Saturday, November 19, 2011

I Heard It As I Drove By

I don’t really like the phrase “old home place” but I guess it’s the most appropriate way to describe it.

Anyway, I drove by the “old home place” earlier this week and it was easy to see that the colors of fall, which add a very special value to the property in October, are now gone. In their place, the browns of winter are already settling in. Although the leaves were still bright in the morning sun, they no longer displayed the array of colors that I now realize I took for granted during my youth, when I lived right in the middle of all that beauty each autumn.

It’s funny where you mind goes in instances like that. Driving by, I realized those were same winter browns that would be in place come late December. Thus the same winter browns I recognize from so many old Christmas morning photos taken in the front yard of that home place; photos of boys on new bikes or boys shooting new BB guns. Or perhaps, photos of boys doing both. On those mornings, the browns of winter were full of Christmas magic.

They say you can’t go home again and honestly, I’m not sure I really need to. So I did not stop at the empty house. However, I think its okay to brush up against the old home with a drive-by once in a great while.  Anymore frequently than that and I might take it all for granted again.

It’s also been said the sense of smell can trigger memories more strongly than any other sense. But on this morning, it was a sound, or at least the remembrance of a sound, that shuttled me back in time 30 years. It was the squealing of school bus brakes. That sound somehow filled my ears as I drove past the spot where Bus Number 5 used to stop on that old blacktop road (it wasn’t striped in those days).

For restless riders who spent waaaay too much time on a school bus in the afternoons, the squealing of school bus brakes was the sound of home. When that squeal happened in front of your house, boy oh boy, you knew you were mere minutes away from an after-school snack and another episode of Gilligan’s Island.

In our case the bus actually stopped around the corner from our house; sort of equal distance between the neighbor’s house and ours. But that was fine; back then we were thin enough to slip through the space between the end of our chain link fence and the first post of the barbed wire fence. Once through, it was every man for himself as we raced down the hill to the front door.

And what about that front yard we raced through? As I drove by it, I brushed up against another memory of those BB guns and the hollow, metallic thud sound made when a BB would strike a pop can. Somewhere in that yard, I thought, are thousands of BBs shot from dozens of different guns over the years. Buried there beneath the grass are the teeny tiny reminders of three boys who passed many an hour taking aim at Pepsi cans, perched on a flat rock out by the propane tank; each BB representing a brief moment from my happy childhood.

Of course, the memory of one sound leads to another. Also buried in that yard is one red aluminum arrow, used only once. Standing on the west end of the yard, I pulled back the bowstring and let the arrow fly towards the target on the east end. It skipped on the ground (so much for my archery skills) and was never to be seen again.  I remember the rattling sound as the arrow skipped into the leaves and the rocks. I hunted for what seemed like hours for that arrow but to this day, it still eludes me. (By the way, I never looked for a single BB :)

There are plenty of other sounds to recall; sounds that still hang over that yard. Sounds like a tennis ball hitting the side of the well house so that a 12-year old baseball player could dive for it on the rebound. Sounds of dogs barking all night (dozens of dogs over the years), sounds of the wind blowing through the trees in the backyard, sounds of me arguing with my brothers after a particularly heated game of wiffle ball, the sound of a basketball’s thud as it was dribbled on the dirt and rock driveway and the sounds of a thousand other moments spent somewhere between the front porch and road.

No, I didn’t stop at the old home place, but I sure heard it as I drove by.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Somewhere in the food chain...

I’ve come to realize that few lunchtime experiences are more humbling than standing at the fast food counter waiting for your number to be called.

There we were, about 7 of us, all gathered around the front of the popular eatery; cups of soda and receipts in hand; all hoping that the next tray of nachos, burgers, burritos or fries had our names on it. Deep down, all of us were secretly hoping our order would somehow leapfrog all the rest in that long chain of food preparation taking place just a few feet away.

“Number 198” the server says as she places the tray on the counter. And even though my number is “201” I still lean in to take a look, just to make sure those wrappers don’t bear too close a resemblance to my order. After all, orders do get confused sometimes.

