Boy Friends

He carried the burden of his crime for 55 years. Then he did a search on Facebook and found me.

“Are you the Katy that used to live on Ransdell Avenue?” he messaged me. I recognized his name. He was the red-headed boy who moved into our Louisville neighborhood one summer when I was about ten, and soon became a steady part of our group.

There were Severe and Tommy and Charlie and me. I was the only girl, which didn’t bother anybody except the adults. Our mailman opined — to my horror — that if all my friends were boys, then, by reason of deduction, that made them my boyfriends. My grandmother smocked me dresses and gave me dolls and urged my mother to find me some little girl friends. And my sister, ten years my senior, couldn’t understand why I had a flock of boys hanging around me but she couldn’t get a date.

Bill segued uneasily into our little ménage of neighborhood urchins. I say ‘uneasily’ because any new kid inevitably disrupts the dynamic of an established set of friends. Indeed, he landed among us like an alien. He’d moved to our street from out of town and so from a school we’d never heard of. He was taller and a year older and he had that head of wild red hair. His father was a professor at the University of Louisville, so that meant he himself must be smart, didn’t it? We all thought so.

A network of alleys crisscross many of Louisville’s old neighborhoods, including the Highlands where we all lived. These were originally used for the delivery of goods and services — and servants — to the well-to-do homeowners whose houses fronted on the tree-lined avenues of Old Louisville. To us these alleys were a network of bike paths that channeled us all over town. Our gang would meet early most summer mornings and ride all day, caroming down one back byway after another, our tires pop-popping on the bricks as we raced along. It was a ritual of our lives. But before long it was just Bill and me meeting for long bike rides across town, leaving Charlie, Severe and Tommy to wonder why.

This must have been hardest on Charlie. Before Bill came to our neighborhood, I spent long hours on the basketball court with him. Charlie was my next-door neighbor and oldest friend. He’d been kind to me when we moved to Louisville in the middle of my first grade year, taking chivalrous pride in introducing me to my new teacher and classmates. I rode to school every day — every day — with Charlie. It was he who told me about sex and to him I actually uttered the words, “Maybe your parents do but my parents DON’T!”

But most of all, it was Charlie who taught me the game of basketball. It was he who showed me how to dribble and shoot; how to cut in and lay up; how to shoot hook shots and foul shots; how to guard and rebound; and, crucial to successful life among hoops fans in Kentucky, he schooled me in the rivalry between the University of Louisville Cardinals and the University of Kentucky Wildcats. When we weren’t on our bikes, we were on the court, spending hours practicing, playing H-O-R-S-E or pretending we were playing for U of L’s Peck Hickman. And, of course, there were pickup games, including Severe and Tommy and any other kids who happened by, and now Bill too.

That’s when I ditched Charlie. No, it was not so deliberate or heartless as that. I merely turned my attention from Charlie to Bill on the basketball court. Here was this new kid. He was fast and quick-footed. He played well, and challenged me. Was I trying to impress him or was I just unrepentantly competitive? All I remember is that I badly wanted to beat him.

Although I would never have admitted it, I had a crush, my first real crush, on this boy. Because I was still very much vested in my tomboy status, I did not understand why being around him agitated me so and why, at the same time, I couldn’t get enough of his company. Or why Charlie and Tommy and Severe floated like ghosts on the periphery of my consciousness, their voices muted by the highly charged static in my head that was Bill’s name. They seemed to be flailing at me to get my attention but all I could think hear or feel was the pull of this strange boy’s magnetism.

Over the years, memories of that summer dimmed. I had no idea what happened to him after that. As I said, I was vested in my tomboy-dom when I was ten. If I’d had to say, I’d have said Bill just vanished. Poof. He just wasn’t there anymore.

The old group re-formed like the concentric circles on a pond disturbed briefly by a random rock. We held on until the end of elementary school, I guess. Eventually, Severe moved out of town with his family, never to be heard from again. Tommy went on to Catholic high school, a philosophical parting of the ways. Charlie and I lasted as long as his father drove the two of us to school. The last I heard, after he graduated from high school, he too vanished but to valet school in Switzerland. Or at least, that was the rumor. If there even is such a thing as valet school.

As for Bill, it was 55 years before I gave him another thought.

“Is this the Katy that used to live on Ransdell Avenue?”

I couldn’t help but smile. Hey, it’s that red-headed kid. Haven’t thought of him in eons! That childhood summer rose before me, colored by time and roseate memory. Well, I’ll be darned, I thought. Small world. Thank you, Facebook.

