toward the end of first grade…as the weather warmed, giving way to spring and summer…i knew what wonder lay ahead of me. it was a place i’d been before, and a time i’d be having again; but at 7 years old, i was still at an age where every experience appreciated in value–
so you went there when you were 5? just WAIT ‘til you go at 7.
you tried it when you were 4 ½? 6 will KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF.
at nearly three-quarters of a decade old, i was right in the sweet spot of all things being better than before. and there was no end to that escalation in sight. my first-grader point on the matrix of childhood geared me up with gleeful excitement for one of my favorite activities, and one for which the summer was a perfect time: going to my grandparents’ place.
any dedicated student of English knows that an apostrophe after an S indicates the possessive form of a plural; and if said S-apostrophe combination is found at the end of the word “grandparent,” one may usually and safely assume this references a quantity of two, particularly when it concerns a residential visit. however, like a Kennedy, i grew up with an aristocratic privilege: my family had a compound.
or at least, that’s what i call it. see, my grandparents AND my GREAT grandparents lived on the same piece of land. the Haynes Compound. welcome to Hay-annis Port.
and what a compound it was.
my father’s parents lived beside Raimund Elementary School–with which they shared a driveway–in a building that was the original Raimund Heights Baptist Church. it was a red brick, two story Traditional built in 1952, renovated in 1961 by my great grandfather, Thurman Parker, and procured through a trade for his services building the new church a few hundred yards further up Elrie Boulevard in 1960. my grandparents bought the newly remodeled home from him, and after several moves around town and in Mississippi, my great grandmother, Berta, and he planted their flag behind the former church in a white, single-level hybrid: the home had initially been a trailer, but my great grandfather—Daddy Pop, as we called him—had added on until he and Grandmother lived in a proper house, complete with a carport in the back.
the school would close in ’81, and Daddy Pop would buy it in ’85; but even before then, in a fenceless era, Raimund Elementary was every bit a summertime Compound component. it was an old, white, wooden structure, with a big antenna tower behind it, which was installed in 1967 for closed circuit programming. in addition to being the alma mater of Bo Jackson, the school had a unique draw once it became officially ours, though i didn’t explore it ‘til a much later age: even after its purchase, it was still, inside, a school—the classrooms were inhabited by desks; the lunchroom was completely intact; filing cabinets were stocked full of students’ records. it looked as if the world had ended, and here lay the remains of civilization, just as it was before human beings went the way of the Dodo bird. how many people can say their family owns a completely preserved school? Take that, Kennedys.
The Haynes Compound was a wonderland for me. the property was immense, and on weekends or weekday afternoons—or any day in the summer—the entire spread was mine for the exploring:
there was the long, declining driveway, leading to the trifecta of two residences and the schoolhouse; the driveway and carport at my grandparents’ house, around the corner from which was a giant barbeque pit for 4th of July feasts and a big plum tree for tasty summer snacks; the sidewalk from their carport to my Daddy Pop and Grandmother’s front door; the cement path that wrapped around the trailer-house; the gravel lot on either side of the school; the grassy area between the two houses, lined by a tall cinder block retaining wall on one side and adorned by pecan trees, and flanked on the other side by a giant, endlessly compelling holly bush which i always wanted to reach the hollow center of…but i could never figure out how to bypass the spider webs; the street-paved main driveway to my great grandparents’ driveway…which led to the back of Grandmother and Daddy Pop’s, past a fig tree and grapevine, to the carport and half wall where a large apple tree stood; the great expanse of hilly grass going back farther than far to my pre-second-grade eyes; the garden down in the valley of that back yard, yielding beans, peas, okra, and corn; the asphalted lot behind Raimund Elementary—where classmates played dodgeball, kickball, basketball, and four square—and the giant acreage behind it where honeysuckle grew; and the front yard of the school—perfect for football or more earthy bike riding—and the sidewalk that encircled it. it was an incredible maze; a laid-out obstacle course; an adventure park; a home and a home and a school and a yard and a track and a forest and a field and a path and a foreign land and a familiar place and a discovery of things i’d never dreamed of and things i dreamed to do again. and with all my heart, i loved it dearly.
as a child, i would take my bike to the Compound: my two-wheeled choice mode of transpo was a tan, Western-style Huffy, sporting a stylishly engraved banana seat and tire guards with a flare for the dramatic. think cowboy, if cowboys wore striped knee socks and played Pac-Man. my cool ride was nearly an exact copy of Jason’s, in the same way that identical twins compare almost precisely but not quite. [in fact, the incidental slightness in design difference was such that the existence of two so-similar models always puzzled me]. and there was nothing i loved more than carrying that spoked, top-tube-padded fraternal beast of a dual-hooped machine to my favorite place to explore. i’d put my bike in the back of my dad’s 1966 Ford Pickup, and when my tires touched down at the Compound, it was Game On.
but a bike wasn’t necessary—
my playtime ran the gamut— from watching tv at my grandparents’ house or catching classics on my great grandparents’ large-consoled screen, to playing my 17-year-old uncle Larry’s Head-to-Head Football game, to reading comics or coloring at the coffee table at Grandmother and Daddy Pop’s. if i was feeling particularly constructive, i’d work with Larry’s 60’s-era American Plastic Bricks—a more serious predecessor to Lego—or the rustic Lincoln Logs, in the floor in front of that table or in my hideout behind Daddy Pop’s recliner. i might also go for a little pigskin with my dad’s vintage Tudor Electric Football game— i loved to hear and watch the metal “field” vibrate as the miniature characters blitzed according to the tremors, one carrying a tiny, white felt football tucked under his diminutive plastic arm. or if the indoors were too confining, i may find myself riding with Uncle Larry in the old red Radio Flyer wagon, in bobsled formation as we raced down the steep main driveway and past the crepe myrtles. sometimes, he’d pull me around the property in it. or perhaps i’d look for colored eggs that’d survived the previous annual Easter hunt. or just maybe, i’d grind up and down the driveway and sidewalks in my metal-wheeled roller skates. my options were wide open, and no matter WHAT i was doing, i just might be wearing a towel as a cape.
