Growing Up On Route 66
© Michael Lund
Growing Up On Route 66 is a full-length novel by Michael Lund, the fifth and sixth chapters of which are reproduced here with the author's permission. Successive installments of the book will appear in the coming weeks.
In the story so far, a group of boys and girls are exploring the woods west of their neighborhood in a small Midwestern town along the path of Route 66. The time is the late 1950s. The kids are stopped by a fence surrounding a mine. And the narrator, Mark Landon, is stumped by the mystery of where babies come from.
Breaking Out of the Circle
I must explain once again that I did not then have the slightest idea where babies came from. So I took in this graphic representation a second time and recorded it in my mind. He seemed awfully confident about this, strange as it sounded to me.
Although I saw Archie, Roger, and Cathy in this tableau for only a second, I continued to puzzle over what their exchanges might mean as I followed the Low Trail group out into the open. Billy, a blackened grapevine clamped between his teeth, out raced Dennis to the rock where the two older boys sat. Climbing past them to where Cathy stood, Marcia took up a similar lookout position. I kicked a round rock, worn smooth from being washed in the creek, up the hillside.
“This way,” called out Cathy, starting down the hill to the west. She was angling a bit to our left, across the end of a slim valley which reached back behind Piney Ridge.
Roger rose from his rock and pointed ahead and to the right, where the top of a gray cement building rose over the treetops. “The mine,” he said simply, as if the discovery of this mythical landmark were nothing, only the first in a series of breakthroughs he had planned for us.
At the same time, I became aware of the sound of machinery, trucks, a low rumbling, perhaps coming from underground, out of sight. I had probably not noticed it earlier because we were down low at creek level. Marcia, Billy, Archie, Dennis, and I fell in, in that order, behind Roger and Cathy.
I am reasonably sure I knew then that storks did not bring babies. It had something to do with doctors. Mothers, wives, women were involved, getting bigger and bigger around the middle until, after visiting the hospital, they came home with infants. Perhaps I understood that babies developed inside the mothers, though I am sure I never asked how it all got started.
At the bottom of the hill we came to another creek, dry except for a few stagnant pools here and there. Archie used his walking stick to vault across it, though that was hardly necessary. Billy checked out the grapevines swinging from a tall sycamore but saw nothing to exchange for his current smoke. He said this water came all the way from Arkansas.
I was at this time aware of the anatomical differences between men and women, thanks to one succinct father-and-son session conducted when I was about five years old. The follow-up lecture, however, was still only in the planning stages, and its delivery came some months after it would have done me the most good.
We must have been coming even with the mine now, which lay to our north along the tracks. When we had turned somewhat south, the Missouri Pacific had curved northward; and we were probably several hundred yards away from the main portion of the mine. We all talked in low voices, looking off toward where that gray building would be. Would we be in trouble if we crossed onto the mining company's property? What did they mine there anyway?
“What do they mine there anyway?” asked Marcia up ahead.
“Gold, I hope,” claimed Billy.
“Sure,” said Archie with a sneer.
“I bet it's bauxite,” offered Roger. There was a pause, probably because no one else had ever heard of bauxite. I thought his answer was “boxed ice” and concluded that the operation would be interesting but not very profitable.
“I think it's diamonds,” offered Marcia. “Precious jewels.”
“There is gold around here,” I said. Dennis waved a piece of rock, pulled from his pocket. Pyrite, I knew without looking, “fool's gold.” There was a lot of it in these Ozark foothills, and everyone in the Circle, at one time or another, had to go through the ritual of being shown some, being told it was real, learning the truth.
“Let me see your rock, Dennis,” said Cathy, stopping for a moment in a little clearing. “The one that's gold.” He handed it to her, smiling. He knew she knew.
“See those shiny spots,” he said, carrying on the old joke anyway. “If you can melt down the rock, the gold sinks to the bottom.”
“That piece's worth, oh, probably fifty bucks,” added Archie.
“Yeah,” I chimed in, wondering why we were carrying on this charade so long with Cathy. She was not only our senior but a creature of another order. She had her eyes on a world beyond the Circle, beyond Fairfield, out there in places like New York City and Hollywood.
We had all gathered together in a little clump now, watching Cathy examine the rock. Pushing a rich wave of red hair back behind one ear, she turned Dennis' find over in her hand, weighed it, scraped a section with her thumbnail. “Gold,” she said, a statement not a question. She blinked once, and her eyes glittered in the shade of the creekside trees. She handed it back to Dennis. “We must look for more.”
