Perspective is a funny thing. Life can really be a world of funhouse mirrors. My perspective of Howard, his introduction into my life, is probably so much different than my sisters’. My father’s. My mother’s. Bonnie’s. Different than his friends’ or family’s. Truth is, I spent so little time around a man who lived 94 years on this planet, a man whose life was so varied, eclectic in wisdom and adventure. I am impressed by the many amazing things he did, and yet, there are so many gaping holes in my understanding of who he was, and what he accomplished. I don’t expect to fully depict the man who’s driving these entries, just to bring a little focus to the light he brought into my life, and, perhaps, a little of the light he brought into my grandmother’s.
Part of my perspective rotates around expectation. And experience. My age. My upbringing. It’s funny who you ask. When I moved to Chicago in 2000, and offered Rockford as the place I was born to the new faces I met, you might have thought I said I was born in some hillbilly Mississippi town of 100 people or so. That’s how backwoods I sounded to them. That’s about how far away it seemed to folks who spent their entire lives among the honking, bustling traffic of major city streets, rubbing elbows with cultures and customs far removed from their own. Once or twice, I had people ask me if I had been born in the south, simply because the rhythm of my voice was just a tad slower, and didn’t carry with it the arcs and valleys of the Chicago wise-guy accent. Illinois, to them, was pretty much just Chicago, and everything else was a suburb or hicktown. Everything else was just a hiccup on the roadmap. Funny how you can develop just as narrow a view growing up in a sprawling, liberalized city as you can in small town America. It’s all about perspective.
A city of about 150,000, Rockford seemed just as far away from Chicago as Hardy did from Rockford. Of course, those things didn’t occur to me when I was younger. Call it what you will. Naivete. Sheltered, perhaps. But the memories of my freedom suggests my childhood was wasn’t quite that. The children I work with, particularly the hardened, urban kids, don’t have nearly the same opportunities I had to explore as a kid. We wandered. Not too terribly far. Not like Howard wandered. But far enough that, sometimes, you had to think your way back. Learn some new roads or neighborhoods. Landmarks. No tethers to technology, except perhaps the occasional Tiger Electronics hand-held game on a long car trip.
Now, don’t think I’m going to sit on my high-horse and pretend we wouldn’t have gladly taken the technology train had it been chugging like it is now. I believe every generation would have flocked to technological devices like water to a sponge, had they been readily available, or affordable, but I consider myself lucky to have grown up at least at the fringes of this new reality, before it permeated every experience of our lives. I still grew up learning how to get dirty. Spent long hours exploring forests, walking along fallen tree trunks in the woods near my house. Huddled in a deep impression in the side of a limestone cliff, just listening. Scraping knees and elbows. Sunburn. Scabs. Bruises. Road rash from falls on my bike or skateboard. Finding ways to play my favorite sports with less than a handful of people. Or make up new games with them altogether. Collecting debris and leaves and sticks during my journeys. Sweaty hair. Dirt under my fingernails. Hell, if nothing else, it helped me learn how to handle my boredom. Make no mistake, I was far from Davy Crockett, but my experiences managing boredom taught me how to be creative, to solve problems, as it has for so many generations before me. I learned how to build things from scraps I found. I didn’t worry about the bugs and worms that crawled on the plywood I turned over. Or the family of raccoons that seemed to be following me through the trees. I learned the importance of knowing where you were. I learned how to, well, just walk for a while.
Like I said, it’s all about perspective. If I had walked around Hardy telling folks my hometown had 150,000 people in it, their eyes may have bulged at the thought of it. All that fuss. All that busy. Not that I didn’t already stick out like a sore thumb with our Illinois license plate, my Cubs shirt, and my silly northern accent. I loved the landscape of Howard and Bonnie’s home, but even armed the sensibilities I’ve described above didn’t prepare me for exploring in rural Arkansas. It was my first exposure to untamed outdoors, and I say that loosely, because where they lived was slightly developed. My exposure had been more careful, the fenced-in kind. A different script. These surroundings offered regular surprises. Where a modest walk out into the front yard with my sister one morning might bring us into the path of a large black snake.
“I think it’s a fake,” I said, a few feet from its head. “Howard’s probably trying to scare us.” My sister wheeled and ran inside to fetch my mother, who squawked through the screened windows. In all reality, I’d just never seen a snake that big in someone’s front yard. And the only ones I’d ever seen that were that color, were rubber toys found at Halloween. I had caught garter snakes in buckets in the woods before, but those were puny green things. Even their bites didn’t really hurt. This was jet black, and probably 3 or 4 feet long. A pulse of fear ran through me, a frosty moth stretching its wings inside my belly when the snake raised up, turned tail and coiled through the grass toward the road.
My mom was out the door first, a mixture of fear and excitement as she hopped down the steps, Howard slow and easy on her heels. It was a good 20 feet away by then, but Howard’s calm reaction was instructive, offering me what should have been the appropriate response from a boy raised in the Arkansas country.
“Kingsnake,” Howard spat on the ground, hands on his hips. He tugged up his slacks a little. “Like to lay themselves in the sun here in the yard from time to time,” he said. “Not poisonous. Won’t bother you much.” Pause. “You wanna take it home?”
My nervous laugh, thinking he was joking. His raised eyebrows suggested otherwise.
“Kingsnake would make a pretty fine pet, I would think,” he encouraged me.
I wasn’t picking that thing up. But I didn’t have to say it.
My mother mimicked my nervous laugh.
“Oh, maybe not this time,” she laughed, her eyes like globes. Howard chuckled and headed back inside.
I realized how out of place I was. Unprepared for the landscape around me. I was able to enjoy it, but mostly at arm’s length. It was beyond breathtaking, but I knew nothing about interacting with it, and the fear that I would do something wrong kept me from taking too many chances.
Howard saw my hesitation, I’m sure.
“You’re babyin’ that boy too much,” he told my mother once when I was six or seven, though I wasn’t around for the conversation. Like any mother, she took immediate offense to the comment, though I’m sure she was kind in her retort. I don’t believe there was any malice in Howard’s observation, either. From his perspective, the kind of timidity he saw in me at a young age probably would have led to a very difficult life for someone who had sprouted from his humble roots. Life never handed you nothing. If I was too timid, I just wouldn’t ever find what I was after. At least that’s how I’ve rationalized his thinking over the years.
Trouble was, I knew I was out of place in Arkansas. And I didn’t even know how to go about starting to change that. There was a basic intelligence, a manual that I hadn’t read. I couldn’t have built you a fire back then. I wouldn’t have known what the hell to do with a snakebite, except bawl my eyes out. Living had never been enough about survival to teach me the things that some folks could do without thinking. But that didn’t keep Howard and Pops from trying to show me.