Growing Up On Route 66
© Michael Lund
Growing Up On Route 66 is a full-length novel by Michael Lund, the final two chapters of which are reproduced here with the author's permission.
As the story concludes, the group of boys and girls return home from a hike in the woods west of their neighborhood in a small Midwestern town along the path of Route 66. What they've discovered about their little world is that it contains things to fear, but also exciting prospects. The time of their adventures is the late 1950s.
Breaking Out of the Circle
The Indian was wooden, an old storefront character.
Archie and Billy had found it on the crumbling porch of an ancient log building farther up the valley. Apparently, the structure had once been a small country store. Years ago, a north-south road ran up this little valley, an alternate to the main road east (now Route 66) on the other side of the railroad tracks.
This was a long time ago, maybe even before Fairfield was incorporated. The little road circled around the back of Piney Ridge into what was or would become the town, and the main road made the long climb where the Missouri Pacific line now lay. In places of this now remote part of the woods we would in succeeding years discover sections of the old roadbed, and we could imagine forgotten traffic winding along the sides of hills and curving over the tops of ridges.
On the site of a small spring along that road, facing west and the setting sun, stood (according to a hand-lettered sign found inside) “Store,” which originally may have served the logging operation that cleared whole forests in the last century. After the timber business closed down, hill people perhaps came there to shop without having to walk or ride all the way into Fairfield. Or maybe early settlers bought supplies here while trying to farm the rocky countryside left by the clearing of trees. And perhaps trappers and pioneers made this a last stop on their way to the western territories.
With the extension of the railroad, however, this route was used less and less, until eventually it was abandoned altogether, left to grow wild again in scrub oak and cedar. Now Store was almost invisible, set back against the ridge and surrounded by brush.
The wooden Indian, presumably Store's token, was actually pretty beaten up, his facial features unrecognizable after decades of exposure to weather and insects, the original colors faded to a dull brown. But from the distance at which Marcia, Dennis, and I saw him, leaning against the huge pine tree, his form was recognizable, even striking.
Billy later told us that he and Archie had jumped when they came upon the old building and saw “Chief-Who-Lost-His-Face” looking out a broken window. When he didn't move, though, they investigated; and Archie had the idea almost immediately of setting an ambush for us. The Indian was light enough that the two boys could, with some effort, carry him. He'd been hollowed out in part by termites. While we were looking at rocks in the little creek, then, they were hauling the storefront character into position along our route. Although the ambush succeeded in terms of Billy's aim, distracting our attention from the fire he had started, it failed in its primary goal for Archie. He had wanted to scare Roger or to make him appear afraid in front of Cathy.
Roger immediately claimed that this was the very Indian he'd told us about, who lived in the woods, his little joke. And we could never tell whether he had known about a wooden Indian all along or just made it up on the spot. He gave us that wizard look of his, a sly grin; and Cathy's smiling silence on the subject tended to be interpreted as confirmation.
The scare worked far better on the rest of us, more on Marcia than we understood for some time: it was the next-to-the-last scare she would face on the Great Expedition. She was so angry at the trick that she announced she was walking directly north to the tracks and would follow them back to the Circle.
“I'm going with you,” said Dennis. He wanted no more barroom jokes.
“This way'd be shorter,” said Archie, pointing southeast. “Go over one more hill, and you come down on the other side of Springers' Pond.” He meant on the south side of the house, not near the driveway we'd originally followed.
“Is that right?” Marcia asked the rest of us, hesitating. I tried to think it through myself, remembering where we'd walked today and the earlier trips we'd taken as far as the pond from the other side. I couldn't decide, but not only because I needed an aerial perspective, the proverbial bird's eye view, to calculate distance. I got to thinking also about how frustrating it was that people like Archie could never be counted on to give a straight answer.
Perhaps Archie did believe the distance was shorter along the route he proposed, though I'm pretty sure he was barely suppressing a grin. He might have been hoping to pull another surprise on us, the wooden Indian trap having at last brought him into prominence within the group. There could be some interesting landmark or feature along the route Marcia was proposing that he didn't want her to find out about. Or he might simply have wanted to be in control here, the one who knew the territory and guided the others.
