Growing Up On Route 66
© Michael Lund
Growing Up On Route 66 is a full-length novel by Michael Lund, the first two chapters of which are reproduced here with the author's permission. Successive installments of the book will appear in the coming weeks.
As the story begins, we find a group of boys and girls headed into the woods west of their neighborhood in a small Midwestern town along the path of Route 66. The time is the late 1950s. What lies in store for our young explorers is a series of surprises in the universal adventure of growing up. Enjoy!
Breaking Out of the Circle
When I saw Archie Baker curl the index finger and thumb of his left hand around to make a circle, then poke the middle finger of his right hand through that ring and pump it in and out several times, I had no idea what he was showing me.
“Itís how you make babies,” he said, with a wicked grin and a chuckle of pleasure.
It sounded to me, of course, ridiculous.
I must admit, however, that I did not at that time know where babies came from. One of the most remarkable things about the American middle class of the 1950s was its ability to maintain ignorance about fundamental aspects of human behavior. Despite all the space sex took up in the world, some remarkable adult sleight-of-hand managed to keep it out of the sight of children.
This was first time that enormous force in human behavior was being shown me, and I was dumbfounded. But the seed, so to speak, had been planted. And the rest of the beast would be born into my adolescent mind in the days that followed this first hint of the procreative principle.
The Great Expedition into the woods west of town facilitated my complete awakening, and that was inspired by Roger Peterson, not Archie Baker. Our neighborhood leader claimed to have heard not only of breathtaking vistas past the lost mine but of an old Indian chief living in an abandoned shack at the foot of an open meadow. We all wanted to go, whether we believed him or not.
“Go on!” scoffed Billy Rhodes, my best friend at the time, a fleshy boy with dark hair worn in a genuinely flat flat-top. We were standing in the shade of the elm tree in the Bakers' front yard, waiting for Cathy, the last of our party, to join us on the expedition's staging ground. “There're no Indians living around here.”
“Wanna bet?” challenged Roger and then added. “I heard it from a hobo.” The concept of the friendly hobo had a wide circulation among kids in these days. The dropout from hard work and formal education, living on his wits and nature's bounty, represented a logical extension of our childhood selves. Roger's bold claim to association with such a figure tended to dwarf even the assertion that “Indians” were hiding in our woods.
“A hobo?” asked Marcia, her round mouth falling open in the middle of her round face. She and Dennis were the youngest of our group. “My Mom said not to talk to any hoboes.”
“Ummm,” said Roger, squinting off into the distance, his brows furrowed beneath a tumble of long brown hair. “Perhaps she should talk to some.” Marcia's mouth, already open as she contemplated the land Roger traveled outside the Circle, opened even wider.
We called our neighborhood “The Circle,” by the way, because its three principal streets formed a loop along the side of Piney Ridge on the western edge of town.
Limestone Drive ran west along the bottom of the ridge, rose gradually after a flat stretch, and then, three houses past mine, curved sharply to the left, south. No more than a hundred yards after that turn, traffic, both automobile and pedestrian, generally abandoned Limestone for Oak Street going east because Limestone continued south up the ridge only as a gravel road past a few, widely separated houses. Oak Street, after reaching a tenth of a mile back east, merged with Hill Road. Hill was another gravel road coming down from the top of Piney Ridge, a site from which you could see the entire town of Fairfield spread out over several square miles of gently rolling Ozark hills. The combined routes of Hill, Oak, and Limestone, then, came together at one spot at the bottom of our neighborhood, completing, or so we thought, a perfect circle.
Had we been able to climb even higher than Piney Ridge, however, and look down from, say, one of the small planes, which, to our great excitement occasionally dropped leaflets advertising upcoming auctions or going-out-of-business sales, we would have seen that the network of streets below was more a stretched out oval than a perfect circle, the shape, perhaps, of someone's kidney, bowed out on the south (the Oak Street) side.
