Growing Up On Route 66
© Michael Lund
Growing Up On Route 66 is a full-length novel by Michael Lund, the third and fourth chapters of which are reproduced here with the author's permission. Successive installments of the book will appear in the coming weeks.
As our story continues, a group of boys and girls exploring the woods west of their neighborhood in a small Midwestern town along the path of Route 66 begin to suspect that there are more inhabitants in their world than they had recognized. The time is the late 1950s. What lies in store for the narrator, Mark Landon, is a discovery about where babies comes from. Enjoy!
Breaking Out of the Circle
Just past the pond two paths went west: one followed the creek that issued from the bottom of the earthen dam, the pond's western shore; the other path crossed that creek and ran along the east-west hill, which was a continuation of Piney Ridge. The division of our party along these two paths was not so final as Frost suggests (“Two paths diverged in a wood . . . ), but it led to a significant “difference” in what each of us learned on that memorable day.
Billy, Marcia, Dennis, and I took the creekside route, later to become known, in the lore of the Circle, as the “Low Trail.” Billy wanted to look for smokable grapevines, and the tall sycamores along the creek were covered with the climbing plant. In the woods east of the Springers' house we had already found the traditional use for grapevines--not harvesting grapes, of course, but swinging from one side of a dry creek to the other on vines which reached forty feet up into tree branches.
Roger, Cathy, and Archie took the “High Trail” because they were acting as scouts or lookouts for the whole operation. From the side of the ridge they figured they would spot the mine and be able to plot a course around it. At the head of this party walked Roger, chewing on a dry stalk of grass and squinting wizard-like into the distance. Archie, who would have liked to challenge Roger as the first on the trail, took up a long piece of whitened hickory for a walking stick. And Cathy came last, her hands swinging free. The slight smile playing on her face suggested that she was letting these boys go first only to make them feel important, that she anticipated a time when she would have to step forward and direct us all to safety.
Of course, this division into smaller groups increased the chances for confusion about the status of our overall mission. We were still within easy hailing distance of each other, but the oaks, which hold their leaves late in fall, and the evergreens, which were abundant on the rocky creek side soil, caused us to lose sight of each other frequently as we marched westward.
Each group also found new things to examine and evaluate along their separate ways. While we relayed the most important observations across the creek, lesser items and small reactions were kept back. From their vantage point, the High Trail group caught a glimpse of a column of smoke on the horizon. Was the smoke from a house or the mine? They called out that they saw the mine. Did the space between those small hills represent the path to the open space? They thought so, and told us they could see where we should go.
Down below, the thicker growth along the creek bottom directed our attention to mossy rocks and moist fern clumps low to the ground. Billy stopped where a number of grape vines hung from a pair of tall trees; but he found they were green, too hard to break off. Eventually, he sawed away at a small vine with his pocketknife, looking back down the trail toward the pond.
Billy whispered to Dennis and me that the two rock hills looked like a woman's breasts, didn't they? I didn't think so, but I pretended to agree. I tried to suggest that a portion of the ridge was the rest of a woman's body. She could be lying on her back if the two hills were her breasts. Marcia, pretending not to hear, scuffed her feet in the damp earth. We called up to the others that we couldn't see much along our way.
A question occurs to me now as I remember both these trails, which I would walk many times in the next few years. Itís a question this story will answer only in part.
Each path was well worn, the upper one winding around rock outcrops and between clumps of bush, the lower paralleling the creek. Flattened dirt, dry on the High Trail and moist on the Low, made easy walking; and no vegetation grew in the paths' one- to two-foot wide centers. I wonder now who made these trails, and who was using them at this time? Were they as old as the Native Americans who first lived in these woods? Or did early pioneers coming overland out of Virginia and Tennessee plot the logical routes from town to village, water crossing to camp, outpost to lookout?
Just as puzzling, who or what was using them now to prevent their being overgrown? Did animals pad down these ways on their daily hunts or scavenges? Since only small creatures—rabbits, squirrels, possums—inhabited those woods, I wouldn't think they could have accounted for the wear. There were few homes out this way, as I would eventually learn; so it is unlikely local residents traveled routinely along the High or Low Trail.
Both paths were fairly near the railroad tracks and went in the same general direction. Was this a route for an army of continent-crossing hoboes moving east and west along a major thoroughfare? Or were there other neighborhood children playing all around us whom we never noticed or ran into?
