The nineteen-eighties are a cornucopia of fond memories for me. That’s when my childhood was in full bloom - the days between the times that have gotten spotty in my mind and the teen years when I got spotty on my face. Back then, I had a few girlfriends and I wanted to be liked just like any young boy, but I hadn’t yet begun to look into every mirror I passed by, making sure each follicle of hair was in place. It was right before the almighty mullet took the world by storm with it’s front/back two-party system and I still enjoyed getting fun things from Santa on Christmas morning, rather than cool things. It was the golden years of my adolescence - when my cousin and I (the one I did stupidly stupid things with) ruled a thick patch of woods behind our grandma’s house and all we needed to cultivate our “Land” were big sticks we somehow ended up assigning too much importance to. Back then, the words “Covid”, “Corona” and, God help us, “Politics” were planted firmly and safely in an apocalyptic future, doing nobody no harm.
I’m Michael Blackston and this is Funny Messy Life.
There were other days sprinkled about this history when my cousin and I tromped around the woods behind my grandparents’ house with dirty faces and scratched up knees, but the vast majority of our jaunts happened on Sunday afternoons.
In the eighties, kids still had the opportunity to do stuff kids really can’t today. Words like “Abduction” and “distancing” weren’t as much on the radar. We knew those words, but as pre-teens, my cousin and I didn’t pay much attention to them in the relative safety of my Grandma’s house. Strangers never ventured onto the property that we knew about and distancing was just what our parents wanted us to do as a rule - to distance ourselves from them. All I know is that as long as it wasn’t raining, the children were expected to go outside immediately after lunch while the grownups sat around the dining room table and said things we didn’t understand, usually as commentary about whatever person was at the center of their gossip. I recall hearing a few interesting things spoken around the “adult” table that I’d come to know later in life - phrases like, “She orta be ashamed-a-herself!” and words like, “tramp” and hussy”.
For context, you should know that my mom has two sisters and everybody and their children met at my grandparent’s house every single Sunday at lunch time, unless there was a family reunion we had to go to. And until recently that tradition has remained.
My cousin and I knew our cue when the adults decided lunch time was over … one of them would holler, “OUT!”
And we were happy to go. It was time for the adults to be rid of children hanging all over them for a few precious hours. There were no video games to play, no cartoons to watch, and football wasn’t as important to us as the trails and huts we were about to build. I always found it funny that they were so ready for us to spend an august afternoon among the bugs and the grass and trees and dirt, getting soaked to the bone with sweat and developing fine chains of grit in the creases of our necks we southerners call “Granny beads”. And yet, when it was time to come in for the day, they, without fail, would turn up their noses and exclaim, “YOU SMELL LIKE THE OUTSIDE!” Of course we smelled like the outside! What do you expect?! We’d been one with the outside all day long. If we needed water, they’d give it - reluctantly - and then point back toward the door … “OUT!”
So off we’d trot into the woods behind the house with only two nuggets of parental wisdom to guide us: “Watch out for snakes” and “Come on when I call ya, now”. Other than that, the adventures of the day could begin or continue.
So what did my cousin and I do exactly?
I told you already. We built trails and we built huts. Not just any trails and huts, though. While strangers didn’t normally show up unannounced, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t. In our minds, there might one day be an evil plot - a coup, if you will - wherein terrorists or worse - insurance salesmen - would overtake our grandparents’ home, presumably on a Sunday afternoon, so I guess they didn’t get any Jesus earlier in the day, and we would need to flee to the cover of the maze we’d created in the woods and make our stand from there.
The implementation of our vision was nothing short of spectacular. Every trail we beat down with sticks, every clearing, every hut we constructed, every bush we peed on had a name. I even remember some of the names we gave them.
There was the “Briar Trail” because when we made it, we had to beat down an excessive amount of briars and went home that afternoon with countless points of blood loss on our tiny little southern redneck baby-child bodies.
There was the “50/50”, which was a clearing in the middle of it all that had once been someone’s garden and if you dared cross it during one of our games of war, you only had about a 50/50 chance of making it through without getting drilled by a hailstorm of bullet noises we made with our mouths.