On the other hand, of course, such a bird's-eye view would have disguised the many ups and downs that shaped our lives within the familiar, elongated loop. Up there, we would have lost the ability to follow the rises and falls of our little world, unless we had something like one of those instruments geographers use to detect elevation changes in photographs of terrain to be mapped. Without such special, three-dimensional glasses we would have flattened the rise from the Browns' house to the Bakers', the dip in the middle of Oak, the long descent of Hill Road.
Whatever our perspective on it now, the Circle was known in at this time to be rich in climbing trees, free-running dogs, and a blissful ignorance of almost everything outside its magic limits. In other words, the material for the adventure of growing up literally surrounded the children of the neighborhood. Simple numbers guaranteed excitement, as on the streets that constituted the Circle were exactly fifty houses, each containing at least one family of two. (There were no asymmetrical, single residents in those orderly days of America's post-war prosperity.)
For the children of varying ages in each house (future babyboomers) the neighborhood provided playmates of approximately the same grade and sex within a few minutes' walking distance, and that across no streets but the Circle's own self-contained and connecting circuit. With Billy Rhodes, Archie and (his younger brother) Dennis Baker, Marcia Terrell, Roger Peterson, Cathy Williams, and a score of others, I lived in a world as full of possibility as a young boy in the state that gave birth to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer could want.
Like any limit natural or imposed, of course, the Circle had come to represent a boundary, a line which, we knew, it would be necessary one day to cross. This unseasonably warm October day marks, in fact, our first real effort to break out of the Circle. While we had all skirted the Springer house and explored the banks of Springers' Pond, no one we knew had really tested the country beyond, an area reported to contain a forgotten mine, a farmhouse with bad dogs, and a lookout point from which you could see, on a clear day, all the way to the Gasconade River.
There are many ways to categorize the seven members of that intrepid band setting out on a new adventure—by age, grade in school, sex, size, hair color, church affiliation, favorite hobbies. But the grouping that stands out in my memory, from a vantage point some thirty years later, is along a scale of gullibility. We represented the full range of suckers, from the utterly unquestioning to the rarely caught skeptic.
I would like to pretend that I was among the most wise in the party of seven, already rendered a bit jaded and cynical by experience, that difficult master. But the truth was that, not yet twelve, I was still quite near the top of the graph, among the most willing to believe what anyone, especially anyone older or in authority, chose to tell me.
Oh, I was not so innocent, surely, as Denny Baker, who had been told by his older brother Archie than the gas he habitually passed was blue, visible to the rest of us even though he never saw it himself. Archie was always alert to his brother's “barrooms” (our word, derived from that old joke about the difference between a saloon and an elephant breaking wind: one is just a barroom, but the other's a BARROOM!). Accused of a “barroom,” Dennis always denied the act and refused to look at the blue cloud Archie claimed to see floating behind him. But we could all read the deep flush on his face as evidence that he believed the deed to have become visible.
On the other hand, I was hardly so deep into the world's secrets as Roger Petersen, who had found a book on the top shelf of his parents' closet that contained “actual drawings” of male and female genitalia and who had connected those drawings, although not absolutely correctly in all the details, to the furious noises he sometimes heard from the master bedroom late at night when he should have been asleep. His enigmatic pronouncements on the nature of life, delivered with a squinting look into the distance, mystified and sometimes scared the rest of us.
We were, as I said, at the top of Limestone's gradual rise west. Smiling at the arrival of our last member, Cathy, I saw something that confused my picture of a future characterized by farmhouse dogs, forest Indians, and traveling hoboes.
I saw, just to the side of Cathy's shoulder, the tall figure of Mrs. Van Meer watering with a garden hose a small plot of chrysanthemums in her front yard. I'm certain that at the time I had no idea of what gives me such pause now in remembering this scene. I saw that she stood there in a bright red swimming suit, her long, white legs outlined by the green hedge behind her. Water from the hose knifed in a long arc through the warm air of Indian summer.
I suspect that, at the time, if this image registered in any familiar context at all for me, it was that I saw Mrs. Van Meer as a version of Wonder Woman, lariat in hand. As I recall the image now, however—more than thirty years after the event—this woman's face under a broad-brimmed, white sunhat might seem to turn slowly toward me. One eyebrow lifts, the faintest hint of curiosity. Her lips are slightly parted. In a question? A smile? A farewell? A welcome?