I was troubled then, and have been troubled in later life, by what I consider a distressing human failing, the willingness to misrepresent things because it serves a personal desire unrelated to the situation at hand and to the concerns of others. It might be that I was a slow learner in this regard, hopelessly taking in what I heard or saw at face value far longer than I should have. And I am still a sucker for deceit, for irony, despite the many times I've encountered it, the repeated experience of being mistaken in others. It seldom occurs to me that falsehood can serve such remote ends.
Whatever my own shortcomings in perception, however, Archie was lying: we could have gotten back to the Circle much more quickly following the tracks. Ironically, however, things would have been much easier for Marcia and Dennis if they'd taken his deliberately false advice and come with the rest of us. Going their own way along the tracks, they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The rest of our return trip, on the other hand, though longer and less direct, was simple and uneventful.
This matter of being in the wrong or the right place, at the wrong or the right time, is another troublesome thing to me. The decision to go back one way determined other, unrelated events. Chance was responsible. And chance did not distribute pain and happiness fairly. Yet this occurs all the time. Some people live entire lives blissfully sidestepping calamity, while others seem to have an unerring, unconscious attraction to disaster.
This principle was most forcefully brought home to me a decade and a half later in Vietnam, where too many people I knew ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I thought then that this was a product of the special theater of war. Now I know the same frame fixes events in peacetime as well in conflict.
What did Marcia and Dennis find on their walk home? It was death, I am sorry to say. They found a dead man lying in the ditch along the side of the tracks.
He would turn out to be “John Doe,” some hobo, the Fairfield police assumed, on his way west. The empty pint bottle lying near his feet, traced to a liquor store in town, provided a clue to the circumstances of the event, though the immediate cause of death was drowning. He lay face down in three inches of water.
Average height and weight, without distinguishing physical characteristics, middle-aged, no driver's license or social security card, the dead man was anonymous. He was never identified, never linked to any of the many accounts of missing persons emanating from distressed families and friends throughout the land. Not even traced to a specific region of the country, the dead man had slipped off all the social maps of his time, disappeared from the coordinates that were guiding the rest of us into the future.
He was so neatly prone, parallel to the tracks and centered in the ditch, that Marcia and Dennis almost walked past him without noticing. According to Dennis, who later told Archie, who passed the story on to the rest of us (perhaps accurately), Marcia literally fell down when she saw the corpse. We understood only weeks later why the event struck her so hard.
The dead man was dressed in dark slacks, a brown sports jacket turned up at the collar. He wore no hat, and his dark hair was surprisingly neat. How Marcia could have thought she recognized him from the back is not clear, though we all knew eventually that she thought for a moment he was a man who had been secretly seeing her mother.
My own mother told me about it afterwards, that some Circle residents had seen what they thought at first was a salesman calling on Mrs. Terrell more often than was customary. Marcia must have seen him once or twice herself when her father wasn't home (perhaps that time she came home early from school), and she came to her own conclusions.
So it was not only the encounter with death that so overwhelmed her near the end of that autumn day; it was also a personal panic that the tight world of her family had been invaded, her parents' lives corrupted by outside forces, perhaps also from within. And now, she thought, one party lay dead along the railroad tracks.
Of course, it was not anyone she or her parents knew, a fact Marcia probably accepted even before she and Dennis, racing their own panic, reached their homes on the Circle. She had, Marcia admitted to herself, been seeing her mother's visitor everywhere today. (If, by the way, there really had been anything going on between her mother and some man, nothing came of it. The salesman, whoever he was, stopped calling.)
So Marcia escaped direct knowledge of betrayal, though she did have to deal with death after she told her mother what had happened. She led the police to the spot, told about finding the body.
She apparently handled this well, better than Dennis, who had told no one at his house and who would have denied everything had not Marcia come with the police to have her account corroborated. Still, the event and her memory of that event, to be buried from her conscious mind for many years, lay down a certain path for her future. For her, betrayal had become connected with death.
I, of course, was in other places at the moments of her crisis, unaware that terror and disillusionment could threaten our little lives. I was lucky, I guess, able to hold off for a few more years a direct encounter with finality. Even though I gradually learned all the details, Marcia's experience remained for me a story, something that could be controlled and kept at a distance, like a radio show or movie. In fact, what I bumped into myself at the end of the Great Expedition was more exhilarating than depressing, a moment of exciting discovery.
