If not out fishing by dark o’clock, my routine each morning is having coffee while reading the newspaper. And in an attempt to keep my brain from shriveling up at the same pace as the rest of my person, I always turn to the paper’s crossword puzzle. On a good day I actually fill in a dozen or more blanks, with half of those being wrong. But because my chosen words fill the right amount of squares, I don’t care. And now being a senior citizen I also check the obituaries to make certain I’m not in it. My theory is if I do see my photo and life’s biography, then I must presume I’m a ghost and don’t yet realize I’ve kick the bucket. This will most likely be confirmed by seeing my wife doing a jig around the house while singing a merry lilt, now knowing she is available to find a normal human being to marry.
A while back I was reading the obituary and saw a name that rang a bell, though for the life of me, I could not figure out who it could be. A couple of days later it finally came to me. It was a girl I attended school with way back in kindergarten through the third grade. This was the only time in my young life that I lived in the city. When I was nine my family moved to the country where all my outdoor humor articles originated. The main reason I remembered her was because she was idolized by half the boys in the class. The other half held their feelings to a concealed worship. Along the steep banks that circled half the play area were her make-believe mountains, and she was a wild horse. At recess she would gallop along the bank. Traveling behind was her herd made up of a couple dozen boys. I thought the whole scene to be a demeaning blow to the male gender. After all, every one knows that the stallions always lead the mares. Never the opposite. It was obvious that she was taking full advantage of her cute face and long dancing locks of blond hair to counter attack this well-known fact. And I would have reminded her of nature’s chain of command if it had not been for the fact that I never held a place in the herd close enough to let my feelings be known. So, like the rest, I just whinnied and galloped along behind.
I have never been a nostalgic individual. Even though my high school graduating class holds a reunion every five years, I didn’t attend my first until the twenty-fifth. It was pleasant enough, but I found the same groups that hung out together during high school, did the same at the reunions. And those that I was close to when we played sports, now I found I had nothing in common with. As it turned out, it was those that were the nerds in school in whom I enjoyed their company the most. Strange.
But after reading the obituary I had the yearning to revisit my old grade school. I had seen it many times from the freeway, its roof looming through the maple trees at the top of McKinley Hill, but had never traveled to it. So one day while in town I made the point of driving there. Usually most schools that old have been torn down and rebuilt, or added onto so many times the original school is unrecognizable. But I almost squealed with delight when I found the old three-story structure looking no different from when I left it so many years ago. And strangely all the old memories came flooding back.
One of my most vivid memories is the two flights of stairs that climbed the hill up to the school, each separated by about six city blocks. One was the concrete stairs, the other the wooden stairs. They traveled from Portland Avenue, where I lived, up to the school. I used the wooden stairs. Though the stairs probably climbed some five hundred yards, I never minded climbing them each day. It was the thick forest of maple trees that still cover the face of McKinley Hill that was the problem. Or, to be more explicit, what was supposedly in them. During the fifties transit drifters followed the railway about a half mile away. From time to time they took refuge in the broad-leafed protection of the forest. To the adults they were known as wandering transits. To us children their title was a simple single syllable word, but more effective nonetheless. They were “bums;” a word that struck terror in our little hearts. Though I never personally saw one, my fears were fueled by the continual warnings by teachers and parents alike to never scale the hill by any means other than the stairs. And though the brave few school boys who did venture through the woods were held in revered awe, I had no problem complying with the given rules.
I remember one morning that I was late getting off to school. And that meant I would be climbing the stairs alone. Once at the bottom it seemed the trees were hugging the stairs a little closer than before. Then my eyes suddenly widened. Mid way up the flight stood two men. Were they bums just waiting to pounce on some unfortunate child? I didn’t know what to do. I finally decided the best chance I had of getting past was to bluff them with a show of strength; something that can be difficult to pull off when one is only seven years old. Nonetheless I covered my terror behind a stoney mask of twitches scattered indiscriminately about my face and began my climb. Though I have never counted them, it is said there are well over a hundred steps to the top. But I know for a fact there are only ten. I sneered as I passed them. This was something that required precision timing to be effective seeing I was traveling at the approximate speed of a sound. Because they were holding saws, hammers and nails, most would have thought it obvious they were carpenters doing repairs to the stairs. But I knew they were bums holding the appropriate tools to bludgeon, dismember and hang my body parts in various locations throughout the woods.
Because I never once heard of a confrontation between child and transit, I now know that the poor souls who may have spent time in the woods were just trying to do their best to survive. And though, at the time, our trips to school may have seemed perilous, I am sure that today those same woods are inhabited by drug dealers and their followers. I think I would prefer the bums.
After leaving the school with a happy heart I decided while there to drive down to Portland Avenue and take a look at the stairs climbing the hill, and revisit my old home. But I found the stairs were no longer there, and where my home was is now an off ramp to the freeway. I guess a person shouldn’t expect everything to remain the same. Though somewhat disappointed, there was some satisfaction. The house where our neighbors lived was also gone. They were a grubby lot, with a half-dozen grungy little offsprings that threw rocks at my sisters and myself, not to mention garbage in our yard. And the daughter once put her face to my ear under the pretence of sharing a secret. She then spit in it. But no one wants to get that nostalgic.