Monday, January 5, 2009

Where I Grew Up

Most folks who know me would figure the title was a reference to a fairly generic suburban location. And it's true, the town of Bowie, MD IS pretty generically suburban! But when I think of "where I grew up" the thing that stands out most in my mind is the outdoors... specifically the woods around our development. When I was growing up, there was still a lot of undeveloped land in the area, and back in those days, kids were largely free to explore to their heart's content. Well, New Year's Day found me walking through the woods behind my mom's house, which brought back many fond memories. I spent a lot of my childhood in these woods, and they (and more generally, all eastern woods) feel like "home" to me.

When we first moved to Bowie from Long Island, I was 5 years old. Early on, I had no real friends, but one day along came Peter Watson, from down the street, and we became fast friends. He and I were nearly inseparable for a number of years, with his little brother Joe tagging along whenever we'd let him. One of my sisters says she'll always remember Peter for his introduction to her... "Hi! I'm Peter Watson. I'm a foster child!" Well, he was, and he wasn't shy about it. He and I used to spend a lot of time back in the woods behind my house, and exploring the various small creeks and such that were also nearby.

Then in fourth grade, I met a guy named Ralph Smith (the same sister mentioned above initially thought "Ralph Smith" was my name for an imaginary friend, and was stunned to meet him face to face!), and ultimately was befriended by the whole family. It was the kind of situation where my parents just grew to understand that I'd just go off for the day with one or more of the Smiths and be back for supper, after a day of fun and adventure. I can't even begin to guess how many hours and days we spent in the woods, exploring every inch of them and finding ways to have fun. The woods were crisscrossed with a series of ravines, which to us seemed like great canyons I'm sure, but today look pretty tame, honestly. You can see one in the picture to the left. Not that dramatic to an adult, but to a kid...

As I walked through the woods on New Year's Day, I was suddenly struck with a memory... my friends and I had one spot in particular we returned to again and again. The key feature of this spot was the tree we knew as "Big Oak"... even after someone who knew better helpfully (and correctly) labeled it as an American Beech! It was a large tree, with an impressive spread of branches and a great canopy of leaves in summer. The shape was unmistakable back then, standing out from the rest of the trees in the area. I found myself wondering if it still stood, and if it did, would I know it by sight? So off I went, on a quest.

And there it was... just as I remembered it... pale, smooth, grey bark, great spread of branches and immediately recognizable shape. When I got closer, I could see the ravages of time... there's now a hole that goes clear through the trunk, and the inside is pretty hollowed out. But it appears the tree still lives, and is reasonably healthy. I walked around it slowly, taking in the sight, and feeling the memories come back to me. Memories of climbing the trunk, using the boards nailed on by someone... now long gone, but the nails remain. How many afternoons were whiled away here? How many great adventures were launched from this spot?

One of the many things we used to do in the woods around that tree was to take advantage of the wealth of strong vines in the area. There were always a few that someone had cut off to make into a swing... and we'd spend hours seeing just how high we could get, or how high off the ground we'd dare to let go and try to land safely on our feet. Thursday I found just such a vine... you can see my hand on it in the photo here. The feel of the rough surface... perfect for gripping and launching yourself into space... I couldn't resist. Had you yourself decided to talk a walk in my woods that day, you would have found a man with greying hair, swinging from a vine, big silly grin on his face... remembering. Remembering friends past... the adventures we shared, the scrapes, the blisters, the dirt rubbed into our clothes and skin. I could almost hear the voices, see the faces... of those boys and girls... running, laughing, smiling.

I walked back out of the woods, and into 2009, with a smile on my face, and a warm feeling in my heart. Looking forward to a new year, and new adventures.

Happy New Year to all of you.


fatbob29r said...

Wow... how strange it is to read your story. I grew up not far from you in adult knowledge (Annandale, VA). I had a similar patch of undisturbed paradise known as the "Truro Trails" in which I played for an endless amount of time. I'm now in Texas, there is non of that here, but you brought me back to my childhood of the late 70's. Thanks for putting a smile on this aging mans face. BTW I used to work @ Spokes Etc, back when they were located in Oakton. Better shop then, and Appalacian Outfitters was still there on the corner. What do you suppose it is about bicycles that draws us in? I can't let them go, my wife just doesn't understand.

Tim said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I liked your comment about "adult knowledge" of geography... Annandale is a stone's throw to a grown up, but as a child it would have seemed some far off land to me.

Spokes is still a good shop, and we co-exist well down the street from them, since we carry very different bikes.

It's true... for some of us, once bikes get a hold of us, there's no loosing the hold.