in no mood for any additional shocks from the “weed-chopper” and there was no one around to help. So, she lay there.
He didn’t recall who finally decided the only solution was for the students to grab hold of each of the teacher’s massive legs and pull her back under the fence to safety. Had anyone been fortunate enough to observe this “once in an eternity” scene it would surely appeared as though an excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels had sprung to life. But, slowly the students were able to drag the huge body to safety.
He recalled that later the event rose to comic proportions and much laughter was shared as the students recounted the fateful day. Each sensed, however, that all such recollections had best be done well out of earshot of the embarrassed teacher. So, to her, the event was treated by one and all as if it had never happened.
Some of the students recounted the event to their parents but their young minds seldom did justice to the scene that had actually unfolded before them that day.
For him it marked a new level of responsibility. Now, bull or no bull, he was the one sent to retrieve all errant balls. And the teacher seemed more than willing to let him.
It is left to each generation, each group, each individual, to discover anew the mysteries and secrets of life. It is the purpose of the “Wonder Years”. They are years too little appreciated as one races through them until one day, seemingly without warning, one awakes to find them gone. And, once gone, they are never to be retrieved, though rare is the individual who does not spend his life trying to be the first to accomplish that elusive feat.
During this wondrous time some of life’s essential lessons are easily learned; experience alone teaches many.
Others do not come so simply. Some require parrying and withdrawing as fencing combatants – sticking an inquisitive tip into uncharted waters only to have fear of the uncertain overwhelm the sense and curiosity of adventure.
But, inevitably the seeker returns for another thrust of mind and spirit into the fascinating unknown. Each time he thrusts a bit farther before withdrawing to safer and more comfortable surroundings. The game progresses by such rules until at last all seems to be known; although often not true. The mind is content to believe and more than ready to fill in any annoying gaps with imagination become real.
As he slowly walked over the long abandoned plot, an amazing array of past realities jostled for dominance in his thoughts. Some passed quickly by, others stuck around to, once again, send tender roots down into his subconscious.
He knew the little school had taught many lessons in living and life. Like every such institution, it was a hotbed of speculation and truth regarding the beginning of life and the role each – male and female – played in it.
Young immature minds listened to every word of the older and supposedly more knowledgeable who were more than ready to dispense their latest tidbit of acquired information. Imagination took over from there. From the earliest days he could remember it was the prime topic of speculation whenever the boys assembled. No one discussed such things within the hearing of the girls or adults, leaving each of these assuming the male young were little interested or curious regarding sex.
The opposite was, of course, true. As misinformation and truth mixed they combined to make a fascinating topic even more so.
As long as ringlets were tied around his heart and mind, he was content to listen to the older boys, observe and learn without any real push to do otherwise. When the time came he was alone, however, his interests became much more devoted to understanding his developing body. Others, older, were more than eager to help. A neighborhood boy, older boys at school, his cousin, medical books his mother kept on the very top shelf, exploration, and experience all played their part in this aspect of his education.
The topic was never mentioned or hinted at to her while her ringlets were in his life. The closest he had ever come was the hot day she wore a stiffly starched blouse, untucked, and without under garments. During the day she had dropped something at her desk and bent down to retrieve it. Her blouse stood stiffly away from her body allowing clear vision of the early budding of womanhood. He mentioned it to her in a kidding way to her great embarrassment. Hence, it was never mentioned again – though often recalled.
With her gone his thoughts were freed to grapple with his development and all that entailed.
For reasons and under circumstances he could not recall, he began to write mildly graphic notes to the only other girl in school his age. She was receptive and always replied, though her notes were less specific and graphic. But, the parents of both as well as the members of the church they attended together would have been astounded had any of the correspondence ever surfaced.
Almost daily notes would be passed. The miracle was, he recalled, that none were ever seen by the teacher or another student (with the exception of his best friend he shared them with). All three realized the potential consequences should they be discovered so they were passed with extra care usually directly so no other student might read them.
Slowly the notes became more graphic until little was off limits. Graphic language was the daily fare. Strangely, neither ever uttered a spoken word to the other about any of the notes or what was contained within them. The subject was much too embarrassing to talk about. But ways of exploration were found.
The school playground hosted a large swing set so tall it would be considered unsafe if constructed in the present. From earliest age students would push each other to see how high they could reach. Or, by extending their legs and “pumping” just right, an individual could propel himself to any desired height. This ‘pumping’ could also be done while standing on the solid seat of the swing and thrusting with one’s legs.