[In the final chapter, Mark Landon, our young narrator, returns home after a hike with friends in the woods and makes an unexpected breakthrough in understanding one of the great mysteries of the 1950s—where babies come from.]
As we walked, Billy and I got to thinking about the abandoned country store, “Store,” about how it would be fun to have a store of our own in the Circle. It would be a kids' store, we said, run by and for kids. It would have things we wanted—toys, candy, comics—at prices we could afford. And there would be a place for us all to get together, talk and play games.
After we had passed the area of the mine, we began to feel the temperature falling. It was not only getting late in the afternoon, but the heavier clouds gathering over the Gasconade probably meant an evening thunderstorm. At the top of the last hill by Springers' Pond, Cathy looked back over her shoulder, red hair flashing in a ray of sun filtered through distant clouds. “Come on,” she said. “We want to get back before this breaks.”
What appealed to Billy about the idea of a store was its operation, the stocking, display, and movement of goods. He foresaw trips downtown to get odd things (spools of thread, from which we could make little rubberband-driven cars) at going-out-of-business sales; trips to make bulk purchases of standard items (string, balloons, safety pins); and trips to do research on pricing, merchandising, advertising. The more we talked, the more complicated and expansive the operation became in his view. The business's only boundaries at this point were our imaginations.
Ahead of me Cathy picked up a rock, another piece of fool's gold, bigger than any I'd seen. She squeezed it in one fist as she walked, a smile playing over her face.
For me the appeal of a store lay not in the operation but in the planning and construction. Where in the Circle would it be built: in the Vacant Lot, at the base of the neighborhood where Hill and Limestone came together, at the intersections of several backyards near the very heart of the Circle's fifty houses?
It had to be central, accessible, but private too, so that customers would come regularly but where we could keep an eye on the building. Too, we didn't want it conspicuous enough that parents would ask questions, interfere, or try to take over.
What shape should the building be? A simple square, one room with a counter and shelves, customers moving up and down orderly aisles to check out the merchandise? Or would we want to be more innovative, creating, perhaps, a round building, stock grouped in pie sections of the outer wall, with a booth at the center to carry out transactions?
We came out now on the south side of Springers' Pond, following a narrow path running along the edge. Across the still water we could see the two rock hills, resembling, in Billy's eyes, the breasts of a woman. Behind those mounds the railroad tracks rose on the high embankment, but we did not see Marcia and Dennis, presumably ahead of or behind us in their parallel journey.
A store might be more than just a place to buy and sell goods, Roger said to Billy; it could be a place to hide out, a place to get away from the ordinary world of school and family.
“Yeah, a clubhouse,” Archie added, getting excited about his own version of the idea. “We could have meetings. Only members. With a president.” I could see his eyes go hazy at the prospect of running this club, of dominion.
“We'll have to build it first,” I pointed out.
“It needs to be at a hidden location,” put in Cathy. “Where no one but us knows.” She was thinking again in her other contexts: Allied forces had set up a base camp to which she returned after operations within enemy territory. The night before, face blackened for the night mission, a pack of explosives slung over her shoulder, she had said good-bye to the wounded officer whose assignment she had to take over. When she came back, pulling off a wool cap, bright hair springing out, she learned that the soldier, her lover, had not lived to hear of her success.
“Why not use the tree house?” offered Roger. He and his father had built a great tree house in his backyard, with roof, walls, even a window. You climbed up on little boards nailed to the tree trunk, and entered through a hole in the bottom. He had stocked it with comics and several books he would not let anyone else see.
“It will have to be bigger than that,” said Billy. The scheme in his mind's eye already required a main room and a storeroom.
We came out now on Limestone as a gravel road, the top of the Circle, near the spot, in fact, where my first kite had met its untimely end. The breeze was stronger, heavy with coming rain. Billy began to worry that he was going to get in trouble for being late and for getting rained on, so he proposed going down Oak, then cutting through to the other side of the Circle at the Kings' house. (We all knew about the place where the fence was bent down behind the Kings' and we could hop over from Oak Street's backyards to Limestone's.) I decided to go with him, but Cathy, Roger, and Archie went the other way.