In other words, I know now this journey was not just across space but through development: I was another step nearer the very moment of my discovery of sex.
[As our group of young adventurers starts toward the woods west of Fairfield, Missouri, the narrator, Mark Landon, begins to realize each of the kids in this group has different hopes and fears for the future. Route 66 lies in the distance before them, a symbol of the future in those years, the 1950s.]
Mrs. Van Meer was a unique character for the Circle. Unlike almost all other couples in the neighborhood, she and her husband, a coach at the state college in Fairfield, had no children. Perhaps that's why she had time to do such things as plant flowers and plan a wardrobe. Most of the Circle's parents were so busy with work and raising children in that heady post-war time that their dress was functional more than aesthetic, their yards little brightened by ornamental shrubs or flowering plants.
We kids would often notice this tall, attractive woman, poised on the lawn in swimsuit and sunhat or stepping to the car in a long evening gown; but we lacked an adequate frame of reference to interpret her. I saw her for a second on that day of the Great Expedition, but how her figure might have provided an oblique commentary on my journey was at best the vaguest of suspicions.
With Cathy now included, then, the seven Circle children start off in an irregular formation down the white gravel lane to the Springers' house. As our group makes its way, let me say some more things about the individuals in this party and what they will encounter on this watershed day.
Marcia Terrell lived directly behind my house on the opposite side of the Circle, our backyards mirroring each other over a low, wire fence. A tomboy who loved to build everything from sandboxes to tree houses, Marcia could run as fast, jump as high, and throw as far as most of the boys her age in the neighborhood. Her hair was what we called then “dirty blond”; and her long, bony arms and legs were always scraped and bruised from an active life.
Marcia was, however, sometimes bothered by her family. She struggled with a father who loved to tease and a mother who seemed to fear the world outside her own house. Mr. Terrell told Marcia, for instance, that the upstairs bedroom built into the attic of their house was detachable, a separate unit hinged at the roof line. In the case of high winds or tornadoes, he claimed, they might have to let the top floor go. He showed his daughter a huge red switch marked “danger” in the hall linen closet (actually a cut-off switch for the furnace) and said all he had to do was throw it for Marcia to fly off like Toto to Kansas. Marcia knew that this was a joke; but if, at night, a blustery storm from the north tore over the house, she had trouble sleeping.
Her mother worried less about the house coming apart than about anyone or anything coming inside her home. She almost never went out, even getting her groceries delivered from Tucker's over on state highway 00.
Whenever Marcia started chewing on her lower lip, I knew some recent event in the Terrell family was troubling her. If I had known what would cause her to gnaw her lip at the end of this particular day, I guess I would have called off the Great Expedition before it ever got started. But we never do know such things ahead of time, do we?
The Baker brothers, now filling their pockets with stones from the lane as they walk, have already been introduced. Archie in particular, whose potential includes the role of bully, will throw these stones at rabbits and squirrels we jump along our way. In contrast, Roger carries a small, homemade slingshot. His targets are always inanimate, puddles and rocks, at the ends of safe lines of fire.
Billy Rhodes, walking beside me, is saying that he's heard you can smoke grapevines, do I want to try? It sounds ridiculous, just the kind of thing Billy would find out about, but I say “OK” because that's what boys do. Billy is our crazy one. We say he will do anything, and he usually does.
That leaves only Cathy, as old and nearly as wise as Roger, even more confident of a prominent role in the world's future. She sees herself through stirring films of America's triumph in the Second World War. (Though we heard in our young lives reports of fighting in Korea, the battles that shape our notions of heroic behavior are movie versions of the landing at Normandy or the retaking of islands in the Pacific.) Cathy imagines herself not as the wife who stayed at home to worry but as the double agent living on a knife's edge behind the lines. She has flaming red hair, which requires vigorous shakes to show her profile or to frame a strong gaze into the future. She is beautiful. The only sign of self-doubt in Cathy is a slow blink, during which the world she sees is replaced by a better one she has imagined.
