When I look back in time at our childhood, I always think of Lynchburg, VA. When I dream of my childhood this is the place I dream about. I don’t dream of it because we were happy there but because it’s the one place we lived longer than any other place. We had our secret places, our Tarzan camp and we had creeks we played in and a chicken coop we used to hide in. We had mature trees we could climb and neighbors we knew. We knew this neighborhood inside out.
It was an older neighborhood and no two homes were the same. Most yards were large and deep with hedges, gardens and old people. There were more old people than kids that lived here. The people that did have kids put their kids outside early and you stayed out until suppertime. We were not sure whether this was a southern thing or that most kids were expected to stay outside during that period of time. We had little if any supervision during this time. There were about fifteen to twenty kids in our neighborhood during that time. It may sound like a lot but most parents had four to six kids in a family so that meant only four or five families had kids. Back then you did not have TV, the malls, I pods or such things as that to entertain yourself. We played ball, scatter, swing-the-statue or we damned up creeks, walked on the train trestle, and rode our bikes and almost anything else you could do outside.
We lived in a ratty rental home, it had a lot of potential if you had owned it and had done something with it. Sadly no one did, because just pass through families lived there and we were one of them. The house was a two story red brick colonial, with a tacked on ugly wooden sun porch with flaking gray paint. There were no shutters, no gardens just an ugly front pouch that looked like someone had added it on as an afterthought. It was just a bland crappy little rental with very little grass in the yard and no personality. It had three bedrooms and one bath upstairs and a hall in the middle. If you came in the front door and stood facing the back of the house the living room was on you right. It ran the width of the house and had a fireplace on one wall and wooden floors. To the left of the fireplace were multi-paneled doors that led to the sun porch. It seemed like it had about a dozen windows in it. To the left of the entry hall was the dining room with a window that over looked the front yard. There was a kitchen behind the dining room and a pantry off the kitchen. We also had a small wooden back porch, big enough for a grill and the dog bowls. It was hot in the summer and cold and drafty in the winter. We had radiators for heat, and we used them to dry our clothes in the winter.
When it came to dressing ourselves we usually had to get our clothes out of the dirty clothes closet, because they didn’t get washed too often. They were already dirty and smelled and we did too. Bathing was an excuse not to go to bed on time so we didn’t. If we had ever gotten lost any dog could have found us. You would not have needed a bloodhound just as long as he could smell a scent he would find us. We didn’t bathe too much it just wasn’t encouraged. We had no pajamas; we slept in what we wore all day. We didn’t have toothbrushes and no one brushed our hair. I do remember one time I had a bug bite me and it itched. I put my finger in my mouth got it wet with saliva. I rubbed the area of the bug bite and I was surprised at how white the skin was. I was shocked I did not know until then how dirty I was. I was embarrassed and I remember finding a wash cloth and washing up in the sink. I started bathing then and Mama bitched about it saying I was uppity and I thought I was better than other people. I didn’t understand it but she made fun of you when you tried to look right or be clean. I learned about deodorant from a friend of mine who told me about it because I had bad BO. When I think of some of the places we slept such as doghouses and under porches and in the woods under bushes we probably smelled like animals. We played with dead fishes and dead baby birds that we found. We even have some old slides that my Dad had taken of us playing with dead fish in an old red wagon filled with water. The fish Daddy had caught the baby birds we just found on our own. We always had trash and stuff we found laying around or yard, Mama said we made the place look like poor white trash.
Our house sat between two homes one being a rental and the other a big white home with a large porch. It had beautiful gardens and the old lady that owned it sat on her porch, she seemed to sit there 24-7. She was older and she hated dogs, noise, kids, and I really think she hated life in general. If you walked or rode by her house she would yell at you, don’t come in my yard and keep your dog out of my yard. I know you are up to no good you bratty little child. We did have a dog and we made noise and I always seemed to have a collection of strays that followed me everywhere I went. Well her flowers and her cats were not a good mix for my strays and me, not a good mix at all.
