I remember the Parker’s. You cross the creek bout two miles down a dirt road and through the wood. Then you are at the Parker’s house.
I remember the Parker’s outhouse. I remember the smell. I remember the house. Windows with flour sack curtains. Bare bones, wood frame house. No paint. Just wood. Smoke wafting from the wood stove. Mrs. Parker baking biscuits. Front porch screened and shadowy. Crawlspace under. Alien space. Haunted, dark space. Storage, old stuff, to be never resurrected. broken stuff, abandoned. Just buried in dust. Like memories hidden.
I recall Mrs. Parker pumping water outside. Thin but strong. Sideways, she almost vanished into the haze. Hair so black, it seemed blue. Dark eyes seeming to always be looking past me. There seemed to be a haunt she was recalling. My friend Richard, had the same dark eyes. Sometimes though, his eyes would almost laugh. I remember his sister Sally. Thin, like her Momma, but oh, so pretty. She spoke seldom, loved to sing. Her respite was on Sunday with the Church choir. Choir practice every Wednesday, Mrs. Gary, choir director, took a particular interest in Sally. Mrs. Gary was a good Christian woman. That was Sally’s only refuge from the storms of her Father.
I remember being boys together with Richard Parker. Stretching way back to those Summer days through the the woods to swimming holes. Creek walking, crawdads in a pail. Blue gill fishing with bits of bologna and a bamboo pole. Poking at a snapping turtle with a pole. So strange, I still smell and taste the spaces we occupied. Have you ever had that? In your memories? Doe’s it not make you want to weep somehow?
I don’t remember talking much. We just shared the same space. We were boys. Just being boys was good enough. Then. In the dust and the haze, the early morning damp, the heavy humid air of an Ohio Summer.
Richard Parker had a Blue Tick hound named ‘Blue.’ My family had a Cocker Spaniel named ‘Red’. I liked ‘Blue.’ Richard loved Blue. I remember tracking varmints with Blue. Richard with his .22 and me, with mine. Blue, baying so all the County could hear. Joyful and free. Sometimes, we would howl with him. That was the only time I remember Richard to laugh. It was music.
One thing you could count on, Richard would stay in the woods, or on the creek, as long as you wanted. He was in no hurry to get back home.
We built forts, tree houses. We made spears, we made crude bows and arrows. We hunted imaginary creatures from another world. We wanted to be Indians.
We climbed trees.
There is is an art to climbing trees. Also a science. Finding the right place to put weight and escalate at the same time. We would climb higher and higher. There was no talking, just sharing the adventure. The rising above and seeing more. More than anyone else in that moment. We reach a point where the branches are uncertain, we stop. Looking out over the expanse of Maples and Oaks, with Blue baying and worrying far below us, like a guardian. I sometimes still hear echo’s of Blue, baying in sheer joy of being. God, if you are really there, you could surely take us back there, just for a little while?
Blue was like a barometer. He always knew when it was time for Richard to head home. He would start circling and with head down bump Richard’s legs. “Okay Blue, we’re goin.” We head back and, do so, in total silence.
Richard’s Father was a man no one knew, he was silent. Like a ghost. I was a kid, I had no idea what he had he been through. No one seemed to care anyway.
Blue, now with head down ,no sound, just nose to the ground, heading home. He knew his business. Blue was the smartest hound ever. He was so willing to be a part of everything we experienced and just plain exuberant. When it was over, he knew.
Why can‘t people be more like hounds? Loyalty, integrity. You want truth, faith and love? Forget the Bible. Read a good hound.
Richard Parker’s Father worked the mill. He stopped regular at the local Tavern on his way home. Blue could sense a coming storm. Mr. Parker was that storm.
Sun lowering we start our trek back to the house. Blue leads and looks over his shoulder to make sure Richard knows. He knows.
What was it like to have been a Marine in the Pacific during World War II ? Richard Parker’s Father could never say.
His whiskey, his haunted eyes and rages spoke it for him.
Blue would become more agitated as we come within sight of the woodshed. A place he avoided. Mrs. Parker would be out in the truck patch. As we close on the house ,Blue comes to Richard with a soulful look and Richard rubs his head. It is an affirmation ,a release. ‘ Ok, you go Boy.’ Blue heads for the darkness of the dusty, dark crawl space. Joins relics of the past for refuge.
Richard, Sally, Mrs. Parker? They would go to a different dark place seeking refuge.
Mr. Parker always had whiskey and Camels. Sundays , Mrs. Parker and Sally would head off to church. Mrs. Parker wearing her Sunday dress and Sally hers. Richard would have to do chores. Mr. Parker would make damn sure they were done. As he drank, talking to himself in a whispered voice, Richard knew. Blue knew. He was in the darkness, listening, feeling. Waiting.
