Memoir: In the Wild Fields of Summer

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MarkHarris02

This essay was previously published on Rebelle Society.

Wild things happen in the summer fields. Wild flowers grow and ladybugs flitter and the sky burns bright blue. 

Today, scattered swells of white clouds loom in one California field nearly straight overhead. They do not block the sun, but their presence makes the sky appear even more blue and luminous.

Nature speaks in a soft voice here. There is only the whisper of a breeze, but the swaying lilt of the Junegrass acts like a tonic on a young boy’s mind. Lying on the ground, he gazes upward and wonders: Is it possible to look directly at the sun? Squinting, a kaleidoscope of light flashes and streamers fill his vision.

Thoughts float and drift in the summer air, cushioned by the sound of the birds and the boy’s own quiet breathing.

He rests in a small, open patch of grass and dirt. He is far from the field’s entrance to his neighborhood, the tall grass shielding him from view. In the distance, near the field’s entrance sits a solitary farmhouse with a screened-in porch, chicken coops, and a barn. The other side of the field leads to a remote road occupied by a small roadside store and barbershop.

The sound of an occasional passing car is the road’s only trade.

Lying back, the boy adjusts his folded arms behind his neck. If only he had his holster and cap gun with him! And baseball cap! And lemonade! Cold lemonade! For lunch today, his mother served lemonade with ham and cheese sandwiches and chips. How he loves sweet, cold drinks on hot days! He has heard of snow, but never seen it up close.

When his grandparents visited a few weeks ago, they told him there is snow in the mountains in Utah near where they used to live.

Everyone was so happy when they were here. He played catch with his father and grandfather on the front lawn. His father told him not to throw the ball too hard when standing close to someone. He felt kind of silly not realizing something so obvious. Later, the boy’s grandmother took him and his little sister for a drive to the park. On the way, a police car stopped her car.

The policeman said the light turned red while she was driving through the intersection. His grandmother tried to explain that she was afraid to stop suddenly because of the children in the backseat. The policeman said he should give her a ticket, but then he was silent for a moment. The boy remembers the policeman looked at him and his sister in the backseat.

And then the policeman let the grandmother go with a warning, telling her to try to drive more carefully in the future. It was always very curious to the boy when grown-ups disagreed.

Last week, the boy’s father took him to the Hollywood Bowl for a children’s entertainment show. The parents laughed later when he said it was “a good joint.” He didn’t really know why that was funny, but their amusement pleased him. The boy loves it when his parents laugh. They laugh easily, and this also pleases him.

His father laughed when he heard the boy got to sit on top of an elephant at the recent Grand Opening festivities for the new shopping mall!

In his afternoon daydreams, the boy ponders the story his father once told him about the summer he graduated from high school. It was 1946, and he had just moved with his family back to Salt Lake City where he spent much of his early years. He had a job that summer as a security guard at the Utah State Fair.

One evening, while patrolling an area near the perimeter of the fairgrounds, his father saw four teenage boys climbing the outside of the fence. They were hoping to sneak in without paying. The boys were younger, maybe 14 or 15 years old. They had climbed to the top of the metal fence and were just about to leap over when the boy’s father approached.

His father admonished the boys to get down, but they had just laughed in response. “You can’t stop us if we all jump at once,” one of the boys yelled back. The boy’s father was forced to size up the situation quickly. He told the boys he couldn’t catch all of them, but he would catch the first one over the fence. So, go ahead, he said, jump!

The boys responded with jeers and taunts. But they also hesitated, if only for a moment, and this proved to be their undoing. No one among them wanted to make the first move. The boy’s father had calmly stood his ground. And, just like that, the moment quickly slipped away. “Aw, forget it,” one of the boys finally said, jumping back down and running off.

The other boys also quickly climbed down from the fence and dashed away. The showdown was over.

The story was a tale from the mysteries of his father’s earlier life, the one before marriage or children, a world the boy could never really know. The story quickly took on dimensions of heroic drama in the boy’s mind, resonating with an almost mythic emotional force. In this small tale he discovered all the evidence he needed for his father’s triumphal stance in life, his assuredness and mastery in every situation.

How strong he thought his father was! Hero! Protector! Slayer of fear!

The boy wishes his father could be with him always. There were those other teens — he had already forgotten about them, kind of — who on another summer day once chased him through the field. They were mean and angry. But even then he sensed they were the sad ones. They just didn’t know they were sad. Instead, they gave their sadness to others. They pushed him down. They wouldn’t let him leave.

Later, he ran around in a circle, alone, pretending to shoot his imaginary gun.

“Bang! Bang! You’re dead!”

***

And then he is 16. In his room, the teenager listens quietly to the Michigan radio station that plays the new album by The Who called Tommy. The radio host announces the album is so good he’s decided to play the entire record, well over an hour long, without interruption.

The music tells the story of a traumatized, abused boy who is deaf, blind, and voiceless, but who compensates for his disability by developing an extraordinary sensitivity to the vibration of the universe. It is a skill he uses to become a “pinball champion” and later, freed of the trauma that binds him, a religious messiah. It is a whimsical story with a dark heart.

The teenager listens inspired and transfixed. Later, he will purchase the record album and memorize the words to many of the songs. Sometimes, he even likes to sing along, “See me, Feel me, Touch me, Heal me.”The words stir a wellspring of inner emotion, as clear, cleansing waters of feeling course through him. For a moment, the world feels less burdened.

But he grows quiet at other verses of being forsaken and forgotten, being… “broken.”

The teen grows older. As the years pass, music and memory stay with him. In his waking dreams, he often imagines a world free of pain and cruelty, a liberated world where all people are free and loved. He also dreams of his old California neighborhood.

In one dream he sees himself outside the old home. There are neighbors everywhere, relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. He walks into the old house to find rooms lit with festive lights in vivid arrays of color. The lights are never glaring or bright, but low and luminescent as if decorated for a party. As he moves from room to room, he does so with wonder at what will greet him.

There is a story in every room.

He moves through the house and enters the kitchen, opens the sliding glass door at the rear of the house, and enters the backyard. There is no fence in the yard, and the manicured back lawn eventually blends into the familiar California field of old. He walks now into the field, through the tall grass and wild flowers and further on toward the center of the field.

There, he sees no entrances or exits or roads in the distance, only the untamed grassland and the blazing blue of the sky.

A quiet rhythm pervades the wild field, a measured pulsing of life that he absorbs with his whole being. Bending down, he grabs a handful of dirt in his right hand, letting the dry soil slowly sift through his fingers before brushing the dust from his hands. He pauses for a moment. His thoughts drift back now to the boy who once imagined what it was like to walk on top of the clouds. But he doesn’t linger.

He knows he must keep moving. And so he begins to make his way until he can see the grassland’s other side, far afield from the ghosts of the old neighborhood.

There, at the field’s edge, before crossing the old road, he turns around for one last look. He says goodbye now to this place of secrets and stories and summertime dreams. The past is only a whisper here, an ashen memory. In the wild fields of summer, the sun alone endures silent and strong.

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