[ North Carolina, USA | June 1976 ]
“Davey-Boy! Don’t dawdle now! Come along and Hurry-up!”
“Yes’ir! I’m coming Pa!” The boy screeched, as he raced and slid toward the giant Oak at full speed. He was of course, Richard Lee Petty, the best NASCAR driver of all time and he was rounding the last turn, of the last lap, at Charlotte Motor Speedway; ‘Come on Man, Let’s GO!’ he smiled between clenched-teeth, as the toes of his soft white canvas sneakers, dug into the North Carolina dirt. Dropping gears, he lowers his left shoulder and hunkers-down, a finely-tuned ‘NASCAR-Sponsored’ suspension as he hurls himself around the tree and sprints full on past the creek lined with a blur of ruby and pink magnolia in his peripheral.
“Davey! I swear, If you dirty those new white sneakers your Mother is gonna kill us Both! Could you just keep them clean for the weekend, at least until Sunday-School?! I swear, that’s all I ask Son - ” Daniel pleaded, wiping sweat from his forehead with a soft white handkerchief, eyes squinting and retreating from the afternoon sun. As his glasses fell into their natural lay upon the bridge of his broad and bulbous nose, his son was now coming into focus and plunging straight toward, him…
Uuugh! He tumbles to the ground, the boy on top of him wailing and laughing hysterically now!
“Hahahaha! Pa, you never even saw me comin’ without your spectacles on - hahahaha!” The youth wailed at the man's chest, desperately trying to catch his breath as he nimbly rolled away to land flat on his back and face the stark-blue Carolina sky.
Lying shoulder-to-shoulder now, they both attempted to shield their eyes from the waning sun, melting ever lower on the horizon; the boy’s fathom-deep, Steel-Blue eyes, squinted and blinked through young-thick black lashes, the man' (in contrast) could only remember a whisper of the vibrancy that was youth, as he raised a burley hair covered sun-bronzed forearm to shield his equally deep, yet greyish-blue eyes. They both lay there for a second, silent and unmoving, reveling in the the contrast that was the warmth and power of the Sun on their faces, and the cooling comfort of the grass bed that was the Mother at their backs.
Reaching over to pick up his now strewn spectacles, and lazily placing them upon his broad chest, he turns to face his son, still flushed and trying to catch his breath, almost indistinguishable now from the blushing Magnolia.
“So, how long you been here, anyway? Your Mom called the Station and told me to pick you up on my way home. Since she wasn’t sure where you were, and it’s been a while since I had a day off I figured I’d, oblige her and go find you,” he continued, shifting his gaze toward the youth, but not his head. “Seein’ as how I got the next two days off and all, ” he lowered his head (and voice) now and grinned.
“Really, Pa?! The whole weekend?! What we gone do? Oh I know, you wanna go Fishin’?! Me and Mark found a nice spot, down at the cross in the crick’! Fish are practically jumpin’ into the fryin’-pan, Pa! It’s like I said, and then there’s the County Fair this weekend, and they supposed to have way better rides than last year! Besides I was only 7 then, but I’m 10 now and well… I’m not afraid of the “Big-Ripper” like I was before…”
“Woah, woah! Hahaha, slow down Son. It’s only one weekend! How ‘bout we choose just ‘one’ of those things?”
He could see the disappointment begin to shutter the boy’s face. “I mean, well… I guess we could go fishin’ in the morning, and the Fair at night…”
“That’s Perfect!” the boy exclaimed – “But early, though! We gotta get ‘em soon as they wake-up fugh’ breakfast! Right, Pa?!”
“That’s right, Son!” He squinted at the sky, as it parallaxes and covers them both with a vibrant yet soothing turquois-blue. “You remembered.” He thought, proudly.