What darkness closes in on a man who can’t reconcile himself with the past, in that dark and desolate place?
Mr. Parker was a desolate place. A man beyond consolation.
The Parker’s had moved to Ohio from Kentucky after WWII. He had done his service in the Pacific. He was sure Ohio offered more than being just a dirt scratch farmer in Kentucky or a suffocating, slow death in a coal mine. Mr. Parker never wanted to go underground, again ever. Promise of decent wages, maybe a Union job, in a factory. Things eventually curved from that deal.
Richard was 3 maybe 4 at that time. Sally not born yet. If you were to describe John Parker you would have to describe the look in his eyes. Somewhat menacing ,far from trusting. Whatever happened in his past was sure enough shaping his present and his future. Richard’s future too.
Mrs. Parker was part Cherokee, black hair, dark eyes high cheekbones. Her eyes gave the impression of sadness. She was slender. She had a birdlike affect. Very quick nd graceful of movement. Sometimes she would sit outside on the porch feeding jaybirds corn kernels and singing old time songs, from the hills of Kentucky. Church songs too. ‘Just As I Am’ ‘I Come to the Garden” and other old time hymns. She seemed to share kinship with birds. She, and Sally, were graced with voices which made one glad to be hearing. I believe the birds appreciated them.
The Parkers should have had 3 living children. Richards baby Sister, Annie, had died in the 2nd year of her little life. Richard did not talk about it.
First time he mentioned he was going to put some flowers on a grave. ‘Your Grandpa ?” I asked. “No ,my baby Sister.” Funny, how when it’s the death of someone you reckon should still be alive and thriving it’s hard to ask any further questions. Richard wasn’t volunteering any answers . We walked to the Cemetery in silence. Good old Blue, trudging ahead, nose to the ground ,his whole hind side wagging. He did not know Cemeteries from truck patches. He didn’t care. He’s a hound.
It was a small, ancient Cemetery. Some of the headstones dated from Civil War era. Worn so smooth, to be almost indecipherable. An acre of ground filled with forgotten memories and love.No longer used. A relic. Something that will never exist again.
Some headstones, so old, they were ensnared and embraced deep in the trunk of trees. Captured in the trunk, being swallowed slowly, over a hundred years. To us, quite magical. It was like the tree had absorbed the dead and was now their living monument. Did the dead sing in the branches? Did they call out, to the living ? “ We were here.” “We were, once.” We climbed those trees, Richard and myself. You hear things when you reach the top of a tree. Where the branches refuse further purchase. Sounds like whisperings of ghosts.
The small, wooded cemetery could not approach the majesty of the large ‘Oakdale Cemetery’ ,with its big monuments, Weeping Angels, large granite head stones. Even a couple Mausoleums. The wealthy, the aristocracy of Northeastern Ohio were interred there. Politicians, wealthy landowners, bankers. The pompous, the nobility. Those who deserve, and are entitled to, preferential immortality in stone and marble.
No, this was a humble and hidden place. Gravesites of laborers, unknowns their family members and the forgotten working class. Mostly were untended, with exceptions here and there. Annie’s gravesite was well kept. Richard’s Mother kept it so.
Mr. Parker never visited his baby girls gravesite. Least as far as I know.
I was drawn in particular to a family crypt, carved, and dug into a hillside. Arching on the face were mason set, granite blocks with a keystone. Real mason’s work. Brick lined inside. There were wrought iron gates with a massive rusting padlock. You could see the outlines of antique wooden coffins on stone risers, their brass ornate handles long ago, turned black with age. In the darkness, the recesses of the crypt. I found this, in particular, to be very mysterious. Gothic. Edgar Allen Poe vintage. I see it still. This was an ancient and long forgotten work of artistry and craftmanship.
From there we headed to the pond.
‘Hurlbert’s’ pond they called it. We never asked why. It belonged to the Hurlbert’s obviously. It was a pond. It was on private property but obviously the Hurlbert were not very proprietary. Now a days, no one could, or would even want to, swim there. Too much liability, too dangerous. Unhealthy. Not sanitized. It was mud brown and had a squishy muddy bottom. Reeds and grasses grew along the banks. There were frogs, turtles and snakes. No snapping turtles. They preferred the creek. Now it would be considered ‘hazardous.’ Like riding your bike fast as hell, down a steep hill. No helmet. Hell, sometimes with no brakes.
No matter, the lack of aesthetics, the water was cool. It relieved the heat of the day in high summer. For us it was perfect. Blue loved it. To him it was hound heaven. Looking back now, the simplicity of life and the rewards of being uncluttered by the ills and, godforsaken evils of the world, was true paradise.