I cannot, in the end, identify all the creatures besides us who had covered this same ground, though one person in particular must appear here before I end my account of this particular adventure. I do believe that these routes we followed in childhood were determined in large part by the landscape, taking the easy walking ways around high rocks and across shallow waters. Paths, lanes, highways, railroad tracks where shaped and directed by the land itself. Human patterns of transportation were molded onto a framework of rock and soil so large we seldom glimpsed it or measured its power over our lives.
The country past Springer's Pond is all changed now, of course, from the days when it was untended woods. A high-class subdivision extends over much of the area, developed from a new road put in off the state highway running south from Fairfield.
Even if I went walking within the same geographic coordinates today, the lay of the land would be altered. Some hills have been leveled to make building sites, depressions filled in to improve drainage. The creek itself is, I think, underground, part of the town's storm sewer system. All this territory is within city limits, countryside become residence. The Circle's High and Low Trails run only in memory now, their sources and purposes hidden in the past. Piney Ridge is still there, of course, and Springers' Pond is the same. But to determine all the little shapes that once directed us from day to day requires both a powerful memory and some imagination.
In that lost landscape, the two paths converged about a quarter of a mile past the pond at the end of a ridge. The Low Trail group came up from the creek bottom to see Roger and Archie sitting together on a large boulder, Cathy standing higher up the hillside and looking west. Their pose stands out clearly in my memory because it includes a second clue (after Mrs. Van Meer) to what this dayís exploration is really about.
The Low Trail group had been delayed we waited for Billy to burn up an entire book of matches trying to light a grapevine. He could light the stick, and it did smolder cigarette-like for a minute or so; but it was too green to draw or stay lit. (We would eventually find, by the way, through trial-and-error, that you can smoke grapevines. It just takes a section dry and porous enough that you can suck air through it. They taste terrible.)
One other event slowed us on the Low Trail. Marcia was lagging behind, kicking at sticks and small rocks in the path. I went back to bring her up with the others.
“You know when your dad goes off to work?” she asked me, looking up. Ahead on the trail, Denny was trying to push past Billy to be first in our group to meet up with the others.
“Sure,” I answered. All our fathers left their houses on the Circle at almost precisely the same time every morning for work, 8:00. A few mothers, teachers and nurses, worked too, but they were a tiny minority.
“What does your mom do all day?”
“Um, cleans up, I guess. Cooks.” I'm not sure I had ever really thought about it much. She did what all mothers do.
“Wash clothes, vacuum?” inquired Marcia.
“Sure. Must be. Listen to the radio. Call on the phone.”
“Do you want to stay home?” I asked, to keep us moving.
“I came home early from school once.” She pushed a branch reaching across the path out of her way.
“Were you sick?”
“No. I just left after recess.” Most kids walked home from school, less than a mile from the Circle. If it was cold, we could get picked up by a mother in our car pool. There were no second cars in these families yet, so each wife generally kept the car home one day a week to car pool and to do errands.
“Didn't your teacher notice you'd left?”
“Not for a while. Later she called my mom.”
“Were you home then?”
“Sure, I just hung around the neighborhood until it was time to be home. When the phone rang, I was in my room and I listened from the hall.”
“Your mother didn't know you'd skipped out?”
“No, she got mad at Mrs. Casey. Told her I came home with the other kids, just like every day. Why did she do that?”
“I don't know.”
I didn't know at all what Marcia was asking about here. This conversation seemed pointless, but at least I had kept her moving, catching up with the others. I could hear Billy and Dennis calling out now to the High Trail group.
“Do you think there really are hoboes around here?” Marcia asked, chewing her lower lip. She looked over toward the tracks on the high embankment beside us.
“Sure,” I responded. I had seen men walking along the railroad in town. Some were simply taking a convenient route across Fairfield; but others were vagrants on their way to other places. “They walk along the tracks. You've seen them.”
“Do they ever come in the Circle?”
“Naw. What would they do there? They're on their way to California mostly,” I claimed.
We had caught up with Billy and Dennis now, as they had gotten into a shoving match to be first. Dennis slipped and got one foot into the creek. He screamed, but it was in mock terror. We all laughed. Billy and I reached down to pull him up as Marcia grinned from the bank. Then we all started to run toward a clearing up ahead. We burst into the open together and found that we'd connected with our other group, Archie and Roger sitting on a boulder, Cathy surveying the future.
