My, wasn't life awful -- and wonderful?" (Mrs. Soames)
Raspberries. One taste and you can hear the crickets chirping in the hot, stifling closeness of a far-away evening stillness. What a day this has been!
Summer. August. Hot. My friend Tommy Radford and I had both graduated from kindergarten the previous spring, and we now owned the world. Everything was new - the world was ours.
We would spend entire days exploring "the Marsh," our name for a vast undeveloped expanse behind our house on the edge of town. The Marsh extended all the way to the highway. tommy and i had not conquered the Marsh all the way to the far-off highway, but we were working at it.
Each day, we discovered new sections of the Marsh. The grass was over our heads, and we'd create paths by bending down the grass, either by walking over the tall grass repeatedly or by crawling forward by our elbows, leveling the path with our forearms, as we'd seen the soldiers do in war stories on TV.
Our trails were blazed to connect all the secret and mysterious places of the Marsh; a group of tiger lillies, a field of the other-worldly milkweed plants. When you picked a milkweed leaf it bled a mysterious white fluid, and it took quite a bit of courage to open a milkweed pod for the first time. There was a rock that could be lifted to reveal a quivering world of grayish white grub worms. And everywhere the sharp sawing and chopping sound of summer insects, sounding so near, yet never to be seen.
Marsha, my neighbor -- who was much wiser than both of us, because she was a year older -- came with us one day, and helped us to identify the exotic plants and wildlife in our area. She could create facts instantaneously. she showed us poisonous mushrooms that could kill us just by touching them or sometimes just standing near them. There was a hole in the ground where a huge poisonous snake lived, with a mouth big enough to swallow your entire leg in one bite.
One day we decided to share our wealth of natural curiosities with our neighborhood friends. The expedition tour we sponsored was really the only safe way for them to view all of these wonders of nature.
We assembled a group of squeamish neighborhood kids -- our regular play group, plus their younger sisters and brothers. Free of charge - there was fun in the danger of it all. We assembled the group in the basement under my father's garage. We emphasized the importance of following the leaders -- Tommy and I could keep them safe. Didn't want someone to step off the path into the soft muck in which the cattails grew. Your foot could be chewed up by bloodsuckers before you had a chance to pull it out. Counting Tommy and me, there were about ten of us.
And the expedition began. Tommy started in the lead, and me behind the group. Tommy and I took turns leading the awe-struck group to the various scary sights. And at the end, a disorienting surprise turn in our path led us back to the very same path by which we had entered. Home safe, thanks to the skill of your excursion leaders.
As we headed back to the garage where the tour had started, we passed my father's garden. And as the beautiful late-afternoon August sunshine slanted down on the happy group, I was taken by a sudden impromptu idea.
I led our expedition between the two rows of raspberry bushes in the garden. Our fellow expeditionaries were treated to a handful of juicy fresh raspberries. Picking tasty fresh raspberries - and eating them right off the bush! What a fitting climax to our late summer spectacular -- our glorious --
Suddenly, the group's mood shifted. Some of the younger kids screamed. What was it--a bee? Someone pointed toward the garage. I saw my father running toward us. Was something wrong in the house? My father never ran unless it was an emergency. Turns out, my father was angry with us for picking the raspberries. Well, what were raspberries for? OK, so we won't eat your raspberries, then. It had been a great tour, and raspberries did not matter.
Our tour group scattered in fear. The expedition was over. They all ran home in their separate ways, leaving only Tommy and me to explain. Only we never got a chance to explain. Our excursion into the unexplored world was left entirely out of the "discussion". How many raspberries could a kid eat, anyway? Wasn't Dad interested in the glorious world we had just opened up to the neighborhood kids? NO. We were bad, there was no discussion. We were incapable of doing anything constructive, and were just interested in destroying his stupid raspberries.
And, although I was just 6 years old at the time, I can remember, exactly, my father's next words, which changed my life forever.
"And as for you, Tommy Radford -- I NEVER want to see you around here again". Tommy, feeling dismissed, went running home. I was stunned. The rest of the scolding just rolled over me, "yeah yeah go to your room and stay there, no going out of the house for two weeks, blah blah blah". But, Tommy. Tommy was gone forever.
My two weeks in "solitary" went by, taking the rest of the summer that was left to us, and then came first grade. I made all new friends. Some of the best life-long friends - I met my best friend Norm from the other side of town, on the first day of first grade. (Just emailed him this morning, another story, another time). I'd meet Max Wincell and Jimmy Griep, and have lots of friends from other neighborhoods, mostly school classmates, but never again from my own neighborhood. The paths through The Marsh all grew back to the way they had always been.
Although Tommy Radford lived across the street from me, we never played together again. I hoped that Tommy wasn't blaming me, but I was not able to ask him. A lot can happen in two weeks. Within two weeks, I was completely out of Tommy's circle of friends -- completely written out. There was never a reconciliation. In the coming years, Tommy's group would build go-karts, treehouses, model rockets. They would be in trouble with the police because the go-kart powered by a lawnmower engine was so successful. And model rocketry - Tommy's friend Bobby's older brother, Danny would go on to become Commander Dan Brandenstein of the Space Shuttle. Lee's brother started a rock n roll band, and I'd watch them out the window, as they would practice in the back yard. Goodbye to that life. I took piano lessons. My father got his wish. He never had to see any of my playmates again.
But never again would I have close friends in my own neighborhood. (even Marsha, my neighbor, became more distant, but she was now busy being a girl, as she explained gently. Understandable, we'd meet again in five years).
Years later, when I was in college, the Madison newspaper featured a photo around Halloween time, of a school bus driver in Stoughton. The kids on his bus all loved him -- he could turn a mundane and boring bus ride into an adventure. In this particular newspaper photo, the school bus driver was dressed up in a monster costume, making Halloween real for the kids. The bus driver's name: Tommy Radford.