Old Pictures, Old Thoughts, Old Days Long Gone
Old Days Long Gone: It was one of those days that just hit you as you get older. Nostalgia creeps in along with the old memories and sometimes fresh or old regrets. Seems as I age I tend to look more to the past than the future.
I climbed up the stairs and opened the door to our history. It sat in the corner, right down to the fancy leather straps and a little dust here and there. I pulled up an old wooden chair, sat down, and opened the long-neglected trunk in my attic. It had belonged to my father and his before him. Inside was a lifetime of pictures, some good, like the old swimming hole in the woods. Some not, like the remains of the car Jerry died in when he thought he could drive drunk and lost to a tree.
I rummaged through my life sitting there in seven boxes. Each box contained about ten years worth of pictures, some in albums, some loose, all precious to my wife and me.
I picked out a picture at random. Nothing special, a couple of my school friends. I do this on occasion, just a free association thing, remembering whatever it is I remember. I have to dive deep into my old mind, he was a little pudgy here, Frank with his curly hair always plastered to his head. Some days it leaned toward red, others toward the blondish brown. I think his eyes were blue and the other boy was Mark. Yes, it comes back. Mark had the brown eyes. Summer was almost over.
I use to tease Frank, called him Frankfurter, he was always munching on something. That was the day we all went down to Abercome’s farm and stole tomatoes off his vines. No, it wasn’t a great revelation, we did that almost every day. One of us always carried a salt shaker for this ritual. He used to get so mad at us when we did that. Sometimes we’d grab a small watermelon but not often, they were one of his cash crops, that was different.
All of us but Mark’s family were sometimes called farmers or rednecks or other names. We didn’t care, we were kids doing kid things.
We spent a few hours swimming at the creek and James met us there. He said the crew to build the new house had shown at the old Snell Farm. For as long as I could remember it was nothing but a burned-out basement, that summer some citified folks bought the land and were building a new house on it.
After swimming we picked up a bunch of fresh cow droppings and put them out on the main highway so the city folks could get to breathe fresh, hot, farm country smells as they went whizzing by.
I stopped by my house long enough to get the old Kodak 44A and a fresh roll of film so I could snap a few pics. This was one. If I looked closely I could just see the new electric pole they put in on the corner by the house to be. We hurried there and spent the rest of the day watching them work and asking dumb kid questions to get them annoyed at us.
Frank was smarter than he looked, or maybe he looked smart? I know in school he played dumber than a rock and was always a cutup. No-one outdid him on doing something silly.
Mark? He fancied himself the ladies man. Again, maybe he was, I think out of the four of us he lost his innocence first. It was long after he bragged to the world he did of course.
That summer we raised hell all around. The neighbors called us the fearsome foursome and it wasn’t complimentary. A few days after the picture was taken we decided to build a boat using the scraps from the builders working on the new house. We borrowed everything we needed for our pirate ship. Plywood, two sheets of it, wait, it wasn’t scrap, it was the outside skin of the roof. We borrowed nails, bent and straight, we took a couple 2×4’s, boards, and one full bucket of black roofing tar. I stopped by my house and borrowed a sheet off the clothesline outback.
At the stream, we assembled our boat complete with a sail nailed to our 2×4 mast and yardarm. We tared it up inside and out to make it waterproof. When it was done we climbed aboard and cast off and it promptly sank about 20 feet offshore with all hands. After we were back on shore we made Frank walk the plank, it had all been his idea.
To celebrate our luck on finding a deserted island we went down to the Davis Drug Store to get a pop and ice cream. Along the way, Mark finally found out why we told him never to pee on a fence post. Old Mr. Higgins had bought some new heifers and turned his electric fence back on.
In the town the looks we received were funny, but what wasn’t funny was the yelling from Mr. Davis for leaving roofing tar on his counter and floor. We were still covered in the stuff.
Later we tried to pretend we had no clue where the can of tar, the plywood and other items that had gone missing from the new house went, but our families didn’t seem to believe us as we all went through hell getting scrubbed down until we were raw to try and get that tar off.
A few days before the picture James and Frank and I had gone to the closed down factory. If I remember right, Mark went to the city with his parents that day and wound up getting his hair styled. No accounting for city folks.
All the way to the factory we had been stuffing our pockets full of rocks. We climbed through the fence hole in the back corner and moved toward the building. We’d done it before and it was a lot of fun. Rows of windows high and low. Juicy targets just sitting there. I’d nailed a few good windows and so had the others when we received a surprise, Deputy Williamson came tearing around the corner on foot. We had no place to run and he knew us all anyway. Best we could do was claim innocence with our pockets full of stones. Seems this also didn’t go over well. The only thing that stopped us from really getting it from our families was that the factory had been cleared to be demolished, still, my butt hurt for a while.
Not all we did was bad. That Saturday Frank and Mark came by with their 22’s and James had his fancy 410 shotgun. I took my 22 rifle and a couple of boxes of shells and we went hunting. The local farmers would actually pay us for each crow or groundhog or rat we killed for them. All of us but Mark were country boys and crack shots. He was learning. In season my dad or Franks would take us rabbit or squirrel hunting and they showed us how to skin them out and cook them up as well. Mark always got sick gutting them out but he tried. His family originally came from the city someplace so we excused his wimpy stomach. I think we made about $14 to split four ways, still, a dollar was a dollar.