“Sure is,” I messaged back. Then came the shocker.

“Good to have found you. Ever since that summer, I’ve wanted to apologize for what I did to you. I’m just so ashamed.”

What he did to me? Really? What did he do to me?

“Rest easy, Bill,” I replied. “I have no memory of anything having happened.” I let it go at that at first. But curiosity got the best of me. Awhile later I messaged him back.

“I don’t want to stir up bad memories but, if you don’t mind, I’d be really interested to know what it is you did.” By then I was more than interested. I was dying to know. Here was this blast from the past and a mystery to boot.

His reply was instantaneous. “I punched you in the face. And you ran off home, hurt. Not so much from the punch, I think, as from the shock. I don’t think I ever saw you again.”

This confession jarred memories. Vague memories. Not of the assault. But of the location: Charlie’s basketball court. What he’d done decades ago had haunted him ever since, nagged at his conscience. A whole lifetime nurturing this nugget of regret. And I, the victim, only remembered a red-headed boy who came and went one summer when I was ten.

There are many reason to find fault with social media, beginning with the countless opportunities for abuse and annoyance. On so many occasions, though, Facebook has served me as an unexpected conduit to the past, especially the phoenix-like resurrection of old boyfriends who just wanted to reconnect in Facebook’s casual ‘like’ it or not fashion. The first time it happened, I thought This is weird. But I’m older now and more sanguine. These guys were a part of my life, helped direct the person I became, in however major or minor a way. But here was something different. Here was an example of how Facebook made it possible for a man to right a wrong, seek forgiveness and vanquish a lifelong regret.

It bothered me for Bill that I did not remember being punched because it clearly was a nettle he’d worn in his sock for half a century. It seemed equally disconcerting that indeed the only thing I actually recalled about him was the color of his hair and that I liked him. A lot. Then it dawned on me. I had the explanation for why Bill couldn’t let go of this childhood transgression and, as the recipient of that contravention, why I had no memory of it at all. I messaged him one last time.

“Bill, there is nothing to forgive. One thing that is pretty clear to me is that you were not the sort of boy to go around punching girls in the face. If you really did that, the only thing I can conclude is that I provoked you. That’s got to be it.”

That made sense to me. I must have been asking for it. Why else would a nice boy lose control like that and then let his conscience rule? Why else would a nice girl, who didn’t know how to recognize the signals from her heart, want to remember what she’d done to so enrage the boy she was crazy about? It must have seemed to me at the time like my just reward. I didn’t want to remember what I’d done; Bill couldn’t let go of what he’d done. He allowed shame to cement memory; I allowed shame to swallow it whole.

And the crazy thing is, after all those years, this Facebook exchange brought home what never crossed my mind as a child. The crush thing went both ways. It wasn’t just me. He must have liked me too. Otherwise, why care so much and carry it for so long?

Bill and I remain Facebook friends but I never hear from him anymore. He said his peace and found some peace in the doing. For me, it was another kind of reckoning: not only was Bill a boy and a friend, he was also, quite likely, my first boyfriend after all. I just didn’t know it at the time.

The first in a series of memoirs, to become a book by the same name, believing as I do that the people one has loved and lost ( or discarded) are, nonetheless, instrumental in forming the person we become.

Grimspound

Stonehenge is vastly over-rated. By far and away, the standing stone circle of Callanish on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis far outstrips Stonehenge for both majesty and mystery. It helps, too, that the buses and tea shops and gift shops have yet to invade the windswept furthest recesses of this outer Scottish island. Neolithic. Bronze age. A site of prehistoric religious activity for 1500 years,give or take. Walk among them and it is impossible to deny the eerie sense of Time, stood still, stood on end, and someone watching.

But it was in Devon last month that stone circles took on dramatic new meaning for me. On Dartmoor alone there are more than two dozen of them, about which virtually nothing is known except they are stone age, they were erected deliberately by men, granite boulders and plinths weighing tons upon tons. In addition, there are lone menhirs — gigantic single stones set on on their ends for what purpose no one can say — and clapper bridges (more on these shortly).

Our mission was to take a walk upon the moors and, oh, see what we could see. The first thing noted on our map was Kestor settlement. Vocabulary lesson #1: ‘tor’ means a pile of granite rubble blown clean of vegetation and sandstone by millennia of wind blast, atop a hillock. On the top of a smooth hummock, an outcropping, no, an uprising, of craggy granite. Below this tor, a circle of piled, not standing, stones, a permanent encampment where guys without tools assembled these boulders to form an enclosure for their rubble huts and livestock.

