Saturday, July 22, 2006

Steppingstones to an unrealized past

I will never escape the young boy I was when the world was of manageable size, circumscribed by a regulated grid of streets, alleys and weedy vacant lots within pedal of a bicycle, and with distant views of skies I suspected might never be known held out like the promise of some unimaginable enchantment only vaguely obtainable, like graduating from high school, a first kiss, or becoming a man. In those sun-drenched days everything I am or will be was fixed, as if my experiences, fears, phobias, doubts and dreams both attained and unrequited were poured into a mold like some primordial soup and allowed to harden before being sent out into the world, and that no matter how its external shell changed or where it might drift, the inward structure would forever be unmalleable.

Excavating the inner landscape is the duty of the introvert, a process simultaneously enlightening and accursed. Like some pith-helmeted archaeologist, I routinely inspect, pick, sweep and sort memories buried by time. Beneath that featureless patina are answers to questions I am only faintly aware of asking, or of needing to ask, or completely oblivious of until some relic or piece is unearthed in the rubble. Cosmogonists, with their obsession on astronomically remote objects, are no doubt similar only on a far grander scale. My genesis should be simpler to decipher, though strangely it is not.

Now and then, though, I get a glimpse, a flicker of movement on the periphery of sight more felt than seen, leaving an imprint on the mind like an unprovable suspicion. When after a recent expedition two such incipient images surfaced, I gently sifted through them seeking clues to their importance. Nothing is random. Everything holds meaning, though here there was little other than fragments of memories.

And strange ones at that. In one I’m climbing an elm tree in the front yard of our home on Palomas Street in Albuquerque. The upper reaches of these trees—there were two of them as I recall, tall, stately—were second homes to me and my friends. We could usually be found there swinging like monkeys, or spying in the backyard of a neighbor whose kids were sometimes friends and more often enemies, and with whom we waged a low-level war by hurling sticks and insults over the tall cinderblock wall dividing our properties. It suddenly comes to me that one time the older girl, a wretched thing, kept taunting my brother by jumping in front of him while he bicycled down the street. A miscalculation of the amount of forbearance he possessed earned her a set of tracks down her face when he finally refused to swerve. The damage was impressive. Her howls of pain and outrage compete now with the guttural cucking of a cuckoo outside my window.

The tree is immaterial (I think) other than what could sometimes be found there—a bug that scared me witless. We called them elm beetles, though they weren’t; I now think they were some sort of shield bug in the family Pentatomidae. Seeing them on the rough bark necessitated a wide detour, but finding them on my naked skin was terrifying. That they were harmless didn’t matter. I had a deep-seated phobia about insects of any kind landing on me, and this particular specimen was the most reviled.

Forty-some years later I’m back in the tree with one of those infernal creatures crawling up my arm, and in my haste to rid myself of it I almost tumble out. A fall to earth would inflict more harm than the bug could have, but phobias rarely tolerate reason.

The other memory was of being in a dark, sheltered thicket. At first this confused me until I swept away the accumulation of four decades’ worth of dirt and cobwebs. From my vantage I could glimpse a weeping willow and the rear of a drab abode-style house. I was back on Palomas, hiding in a bamboo stand that was easily three times my height. It was a favorite haunt of mine and might have been the first forest of any kind to shelter me. I’m so far back in time now that I might well be on the verge of discovering what triggered the Big Bang.

Sometimes the introvert doesn’t uncover clues as much as trip over them. And sometimes the clues come in pairs, lying so close together that they must have once been connected somehow. I set them side by side, end to end, corner to corner, but no permutation made sense. I had to keep digging.

What triggered these memories? Earlier we had taken a friend geocaching, searching for useless trinkets using GPS units. Some of the caches we uncovered were in the open, such as at the ghost town of Spence just south of the Nebraska border, at the 6th Principle Meridian monument near Mahaska, and beneath the Highway 36 bridge over the Little Blue River. But others were hidden in the fastness of the woods, a place humans rarely tread, and my wife and a friend refused to follow as I bulled through a green wall of vegetation and disappeared into the green world.

Here, then, was a puzzle. When fitting the pieces together seemed impossible, I put them aside, chalking them up to a pleasant walk down memory lane. And then came the dream.

In it I was preparing for a 24-hour stay in the woods. I stuffed extra water bottles in a backpack and added food, mosquito net, folding chair, camera and insect repellent. My binoculars went on top, and, lastly, a short-barreled shotgun with pistol grip.

I parked by the levee, shrugged into the pack and headed for the river just as the sun slipped below the rim of the world and the moon began brightening.

(Continued next week)


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