Jerry…Jerry was Mark’s older brother. He was 22 and had his own car. Sometimes he’d take us hunting or fishing with him, but I was afraid. He was always drinking beer or whiskey, even while driving. What brings it to mind as I remember we were up to the final week of vacation and I was stuck helping my dad rebuild the old John Deer Model B engine when Shelia came running down the street crying. She was Jerry and Mark’s sister and she used to tease me all the time in school because she knew I liked her, but she was a friend as well. She ran up crying and I held her in my arms, she felt warm and that was cool at the same time.
“They’re dead!” She sobbed.
“Who?” It wasn’t cool anymore as I looked into her eyes.
“Raylin and Jerry!” She looked at me and cried a fresh burst again.
“How?” I think I had just stood there starring at her.
“They went swimming this morning and he’d been drinking as usual. Deputy Williamson said he tried to slide the dirt corner at Renaldo Creek and just shot off the road into a tree. They said he was doing over 90.” She looked pretty with her wet face but I kept that to myself as I hugged her a bit tighter. I was always the one being accused of being heartless, but I always felt it was my way of getting through adversity. Show little and focus hard on anything else. Easies the pain.
Raylin was a friend of hers, Jerry was her brother, and both went poof into the ether. Shelia was devastated. She never tried to leave my arms for a long time. Dad just left us standing there and went into the house after telling her he was sorry to hear the news. Shelia talked about them both and she was telling me about Raylin while trying to absorb the reality they were gone. “She had spent a week with us when her parents had to go to an uncle’s funeral up in Raleigh, N.C. one time.” She went on crying and remembering and I just stood and hugged her and listened.
We spent the last of the vacation that year going to funerals and listening to adults spouting the evils of drink at the funerals, at church, and at home. Then they all went to the bar to get a drink to calm down, some every night of the week.
Funny, Shelia knew I didn’t like to drink. We had all experimented with it with Jerry at one time or another. After that, she bonded a bit tighter with me.
I sit looking at the picture of Frank and Mark from so long ago and I remembered Shelia in school…
I remember Shelia and I were in fifth grade and she warning me not to eat any chicken sandwiches any more which we always took to school for lunch. I asked her why and she said it was causing her to grow feathers. I didn’t understand so after school she let me look in her pants and sure enough, she had feathers growing. A few weeks later I had to switch to peanut-butter and she asked why and after school I showed her and she said, “Too late! You’re growing the neck and gizzards!” Or was that a joke she told me? I forget, but we were close friends even then so either was possible.
After Jerry’s death, Shelia and I became an item. Sometime after Mark was no longer innocent Shelia showed me her feathers again and we found new uses for the neck and gizzards. A few years after I joined the Army she joined me as wife. Damn, that was forty years ago? Time flies, which reminds me, I need to get her an anniversary present or she’ll kill me.
I went back to that little area of nowhere about ten years ago, it had all changed so much. The dirt road in the picture is now blacktop in the middle of a huge suburban sprawl. All the trees are long gone. Even the pole which was new then is gone. All but the memories, some good and some bad and a few million pictures like mine stuffed in boxes or albums someplace.
Frank grew to almost six foot six and battled his appetite until he joined the Marines, all his chubbiness then turned to muscle and last I saw him he was a Major, married with a couple of wonderful kids and a wife. Always knew he was smart.
I remember the first girlfriend he had, she was as funny as he was and they always tried to outdo each other. I think I heard they got caught in college streaking a Mall or something. They threw their clothes in the car and had planned to use it as a getaway vehicle but you should not lock it with all your clothes and keys inside.
I heard he had been killed in a training accident in the mountains of Nevada. He was trying to repel from a helicopter upside-down and he landed on his head when the rope broke. I could almost picture him trying to come up with a joke before he hit.
Mark? Well, he was different. His girlfriend talked him into ‘borrowing’ someone’s car and they went joyriding. She was from the inner city and was a heavy drug user, soon he was as well. Neither finished school and he left his parents at 17. Shelia said she never saw or heard from him for years. This was the start of a long downward spiral that eventually lead to his spending a few years in jail. I heard a rumor from Frank that he was buried with a couple of bullet holes in him where he tried to rip some drug dealer off.
James was the one not in this picture. He went to work at the local mill and eventually became a boss man. He married too young when the girl of his dreams wound up pregnant and he soon found his dreams of her were smoke and mirrors. The divorce was messy.
His second wife was a wonderful lady, she was the daughter of the ones who built the house on the old Snell farm that we stole the wood from. Funny the circles life have you run in.
Me? I joined the Army and left that little South Carolinian town. Oh, I visited it a few times but life had a different track for each of us to follow. As I look at that picture I think maybe Shelia and I are the last two from that summer group still alive. I hadn’t heard from James, maybe he is still kicking someplace too.
Shelia comes quietly behind me and sees the picture, I handed it to her, she holds it a few seconds then smiles and hands it back to me. I place it in the box, slowly close the chest, and stand up. I turn to Shelia and she throws a bear-hug around me. “Any regrets?” She asks as she stares into my soul.
“Yes. Always regrets.” I said. I saw her look change.
“Such as?” It clearly wasn’t what she expected to hear.
“I didn’t keep a closer track on the feathers.” I kissed her and left her standing there, she was clearly puzzled.