A mile or so further on, we came upon our first clapper bridge on the moors at Scorhill. Arguments abound over the etymology of this word but it’s either from the Anglo-Saxon (cleaca, meaning ‘bridge of stones’) or more likely from Medieval Latin (clapus, meaning a ‘pile of stone’). Neither origin does this structure credit. A clapper bridge is a gigantic lintel of granite, weighing, say, in one case,  eight tons or more and measuring 6.5feet wide by 13feet long, put in place over a brook or river. From bank to bank or on piled ‘posts’ made of stacked stones. Their simplicity is gorgeous, their engineering incredible. The two we ran across bridged simple grazing streams, making possible cart travel from one side to the other. But men without tools, without machinery, but probably lots of free labor, managed to manhandle these goliath stones to fit their will and purpose.

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No much further along we stumbled upon a standing stone circle. Far more primitive than either Stonehenge or Callanish but manmade, man-purposed and monolithic. Who built these circles and why are questions begging answers that will never come. These moors, once densely wooded, were clear-cut by those stone age laborers so thoroughly that now the soil is too acid to promote any growth other than sheep forage. So acidic, indeed, that all traces of ancient man have been literally dissolved — bones, hides, pottery eaten into oblivion.

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Days later we actively sought out another Bronze Age site called Grimspound. Vocabulary lesson #3 — pound as in compound, as in impound, as in dog pound. An enclosure. Build on the slope of a hillside, this vast circle, maybe 100 yards in diameter and up to nine feet thick, was, like the Kestor settlement, an encampment. A community. Within the tumbledown circular wall that remains today, a collection of smaller rubble-foundation huts. Fodder for imagining the unimaginable: how did they manage to construct this, move these huge stones to their will, place them on top of each other or upright? Once a large and vital community of herders who surrounded themselves with this formidable wall of stones, they sought not to keep things out but to keep themselves and their animals in. Safe. Together. A granite embrace.

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We are so smug in our 21st century selves. So sure of our cultural and technological and engineering superiority. But what of us will remain to ignite the imaginations and awe of onlookers three thousand years from today? What of our world will so survive?

—Belle Songer

 

 

 

Back to school

My mother must be rocking the ground above her, laughing herself alive again, just at the thought of me being — by my own choice — back in school.

My father, who art in heaven, would despair of the fact that it is Harvard. For a Princeton man, the only thing worse would be if it were Yale.

I hated school. Went every September kicking and screaming, miserable beyond words for weeks until, in the spirit of Kubler-Ross, I reached the inevitable point of acceptance. I recall clearly in the third grade hearing the heavy steel doors slam behind me and thinking, I’m in jail till 3 o’clock and having such a sinking feeling that it literally made me sick. On several other occasions, I would tell my teachers I was going to throw up (the perfect strategy in elementary school because of the threat of a chain reaction) and be sent to the office. The nurse would shove a thermometer in my mouth and then go about her business. I would take said thermometer and place it on the heat radiator directly behind me while her back was turned, then pop it back in my mouth. When she read the alarming results, she immediately phoned my mother and told her to come and get her sick child.

My mother was no fool. After I pulled this stunt for the third time, she refused to drive over to the school and pick me up. “She’s faking,” she told the nurse flatly. “You keep her.”

One day, in the sixth grade, when I found of all things a dying crayfish baking in the sun of the playground’s macadam surface, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Mind you, this was in Louisville, Kentucky. What a crayfish was doing on the playground, I could not say. But there it was and it was dying and so I rescued it. Taking the parched crustacean to my teacher so I could get permission to find it some water (the girl’s restroom is what I was thinking, not the nearest off-campus stream), I was lambasted for attempting to terrorize her. I wish I’d thought to do that but, honestly, all I had in mind was my rescue mission. She made me put the crayfish back where I found it and go into the classroom and write all my spelling words 100 times.

That afternoon after school, propelled by rage, I mixed up a bucket of the finest mud I could concoct and, with my friend Lou abetting the crime, went to my teacher’s house and pelted it with mud balls. Most satisfying! Until we were caught. Which led to my reputation preceding me to junior high.