* * *
After tumbling and wrestling and flattening-out the warm dampened bluegrass, the ‘boys’ decided to head home as the sun began to settle into a hazy ‘navy-blue’ Horizon. “Blazes, Be! Now look at your shoes, boy! I told you not to get ‘em dirty like that! Now, what we gone’ do to make sure your Maw’ don’t see ‘em?! Well? Speak-up Son – what we gone’ do? You made this mess…” now trailing-off a bit, head slightly tilted in contemplation, then “…well ‘sir, I guess we are both responsible, as it were.” Turning the thought over in his head, and ever the Detective, the man racked his brain for any forensic thought that may be useful in cleaning the shoes, a little detergent and bleach, warm-water, a toothbrush...
“Aw, don’t worry none Pa’, she ain’t gonna see ‘em good no how, ‘cause Im’a run so fast in the house and up the stairs, well, she’d need Super-Vision to catch-up with me. One-Giant-Blur, I’ll be – Don’t worry, Pa! “ The naturally charismatic youth said with a blink and sly-grin. “You can count on me!” he yelled, now racing away through the glen and toward the opening where he could see a glimmer of pale blue that was the family wagon, shoulders hunkered, just as he had minutes earlier, while he gleefully sprinted around the ‘Giant-Oak’. Like he himself had done, years before, the man thought. As no doubt, countless others had done before them; his friends and cousins, girls and boys, fathers and sons, grandfathers and...”
“PA! Come on. Let’s Go!”, he could hear the boy plead, but his gaze remained locked on the Oak. He was staring directly at a small area about 4-1/2 feet from the bottom of the tree, where he could still faintly see a ghosting, of a long-ago etched declaration: “D (heart) S” – Daniel Loves Sharon – He fondly recalls. A smile tipping-up one corner of his mouth, while defensively blinking-away the twinkling of a cruel memory, sharp and stinging; It was a Mid-Summer’s Day in his youth and, while lazily leaning-back in the tall cool grass, he would disturb an innocent Honey-Bee, enchanted with a fallen dogwood blossom. The red-hot stinger would plunge into the fleshy mound below his thumb, at the crease of his palm and wrist. He remembered how he shook his wrist violently and tried to remove the stinger, shaking his head and closing his eyes, trying to flush the pain away. He found himself now, shaking his head harshly again, like his son’s ‘etch-a-sketch’, he tries to scatter the memories out of existence. God, he missed her so.
Davey had never known his first Mother, as she passed during his birth. But Caroline, would eventually Heal them both; Davey just didn’t realize that he needed it as much as he, himself. He never told anyone of course, but he needed it, desperately. It saved his life. She, saved his life. Smiling broadly now, and shaking his head in humble gratitude, he headed after the boy, and the ever-closing maroon of the retreating sun.
* * *
They were less than a mile from home and the drive would be quick, but the boy grilled-him with the intensity and fortitude of a grizzled and inquisitive investigator. It always made him proud to see the boy in his element as he listened intently to his afternoon tales; it seems after finding a ‘turtle-baby’ (he then proceeded to produce the critter, wet and slimy from the front pocket of his Carolina-creek stained blue jeans), ‘whatcha’ call a baby turtle again, Pa? I know it’s a tadpole if it can’t walk…’ the youth would interrupt himself jaggedly , and then continue his travails. He described how he was determined to NOT let this little fella’ pass-away like Mr. Nibbles did two-Summer’s ago. So as he began to hunt-down some food for it, digging around in the brush an offering bits of it to the creature to see what he liked, and such, he saw what he thought was for-sure a Big-ol’ brown-bear! ‘Well, sir’ – the boy would go on to feverously exhalt ‘I grabbed Ricky, Lucille ’ that’s what he’d named the turtle, after Richard Petty of course, and his beloved ‘Daisy, Pump-Action BB Rifle’, respectively, ‘and we hopped on my bike and haul-tailed outta’ there! I had Lucille wit’ me and all, but I knew it wouldn’t make that bear no never-mind! That’s when we headed back to the big-Oak, and that’s when you came, Pa! So how’d you find me anyway, Pa? How’d you know where to look?!’