She turned and began to follow the creek again, her eyes scanning the ground. I saw puzzled looks on the other faces, except for Roger who squinted up at the sky, as if he was judging, by the height of the sun, the hour of the day and our distance from the North Pole.
Look for more, I wondered? How dumb can she be? We all know it's just a rock, no more valuable than the flint and limestone that are everywhere around here. Still, I began looking at the ground too. Maybe it was gold?
What was actually mined in the operation north of us, by the way, was nothing. Well, they did produce gravel, crushed rock, but not intentionally. This was a demonstration mine run by the college in Fairfield, South Central Missouri State. The school had a strong metallurgy program and used the mine to demonstrate technique and to experiment with new equipment.
There were two main tunnels dug back into a limestone hill, and little trains on small tracks bumped down into the dark. Digging it deeper, the operators would haul rock out, which would be piled into small hills on the edge of the property. There were also several square excavations into the surface outside the mine's opening, some kind of model strip-mining. We would all take the tour in high school a few years later, not much impressed by this small-scale operation.
I wondered about the lost mine (now found) and its purpose as I walked behind Cathy on the Great Expedition, but I also kept replaying in my mind the vision I'd had where the two trails came together. As I had kicked my smooth stone uphill, a vague suspicion came over me that this matter of babies, this realm of human activity by which the species keeps itself on the planet from one generation to the next, was bigger than I had imagined. There was something out there very important whose shadow I had just glimpsed. The full body was going to come into view, I felt, very soon.
I remembered none of the words Archie had used earlier to explain sex to me, except perhaps “man” and “woman,” “his” and “hers.” There was something too about juices, and pleasure. But I had dismissed this theory as absurd. For a time I wondered why we needed an explanation of this natural event, anyway. There had always been babies; there were babies now; there would be more babies. Did it matter where they came from?
All of a sudden our party came to a halt, the bunch of us in back bumping up against Cathy and Roger at a turn in the trail. A high wire fence stretched across the way. Hearing the low grind of engines and the muffled clanking of machinery nearby, we looked at this fence and at, every ten feet or so along the fence, conspicuous “No Trespassing” signs.
These were not the familiar hand-lettered paper or cardboard posters designed to keep hunters away, but institutional, machine-made, metal signs aimed at all passersby, especially, we assumed, at children. We would not try to cross this fence as we had climbed over the rusted barbed wire ones we occasionally came to in other parts of the woods. Even Roger would not challenge this limit.
At first, I had thought Roger's response to Archie's hand rubbing was an immediate endorsement of my own judgment: he had laughed, throwing his head back and hoo-hooing to the sky. Yes, I had thought, exactly. This was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard, babies from fingers. I couldn't imagine anyone's being naïve enough to believe it!
But then a second thought raced after the first, caught up with it, left it in the dust. Perhaps Archie did have this baby making business all wrong, but what Roger knew about it might be far more unbelievable, wilder still than Archie had ever imagined. And if that were true, how far was I from understanding what actually was involved? Perhaps not fingers and thumbs, palms and knuckles, were used but, what? feet? elbows? backsides? Was it just a man and a woman (marriage), or did it take groups?
Roger looked down to the left of the high wire fence marking the borders of the mine property. Although there were a lot of bushes, he thought he could see where it turned back west. “Come on,” he said in a quiet, slightly strained voice, waving us after him.
We had to climb the side of a steep hill, using low-hanging limbs and small bushes to pull ourselves up. Behind us, the sounds from the mine seemed to be rising from a low rumble toward a deeper call, a throaty moaning. In addition to the underlying roar we also heard now a thumping, like a huge hammer striking the ground or two giants bumping into each other. Nervous, we all wanted to get through this section of the woods.
The moment after Roger laughed at Archie's explanation of baby making on the end of the High Trail, I saw him look back over his shoulder at Cathy, and wink. To Roger's wink, Cathy returned a small smile. She knew? Girls knew? What was this? Something was going on here that I'd missed. Who else knew? Billy, Dennis? Surely not Marcia! Was I the only one who didn't know? Halfway up the hill the fence did turn back to the west, and we could see a clear way beside it. The roar of the mine was louder still, and Roger started running at half-speed along the fence. We were still in thick brush, scrub oak that had grown up after land had been cleared, and could not see far in any direction. But the fence continued west only another twenty-five yards or so, then turned sharply north; and the ground gave way before us toward an open meadow.
The sounds of the mine fell behind us as we continued to run.
