Growing Up On Route 66
© Michael Lund
Growing Up On Route 66 is a full-length novel by Michael Lund, the seventh and eighth 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 inadvertently start a forest fire. The time is the late 1950s.
Coming Full Circle
I would love to be able to report that, as soon as I spotted a tear in Marcia's eye, sensitive young person that I was, sensitive but also wise in the ways of the world, I performed some delicate and appropriate act to relieve her distress. For instance, I put one arm around her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze. Or, laying a hand upon her arm, my younger self kept it there with just the right pressure and for just the appropriate length of time to show a concern that would not fade over the years stretching out before them. Perhaps, Mark then found words that revealed a great understanding of the young woman's sorrow, words that did not embarrass or burden her, but words that one would have thought beyond the reach of a boy so young. Or even: Sighing himself, the future scientist-poet-religious leader Mark Landon found a tear rising to his own eye, for he was overcome with a sense of loss and sorrow greater and more lasting than anything Marcia could imagine; and that recognition, coming as suddenly and powerfully as a stroke of lightning, overshadowed her tiny grief.
I did not, however, do or say such things. My literal-mindedness often required that I already have specific instruction or previous experience with a situation in order to know how to act. And a girl's weeping from unknown causes in the middle of the day on a forest excursion went beyond any circumstances with which I was familiar.
Sure, my younger sister Beth cried often enough, but I generally knew (or was) the cause of her unhappiness. And my mother could well up at sad stories passed around our family or the neighborhood. But here in the Open Space with a person about my own age, a person whose experience pretty much matched my own, I was confronted with something new, a condition for which I possessed no immediate resources.
I was saved from the embarrassment of revealing that I had nothing to say to Marcia by the fact, announced in a sudden chorus of cries from the entire group, that Billy was setting the woods on fire.
Billy had concluded that the solid tufts of dried grass all around the hilltop, each perhaps a foot in diameter at the base and as much as two-and-a-half feet high, were natural, ground-based torches. Surrounded as each was by dry dirt and flinty rock, they could burn, Billy thought, without setting fire to neighboring clumps or nearby bushes and small trees. And he imagined this clean burn of a single bundle as a grand sight, a fitting celebration of our accomplishment in reaching this goal.
Billy also decided it would be good for this commemoration of achievement to come to the rest of us as a surprise, so he gave no warning before putting a match to a potential beacon fifty feet in front of our observation rock. Within a matter of seconds an area the size of a one-car garage was blazing.
(Although he used one more of the matches by which he had been lighting his grapevine to ignite this little bonfire, it is characteristic of Billy that he already had in his young life obtained his own cigarette lighter, trading a dozen comic books to Heavy Joe Martin for a battered silver Zippo. He had not found an easy way to get lighter fluid for it, as grocery store and drug store clerks in small towns had a way of knowing your parents in those days, and word of your purchases could sometimes beat you home. Still, the empty Zippo rode in Billy's front jeans pocket every day, and we would occasionally see its sharp rectangular outline against his thigh. Roger was always teasing Billy about a habit of fingering the lighter as he walked, and I would laugh along with everyone else, though I was not always sure what the point was. “Got something in there?” Roger would ask, and Billy would blush. “Play with it, and you'll break it,” he might caution. “Don't set yourself on fire now.”)
Billy was not on fire yet, but the way he screamed for help suggested he might soon be. He had his jacket off and was beating at the edge of the burning area. The others ran down to join him, hollering too.
Chaos quickly established dominion over us. We knew something had to be done, but we weren't sure what. Billy, Marcia, and I began stamping at the fire on one edge, where the wind was slowing its spread; but on the opposite side the flames were too high for any of us to try stepping in. Roger and Cathy composed themselves enough to study the wind and conclude that the fire was moving toward a line of evergreens on one side of the field, and they began to scrape a fireline in the dirt ahead of the flames. Picking up sticks and a sharp rock, they hurried to dig a shallow trench across the fire's path.
Meanwhile, whenever the fire jumped to a new big clump of grass, there was a frightening burst of light and heat. The burning grass and small brush made crackling and hissing sounds as a gray smoke grew thick and caustic, throwing some of us into coughing fits. We continued to shout at each other and at the flames themselves.