That moment and that scene have remained fixed in my memory, one of those visions that represent a discovery along the road of life. I was at a point when a new frame of reference was becoming apparent all around me that would forever modify how I live and think, though I only saw it then and did not fully understand it.
What I saw was the two boys leaning their heads together, whispering conspiratorially. I saw Archie look back over his shoulder at Cathy, grin, nudge Roger with his elbow. Then he made a gesture with his fingers, and I knew what he was talking about. This was his loony theory about how babies are made.
[When narrator Mark Landon sees an older boy explaining his theory about how babies are made, he recalls the time his father taught him how to fly a kite. This memory reveals Mark's gullibility, accepting what others say literally and without question. We suspect his naive nature might cause him some problems as he continues his journey with friends into the woods west of town.]
Before I describe again the gesture Archie was making, Roger's response to that gesture, and my own reaction to Roger, I must explain how weak I was at this age in metaphor, in symbolic representation of any kind. Perhaps this was a unique or at least rare quality among my friends; but I would like to think I was not outrageously distinctive in this regard. I do know that I have been, from my earliest years, consistently literal minded. I like one-to-one correspondences: name to object, description to action, response to stimulus. This down-to-earth approach is not at all uncommon among Midwesterners, I think.
Such preferences are advantageous in many spheres of activity, leading to precise communication, the speedy satisfaction of desire, a knowledge of where everyone stands. However, there are other situations that require a more flexible system. The discussion of sex Archie was having with Roger, and indirectly, of course, with Cathy, was such a situation.
Let me give you an example of my tendency to cling to concrete expression and unequivocal statement.
I was no more than five years old when my father bought me a first kite, the standard diamond-shaped, paper affair with two sticks providing the crisscross frame; we had bought it together downtown at Ben Franklin's, the five-and-ten-cent store. I picked out the color, white. The kite came rolled up, two sticks side-by-side inside the paper.
Excited, I watched Dad peel the paper from around the sticks and lay the pieces out on the living room rug of our house on Limestone Drive. He placed the two sticks across each other making a “t” shape, laid them on the opened kite paper, and looped a string that ran through a seam on the outer edge of the paper into slots at the ends of each stick. With the paper now tied to the wood structure, a piece of string was stretched from one end of the horizontal stick to the other, bowing the kite so it would not bend or rip in the wind. Presto—from kit to kite!
To do all this, my father had been kneeling on the rug in his brown corduroy pants and a plaid flannel shirt. Now he rocked back on his heels, chuckled to himself. Looking not at me or at my bemused mother watching over her knitting from the green easy chair, he began a lengthy explanation of how, as a kid, he had rigged his kites, of how kites, in fact, should always be rigged.
“Never follow the instructions included with the kite,” he said, shaking his head. “They don't make any sense, and you need to learn on your own anyway.”
Those official instructions featured a short anchor string running from a spot on the vertical stick two inches below the top to another spot on the same stick two inches above the bottom. This string was supposed to go on the down side of a flying kite, through holes poked in the paper. The string you hold in your hand to fly the kite was then tied in the middle of this short anchor piece, allowing the kite to oscillate back and forth in the breeze, since that anchor piece would not be restricted horizontally.
My dad, however, insisted that a kite should fly in a fixed, steady position at the end of its string. “No waving or waffling,” he stipulated.
“That kite should sit up there like a star.” He also thought it stupid to put holes in a kite's paper.
To prepare my kite for flight, then, he ran strings from each of the diamond shape's four corners to a single knot in the middle, at which the flying string was then attached. And a rag tail, which the instructions referred to vaguely as optional, was mandatory in my father's scheme. It held the kite steady in rapidly shifting currents and sudden gusts of wind.
Whatever the strength of his reasoning, my father's kites flew, this one on the first try in front of our house.
There was little room for take-off, with the wind out of the north-northeast providing a flight path over our neighbor's house (the Franklins'), across the top section of the Circle toward Limestone as a gravel road. But there seemed no worry on my father's face as he took the kite in one hand, dangled it on its string a minute, looked back across the street toward Cathy Williams's house for leaves to move in the trees (the sign of a good wind coming). Then he raised the kite with his right arm, released the string, backed up across our front yard and street.