“All boys your age either start or end at the ‘Oak’, Son. Usually both, it’s only natural.” He concluded, as they pulled up to the front of their home and began to dismount the Station-Wagon. “Now come-on, grab your hat and I’ll help you get your bike from the back. And Davey, don’t go messin’ round with that turtle yet, and I mean it, not until we can properly…”
“Okay PA, Got it!” and with that the youth leapt from the running-board of the car and bound head-long with a blur toward the front of the house, through the open screen door and hastily past his mother’s glazed expression, the corners of her thin cotton Summer dress and starched white and pink-framed apron wafting gently in his wake. “David Michael McCarthy! How DARE you run into this house without a proper greeting – and take off those SHOES! Are those your new shoes?! Are they dirty?! I swear, they better NOT be Dirty! Davey?! You hear me?!”
“Sorry Ma! Gotta make a Pit-Stop!” he would exclaim, as he plunged through the warm breath of his own words and leapt up the wooden stairs two at a time. Racing into the second-story bathroom now, he quickly closed and locked the door behind him. Bounding the 2 – ½ feet (three-steps at most) from the door to the cool porcelain tub, he turned both hot and cold water knobs simultaneously counter-clockwise, before kicking-off his soiled sneakers, and turning to the bisque-colored pedestal sink in determination; ‘The ‘Pit-Stop’ Scam’ he would beam into the small mirror above the sink, as it began to moisten and fog around its lower edges from the already hot and now steamy gushing water. He would use the ruse to cover his effort to clean the shoes, which he had now already vigorously began to do.
Caroline had been running behind the boy and following him up the stairs the whole time, but now stopped short of turning the knob when she heard the bath water begin to run. “Yes’m!’ the boy would return impatiently, from behind the closed door and a dampening din of rushing water. “Okay, well – when you finish your bath you can come downstairs for dinner. It’s you and your Pa’s favorite; Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, boiled potatoes with butter and parsley, Turnips, Collards and fresh biscuits! With honey and apple-butter too, and Peach Cobbler for dessert! So, don’t dawdle, you hear me?” She smiled knowingly at the door. “Yes’m! I sure do and I can’t wait!” the boy would retort. “Hmph” she exhaled, one hand on her ample hip, bosom still heaving from the jaunt up the stairs a few short seconds ago. And while forgetting that she was doing dishes and her hands were wet when she heard the two pull-up, she now patted them dry on her apron, as she turned to follow the pristine, yet narrow hallway toward the stairs and down to greet her husband. The final batch of chicken had been set aside to cool and crisp, and she could smell that the biscuits were almost done.
* * *
They were finally here! He dove from the open door and onto the smooth black asphalt. They had paid ‘a whole dollar and a half!’ to park the car, his father would complain, yet they were so far away that he could barely see the glowing archway at the entrance that welcomed them (and their money) to the “North Carolina Lincoln County Fairgrounds Extravaganza!” He would never forget the sights, sounds and especially the smells of it ALL! Oh the gloriously-rich and headily-wafting clouds of smell! They would permeate every aspect of his thoughts that evening, well into his adult-hood and deep into his final September. Luscious thoughts of bright pink Cotton Candy and deep-purple Sodas, of ‘molten-hot’ industrial-orange ‘cheese’ covered tortilla chips and salsa, of ‘too-long’ foot-longs, puked into the midnight-green liquid depths, of pissy, summer-blue ‘Port-a-Pottie’s’!
But, if the past was a true harbinger of the present, that would come later, for now (the boy wistfully pondered), he was headed for his #1 Nemesis; “The Big-Ripper II”, the biggest, baddest wooden-roller-coaster (later to be deemed ‘traditional’ but, it had to start somewhere, and this was it) on the Eastern-Seaboard! Read the neon-white and red proclamation above the ticket-stand.
“Okay, Davey. You go on alone, now. With the corn-dog and cream soda floatin’ around in my gut, I’m not sure if I can, well, stomach the ride.”
“Awww, come-on Paw…” the boy’s face began to melt into a shallow (and superficial) melancholy.