In junior high, I burned the only book I would ever so assault in my life. It was my Latin I textbook. I burned it in effigy on the steps of the school and left the ashes there in a ceremonial heap for the next rain to erase. I had nothing against Latin. My mother loved Latin and learned more about the English language than I ever would on account of it.  She instilled in me a lifelong respect for that dead old language and her memory is probably most often awakened by Latin word origins. Which, in case you don’t know, are everywhere. But I had everything against my Latin teacher who found me wanting in intellect as well as in academic resolve, and said so.

By high school, my best friend had dubbed my new school year blues first-day-of-school-itis. It mattered not a jot that my friends would assemble under one roof again, that pranks and jokes and maybe even LUV awaited me. I still heard those prison doors slamming shut. Every day till May. One teacher remarked so vocally about my potential that two other teachers walking down the hall ahead of us turned to agree. On the august occasion of my sixteenth birthday, my driver’s license wasn’t the only thing on my mind. Dropping out was. It was the looming prospect of McDonald’s as my only likely employer that scared me off.

In college things began to change for me. But not at first. My high school guidance counselor reduced me to an academic amoeba when she gazed over her half-framed glasses, grilled me with her beady little eyes and announced, “You are not college material. Stop wasting everybody’s time.” Then, when no college accepted me, including the state school that graduated all three of my siblings, I began to believe her. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to believe the negative observations and so hard to accept the compliments?

One college, prompted by a letter of recommendation by a trustee emeritus, accepted me — on probation. I’m sure that letter read something like: “If you want that new dormitory, you’ll take this kid in. Don’t believe a word you’ve heard about her. Or believe how crummy her SAT’s were. And for heavens sake and the sake of the college’s endowment, pay no attention to any of her application details.” But probation is probation. I had a chip the weight of a steel j-bar teetering on my shoulder. But I made Dean’s List at the end of the first semester and was voted president of the class by Christmas. What changed, you ask?

Freedom. And prefrontal cortex development. Going to class, cutting class, as I wished. Course options. Professors who burned mid-term exam bluebooks right in front of my appreciative eyes and professors (the previous one counts among them) who vaulted the concept of ‘learning’ from rote memorization and multiple choice pop quizzes to conceptual thinking and the essay test where facts and ideas melded like magic into actual insights.

If my parents were alive today, I promise you they would be dumbstruck by the fact that I am taking courses at Harvard of my own free will. Year after year. Teaching there too. Teaching??? This kid whose sole use for teachers was to find ways to torture them??? Impossible! And so this treatise on Back to School. As I buy my new school shoes and notebooks (some things never change) and run my nose down the inside bindings of my new school books— Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldAbsalom, Absalom! and Whistling Vivaldi — just to drink in the intoxicating ink of new worlds about to be revealed. Of course, the fact that I’m cutting the first two weeks of class, well, what can I say? I have a reputation to protect.

—Belle Songer

Tracking the future

So what’s with the banner picture at the top of this blog? On the back of the snapshot, it reads: “Walden, MA, 1979.” There is no Walden, MA, though I’m sure the Henry David Thoreau devotees that infest the town of Concord would have loved it if the town had been renamed accordingly. But in 1979, I — perhaps I should take this opportunity to introduce myself, Belle Songer — didn’t know any better. I was touring literary New England with my friend Gary. On our travels to this landmark of American letters, we naturally visited and circumnavigated Walden Pond. We found the stone stumps that are supposed to outline Thoreau’s cabin in the woods at the back edge of the pond, where he purportedly gave America its first literary frontiersman (who later would be revealed to have taken his laundry home to his mother, like any college kid pretending to be a freewheeling, independent operator). To say the least, this shrine, unlike Robert Frost’s home for instance, was disappointing. So we struck off into the woods, following a path away from that pile of salutary rocks. It didn’t go very far — a kind of hapless metaphor for Thoreau’s own adventure — just to the fence on the back perimeter of the state park, and there we found these railroad tracks. Railroads figure largely in my family story — a tale for another time — so I could not resist the opportunity to reenact the scene from the old Bullwinkle cartoon series. Little did I know, when I stretched out across the rails that autumn day in 1979, that the Fitchburg commuter line, on which I rested my head and my feet, giving an enthusiastic thumb’s up, would one day become my homeboy rail line. Several times over the course of my life, I have experienced previews of coming attractions: visited my future, so to speak. And this was one such occasion. Horsing around that day as Dudley Do-right’s dumb blonde girlfriend Nell, I couldn’t possibly have known I would meet a man from Concord 21 years later, marry him and travel these very tracks in and out of Boston or Cambridge for the rest of my life.

Moral: One’s future is always at hand, you just have to keep your eyes peeled.

— Belle Songer