by Art Busse
They say that memory resides in the senses, that a smell, a touch or a taste can bring it all back. Well, I remember dirt: black and rich like good coffee, substantial, productive dirt, taking on the heat of the summer sun, covering the hardwood forest floor that filled the river plain of the small town where I grew up. In the middle of the America, in the middle of the twentieth century, on the banks of the Des Plaines River just west of Chicago. Riverside, it was called, a town of winding elm-canopied streets lined by large Victorian homes with wrap-around porches and carriage houses behind.
It was summer then, it was always summer then, or so I remember it - the kind of summer with bright skies, slow moving clouds and all the time in the world. There was something comforting in the gentle curve of its roads, and the graceful reach of its trees, something about the way the river found its way down and around the town, always in motion, always changing, holding us in its soft embrace.
We were a village of young families with promising futures. Families delayed while the world went mad, then thriving on the other side of that great divide. All our fathers had fought in the Second World War...and survived. We, their children, were the proof, while the lives our families led were the reward. The lawns, the country clubs, the new cars and appliances, the cocktail parties all served to remind our parents that it was over and they were OK. They were ready to forget about what it was they had survived, forget about it and hope to hell their children never had to experience anything like it. But for us kids it was different. We were fascinated by war, all the more so because it belonged to our parents and was not meant for us. We saw the old uniforms hanging in the closets, and the photos piled in boxes put up on shelves. The Saturday matinees often featured movies like Battle Cry., and our favorite store was the Army/Navy Surplus. Once in a while an adult would let something slip and it would hang there heavy in the air, having silenced the conversation. Like the time my dad said, "The North Atlantic" when asked for his definition of hell.
But we were safe now, at least for a while, and lived in a beautiful village. The homes had yards like territories, and when four of these yards met at a common back corner, territories became continents, continents in which we children would lose ourselves until hunger or cold or darkness drove us home again. The town was self-contained, and our parents all knew each other. So our mothers turned us loose when we weren't in school, and we'd stream out our back doors, find each other, and head off into the uncharted lands of our youth.
We were never bored or at a loss for things to do. I suppose we were testing ourselves, developing identities and a hundred other things that now, as adults, we know children do. But back then it was simple - we played war. Day after day, for hours on end, we played war.
We'd divide up into sides, one against the other. We fought for territory, and we fought to kill the enemy, but mainly we fought to die. Dying was by far the most fun thing about playing war. You could be a sniper in a tree, get spotted and shot, and make a huge deal out of falling out of the tree and lying dead on the ground. Or, you could get blown up by a grenade, throwing yourself into the air, arms and legs akimbo, before piling up on the ground. Or, you could jump up from hiding and run hard and low, zigzagging across an open stretch of lawn, dodging bullets until one got you mid-stride and you'd crash and tumble and flop and expire.
We loved dying. We couldn't wait to die. But it seemed like we had to wait a lot because somebody else was always dying, and even one other kid dying when you did was enough to spoil the artistry of the moment. Realistic was the standard by which we judged each other's performances and the fact that there was a war on never silenced the critics. Someone would die and the rest of us would shout our appraisals from hiding places. There was 'not realistic', 'realistic', 'real realistic', and super realistic'.
We had helmets and guns (realistic but not real), and canteens and ammo belts and those little shovels with the spade end that folded back over the shaft to fit in your knapsack. We'd dig fox holes to hide in - simple pits not much bigger around than we were and about half as deep as we were tall. From there we moved on to trenches long enough to protect four or five guys from enemy fire. It wasn't long before we figured out how to turn trenches into tunnels by covering them with planks and back-filling the dug dirt over the planks. We'd dig and dig and then hide out in these tunnels with damp earthen walls. The dirt above would dry out and fall between the planks and down the necks of our shirts. We loved the smell of the earth and the way it felt on our hands and arms as it dried and contracted. Being buried and hidden away underground created a soothing sense of personal and collective safety. Like real soldiers everywhere, once dug in, we forgot about the war and would have been happy to stay buried forever. We brought down candles and soda pop and comic books and playing cards and dirty magazines and stayed for hours. It was better than dying.
And it was certainly better than going to church, or school, or your room, or to work, or any of the places the adults were likely to send you if you made the mistake of getting into range. In fact, each of us, in our own way and without really knowing it, harbored the hope that those tunnels might save us. That huddled together down there amid the dirt and darkness, we might just get passed over. That the world might go on without us and we'd be spared the worst death of all, the one with no entertainment value, the one that closes down your heart and suffocates your imagination.
No such luck. Our tunnels weren't up to the task. It wasn't long before we got caught up in the gears of maturation and were dragged kicking and screaming out of our hiding places and into adulthood.
Looking back now, I have to say I miss those days. That mix of imagination and immediacy made for a wondrous world. We were artists then, all of us, taking the truths our senses delivered and creating something new, compelling and unique every day.
It's been a long journey since, through some scary and barren places, with plenty of lessons I could have done without. My friends and I grew up and into our very own, very real war. I watched as some of them raced to embrace it the way they used to race out their back doors to play. Some never returned. Those that did may never make sense out of anything again. I became a father, then watched as a car accident shredded all the important plans a young family makes, throwing them into the air like so much confetti. I worked hard and made a name for myself only to watch the fruits of my efforts evaporate at the turn of a market.
But one thing worked out right, and having become an artist again after all these years, I use it daily. Throughout the trials of my adult life, the child within me never died, and because he survived, so did hope, so did faith, so did my willingness to begin again, to see the world through fresh eyes. God knows what tunnels he had to hide in, how long he had to stay buried, but somehow he made it. Now, when I get caught up in a rough patch and the world goes cold and grim, all it takes is the hickory shaft of a shovel in my hands, or the musty scent of damp earth, and that boy is back again.
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