There was another clearing beyond the perfectly mowed boundary of my grandparents’ yard and it was a mystical place. We didn’t make it, but we claimed it. It had always been called by our parents, “The Red Dirt.” It was an area of land that was a barren desert of a place where nothing but a few small, scrawny pines and grayish yellow weeds grew. Everything else there, in an area a tad smaller than the size of a football field, was deep red Georgia clay. Many years before, something had been deposited there in the middle of the expanse of red dirt. It was a large stack of some sort of crumbly building material that I’m starting to think might have been asbestos or the lining of a nuclear bomb silo, hence the reason nothing could grow around it. We climbed all over the stuff, chewed on it, probably licked it a little - so now that I think of it, maybe the skin cancers I constantly battle have a better explanation than my being in the sun too much as a kid. Our parents wandered out there as kids. The youngest of three sisters, the tom-boy, used to ride her motorcycle out there and jump the hills. I’m starting to think I know what’s wrong with the whole family and I should either report it to the authorities or call the writers of Stranger Things.
We beat down all of those trails with sticks, but we didn’t simply find any old dead branch lying around like uncivilized caveboys. Our sticks were carefully chosen and given names. They were used every week and carefully hidden at the end of the day so we would know exactly where to find them. I don’t remember what we named them. My cousin probably named his something like “Hulk” and I would have named mine something a little less aggressive - something that fit my personality more closely - “Little Orphan Annie” perhaps. We called them our “babies” and when one of them would finally get smashed against something one too many times and shatter, we would hold a funeral for it. Yes, an ever-lovin’ funeral. For a stick.
We dug holes here and there and hid stuff down in them as weapons caches for the inevitable ninja attack, but we only had the natural resources around us to work with. Then we’d cover them with a layer of sticks and leaves and mark them so that we could come back later if we needed to protect the family from rabid, flesh-eating gila monsters. Remember the mushroom things that had spores all in them and would make a big dusty - and poisonous, according to our parents - cloud? Yeah, we hid a bunch of those in the cache holes. I said CACHE holes! There were pointy rocks, sharp sticks, and pieces of glass we found and some chunks of the radioactive alien asbestos that had broken off of the pile at the Red Dirt.
We were ready for the fight and all we had to do if the crazed army of savage zombie Cabbage Patch Kids attacked was to find the nearest hut and batten down the hatches with a bunch of poisonous spore bombs, the Hulk, and Little Orphan Annie.
Speaking of huts, we were master builders of those. Old logs and fallen branches were prime construction material and low hanging branches from healthy trees never stood a chance. I guess there might have been five complex structures hidden in those woods and we would protect them like fire ants protect their evil little mounds. Well, we would have if the Boby-building Wizard Women tried to take over.
We worked tirelessly to cultivate our private little military compound and we considered that patch of woods to be our property. We talked on the phone during the week planning what we would do on Sunday and we even spent the time to come up with a clever title for it. Now brace yourself for the torrent of impressiveness you’re about to experience because of our creativity. We called it ... “Our Land”.
Then one day, it was gone.
We pulled into the driveway of my grandparents’ house and I could see the construction machinery in the distance. We were told we couldn’t go out there anymore. Most of the patch of woods had been cleared away. With the trees and trails all gone, there was no way to know what was where. We couldn’t even save our babies. Hulk and Annie were just two more pieces of collateral damage, unrecognizable from any of the other rubble, from a bomb that had been dropped on us by something we never anticipated - culture. Our land was gone. Until that moment, neither I nor my cousin who did stupidly stupid things with me had any concept that somebody else owned the property and that they could sell it out from under us. That they could clear it and build a home right on top of it. On our land.
Oh well, nothing lasts forever. It’s a lesson I keep having to learn over and over because I’m a positive thinker and whenever things are going good, I can’t stand to look in the direction of reality - out over beyond the yard where life’s bulldozers and backhoes grin with their stupid metal teeth as they tower over my dang happiness.
It’s funny that I actually just teared up a little bit thinking back on that memory. Reality is so much more foreboding when you’ve blown through years and seemed to by-pass forty without so much as a double-take. That was a sad day for us. I’m sure our parents talked about progress or even gossiped about the sellers or the buyers … “Orta be a-shamed of tharselves!” But to us, something major had changed. We’d experienced a passion being ripped away from us. Something had destroyed what had taken so many countless hours to build. And while it’s a small thing in comparison to real battles and the actual monsters I’ve had to face over the years since then, it might just have been my first real taste of working hard to do a lot of something for a whole lot of nothing. Then again, we made memories and those are something no bulldozer can destroy.
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