Friday, September 12, 2014

Rediscovering Childhood

I love how big the world is from a child’s eyes and how simple adventures can create the greatest memories. This summer I unlocked a secret to my childhood, a mystery that I had tried to discover for years. I’d like to write about that and tell you the secret that unraveled my little mystery.

I’m not sure if I can trust my memory, especially from adventures that happened nearly 25 years ago, but I will do my best.

The cemetery was the size of a planet, full of undiscovered territory for a 12 year old. We were forbidden to ride or walk through it. Not long ago, a dead body had been found in the all-encompassing woods that surrounded the endless paths of tombstones. This is no joke. Someone was murdered and her dead body was dumped in a ditch. Naturally, our parents forbid us to explore the cemetery. Naturally, our curiosity was far greater than our obedience.

Hopping on a BMX, I rode on a dirt path behind some side streets near the entrance of the cemetery. We had discovered paths for dirt bikes, and one of these paths led into the rear of the cemetery. We had to travel through wooded paths and cross a creek that often flooded when it rained heavily.

Once we were in the cemetery, the endless winding roads were a childhood explorer’s dreams. We flew down hills at life-threatening speeds and walked our bikes up the roads too steep to climb. There were mausoleums and a dilapidated caretaker’s house. We explored all of these, losing ourselves in time and space. There were creepy stairways hidden in the woods that connected the high grounds to the low. The steps were too broken and staggered to bike through, and so we walked with a giant stick to knock down the numerous spider webs from our way.

There was even a witch’s circle, a circular area that housed many graves from the same family, including small children and infants. The rumor was that they were all burned many years ago having allegedly been practitioners of witchcraft.

Deer and wild turkey vultures roamed freely, and on occasion, no joke here either, we even saw a black cat.

This was the setting of legends and adventures for much of my childhood, and there are a dozen stories to tell. We witnessed drug abuse, were chased by security guards, believed we were hunted by a murderer who left large grave hooks on a path to torment us, had a frightening experience with a Ouija board we used at night in the cemetery, and of course, there was the hidden railroad and the secret lake.

All of this minutes from my backyard.

On one adventure of many, we biked through the cemetery and managed to get lost. That summer we had watched what would become one of our favorite childhood movies, Stand By Me, and we felt like we were living the film. It wasn’t long after the murdered body had been discovered in our cemetery, and so my gang of friends and I set off on a journey to find other victims, curious if anyone else had been ditched in the woods behind the seemingly infinite grave-yard.

That’s when we found the railroad tracks. Surprised, we walked our bikes along a railroad that had to have been just minutes from our backyard, but we never knew of a train so close. Following the railroad, we discovered a hidden lake and a dozen other kids swimming and beating the heat of the summer time.

“Hey,” one of the kids yelled. “Come on in! It feels great!”

We looked around. “Where the hell are we?” I asked my best friend.

“No idea,” he responded. “But that does look fun. C’mon!”

We took off our shirts and shoes and jumped in the water. We dunked each other, raced with the other kids, and laughed harder than I can ever remember. There were no adults around. It was as if we had found our own secret garden of childhood.

Losing track of time, we swam and splashed until sunset when my friend said, “Shit, Joe. We better get home. Our parents are gonna be furious.” We must have left our houses around mid-afternoon. It had been at least five or six hours since we had checked in, and in a time before cell-phones, we were expected to pop in and at least yell at one of our parents so they knew where we were.

But of course, finding our way back would be tricky. We ended up going the wrong way and found ourselves under a massive highway bridge near the river. We were severely late, but this was too cool of discovery not to explore.

We crawled up the huge cement foundation of the bridge and were actually under it. Cars moved overhead, and the vibrations of the vehicles driving over the bridge are still noises I associate with childhood today.

We found the main road connected to the bridge and from there made our way back home. Before getting reprimanded by our parents, we swore we’d return. Every day if we could that summer. We’d bike through the cemetery, hike the railroad, swim in the hidden lake, and play under the bridge.

It was a magical summer, perhaps one of the most adventurous summers of my childhood. If I ever write a story about kids and adventures, there is no doubt in my mind that the secret lake, the hidden railroad, the infinite cemetery, and the ubiquitous surrounding woods would play a central role. I think that’d be a great story.

Of course, part of the beauty of childhood is that we don’t necessarily recognize the things we do as magical until we reflect back on them as adults. My childhood friends moved away, security was tightened around the cemetery, and I never went back there again after that summer.

Until almost 20 years later, when I was on a mission to find this secret garden of my youth. I printed maps, walked every inch of the cemetery, crossed off every section, walked to the bridge, looked around, and found absolutely nothing.

For years, I thought my memory had tricked me. Had I made all of this up?

And then this last spring I got a bike. And that was the secret. I didn’t need maps and an adult’s eyes. I needed a bike and a carefree sense to explore. One day I went off the beaten path into an area with a “no trespassing” sign. I found my railroad tracks. Although the tracks were no longer present, the indentation of the path was still visible. I also found my “lake,” although it’s really no bigger than a watering hole, and it doesn’t look like anything anyone should swim in. But again, that’s probably the beauty of child’s eyes. We didn’t care what it looked like. It was our secret, our special place.

And if you’d like, I can take you there. Perhaps I’ll take you there in a story. That story of childhood adventure is still developing in my mind. But I’d love to show you the witch’s circle, have you by my side as we ducked and hid from security, and let you feel the adrenaline that shot through our veins when we were convinced a madman was chasing us through the woods.

On a less fictional note, I can also take you there on a nice afternoon. We’ll take a walk and talk about adventure, childhood, and nostalgia. But I’d prefer to be on a bike. I’ve shown a few friends these secrets in person. To them, it’s pretty cool. But they never got to see it as a child, when the world was larger, when mysteries were unsolved, and when finding secret places in nature known only to a few special kids was the coolest thing that could have ever happened.

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  1. After reading about your childhood adventure I tried to think of my own. I think of my high school friends but don't have many childhood memories. I will have to go back to where I grew up and take my own journey. You childhood memories are truly inspiring!