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Rated: E · Short Story · Friendship · #2188322
A Childhood Transition...
If we had been given the foreknowledge that this would be our last summer together, none of us boys would have changed a single day. Looking back to that time, I'm grateful our folks had the wisdom not to share the news with us until the first week of August...otherwise, it would have cast a pall over our final weeks together, causing us to be morose and unnatural with each other...

When that time did come, I found out that Eddie's family would be moving to New Johnsonville, TN where his dad had gotten a steady job with the TVA working as a carpenter. David was headed across the state to Fayetteville where his mom had finally got on with the university there teaching Freshman English. As for me...I wasn't going anywhere. My family had raised cotton here in May Valley for 5 generations and that's exactly what I expected I'd be doing. Most folks might have felt bound and closed in to possess that awareness at such a young age. Not me. In fact, it gave me a strong sense of freedom knowing what I would be doing for a living: working the land I was learning to love beside people I already loved. Watching the sun rise each day over endless fields of cotton, working hard to produce something of real value for others, raising my own family in time. And on some very distant day, by the grace of God, I'd be buried among loved ones in the family plot on the backside of our field under a willow tree beside the St. Francis River...

Dad always said that life was a real good thing...but also a real hard thing. That God had made it that way because of His deep love and our deep foolishness. But if a man had good roots, passion, and a plan...he stood a good chance at succeeding at most anything he put his hand to doing. And those that didn't often seemed to drift through life bouncing from one dream to the next. Always searching and looking over the next hill to find joy when you ought to find it right where you are just working your plan with passion. Which generally brought up the story about his best friend in high school, Ned Healy. Ned was the star quarterback for the May Valley Broncos, a once in a generation athlete, and dad was his favorite wide receiver. That team scorched a path through the league for 3 straight years and would have won the 2A state championship if only Bart McCullough, whose family raised pigs for a living, hadn't missed a chip-shot field goal from 15 yards out. All these years later, I can still hear the vexation in dad's voice when he says that anyone who raised pigskins for a living surely ought to know how to kick one...

After high school, Ned married Cindy Jean Pettigrew, the head cheerleader and the prettiest girl in the county if you took her momma out of the running. Ned had no interest in college at all and the recruiters soon left him alone. He traded on his good looks and local celebrity till folks wearied of that and things just dried up for him. Cindy's daddy pulled a few strings and got him a good sales job at a large Ford dealership over in Memphis. Ned resisted, but they moved there anyway and had a baby girl the first year. But Ned's heart wasn't in Memphis. It wasn't in sales either, or anything else ...except the local taverns. Cindy did her best for another year, then took the baby and left. Dad said she stayed on in Memphis, found a good church home and made a strong circle of friends who were eager to help out a single mom. She got a good job working for a prominent lawyer...then went to college and became one herself. Dad was quick to point out that she had new roots, passion, and a plan...

Ned drifted back here after another year and occasionally worked at handyman jobs, mostly minor carpentry and mowing lawns. But by noon you could always find him sitting in the shade in front of Jarrott's Pharmacy, waiting for the only beer joint in town, Mabel's Place, just east of the courthouse square on Elm Street, to open for business where he would drink away his demons until closing time. Dad always carried a deep affection for Ned and wouldn't abide bad talk about him, generally stopping those who started any in mid-sentence. We had him over to the house several times a year for supper. He was always a very polite and gentle person around us...but he never once talked about football. The contrast between him and dad always startled me when they sat side-by-side on the front porch swing. Ned looked like a very elderly man...and not an ounce of joy rested upon him...

Which all brings me back to my two best friends, David and Eddie...moving away from their roots to new, unfamiliar places. Not knowing anyone and having to start over from scratch without a deep anchor to hold onto. I was worried about how they would be. But that was all ahead of us...we still had one last untroubled, adventure-filled summer ahead...