Despite these efforts, however, the fire spread with relentless appetite, soon the size of half of a basketball court. Working on opposite sides of the burned area, the seven of us were being moved farther and father apart as the fire grew.
I saw, through smoke and dust and the shimmer of heat across a distance, several dark forms swinging coats to beat at flames and stepping high to stomp out smoldering ashes. On another part of the circle of fire I saw a lone figure bent over making a second fireline, digging with a sharp stick. Busy myself at similar tasks, I felt inside the steadily growing realization that from this one spot might begin a forest fire that would devastate not just our woods but the town of Fairfield, the entire county, even more.
The screaming of questions and instructions, the sounds of stamping and slapping, the roar of air feeding the fire and a hiss of combustion inspired a panic far greater than had the mine’s ominous rumbling earlier, which had send us running along the site’s fence line.
In the confusion of the scene, several specific images stand out even after all the years since this event. At one terrible moment I rose up from a crouched position, from trying to roll a large rock up against another to block one line of the fire's approach, and saw a small evergreen, just about the size of a good Christmas tree, burst into flames. It was almost an explosion, the fire catching several dead branches and shooting up the trunk into the sky. I felt at that moment that all was lost, that we would not be able to stop this fire, that it would chase us back past the farmhouse (gone in flame), past the mine (would that explode?), around Springer's Pond (too small to stop this devastation), and on to the Circle at least, back to shame and punishment beyond imagining.
But even at that instant, through the towering tree of flame, I saw on the other side of the fire, or thought I saw, more figures than belonged to our little group struggling to turn back the inferno. Several individuals even seemed bigger than we were, not giant forms, perhaps, but larger than young teenagers, working at ground and brush to help put out the fire. I didn't have or take time to examine closely these figures, ghostly outlines across the smoky haze, and I didn't actually count bodies to determine whether they were extras to our party or if I was seeing the same persons twice. I went back to my task of trying to put a barrier across the northern side of the fire, so it was a momentary vision that I wondered about later.
A third sharp image from the heart of the conflagration remains in my memory. Across one section of smoking ground, through the haze, I see Cathy Williams in a kind of silhouette. She is standing facing me with her legs slightly apart. Holding her jacket by the collar in both hands over her head, she leans forward and swats at a burning clump of grass by her feet. And as she bends down and to the side in this swinging gesture, her torso turns sideways to me. She has, I see, I realize, breasts!
She has been wearing beneath her jacket a thin white blouse, now one button undone at the top and the bottom pulled loose. So through the fabric of her blouse, light behind her, the sharp outline of breasts is visible. I realize that I never knew girls I knew would one day have breasts. (She will have great breasts, by the way, well into middle age, high, firm, and large for her slim figure.)
There is something about her legs, too, that will take even longer for me to figure out. Her feet spread a shoulder's width apart, she delivers a blow to the fire and raises her jacket over her head again. And I see her legs in her jeans, long legs thin at the ankles but rising through strong tight calves and full muscular thighs to her body. And her waist, sharply drawn against the dark background of evergreens and washed by waves of thick, gray smoke, is thin at the belt line, making her hips round and prominent. The picture (another Wonder Woman?) stays with me, though I do not understand exactly why.
Did we put out the fire? Not really. The wind shifted or died down, and natural barriers brought an end to our mini-forest fire. We did not realize exactly when we had gained the upper hand, but at some point I found I was making remarkable progress in stamping out one section of edge. And then I looked around, and others were stepping back, catching their breath, pointing at how what we saw now was primarily blackened ground, smoking embers.
There were shouts of encouragement, renewed efforts to make sure the fire would not spring to life again, and then a general recognition that we just about had it under control. A final phase of scurrying from place to place, some triumphant stamping and swatting, several marches around the perimeter and we knew the crisis was over.
In all of this, of course, I completely forgot the tear in the corner of Marcia's eye.
[Our young adventurers begin a retreat from the scene of near disaster, a fire that got out of control. But even after all the flames have been extinguished, they are surprised once again on this 1950s hike though the woods near a small Midwestern town along Route 66.]
After our experience with crisis, the little party from the Circle was stunned, struck with the enormity of what had almost happened. We stood around and looked at the blackened ground. I did not remember for some time Marcia's near crying earlier, or her fierce declaration that she was never going home again, because even she seemed to have forgotten the cause of her distress, to have been completely absorbed by the fire.
