Countrified city boy
The following was for an assignment at Ouachita Baptist University during 1990. I wrote it about my experience during the summer of 1988 at Hamburg, Arkansas. It was then that I got to live with my dad's parents for the summer while I served as the summer youth minister at First Baptist Church of Crossett, Arkansas.
Both of my grandparents have passed away now. I will see them again, I'm confident of this. But that wonderful summer left an indelible impression on me. Sweet tea, Corn Flakes, shelling peas and seeing young lives transformed left my cup running over.
Countrified City Boy, 8/30/1990
There was a tick crawling on my arm. I sent him sailing through the air with a flick of my middle finger. It was hot. I took another sip of my lemonade, the ice cubes sliding forward to clack against my front teeth. My back was wet with perspiration against the wooden slats of the porch swing.
It was July. Four months earlier, I had been asked to be the summer youth minister at First Baptist Church in Crossett. My grandparents' home was just 15 minutes away, located in the pine forests south of Hamburg. I was living with them for the summer and commuting to work, rather than trying to find housing in Crossett.
I sat on the front porch swing sipping lemonade, deep in thought. It was my supper break. I had to be back at the church in an hour to open the activities building for the youth. I took a deep breath of the magnolia-scented air. It was still hard to believe I was getting to spend the entire summer with my grandparents, Opal and D.B. As long as I can remember, I have had a special love for their home in the pine forests of Ashley County.
I didn't experience the wonders of the country alone. I had grown up there with my cousin Robert Allen for two weeks every summer when I came to visit. He was just a few months older than I, and during those few weeks each summer, we had developed a bond that would never diminish, because cousins, unlike childhood friends, never grow apart. They only grow closer together.
Looking back, it seems that a pair of young boys 20 miles from the Louisiana border cornered the market on happy childhood memories. There was no world out there but the one we experienced.
It was a world of superhero action figures and G.I. Joes with kung-fu grip. They always went bald when you got their head fuzz wet. It was the best argument we could think of for not taking baths.
It was a world of war. When we played "army," our guns had an unlimited supply of ammunition, but neither one could shoot the other. Detente was reduced to two simple words, "You missed!"
Not a single inch of our grandparents' land had gone untouched or unexplored. We knew every tree, every stream, the garden, chicken house and barn just like we knew who each comic book belonged to.
I remember that on those rare days when it rained, we were sentenced to the confines of the house, including the front and back porches. But even then, there were endless possibilities. We would pull out the Hot Wheels or retreat into the world of "play-like." We were astronauts, cowboys, cops and robbers in less than an hour, each making a miraculous recovery from five or six fatal wounds incurred during that time. However, this summer was different. My cousin was at advanced training camp for ROTC, and there were few physical remnants of the time we had spent together. In the yard, a few initials cut into trees years ago were still readable. One lion of a set from the Holy Land was sitting on a shelf in the living room. For some ungodly reason, we had thrown its match into the fireplace during a scientific experience. There was still a hole behind the barn that Robert Allen had dug and covered as a trap for me (it had worked). The numerous pictures we had drawn for my grandparents were hanging in frames on the kitchen wall. All gave mute testimony to the fact that two small boys had shared a special moment in time.
None of it was new to me. However, the purity and simplicity embodied in my grandparents' home and land never ceased to amaze me.
I looked down at my lemonade sitting where I had set it down beside the swing. The ice cubes had shrunk during my brief reverie.
I was now 20 years old. I was used to paved roads and interstates, flouride city water, a gas fireplace and grocery shopping at Kroger's with double discount coupons. Yet my dad's parents had a dirt driveway with a cattlegap. They had a well house and a butane tank behind the house and homemade preserves and cakes in the kitchen. And to top it all off, there were deer tracks in the garden.
This summer, I had learned that it wasn't just Opal and D.B. who had a monopoly on the aspects of country living. Driving to work on any given day, I saw endless emerald fields of soybeans, more expansive than any airport runway. I saw dogs and cats just running around. The only fences were barbed wire to keep in the cows.
I recalled that one morning, when I rounded the corner, there were these dog-sized cattle things just standing around on the road. It was incredible. I was even more amazed to discover that they were goats. I thought they were only found in the mountains. I had acquired some of that country hospitality by then. I stopped at the next house to tell the old man sipping coffee on the porch that his goats were escaping. He laughed and thanked me. I had watched him in my rear view mirror as I drove off, but he never left his rocker.
D.B. had told me one evening at supper that we had rabbits in the garden. He urged me to nail one with the .410 if I got the chance. That next afternoon, I had tiptoed stealthily around the garden, a shotgun clutched in front of me. I felt like Festus on Gunsmoke. I rounded the end of the dead corn rows -- their raspy blades rattled in the breeze, covering the crunch of my footsteps on the dry dirt. And before me, just sitting there on his white cotton puff of a duff, was Roger Rabbit. The only rabbits I had seen this close were in the IQ Zoo in Hot Springs. Our moment together was infinite, frozen in time. Hours later, I raised the gun and fired. The rabbit jumped so high that I figured he must have anticipated what was happening and dodged the blast. I was awed at his reflexes, content to let him escape for his skill. Such was the respect between hunter and hunted. But the rabbit never got up after he landed. The ground slowly reddened around him. I had left him lying there as I ran back to the house yelling, "I got one. I got one!"
Several weeks and several rabbits later, I had noticed that I was living in a regular Garden of Eden. I found I could keep myself fed by picking pears, peaches and apples right off the trees. That fact, coupled with the presence of a water faucet next to the back porch, led me to believe that survival of the fittest wasn't hard at all. As I had sat on the edge of the back porch, looking at the clothes line and munching on a pear, I had calculated that with all the fruit trees around, I could probably make a few hundred dollars by selling their produce to the Big Star in town. I never got around to trying it, though.
I had also learned that bees were evil that summer. They were truly spawns of Satan. I learned this fact one morning while strolling past the three hives D.B. kept behind the garden. One hive wasn't doing much at all. The others were a, uh, a bee hive of activity. I threw a small rock at the dead one to get them on the ball. I must have run around the house for 30 minutes trying to escape the demons from hell.
I looked at my watch. It was time to go back to work. I got off the swing, drained the rest of my watery lemonade with one gulp, and went inside to eat a snack.
That was four weeks ago. The youth group and I had played volleyball at the activities building that night. The rest of the summer had gone by quickly. Too quickly. The paradox of the activity at the church and the peacefulness of the country gave me a sense of perspective that has stayed with me today.
August 19 was my last day in south Arkansas. I had to be in a wedding in Mountain Home the next day. My send-off was a quiet, though emotional one. Few young people ever have the opportunity to know and to love their grandparents as real people, as individuals. The opportunity and experience gave me insight into my father, my past and my future. It also gave me a respect and appreciation for this world that God has given us.
As my car bumped over the cattlegap, I was sweating again, but this time it was from the arduous task of packing. My grandparents were still there on the porch waving as I drove off. I breathed goodbye to them, my summer and my temporary lifestyle. And as I turned the car north onto Arkansas Highway 81, I began to cry.