We were three older boys on the very edge of becoming teenagers. We had lived too little of life to have accumulated much sorrow in our pockets...and the future stretched out far enough ahead of us that any door of possibility had yet to be closed. The 'half-heaven, half-heartache' of romance had yet to touch any of our lives...although the occasional warning shot had already been fired. I recall deeply embarrassing myself one Sunday at church when I remained standing well after the choir had finished singing and everyone else was seated as I stared anew at Sharon Ann Bailey who sat, suddenly quite nervous, just across the aisle from me. Turning to face her, slack-jawed and my hands moist and clammy, I opened my mouth and was about to speak when my sister had the good sense to grab me by the back of my belt and yank me back down into the pew...and the spell was broken. Lord knows what I would have said that probably would have gotten me tarred, feathered, and run out of town. I sat there...head down and crimson-faced at the gentle, knowing laughter of those sitting around us...

We were known about town as 'The Wild Bunch'...and although we caused no one trouble, I have no doubt we surely looked the part. Shaggy-headed, shirtless and as brown as berries, jeans cut off at mid-thigh, and bare feet calloused and as rough as sand paper...we haunted the dusty back roads outside our small town. Hurrying to finish our morning chores, we'd meet the local gang over at Bob Bond Field next to the Armory for an extended pickup game of baseball. There was never an adult in sight. We kept score poorly and good-naturedly argued about how many outs we had. And as best I can remember, it seems that every game ended in a mutually-agreed tie...

The heat of the day generally chased us down to Jarrott's where we'd tumble through the door and into the icy coolness of the pharmacy. Thankfully, the evil sign 'No Shirt. No Shoes. No Service' had yet to be invented by some busybody, and folks mostly didn't mind how we looked as long as we behaved ourselves and remembered our manners. And God help us back at home if word got out that we didn't. Seated on the red-vinyl, spin-around barstools back at the fountain, it was hypnotizing to watch the owner's son, Luke, proudly dressed in his freshly-starched, pure white outfit, make our cherry cokes. With the deft sleigh-of-hand of a seasoned card shark, he mixed crushed ice and several deep-colored syrups into each tall, wide-mouthed glass... then pulled the soda water lever over each until filled to the brim. Adding a real cherry and dipping in a thick paper straw...he served up each sparkling concoction with a genuine smile. There's just something about a man in uniform. We nursed our drinks as long as we could, but as we got to the bottom, we purposefully pulled hard on our straws...repeatedly making that loud, universally-obnoxious slurping noise that ALWAYS short-circuits the brain of EVERY mom, immediately causing them to sharply bark, "Stop That! NOW!!!"

Leaving town, we'd split up and head back to our respective homes for afternoon chores and then time with family over supper. Dad would always ask a gentle, extended grace over our meal. And then, over a small feast grown on our own land and prepared with love...mom would pass around a large plate full of fresh-baked biscuits covered with a red and white checkered dish towel. To me, the unaltered ceremony and the deep, though unspoken love of suppertime was like a perfect prayer itself...if such can be made...

With a few hours of daylight still left, David and Eddie would meet me at the John Deere harvester that sat behind our barn. With cane poles resting on our shoulders and a coffee can full of deeply-reluctant earthworms, we'd head for 'The Point'...our special place on the backside of our farm on the St. Francis. It was a large sandstone rock that hung out over the river about 10 feet above the water with a perfectly-angled view of an ancient railroad bridge that crossed over the river. Sitting on the edge of the rock with legs dangling down, we fished for anything gullible enough to mistake a worm earnestly squirming to free itself from a hook as a seemingly safe meal as we counted the cars of the occasional freight trains that rumbled past...our imaginations travelling with them. As the welcome cool of evening approached, we scoured the river bank for flood branches before it got too dark and built a small fire on the rock. The sky would quickly darken and the stars made their ever-magical appearance one-by-one. We stared into the fire, rarely talking as we listened to the early sounds of night begin to come alive, like a symphony warming up before the show...until we heard the distant but distinct sound of mom briefly ringing the dinner bell on the back porch calling us in. After pouring a canteen of river water over the angry hiss of dying coals...we headed home...