Ever searching for new and more exciting ways of using the equipment, someone had tried letting a person sit on the seat as the other stood facing the swinger. Each could then help propel the swing.
For years this had been a practice at the little school and had gone unnoticed by any, chiefly because the swingers were of the same sex. But, there came the day when he and the older girl were swinging this way and, just for fun, he left his standing position and sat down on her lap as they continued to swing. This seemed great fun and particularly enjoyable and so continued for some months, as he recalled. Often places would be traded and the girl would stand and he would sit. She also began to sit down on his lap while swinging. This was an action, the implication of which clearly went beyond the fun of swinging, although neither would admit or mention it.
It was this type of swinging that the teacher observed one day while casually passing by a window that faced the swings. Since she seldom went out to the playground during recess, it had gone unnoticed.
The reaction was swift and definitive. All older students were called together and forever forbidden to swing together in any configuration.
As always, the students accepted it and nothing more was ever said or done. He knew he should have felt bad about the entire situation, but didn’t recall he was ever able to.
Memories are such strange gifts: once given they are wont to die. Most slip quietly away as the morning mist, fading into nothingness. In vanishing, they leave the possessor neither richer nor poorer than if they had not visited.
Of the incalculable number of seconds in one’s life, each holds a potential memory. Most never flower as no garden could hold such an array. But, a few attach themselves to a mind, becoming part of who the possessor is. Strip these away from the holder and a decidedly different creature would remain – a useless being, hardly human – no learning, intellect, or culture; no recollection of happier times, no reservoir of lessons learned, and most telling, no experience of giving or receiving love.
The mind or spirit of every man can be reduced to a small collection of memories, carefully selected form the multitudes that passed by.
Memories: are they as real as what is happening today or what will tomorrow? One should be cautious in answering. For if they are not as real, as valuable, as incumbent on who one is; one should remember that in a moment what is now and what will be tomorrow will reside where yesterday does today.
Memories continued to flood his consciousness. He knew he must leave and just as surely that the footprints he now left would be his last.
Everywhere he looked there was a glimmer of another face, another part of his life, as real to him as any particle of today’s existence. Each memory that floated though his mind was unique and special. Some elicited a smile, some a shudder, and some a crushing sadness that the realization of the brevity of life often brings. Too many would never return to this acre in this life. Too many of the smiling, giggling little ones no longer breathed in earthly life. Too many had left, surely before their time.
Enemies circled around like wild beasts waiting to rob all who knew these departed of their love, companionship and contribution to who he was today. Death is a voracious thief; never satiated. But there is one realm it cannot touch: the eternal kingdom of memories. Why weren’t they here? He was prepared for few of those who were adults when his shadow darkened this ground to still walk these hills. But what of the others; others who should still be here, still laughing, running, loving, crying, living?
The ringlets that had entwined their way around his heart and occupied so much of his early years, were gone. Gone even before the prime of life. His best friend’s sister, a slender girl with alabaster skin and flowing black curls, whose hand he held as they played “Red Rover”; a girl who went on to become a local Rodeo Queen and then was gone before her third decade came to stay. Both of these abducted by the cancerous arm of the Grim Reaper.
His cousin – tall, strong, handsome – gone before his third decade could end. Gone, leaving two young boys without a father.
So many more. So many painful memories to rest along side the flood of precious ones.
There should be realms on which death or aging has no claim. The same fresh, young faces should still be frolicking on this deserted playground. Perhaps they were. Perhaps he could not see because he was not in their dimension of existence.
He looked wistfully out at the forsaken and forgotten acre. As had happened so many times before, the conviction grasped his mind that surely the Great Creator was not so wasteful as to throw away each second of time as a useless used scrap of paper. Throw it away, never to be relived or exist again.
No, there were too many, too precious: too many moments that must forever be.
So many ghosts elbowing for attention. So many memories of this special time of his life. All that life had held was founded upon this 1 acre plot. He was confident he had left his footprints forever planted firmly in its rocky turf.
A good part of his life was here and, in his memories, always would be. He knew time had left this site abandoned to ghostly memories which were caught forever in the stately cottonwoods. Listen and he could hear them whisper. There was peace knowing they would always be here. Time could not erase memories such as these.
He turned, got into his car and slowly left the small parcel of land. He knew he would not return again.
Seeming to sense this finality, as he drove away down the small dusty road, the cottonwoods bowed slightly and whispered “goodbye”.
And from somewhere hanging in their branches the memories seemed to add, “Until we meet again.”