A friend once told me that all children need a wild place, a small, vacant lot where nature was allowed to take control. Trees would grow of their own accord; brambles and branches would cover the well-trodden paths every spring. By summer, some kid would cut them back so they could get through on a bike. In places where bushes met, they would leave a hollow in the center where children could gather in these natural club houses in small numbers to share their secrets and leave the world behind them for an hour or so. I had such a place when I was a little girl. I’ll never forget it.
It was behind the church across the street from my grandparents’ house. They lived in a modest, blue-collar neighborhood, or at least, it had been in 1950. It has evolved since, but that summer when I was eleven years old, it was the greatest place in the world. I didn’t need anything more than my bicycle and some spare time to explore everything that the world had to offer.
I got my first bike that summer. My grandfather bought it for me as a birthday present. It was a bright red ten-speed. I loved that bike. It could take me anywhere I wanted to go. The Trails, to all my friend’s houses sometimes I thought I could even fly. Even up to the end of the street where you could see the highway from the bottom of a man-made hill, behind the rusted out fence. That summer I found a great many things, but the most important was freedom.
My friend Ann taught me how to ride a bike. She let me borrow hers and rode my ten-speed because I wasn’t too sure about the hand breaks. After a couple days of doing it, I got the hang of it and we were off! She took me to The Trails, and there I saw the most glorious thing. A vacant lot, covered in various kinds of trees, bike paths worn into the dusty ground with jumps.
If you’ve ever ridden a ten-speed then you know that taking one over a jump is not a good idea, but I raced onto those dirt paths and rode over those jumps and finally when darkness claimed the world, I looked up at the pastel sky and smiled. One more jump, then I would go home. I raced through the circular path gaining speed on my red bike. I hunkered down over the handlebars like I’d seen professional bicyclists do on TV. When I hit that jump and felt the wheels of my bike lift up into the air, I was so delighted that I laughed. My laughter was all too brief. The bike landed on the ground on its side, thrusting me into a hard prickly bush. I have no idea how long it took me to climb out of there, but I came out covered with scratches. My legs felt raw, my knees were bloody, but I laughed. I wanted to do it again. I wanted to feel my bike catch the air and fly through it like an eagle soars through the sky. My father’s voice beckoned me. “Karen!” It was time to go.
I sighed and picked up my bike. The Trails were empty, I was the only kid left in that vacant place. I glanced around through the trees and whispered to them, “Tomorrow. I’ll come back tomorrow.” Dad’s bellow came to me from the entrance to the vacant lot, “Karen! Let’s go!” I blinked. Dad knew about The Trails? I grabbed my bike and walked it out. Dad looked at my knees and my scratches with an edge of concern touching his blue-gray eyes. “Went over that third ramp behind the blackberry bush did ya?”
I blushed. “Yeah.”
“Well, you can’t take that ramp on a ten-speed all that fast Half-pint. You’ll fall when you hit the ground.” He nodded to me then helped me walk my bike back to our house. “Let’s take the long way around. If Grandma sees your knees bleeding like that, she’ll have a fit.” I readily agreed and so we walked the rest of the way home in silence.
I lived next door to my grandparents for most of my life. My parents both worked full-time, so I spent a lot of time at Grandma’s house. I never met my uncle, I don’t remember him except from pictures, but he shot himself when my dad was fourteen. My best guess is that it happened somewhere in the late sixties, around 1969. Until that summer, I never knew what always made Grandma seem so sad. I never understood why she worried about me so much, I just knew that if she saw blood on me she’d get this look on her face, a look so sad and desolate, that I got worried, even if the cut didn’t hurt and I knew it would heal in a few days. A few moments later, she would yell across her house to my grandfather in the kitchen, “Tom!” He’d holler back, “What?!” Then she’d sit down beside me and say “Get me the alcohol out of the bathroom.” He’d mutter back, “Get it yerself !” She’d look at me and shake her head, “He’s a lazy old man, ain’t he?” I’d smile and any sting that was left in my sores would go away, at least, until she poured alcohol on it. This, however, was the summer of 1985. Summer came and kissed me on the cheek and I hugged her back tight.
The next morning was Friday. I cheered for the weekend. Mom and Dad would be home on Saturday and Sunday and we’d go do stuff. Maybe even go to the drags, or go see a movie. I looked forward to Mom coming home with so much anticipation that when Mom and Dad got home at the same time, I was in a state of euphoria. Grandma pointed out the window and said “Your Dad and Mom are home Karen. You better go say hi.”
I raced out the back door, through the gate into the yard, raced across the yard followed by Queenie, Grandma’s ever loving and faithful german shepherd. When I reached the gate in my own yard, I ran up to the car and helped Mom carry in some groceries, then I looked at Dad and said “So what are we doing this weekend Dad?”
He smiled and said “We’re going camping.”
I groaned. No radio, no music, peeing in the woods. “Aww Dad!”
“You’ll have fun, you always do, now go pack some clothes and make sure your Mom gets the bug spray.”