When Archie stopped at his house, Marcia had not yet brought the police to interview Dennis; and Dennis was playing with toy soldiers, not letting on that anything unusual had happened on his way home.
Roger and Cathy took their time, I later figured out, coming down the hill. Her house was nearly opposite mine, next to the Vacant Lot; and Roger lived further down the hill. Had he continued without stopping at Cathy's, we would have met each other somewhere on Limestone after I left Billy's.
Billy and I ran down Oak, jumped the fence, and came out at his house, in the middle of the north side of the Circle. I stayed for a minute to finish talking about our store. Behind us on Oak Street the police car summoned by Mrs. Terrell must have arrived by this time to hear Marcia's story.
“Let's scout around tomorrow,” I proposed. “Look for a good place to set up shop.”
“I'll start getting some things together tonight. I already have enough smokes to sell.” He pulled a dozen sections of grapevine out of pants and jacket pockets. He had gathered them all along the way of the Great Expedition. There were also three books of matches.
“Umm, we'd better be careful with those.” I advised.
“Oh, yeah. Sure. OK.”
“Anyway. See you tomorrow.”
The last exchange was not really necessary, of course: we knew we'd meet the next day because our lives unrolled together in the Circle. All of us either met at the neighborhood school bus stops in the morning, or on other days just piled out into the neighborhood to join up with whoever else was there and looking for something to do.
Unaware that a police car, with Marcia inside, had pulled around to the top of the Circle, I started up the hill toward my house. Just as I left Billy's, I spotted, under a bush in the front corner of his yard, an old rubber ball. Once bright red and perfectly round, it was weathered and chewed, probably by Billy's dog, Stumpy. I toed it out from under the bush and began kicking it up the street.
Kicking something along the street, by the way—a rock, a ball, a tin can—was a regular activity for me and my friends as we moved through our neighborhood or to and from school. As far as I know, kids have always done this.
I did not, however, kick the ball with the authority and skill of a developing soccer player; for that sport was unknown then in this part of the country. I had no concept of the goals and defenders, teammates and passes, zones and sides I would one day understand in great detail through my own children's involvement with the game.
On this particular late afternoon, then, as the dark came on and the first drops of an evening shower began to fall, I nudged and skimmed this lopsided, soft portion of an old ball up Limestone. Thinking about the things that had happened in the woods today and what might happen with a store tomorrow, I did not respond at first when I saw out of the corner of my eye Cathy and Roger on the front porch of her house.
There were no lights on at the front of the Williams' house, her parents probably in the kitchen at the back. A street lamp opposite the Vacant Lot threw only a little light to her porch. And, because of several intervening branches blowing and bowing in the wind, Roger and Cathy were to me shadows among other shadows dancing against the house. And their two selves made, at the moment I did actually see them, one form, a single silhouette to my suddenly attentive eye.
There were kissing, I realized, wrapped up in each other's arms, mouth to mouth. Kissing, I thought; there it is! I'm looking at it. Lips on lips.
“What good is it?” I thought, still puzzled by the operation at the same time I was startled to find kids I knew, kids not that much older than I was, engaged in this fabled activity, this movie event.
I stopped under the single elm tree in my own front yard, looking across the street at the motionless pair. The old ball I had been kicking lay at my feet. As the rain started to come more heavily, I saw the shadow split, one half sliding down the steps away from the other. The shape on the porch raised a hand to wave. The other shape just glided away, into the trees, through the rain, down the hill.
Then lights came on in the living room of the Williams' house, to Cathy's right as she stood with her back to the front door. She did not move from the porch for another minute, though, as I could tell now by the indirect light.
I could not read the expression on her face, but I could make out the eyes and mouth. Perhaps I only imagined the slow spreading smile there. But I could see what she did next; and then lights went on in my own mind.
When the shadow that had been Roger was gone into the night, and the light that had come on was not followed by the appearance of her father or mother, Cathy took one hand, the hand that had waved perhaps, and lowered it below her belt, between her long, lean legs. Holding her hand there, she leaned back against the door and her mouth fell open in a sigh that, I still believe, I could hear within the storm breeze.
And in that instant I understood: it was not fingers that did it; or lips and tongues. That was it; those were they; this to that.
“Oh, ho!” I thought. “Ah, ha!”
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.