Breaking Out of the Circle
[Most of our young adventurers are exhilarated by reaching the Open Place in the woods west of town and imagine futures inspired by Route 66, the Mother Road. But one, Marcia Terrell, is apprehensive about the prospect for tomorrow and her home life today.]
And so we ran on, away from the mine and its subterranean noises, away from our nervousness at being somewhere we shouldn't be, ran along the side of a low ridge headed west, seeing beside the trail, through gaps in the scrub oak, a small farmhouse at the end of a brown meadow (a farmhouse with a small yard in which two small dogs seeing or hearing or smelling us began a shrill chorus of barking), ran down the end of the ridge though high grass and occasional evergreens, down across another dry creek, leaping from a big rock on one side over to a soft muddy bank on the other, ran up toward the southwest to avoid a drop-off above the creek, itself running far from its source of Springers' Pond, ran over finally a rounded and tree-covered hilltop to burst into the open and see before us all at once what we had sought from the beginning, the goal of our expedition, the open space from which you could see, it seemed to us, forever.
We could not see, of course, forever. But certainly for miles we looked out over rolling green countryside lying now in the bright sun of midday. The Gasconade River was even out there somewhere, though we couldn't pinpoint it. Below the hazy blue horizon of cloudless sky and brown land it had to be winding its way toward the Osage, the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, the world's oceans. We would learn in later years exactly where to look for the river by coming very early in the morning, when mists would rise from the water, visible to us at this distance as a thin gray ribbon on edge. But for now we simply looked at miles and miles of land and were satisfied, elated even, at the prospect laid out before us.
We saw also to our right the railroad tracks heading west, down a long incline toward that distant river. And running more or less parallel to the train tracks, a thin white strip appearing and disappearing on hillsides and across valleys was Route 66, the major east-west highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, coming through Fairfield out of St. Louis on the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
We didnít know it yet as Steinbeckís “Mother Road” because none of us would read that great work before high school. And even then, we didnít automatically connect that road across a fictional landscape with the reality before us.
While some of us were thinking of what it would be like one day to travel down the open road we could see plainly, we had no idea what was coming toward us along that same path. For me the result would be an awareness of new possibilities, but Marciaís meeting would send her into an enforced isolation.
To the south we could see great reaches of wooded countryside, dotted with occasional fields and marked here and there by high hills. From this point to the heart of the Ozark Mountains along the Missouri-Arkansas border lay only small towns little changed or changing in this or the last century. So tiny were most of them that we would not even learn their names until high school, when our football, basketball, and track teams went on the road to compete.
The foothills would gradually flatten in the other direction as in another fifty miles they reached the Missouri River, the line which divides the state across its middle into generally open prairie land (north) and hilly forests (south).
For perhaps half an hour we stood looking, hands shaded against the sun, and talked about places we would one day go, things we would surely accomplish in our futures.
“As soon as I get out of school, I'm going west,” said Cathy, unpacking a sandwich she had been carrying in her jacket pocket. “To California.”
“I'm going farther than that,” countered Roger. “To Hawaii. Or Japan. I'm going to join the navy.”
“It's Minnesota for me,” said Dennis, pointing due west. His understanding of geography was not strong.
“I'd like to build a road out there,” I said. “I wonder how they put bridges across rivers.”
“They build the whole thing back at the factory,” explained Billy. “Then just push it across on tractor tire floats.” Billy never hesitated to answer questions, whether he knew anything about the subject or not. This was a habit that would make school increasingly difficult for him in later years.
We had been walking around among a number of large sandstone rocks in this newly discovered field, rocks which jutted out of the ground as obvious observation points for our party. Most of us gravitated now toward the largest slab near the center of the field. At its side grew a small tree providing partial shade. Marcia and I sat down on the shade end and took out the sandwiches we had packed for lunch. Cathy and Roger (who was already eating an apple) stood in the center. Billy and Dennis walked out in front of the slab to examine some of the low, thick clumps of brown grass that dotted what we, having arrived, were now officially calling the Open Space.
Archie stood on a smaller rock about twenty yards behind us, leaning on his hickory staff. “I'm calling this ‘Archie's Rock,’” he announced from his spot, with a tone of command, even challenge.
No one responded, perhaps because, although we were familiar with the neighborhood practice of claiming territory, we seemed to sense that this was for now a community place, a find for the group rather than individuals. Even when we asserted special rights to places, it was usually less an effort to exclude others than an attempt to define oneself, to find a comfortable place within the group. We did this, for instance, with the Vacant Lot Tree.