The kite rose in little jumps over the garage, cleared power and telephone lines, pulled its tail softly over trees at the corner of Marcia Terrell's yard. It was up.
He did this so well, my father, that it never occurred to me to want to do it myself, to remember that this was, after all, my kite, not his. But he thought even of that, of a need I hadn't expressed to be more involved in the action.
“Watch the ball of string,” he said, dropping it on the street between us. The kite was rising so steadily now that, as the string unwound and went through his fingers, the ball bounced and hopped on the pavement at my feet. “Tell me when I'm about to run out of string, so I can stop.”
The string was wound around a cardboard cylinder; but my father, again from his own great experience, knew the end of the string would not be tied, or not tied carefully, to that core. He had already selected and set aside a stick on which he would tie and then rewind the string. He would let me fly the kite holding on to that stick with both hands. Later he would catch the string on notches at the ends of this stick and, twisting his wrist back and forth, bring the kite in as speedily as if he were using a fishing reel.
He would do this with my second kite, not my first; tomorrow, not today.
You see, I had been so carried away with this experience that when, almost immediately after he told me to watch the string, I saw only a cardboard cylinder spinning away from me downhill, no string attached, I just stood there dazzled. How thoroughly and accurately my Dad had foreseen events! The string would run out, he would have to catch it, I would have to sing out.
Well before I could get over that wonder, turn and tell him that now was the time, the string slipped through his fingers and raced off on its own, over the Franklins' into trees on the other side of the Circle and beyond.
“Whoa!” said my father, taking a few rapid steps into our yard after the string.
“Whoa!” I called, as much in echo as in the spirit of my charge to inform him that the string was now at an end.
My father, who had, of course, lost many kites in his day, laughed and looked at me. “That one got away from us, didn't it?”
I agreed, not really feeling guilty or sad at this turn of events, since things had gone, overall, quite well: the kite had been put together; it flew.
My dad looked toward where the string trailed through treetops and across backyards of houses on Oak Street. “I bet you can find it,” he said. “Go on up the hill and look.”
Thrilled at this new mission, I took off immediately. I would like to say I went swiftly, but five-year-old legs do not cover ground quickly. It took me several minutes, running all the way, to make the turn at the top of the hill and then cover the level stretch to where Limestone ended as a paved road. But just twenty or thirty yards past that point I saw my kite, lying face down in the middle of the road. I had found it!
However, I also found myself at an unexpected impasse: what was I supposed to do now? My father's instructions had been very specific and featured the key words “go,” “look,” and “find.” I had carried out all three tasks; but I felt there might be something more I should do.
Still, my father had not said to do anything else. And I, like most kids, didn't want to do something I wasn't supposed to do. He specifically did not say I should do anything to the kite other than find it. I had, after all, hardly touched the kite during its rigging and flight.
Yet, it occurred to me that my kite was in a vulnerable position there in the road. Looking around at woods, back to houses on the Circle, I decided to move the kite over to the side of the road, just as a precaution. In setting it down again, I noticed that a little breeze threatened to carry it off into the bushes, so I placed a few small stones on the kite's edges to hold it down. Then I ran back to tell my father of my success so far and to get more instructions.
Again, he was not upset at this development, but he asked why I had not brought the kite back with me. Bring it back, I realized! Of course, that's what I should have done.
“Well, no loss,” he said. “Let's go together and get it.” And off we went.
Alas, that delay proved costly. Despite its being less in the way of traffic, my first kite had been run over by a passing vehicle, leaving several black smudge marks, one gaping tear, and a crushed horizontal stick.
We got another the next day, I'm happy to say, but the larger problem of my literal mindedness was not so quickly resolved. My refusal to get beyond the most direct content of speech or gesture was still causing problems years later when I confronted Archie's crude representation of sexual activity on the Great Expedition.
What I saw Archie doing on the rock at the end of Piney Ridge was the same thing he had showed me a few days earlier in my own backyard: he looped the first finger and thumb of his left hand together to make a circle; then he stuck the middle finger of his right hand through that ring and pulled it in and out. He grinned widely and nodded his head.
“That's what you do,” he said.
Crazy, I had thought: you can't make babies with your fingers, rubbing them together as you can two sticks to make fire.
But now he's telling Roger the same thing. Either he's sure about this, or he's trying to show up Roger, prove he knows more. But then Roger's reaction to Archie confirmed my own notions.
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.