Across the street from our house was a lot. It was a neighbor’s garden area. He lived up the street two houses on the corner lot. He had a fine collection of junk, weeds and a ratty old wire fence, but it was his garden. He was about ninety-six years old and he could not see well at all, but he did garden everyday that the weather permitted. He was thin, deaf, old and always had on overalls and a white shirt and a hat. He did live to be well over a hundred in spite of having us for neighbors. He did raise bees and collect honey. He came by our house once and gave us some honey from his bees. I thought it was neat, he had honey and honeycomb and bees all mixed in ajar. I guess because he couldn’t see too well. Mama just thanked him and sat the jar aside and called him an old fool. Now he also had a plum tree in his front yard. The tree hung over the sidewalk and plums would fall all over the sidewalk every year. Now he lived on the corner lot and on that corner was the neighborhood mailbox. You know the big blue mailbox were everyone put their outgoing mail.
I have a story to tell about that mailbox. One fine summer day my little brother and I along with a neighbor girl picked up every rotten, juicy, plum we could find and filled up that mailbox. Well the sun heated it up and the sweet rotten smell of heated plums pulled in every bee, wasp and bumblebee for miles around. One of us got the fine idea to prop open the mail slot and that just made the bees come quicker. We all just sat under a tree across the street to watch what would happen. Along came the mailman and he sat his big ole mail pouch on the ground and opened the bottom panel. Out came the aroma that smelled like plum jelly along with a sticky mess of plum slimed mail, plums and bees. Well the mailman jumped and hollered and stomped and in general was pretty pissed off. This was fine entertainment for us kids. He saw us sitting there and wanted to know if we had done this. We said, “No”. He wanted to know if the colored kids down street did it or the family that lived down on the river? We said we didn’t know who did it. I am sure it was pranks like this that caused our neighbors to hate and fear us.
We often did things we probably should not have done, like the time my little brother and I along with some of the kids in the neighborhood decided to gather up all the dog droppings we could find. We gathered them with little flat pieces of wood and scooped them up so we could throw them at passing cars. We hid in the neighbor’s garden across the street from our house and when cars drove by we would jump up and throw the dog poop. The grass was so high you could hide in it and no one would see you. You would just pop up fling your poop and duck down. We looked like two Whac-A-Moles popping up and down in that grass. Well it was going just fine when one of my friends, I’ll call him Ben, well Ben’s father drove by and we could not see who it was at the time. Ben jumps up and let’s fly with the poop. Then he is horrified to see it was his daddy and his daddy’s passenger window was down and his driver’s window is up. The poop flew in and hit the driver’s side window then fell in Ben’s daddy’s lap. We looked at each other with fear in our eyes and we ran and hid under the tool shed in the garden. Our ninety-six-year-old neighbor was still working the garden and never saw or heard a thing. Ben’s daddy saw him and yelled at him. Then the two adults got to hollering at each other, seemed like Ben’s father thought our old neighbor did it because he was the only one in the garden and he said something about him being old and senile. We never got caught, we generally didn’t. I think this was one of the reasons my sister was always upset with me. She never knew when we would get caught and she would be dragged it to the whole mess. She would never think of acting like that.
As I said we had no supervision outside the house. Daddy was not home much and Mama just didn’t give a damn as long as we left her alone. We did leave her alone. We stayed away as much as we could. We went to Mead Lake on Saturdays and on Sundays we all had to ride in the car thru the Blue Ridge Parkway and learn about every type of bush, tree and fish or what every Daddy saw to tell you about. It was either hot and boring or cold and boring, depending on the weather. It seemed like we were gone all day. There was never a good place to go to the bathroom or to get a drink of water. The lake was a lot more fun or should I say had a lot more to offer.
We spent a lot of time at Mead Lake, it was originally a tree farm owned by my Daddy’s company. It had three lakes and clubhouse and a rifle range it also had a sandy beach and swing area with a bathhouse and a place to swim. There was an area to play horseshoes and to cook out, and lots and lots of woods. It was another place we were just turned loose.
I remember one summer day we had been at the lake for hours and decided to explore. We found a train track and my sister and little brother and I decided to follow it. We lived at the foot of the Smoky Mountains so everything was a little hilly. We came to a place that was cut out between two hills we call these places cutouts. Each side was steep and not a lot larger than the width of the train. This was a very dangerous place to be if a train came. It was sort of like being in a long tunnel except it did not have a top. We played and collected rocks and daydreamed when all of a sudden we heard a train whistle. The train was right around the bend and we panicked. We all looked around and saw no place to go. We turned to run and we were in too deep we could not make it that far before the train was upon us. There was no place to go and no place to run we were stuck.