and playtime was always on a tight schedule: Daddy Pop worked every day in the yard— shoveling, picking, collecting pecans…or doing the thing that fascinated me the most: building things. he’d retired from Woodward Coal after 27 years, but he’d spent his whole life working on houses. Daddy Pop always wore Liberty overalls, and his hammer loop got plenty of use. he had a varied collection of tools and lumber in a shed by the apple tree; i was mesmerized by that mysterious building and its contents, and i truly believed he could build anything in the world from the magical materials therein. the shed served an additional purpose, as an obstacle for bike circling or hiding behind, if i had a friend with me; and it led to an elevated part of the property, filled with soft soil where Daddy Pop grew peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, corn, and the biggest fishing worms i’ve ever seen. as i played and ventured in the great outdoors, he was always in my view—going back and forth, tending to the land and residence. he oftentimes was moving dirt from one place to another, for reasons which i imagined were as vital to national security as they were enigmatic. and i was never less than amazed that, every single day of every week—except Sunday, his day of rest—he had lots of work to do.
–lots of work.–
but no matter what he was doing, when mealtime came, it was time to head inside.
and we ate like KINGS. the property’s fertile supply worked in tandem with Grandmother’s loving hands: she’d slice peaches and apples from her trees, and freeze them and confect cobblers all year long, complete with thin strips of dough she called crackers. on saturdays, she’d bake all day. she often made teacakes, and i loved her fresh fig preserves. she cooked vegetables from her garden, and corn of her own as well as from my Uncle C.W.’s; and we always had cornbread. Grandmother prepared Daddy Pop a raw onion on a separate saucer, which he ate with every lunch and dinner. one of my favorite things was Grandmother’s fried creamed corn; and i was ecstatic when i could make Mash on Cornbread, a concoction of Larry’s which consisted of soupy stewed potatoes, cornbread, and a little bit of mayonnaise. Larry would sometimes eat with us, and i loved to see my plate full of the same thing he was having.
sometimes at the Compound, i’d go into the waving, lush area behind Grandmother and Daddy Pop’s house, and just tumble downhill toward the blackberry bushes, feeling the soft and scratchy, centipede-patched grass both cushion and itch me as i rolled— there, where the dogwoods and two pecan trees towered above me, and the sky looked like the bluest water whereupon floated the most unusual branch-shaped boats. other times, i’d go just a wee bit into the woods at the back of the property. but my favorite thing to do was ride my bike. fast, down the slope from the cement wall near Grandmother and Daddy Pop’s house. and all over the incredible expanse of that world i loved so much. me, with my little hands and little feet. and little bike. set out into a great big world of excitement. it was my heaven. a place where i was safe. a place that Daddy Pop built. with his hands and his tools and his work. a place where i knew who i was. it taught me what it meant to have a family. to have a name. to be a part of something. to come from somewhere. Daddy Pop built a church. and he built a house. and he built a family. and he built a life. and for me, he built a foundation. a place where my feet were on solid ground. just like the hard plastic, reflector’d pedals of my Huffy. i would ride, and ride, and ride. pedaling as fast as i could. on the sidewalk. in the dirt. on the pavement. in the grass. around the yard. around the school.
do you remember that feeling?—
being on your bike, nothing but you and the wind and as fast as you could move your feet?
there was a time when the world was filled with those people.
the people who knew.
–what it was like to ride their bike, as a child who belonged.
in a place that was safe.
i hurried, with nowhere to be. except the next foot of ground, the next patch of grass, the next turn to make. when life was nothing more or less than that. and i’m there. now. and other times, too. when life hurts so bad. when things just aren’t right. all the pain, all the uncertainty, the fear, all that we feel in our heart…all of the hurt…can be replaced in an instant by the place we come from. the good place. the good world. there on our bike. our little hands and our little feet. in a big world. much bigger than now. and if we can traverse that big world, we can navigate this one. with our hands, and feet, the wind in our face, the home in our hearts. where we come from. a much more important destination than where we’re going. there is no pain that can take us from there. and no life that can outlive that joy. we are children, we are free, we are reckless and watching and exhilarated and curious. we are there. with Grandmother in the doorway. and Daddy Pop in the field. or whatever your best home was. i can see them. and hear them. and feel there. and touch then. and no matter the tears that touch my cheeks, they are nothing compared to my watery eyes, feeling the wind as i race through it. they are nothing against my family. my childhood. my home. in the good ways. the good place. i am what it means to have a name. i have this name because of others before me. and that is my foundation. that is my house. that is my church. that is my home. and i will ride. until dark. until dinner. until night. until i’m called in. until time to sleep. and dream. of a new day to ride again. i am there. and so are you. if you want to be. life is a day in the sun. a time to ride. pedal. turn. go. live. and as we turn back to that place, time and again, we are at the sweet spot, where all things are better than before. this is our home. this is our life. and we will ride. i’m there tonight. i was there this morning. and no matter what bad the future holds, the good past will be there, too. as it is now. for me. for you. forever.