The “Vacant Lot Tree” grew, of course, on the “Vacant Lot.” One address on the fifty-house Circle had no building at its site because the property had been set aside in the original planning for the neighborhood. It had been reserved for a proposed street, a second exit from the loop of Limestone, Oak, and Hill. This potential road, never actually built, was to have crossed over the railroad tracks and linked up with Route 66 on its way into town. (Later, of course, this highway became Business 66, as a bypass was built around Fairfield.)
About two houses down and across the street from my house, the Vacant Lot was considered community property, often a playground or small park for kids on the Limestone side of the Circle. The curb turned into the lot at the edges of the neighboring properties, making it possible also to pull cars onto the unoccupied land. When more families began to buy second cars in the 1960s, this spot became an unofficial parking lot for the immediate area. In one of the cars parked in that lot my own sexual initiation, begun on the Great Expedition, took another delightful step forward.
Behind where these cars would be parked was a site of more innocent play, a massive pear tree. The Vacant Lot Tree was a great climbing tree, one of a number of big-limbed, expansive pear trees scattered throughout the Circle. Before it was developed, this land had been a farm with an orchard of cooking pears. Dr. Master's House (corner of Hill and Oak) was the old farm residence, a stately two-story house with columns and a separate garage, significantly grander than all the one-story, two-bedroom houses other families lived in. (Iíll have more to say about that house later on.)
The Vacant Lot Tree had been divided up by our gang of seven, each person having a limb or fork specifically designated as his or her own. Dennis had the lower section of a long branch reaching south, and I was out at the end. Roger had the highest fork on the main trunk; Cathy her own limb reaching east, Marcia one going west. Archie claimed a secondary upright trunk below and to the north of Roger, and Billy the fork from which these two trunks began. Many summer afternoons and evenings of my youth were spent lying or hanging or sitting in this tree, seven or fewer of us, talking about events in the neighborhood, stories we had heard on the radio, things we wanted to do.
At about this same time there was at least one other set of kids who had parceled out the Vacant Lot Tree. My brother Charles, heavy Joe Martin, the Bell sisters, and two boys from Hill Street did a lot of things together. And on days when we younger kids were roaming the woods or headed for town, this second, older gang might be occupying our places.
I remember no battles for exclusive rights to the Tree, the different groups somehow alternating occupation as if there had been an early treaty or some time-sharing agreement about the property. There were also Circle kids temporarily unattached to any specific group who might climb the Tree and sit alone in one of our spots, or join others already there when there was room for one more. We felt no need to contest a newcomer's right to a place, and there always seemed to be enough space in this tree for everyone.
It came as a shock to learn one day that my brother's friends divided the Vacant Lot Tree into parts different from ours. No one sat in Roger's fork, but each of the two boys from Hill Street took one of its two main branches. The limb Dennis and I claimed belonged to just Charles; and the Bell sisters shared Cathy's west-reaching branch.
This alternative division of space should have taught me something, but it didn't—at least not at the time. I was staggered by this denial of what I saw as the natural order, asking my brother again and again how he thought this branch contained places for two, this other space for only one, why that fork didn't require a person sitting in it. Two years older and wiser by more, he only laughed at me. Eventually, I gave up trying to understand their system, pretending it didn't exist and that our way of organizing The Vacant Lot was the only way it could be done.
Archie's appropriation, out in the Open Space on the day of the Great Expedition, of a sandstone rock big enough to park a car on, then, was complicating a fairly innocent day of discovery. So rather than turning to claim other spots on the field or to challenge his place, we went on eating, watching the view.
“I wish we could stay here all night,” said Cathy. “Watching the stars come out.”
“Yeah,” added Roger. “Make a camp.”
“Better look out for the Boogey Man,” advised Billy. “He'll be coming to get you!” Dennis, who was often threatened with the Boogey Man by his brother, Archie, looked up nervously.
“Yeah,” said Roger ironically. “He comes out here in the middle of the wilderness every midnight, figuring there'll always be a bunch of kids looking at the stars.”
“Maybe we ought to be starting back,” offered Dennis, glancing off into the woods.
In a whisper not everyone heard, Marcia said, “I'm not going home.” I was still sitting beside her.
“Ah, I know what you mean,” I said softly, leaning toward her and nodding my head at the horizon. “What a beautiful place.”
“No. I mean I'm not going home, ever,” said Marcia. And when the tone of her voice made me turn to look, I saw that she was chewing her lower lip furiously and that a single tear stood in the corner of one eye.
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.