I could hear my sister yelling, “Up, go up! Go up the sides, go up!” She pushed our little brother up as far as she could reach. He was little and only five years old or so, so she could push him up. He slide back down the sides, which were shale and dirt and rock and he kept sliding back down. We were like trapped rats. We clawed, kicked and climbed and there was panic in our eyes. It was up or die and we knew it. Somehow my sister got up about eight feet or so and I pushed our little brother up to her. She was able to grab him and pull him up. I could only get up so far and I kept sliding back down. I knew I was going to be the one to die. The noise from the train was deafening and the wind was blowing us around as it flew past us. You could feel your clothes be sucked from your body and dirt flinging in your eyes and mouth. You felt like it was sucking you into and under the train, it was awful. I thought I was going to be sucked under the train and die and there would be no body left for anyone to find. I don’t know how, but my sister found a root or some rock or something to steady herself on and she pulled me up as the train swept by us. It was one of the longest trains I can remember, maybe a 100 cars or more. As we were hanging on that cliff side I thought of the times we had counted the cars at a railroad crossing I was hoping this was going to be a short one, but it wasn’t. How we all held on I don’t know. My sister in her determination kept us all on that rocky hill side. It was like some macabre movie, we hung to the little pieces of root and rock on the face of this cliff and the train roared by like some monster waiting to eat us up. Then it got quiet and to this day I think that is the quietest quiet I have ever heard. We all knew we had been given another chance.
We often ran into danger, I recon God looked over us, our parents didn’t. Mead Lake was where we learned to fish and swim and shoot. We actually had some good times there cooking out and being with other children and their families. Daddy was always fishing for ole Leroy, a legendary largemouth bass of the lake and no one seemed to be able to catch that fish. When Mama came with us to the lake she was always partying with someone else and we didn’t see much of her. She was a party person and everyone else seemed to think she was so much fun. She didn’t feed us, watch us or talk to us. She didn’t listen to us either. I really don’t know what she did other than make fun of other people and bitch about the lake.
I think of the times when we had supervision and I think we would have been better off not having it. Often no good came of having a parent around. Like the time Daddy decided to teach us to swim. There was a long wooden dock that ran out into the lake. He marched my sister and me out to the end of this dock and he picked us up and threw us in one at a time. He threw us into this cold, dark, deep lake with the instructions “swim or drown”. We didn’t know how to swim and it seemed like we sank forever. You were going down fast and looking up at the bubbles coming out of your mouth. You realized you were screaming and with every foot that you descended down. It was getting darker and darker. I don’t know how we got back to the dock without drowning and Daddy didn’t even help us. When we talk about this later his only comment was, “you didn’t drown did you, so I guess you learned to swim.” I remember Daddy using the end of his fishing pole to poke and push you out farther or hit at us as we were “fooling around not swimming”. I thought I was going to die. I can remember water going up my nose and choking me. I was terrified of what might be in the water maybe snakes, gators, snapping turtles anything could be down there, it was dark and murky. If the movie Jaws had been made at that time I would have been convinced that Jaws was down there too. It seemed forever before I got to the dock, and from looking at it from underneath you could see it was full of mud dabber nest and spiders and green slime. I thought I had swallowed half of that lake and for years after I had a fear of water. I didn’t learn to swim that day. I didn’t learn to swim till I was in college, and they didn’t teach me like Daddy did.
I use to dream of that day of not being able to touch the bottom and of all the water in my mouth and nose. I could see myself flinging my arms around and getting nowhere. In my dreams I never reached the dock I just kept flinging around and going under. I do remember the panic and disbelief when I was thrown in and then the real panic set in when I came up to the surface and knew I didn’t know how to swim. I have never, ever thought of doing something like that to a kid and I don’t know why my daddy did. He threw us all in and said swim. Where was Mama, I don’t know? I do know it was near the end of summer and a very warm day, but the water was cold as hell. I can remember all those bubbles going up and seeing the light above me. It seemed to take forever to break the surface and to inhale air, and of course a lot of nasty water. I guess it was tough love. Mead Lake may have had more to offer but it could be a scary place too. Maybe it wasn’t the places we went; maybe it was the parents we went with.