As was so often the case on that day, of course, I was misreading the signs right in front of me. For Marcia, the fire was the little event of our expedition. Her personal confrontation was yet to come.
Meanwhile, Roger, sitting on the observation rock, began a series of nervous jokes: “Did you see a bear in a highway patrolman's hat when we first came up here? I think I saw him drop a cigarette.”
“No,” I said. “I was too busy looking at some boy scouts rubbing sticks together to pay any attention to bears.”
Then Dennis: “Me, I was ducking the lightning in that terrible storm.”
Without anyone's taking the lead, we found ourselves standing up, brushing off our pants and jackets, preparing to start back toward the Circle. Although there were a number of jokes at Billy's expense as we began to wander down the way we had come, no one seemed to want to make him out to be any different from the rest of us. We all got in trouble; this was just one of his times. Even Archie, still looking for some way to take center stage among us, knew that what Billy had done, any of us probably would have, had we been the ones with the matches that day.
“Which way did we come?” asked Cathy before we had gone very far at all. The trail, if we had really followed any route that definite on the last stages of our journey to the Open Space, seemed on the reverse course less distinct, its edges blurred by clear patches of ground, openings between trees or through brush. We were also confused by the similarity of hills climbed and dry creeks crossed.
We knew the general direction we wanted to go, east; but a number of theories on how to proceed now contended for our allegiance. Roger claimed it would be easiest to go somewhat south and east along the bottom of a ridge, keeping that between us and the mine. Marcia advocated heading more northward, directly toward the rumble of machinery in order to get home more quickly. Probably just to be different, Archie insisted on following a path up the valley toward the south. Billy decided to join him, perhaps hoping to recover his self-confidence by separating himself from most of the group for a while.
“We'll all meet where the two paths came together after Springers' Pond,” Archie told us; and he and Billy moved off quickly. No one seemed to want to go with Marcia close to the mine; so, in the end, she came with the rest of us.
We hiked quietly now, each lost in thought. Dennis was particularly self-absorbed, shaking his head from time to time and muttering. I was just ahead of him, so I could hear his little, explosive exclamations: “Whew!” “Humpgh!” “Aghrrf!” “Kphfph!”
Marcia walked in front of me, looking, I noticed, apprehensively around her. There was a cool afternoon breeze rustling through the woods, and I saw, looking behind me, clouds gathering in the west. Was she thinking about her father's teasing, saying the attic bedroom would be jettisoned in a storm? Had whatever inspired those few tears returned to trouble her as she walked? Or was it still the effects of the fire, a letdown after the crisis?
Ahead I saw Roger and Cathy walking side by side whenever the trail allowed; but they did not seem to be talking much. They too were subdued now, keeping a steady pace on the road home.
Looking at them, my mind turned back to Archie's story of what men and women did together when they were married. Kisses, I thought to myself; what's involved there? Do kisses have something to do with this baby business?
Approaching a creek that ran from the ridge down into the little valley to our right, Roger and Cathy stopped to examine some unusual rocks. She may still have been looking for fool's gold, he perhaps for small rounded stones to use as slingshot ammunition.
I had lately been thinking a lot about kisses. In the romantic movies I'd seen, remarkable interest was shown in this activity. When hero's arms wrapped around heroine's shoulders and waist, when heroine disappeared in this embrace, cameras zoomed in on smooth profiles. Heads twisted neatly to the right angle. Lips met lips. (I didn't realize until much later that such neat camera work also obscured the bodies beneath those kissing heads. Again it would take Martin Pruitt and Linda Roper to teach me what was off-screen in our movie world.)
All this seemed no more exciting than kissing my own wrist; yet Hollywood was insisting that there was more, much more, to this lip stuff than I had understood.
Marcia and I stepped across the dry creek bed. Then she stopped a minute to listen for the sound of the mine, actually a bit less loud here in the shelter of the ridge. We also waited for Cathy and Roger, who were still considering the rock formations made by water rushing down the ridge during storms.
The event of kissing seemed bland enough to me, judging from own lips' experience of plump maternal cheeks, my face's contact with a grandmother's or aunt's simple dry smooch. In the movies, though, there were differences. Those lips were sometimes wet, for one thing. Glistening on the silver screen, their moist quality was not the pasty smudge of lipstick but some strange tonic to the parties involved, a subtle catalyst to love linked with the music of orchestras and breathless meltings.