I reckon some people would call it ‘nostalgia.’ I simply think of it as remembering goodness and plenty of joy. Sometimes I feel as if I were born 150 years ago. Mine and Richard Parker’s world, are that dissimilar to this one. We had simply to imagine something and it became real. Nowadays, nothing seems real. We thought little about time ,we just did and kept doing until the day began to fade. There was no schedule. I don’t believe that word ever came up in anyone’s conversations outside of, school, church or town hall meetings.
Walking the rails. We would take our .22 rifles and walk along the railroad tracks. Every boy had a .22 at about the age of 12. That seemed to be when parents, would feel their boys would not shoot themselves or, someone else. We generally started with a Daisy B.B. gun. That would be around 9 or 10. We learned respect for bullets early on. Everyone knew it was not the gun, it was the shooter. It was the bullets.
We would routinely target the old glass insulators on the wires and poles along the railroad tracks. Great targets. Of course any roadside sign was fair game for perforation. An abandoned derelict building ? That was a bonus. There was nothing to compare to shooting out glass panes. We also had open season on varmints and especially rats. I can still smell the creosote on the railroad ties. Olfactory memories are powerful. I still enjoy the acrid ,pungent aroma of creosote and other petroleum products. I reckon it’s all what you grow up with.
We meet Hobos. Richard and myself were not afraid of people. We really had no reason to be afraid. From time to time we would meet a Hobo. I mean a real Hobo. One that rides the rails and is as footloose as any soul you would ever meet. No plan, no restrictions, no nothin. Just free and committed to staying that way. Not ‘homeless’. Anywhere they laid their head was home. One such was a man named James Sykes.
We come across Mr. Sykes on one of our meanderings along the rail lines. He was just down the bank heating and cooking something over a small fire pit.. We stopped and looked at him, he looked back, “Well hello boys, now ain’t this just a day that shows the Glory of the Lord?’ he said it with a big old smile. “ You boys huntin or just shootin? “ Hard to not respond to such hearty and hale greeting. Richard spoke out,” A little of both I reckon.” “What you cookin there?” Mr. Sykes stood and stretched his legs and back,” Well if you must know ,I got some pork jowl and beans, with greens.” “You boys hungry?” I was a bit. Turns out Richard was too. We descended the bank and stopped just short of Mr. Sykes and his aromatic offering. Now we smell the pork fat and really are hungry.
His camp was an old wool army blanket tented over an assemblage of tree branches. He had lined the floor with smaller branches with tender leaves. He had a hunting knife and hatchet hanging on a leather belt from the tent pole. We were not afraid. We had rifles. He was unafraid as well. The unspoken code of honor and civility was firmly in place. He had books too. One was English poetry and another was the collected works of Emerson and, a Bible. Well worn. These were literate times. We may have been poor and unsophisticated but, we could damned sure read. “Take a load off boys and have a seat.” He had picked a location with a fallen oak which was ready made for group seating. His mess kit was two chipped porcelain, enameled metal cups and a battered old metal bowl. “ I have a shortage of spoons but, not being one to stand on ceremony, feel free to employ your digits for your culinary satisfaction.” We both laughed at that. This was some kind of guy we had not met, ever.
We sat and he served up his beans ,pork and greens. Something about eating outside, with nature, that simply makes food so much more savory. We both had pocket knives so we used them to dish out the goods into our mouths. As we ate, he told us stories about his life riding the rails. He quoted from the book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity ,vanity all is vanity. Thus says the Preacher.” “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate, a time of war, and a time of peace”
We awaited further pronouncements.
“Boys, you are in your halcyon days , so be bright candles. ” Don’t let any one trim your wicks too short.” He chuckled to himself. We looked at one another, wondering.
“Emerson says, ‘The purpose of life is not to be happy, It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Life is for living not dying inside, day to day, by degrees.”
Turns out Mr. Sykes, like most men his age, had also been in the War.
Italy and North Africa. Came home, went to College became a teacher. Long and short of it, he found himself , increasingly wanting freedom from the constraints of what he saw as, ‘empty rituals’ and ‘false promises’ of a modernizing society.
He was perfectly content to be alone ,or in the company of strangers, telling stories and philosophizing. He treated us as equals. I will never forget this chance encounter with a wandering poet philosopher. They no longer exist, I guess.
Life is now too brutal for the allowance of such literate and self assured men. Men who are living. Not as Mr. Sykes concluded, ‘doomed to a life of languishing monotony.’
He definitely got our attention and, held it. We felt we were in the presence of some ‘old time’ philosopher like Emerson or Socrates. Even old Blue was expressing his satisfaction. Especially with the pork jowl.
We knew Mr. Sykes was alright.
Blue took a real liking to him. He lay down at his feet, heaved a sigh, and closed his eyes. Yep, old Blue knew he was alright.
Always trust your hound.