One might wonder why such a promising young creature is joining us lesser mortals on this Saturday adventure. But in those days there are no malls for her to hang out in, with ten movies at a single cinema. And cruising the downtown did not become a regular activity of young people until they were old enough to drive. Not everyone had television sets.
I think, too, that staying inside with other girls her age, playing at dolls or reading teen magazines, would have restricted the free range of Cathy's imagination. Any ordinary structure would have failed to provide the background against which her life should be played out: her cover blown after a lover blurts out his passion to his captors, the heroine has to find her way across the mountains to the border with a small band of resistance soldiers.
No one was really the absolute leader of this little group, I should note. That was one of the beauties of the Circle, that its many young citizens formed, dissolved, and remade groups; established, dismantled, and recreated pecking orders. There were so many of us that anyone getting neglected in one bunch could find another set of companions to roam the neighborhood with. Even within the seven who set out on the Great Expedition, individuals would pair up in one order on an outward trek, regroup in different patterns for the return.
The Circle was, then, because of its numbers, a fairly open and democratic society. And the carefree kids with their eyes wide open to the world tripping down Springer's Lane had little apprehension of the divisions and exclusions they would face even before this day was done.
About seventy-five yards from the Springers' (where the group now arrives) the lane crossed a dry branch, turned south, and rose to a parking space in back of the house. We slipped off the lane at the branch and skirted the north edge of the pond. Most of the run-off that filled this round, man-made body of water came down the southern slope, joining a little creek, which trailed off the pond like the tail of a tadpole.
The house, above and to the left of us as we walked, was only a couple of years old, for Colonel Springer had recently retired to Fairfield after thirty years in the Army. One of his favorite late tours had been at Ft. Leonard Wood, forty miles away and greatly expanded during World War Two. Colonel Springer and his wife had planned since that time to buy property near the base (relatively inexpensive in those times) and build their dream house overlooking the rolling Missouri countryside. And their long front porch, with an equally long patio beneath it, did enjoy a spacious western view over the pond.
In another few moments most of us gained a similar, though lesser view from the tops of two rock hills next to the north shore of the pond. These flinty mounds had been created by the rock and dirt scooped from the ground to make the pond. Marcia, Dennis, and I were on the first man-made hill, Cathy and Roger on the second. Archie and Billy, still at the bottom, were skimming rocks across the pond, seeing who could get the most hops from a single throw. Above, we had a preview of what we hoped to find at the end of our trek, the grand vista reaching to the Gasconade.
“Look there,” I said to Marcia and Dennis. “I bet the open place we're looking for is just on the other side of those hills.”
A small creek issued from the base of the earthen dam that was the pond's western shore. The dam reached from a continuation of Piney Ridge on the south across to the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks running along an embankment on the north.
“That's pretty far,” noted Dennis.
“We can make it,” I claimed. “I don't see any sign of a farmhouse or mine, though.”
These railroad tracks, by the way, ran through town and were a major freight and passenger route from St. Louis, that crossroads for Midwest traffic, through Oklahoma and Texas and on to the far West. Route 66 ran right alongside the tracks.
From the other hill, Roger said, “There're down there. First the mine, on the right, then the farm.” Cathy did not say anything, but pursing her lips and shading her eyes with one hand, she readied herself, I suppose, for the possible loss of some resistance soldiers in the effort to slip past enemy outposts.
I noticed then that Marcia was looking not out over the creek but back toward the lane, her lower lip sucked in on one side. “You ready?” I said to her.
“Sure,” she said, turning around quickly. “We're not going to see any Indians, though, Mark.” A pause: “Or hoboes.” As she started down the side of the hill, she pulled her jacket around her as if it were cold.
Michael Lund grew up in Rolla, Missouri. He received an A.B. from Washington University in St. Louis (1967) and the Ph.D. in English from Emory University in Atlanta (1973). In 1970-71 he served as an Army correspondent in Vietnam. A scholar of nineteenth-century serial novels, Michael teaches college composition and literature. He and his wife of 35 years live in Virginia and are parents of two grown children. You can find out more about his novel series at http://route66kids.com and copies may be purchased from the publisher at http://beachhousebooks.com.