We were all on the way again, Dennis growling and woofing behind me. What was his problem, I wondered, not realizing he was trying to disguise his “barrooms.” The wind from the west was stronger now, and in the far distance, did I hear thunder?
What could the secret of a kiss be? What else besides lips played a part? Well, tongues, I supposed. In one movie I remembered the woman's lips had parted as the man's face neared; and in that dark space between her lips her tongue moved in a way I could not interpret—out? up? around?—and toward a purpose simply unfathomable.
We moved into a circular field where large rock outcrops created a logical route toward a gap in the ridge. We would cross there and probably be able to see the mine ahead and to our left.
Teeth? No sensation there. Only scraping or grinding possible in that contact; and I imagined heads drawn sharply back, grimaces in anticipation of visits to the dentist, if kissers crashed together.
We passed through the little field of boulders. Although there were no large trees in front of us, the ridge rising on both sides of us blocked the side views. A path of sorts disappeared ahead into a clump of cedars, over which I thought I saw the cement block of mine buildings. The thumping of machinery was louder here.
The little thing that hung down at the back of the throat? It was visible when Goofy, falling down into some bottomless canyon on the Wide World of Disney, threw open his mouth in a desperate scream. The “uvula” (I didn't learn its name until ninth grade biology) served no purpose that I knew. Was it a miniature, second tongue, mimicking that larger body in chewing or speaking, turning food over beneath teeth or framing tiny faint words lost in ordinary speech? Maybe that was how Dennis was making his irritating little sounds behind me.
The ground softened beneath our feet as we traveled on a bed of fallen cedar needles. I lost sight of Cathy and Roger where they wound through the trees no more than twenty feet ahead of me. Either Dennis was falling behind or I couldn't hear him now.
I didn't seem to have any control over the little thing in the back of my throat, though when I examined my uvula in the bathroom mirror, stretching my jaws and turning my head into the light, it jumped around in there. Could some people move it when they wanted to? My father could wiggle his ears, using muscles along the cheek and neck; but try as I might, I could produce only furrows in my brow and, after too many minutes of grimacing, a dull headache.
I was being hypnotized by Marcia's walking form ahead of me, legs swishing in her blue jeans, hair swinging back and forth, heels rising and falling above the soft ground. The sun went behind the clouds; and a soft wind blew over the treetops, smelling faintly but sweetly of rain.
Was there some method I hadn't glimpsed to the uvula's involuntary quivering, a secret process it was involved in I'd never been told about? Could it recede and extend on command? Was it stronger than it looked, its soft dangling shape misleading? Were men's uvulas the same as women's? What would happen if you lost one in an accident? Did uvulas make babies?
“I SEE DENNIS'S BARROOM!” somebody yelled suddenly in a tremendous voice. I jumped straight up, then whirled around to see Dennis, ten yards behind me, blushing so furiously his faced glowed a fiery red.
“Who is that?” screamed Marcia directly in my ear, almost hysterical. I looked where she was pointing, to our right, and saw a huge Indian standing in the shadow of a tall pine tree. Although his form was shaded, there was no mistaking the giant headdress of war feathers; the erect posture, one arm raised; the wooden and stern face fixed on us.
“WHAT ARE YOU KIDS DOING IN MY WOODS?”
“Who is that? Who is that?,” hissed Marcia, pulling at me arm.
“You can't see farts! You can't see farts!” shouted Dennis, furious.
“YOU KIDS ARE IN TROOUUBBBLLEE!” the Indian moaned, threatening.
Marcia leaned her head on my shoulder, crying softly now. “No, no, no.”
Instinctively, I circled her shoulder with one arm.
“I'M GOING TO SCALP YOU!” the Indian cried.
Dennis picked up a rock and threw it directly at the Indian. To my horror, I saw it bounce neatly off his forehead.
“AIEYEEE!” the Indian called. Then he began to fall forward, away from the tree's trunk, directly at us.
“YOU KIDS ARE . . . ” Thump! He hit the dirt with a soft sound.
Cathy and Roger were laughing. From behind the pine tree stepped Billie and Archie.
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.