“But take this,” he said, grabbing-hold of the boys hand and placing a cool, smooth rounded object of respectful-heft into his youth-sticky palm. “And be careful with it, you hear?” he continued, still holding the boys hand. It was a gold pocket-watch and his father had given it to him, so that he could pass it along to his son. And in this most open and public of places, they shared a most personal and private moment. Caroline grasped her right arm with her left hand, just above the elbow, as she watched the scene unfold, hugging herself unconsciously.
The boys eyes widened and reflected the intrusive neon-glow that, temporarily, sliced through the thick Carolina summer night. The precious object he now held, exposed its secrets through osmosis; warn smooth and polished by handling and being thrust in-and-out of cotton pockets, he assumed. It was aloofly-cool, yet inviting and comfortable, feeling safe and ‘at-home’ in the boys hand already. The din of the Carnival-music, hushed by reverence now, as his Father spoke; “It’s 6:10pm, so I want you to meet me in… 1 hour, oh let’s say, 7:15. Okay?”
Thrusting the watch into his pocket he would race away toward the “Big-Ripper”, looking over his shoulder as he retreated and blended into the crowd of happy Fair go-ers. Once in line for the attraction, he would watch his father stand where they departed, solemn and unmoving, within a hazy-white Corona of ‘neon-glow’, eternally watching over him.
* * *
“Okay Son, I understand it’s hard, but you gotta stop cryin’ and help us, so we can help you find your folks. We can’t do that if you don’t calm down, you understand don’t you? I know it’s hard, but just try to remember where you saw them last that’s all, we’ll help you find ‘em.” Coughing and explaining between swallowed and current sobs, the boy recounted how he had gone on the “Ripper” and then used his allowance to buy some Cotton-Candy and a “Too-Sour-Pickle” from 'just over yonder', pointing with a trembling finger toward a puke-green neon pickle sign that lay just east of the Giant-Coaster, and toward the largest of the three Ferris-Wheels, pretentious and gaudy icons of the yearly event. The boy was shaking violently now, and the Security-Guard/Off-Duty, Charlotte-Metro (Rookie) Police Officer was truly concerned for his safety – Is he having a convulsion, or a stroke? NO stupid! That’s for Old-Folks! Should I check his pulse? He dug deeply into gray memories, of solitary late-night study sessions during his Academy-Trials, fresh in his mind and fondly remembered, like a warm and comforting Holiday gathering. He had excelled in Academics at the Academy, but was woefully unprepared (then and now) for what confronted him. Never, ‘warm’, or empathetic, he stumbled behind the boy’s recounting of the events, tripping over his emotional disadvantage as he tried to determine a solution.
“So he gave you that watch and you got in-line for the ‘Tripper’? What time was that? Do you remember?
“Two, almost three hours ago I think?” the boy choked, head hung low, dripping hot tears onto his lap and quivering thighs. “He promised he’d never leave. I saw his halo! – It was like an Angel. Like we learnt in Sunday-School,” he lamented. “…like Gabriel, or Michael. I saw him - Glow! He WAS there!”
* * *
“His father was... he was a Police Officer, and he was killed when Davey was 7. It was 3 years ago, at the County-Fair", she sniffed into her handkerchief, "Some thugs tried to rob one of the larger food-stands, and he, well he didn't want to leave David, but I told him that he oughta go, he had to go, it was his duty and... " she sobbed, deeply now. "Well, Davey just wanted to know why his Pa wasn't waitin' for him like he said he would. It really, hurt him you know? It hurts me something awful too, to think that I, that I was the one to... I couldn't tell him. I just didn't have it in me. He pretends not to remember, Davey does, and I… choose to forget, and together we get-by.”
Caroline explained to the Court-appointed Social-Worker. Head hung low, hot tears falling into her lap. “He really took it hard, when his Dad passed. I never in my life seen a small child so,“ she paused, "dismissive of the truth. So, sadly dismissive, as if it never happened. I guess it helped me as well. It helps me still. As I suppose it does Davey.”
Solemn and Staunch now, she raises her head and declares through stiff and determined jaw; “I’ll take care of him now though. We are all, we have.”