When the news broke in early August, my two friends and I were stunned. Though completely unintended, they would fatefully be moving within three days of each other...and both would be gone by mid-month. When your world is turned upside down for any reason, it can stagger you and leave you feeling completely adrift. It is a hard thing at any age, but when you are older, life has already repeatedly shown you that the possibility for heart-chaos is always lurking out there. But for someone young...there is always that very first time. They were my best friends...my brothers...and they would soon be leaving...

Our parents knew how much this would affect us...which was exactly why they had wisely held off telling us for as long as they rightfully could. But they could do nothing at all to change the reality of the situation. They all got together one evening over coffee down at the Dairy Queen and cast about for anything meaningfully special they could do for us. And it was agreed that we would finally get to spend the whole night camping out on 'The Point'...something we had repeatedly asked to do, but never been allowed. Once decided, they collectively jumped onboard, completely unmindful of the silly expense for a one-night campout: new fishing poles, a compass(?), a flashlight, buck knives. And my dad, frugal-minded but soft-hearted, bought us the finest, all-weather camping tent that Woolworths had to offer. They were loving parents suddenly reduced to being children again in their hearts...vainly trying to remember what they most needed when loss first came their way...

We left my house that last afternoon, making our final trip together to 'The Point.' Mom had packed a large cooler with my favorite baloney sandwiches, shoe string potato sticks, an over-sized jar of Best Maid pickles, Hostess Twinkies, and a frozen 6-pack of Cragmont soda pop wrapped in tin foil. We listlessly trudged the well-worn path along the fence line and down to the river, mechanically setting up our tent first thing as Eddie quietly read the enclosed instructions. The rest of the gear, fishing poles and what-not, we set aside and aimlessly wandered the river bottom, unmindful of any passing trains. As darkness approached, we built our usual campfire and pulled up familiar rocks to sit on as we faced each other in confused silence. And then God sent them to us...

They came slowly at first, one or two at a time...the fire camouflaging their arrival until several dozen blinked around us and we suddenly looked up. And then...a swirling, blinding snowstorm of intermittent light, darting and arcing all around us, helter-skelter in the black velvet summer night. We jumped up and whooped in awe at their coming...knowing exactly why they were here. David ran to get the pickle jar and poured it out before quickly slicing holes in the lid with his knife. Holding it high above his head, the jar soon effortlessly filled with fireflies. I twisted the lid back in place and we danced around the fire like painted savages, chanting an unintelligible worship sound to the One above. The bull frogs down at the river bottom and the cicadas high in the cottonwood trees joined us in an unearthly...even heavenly cacophony of worship in the awe-filled, frenzied night as the thin veil between heaven and earth was briefly breached...

Just as suddenly, they were gone. The silently-blinking jar sitting next to the tent was the only evidence that they had even been here. Still breathing hard, we sat down around the fire, trying to collect and make sense of our thoughts until the normal rhythm of our lives returned. But it was gone with the fireflies and would never return. And so we boldly talked it out. How things were going to change for each of us and that we would need to have 'true grit' for the road ahead. We would always honor the season of friendship and love God had given us to share, but not cling to it for the daily needs of our new lives. New roots would be needed. New friendships formed where hands could be touched and lives lived side by side...

The exhilaration of the night had exhausted us and we retired to our tent for the night. After a few brief minutes of brotherly teasing, my friends were fast asleep...but I couldn't relax and quietly escaped the tent and wandered over to lie down in the cool grass by the tree line where the night wind gently caressed the tall pines with a comforting sigh...taking the firefly jar with me. Holding it in both hands, I pressed my face against it and gazed into the galaxy of blinking light, pondering the One who made us all...and why. I unscrewed the lid, lay back with my hands behind my head and watched as the occasional firefly, much like all of us, slowly discovered it could escape its bondage, and rose like an ember into the night sky...and then I was asleep...

I awoke an unknown time later with the thick, metallic taste of sleeping on the ground...and the vague memory of dreaming that I had boarded a celestial railroad train high above May Valley and peacefully travelled over endless fields of cotton. The river patiently murmured to me in a familiar language whose words I could never quite understand...but could always deeply feel, while the nighttime stars faithfully gave way to the rose-hued color of dawn. And turning my head...I saw that the firefly jar was empty...








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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/2188322