“Excuse me,” says 198 as he weaves his way through the waiting crowd with the tray in one hand and 32 ounces of raspberry tea in the other; so all of us back up to give this suddenly-enviable food recipient plenty of room. He’s now like some kind of fast food royalty and we are humbled by his presence. After all, he’s crossed over and is no longer one of us. That blue tray is his ticket from the land of the waiting “have nots” into the realm of the dining “haves.” It’s a status the rest of us desperately hope to attain the next time a tray hits the counter.   

Of course, it’s an anxious, nervous couple of minutes. From the moment the order-taker says “don’t call us, will call you when it’s ready” to the moment you finally unwrap your own purchases like a kid on Christmas morning, you’re hanging in no-man’s land; in an anxious place of limbo like the dog who thought he heard the can opener but can’t quite smell the food yet.  

Why are we anxious? For starters, we’ve paid for food we’ve yet to receive. We’ve made a monetary commitment to the promise of a “Combo Number 7” but that promise is yet to be fulfilled. All we really have is a small piece of paper with a number on it and Mr. 198 as an example of what is to come. And we’re also anxious because this kind of thing doesn’t happen everywhere. After all, I fill my car with gas before the pump ever spits out my receipt; I already have my cart full of groceries before I ever enter the checkout line, and by the time I get my electric bill, it’s for kilowatts that I have already used. But when it comes to midday nourishment on the run, its pay now, eat a little bit later. Thus, we learn patient too. And isn’t it funny how patient goes hand in hand with humility?

No, this is by no means a knock on fast food. Really, this is not a knock on anything. Rather, it’s just an observation of one of those times in life we’ve all experienced before and will certainly experience again. And I don’t mean the fast food part; I mean the humbling part.

Friday, November 4, 2011

We Knew This Place

It was lunchtime in midtown Manhattan and our little band of first-time Big Apple visitors was looking for a bite. 

Guided by our Okie-outlook, we thought we could walk right into a delicatessen on 5th Avenue
and get a seat. (Somehow we weren’t aware that there were more people on that one city block than ever packed the stands for the Salina versus Locust Grove football game).

Waiting in crowds seems to be a way of life in NYC. You wait to get in the door, then you wait to order and then you wait for a table. You wait for the restroom too. Then there’s the wait for the bus or the taxi cab and then the waiting in traffic. No wonder they call it the “city that never sleeps”; if you did fall asleep, you would probably lose your place in line.

Anyway, the idea of dining at a real New York deli quickly drowned in a boiling sea of people. So we kept walking, not really knowing where we were going but fortunately we had the Empire State Building as some sort of landmark. Walking just seemed to be a better approach than waiting. Eventually we were on the sidewalk right in front of the grand old building. I remember thinking “this is just about where King Kong came crashing down.”

The observation deck of city’s most famous skyscraper gets plenty of attention, but on this day we were more interested in the restaurant on the ground floor. But like I said, it was lunchtime in Manhattan. So, prompted by our Okie impatience, we kept walking.

Finally, we spotted a familiar restaurant sign; one that is easy to recognize whether you live along Lake Hudson or the Hudson River. It was an eatery and a menu we already knew well. And though it was also crowded (compared to its Tulsa counterparts), we decided to just go ahead and wait here. We were on familiar ground and after our long, fruitless walk, we decided this was a good place to be. We knew this place and that made all the difference.

Long story short, we didn’t get the NYC eatery experience that day. We didn’t gather in a booth at a real NYC pizzeria or try the Reuben at a real NYC deli, or even grab a hot dog from a street vendor. Instead, in the midst of so much unfamiliar territory, both impressed and pressed by our surroundings, we found something very familiar and recharged our proverbial batteries there.

So I guess the real NYC dining experience will have to wait until next time. But I did walk away from that episode realizing just how comforting it can be at times to find the familiar amidst so much unfamiliar territory.

I think that’s a pretty good life lesson too, whether you’re walking the streets of a strange city or just feel your life drifting into uncharted waters. There are some things; actually, there is some One, who never changes. And that One needs to be familiar to all of us.

When that happens, you can find comfort, and be filled, no matter where you go.