Where Have You Gone, Peter Pan?
“When I was child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason
as a child; when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.”
1 Corinthians: 11-13
I shave in the shower now. There’s no mirror in there. I don’t even want to see who I’ve become. Too many wrinkles, too many lines, not enough hair, no color. Sometimes, by sheer accident and the laws of probability and statistics, I’ll catch a glimpse of the old man in the mirror above the bathroom sink. I’m not even sure who he is.
What happened? I can still recall those days from long ago, if not year by year, at least by the stages of life and their memorable moments. Why am I not still a part of it all? I remember it all so well. I can revisit the places, if even just in pictures, but the unbeatable foe, Father Time, has taken it all away from me, never to return. How can I not be apart of what I remember so well?
I’m bedeviled with a good memory. I can never stop recalling a time that was better than now. I learned long ago not to gauge my plight in life with how others are doing, but it is hard not to make comparisons within the confines of my own life, that is, what it is today with what it once was. That was long ago, but I remember.
“A Christmas Story” could have been filmed in my childhood neighborhood, huge elms lining the street, well kept modest homes tucked close together, a narrow alley behind garages and fences, friendly neighbors with lots of kids. I could give you the names of everyone who lived on our block back then, but I couldn’t tell you who lives three doors down from me today, and I’ve been here twenty-seven years. It was a different time.
I was Linus with his security blanket. Hopefully all kids feel that way. I feel terrible for those who don’t. The warmth and comfort of my home, my parents. The stuff that life piles on later- stress, worry, anxiety, guilt, regret- I not only didn’t feel such things, I didn’t even know what they were.
Wrapped in love and cared for. I could be naughty, but I could do no wrong. I ate, slept, and played. Sometimes I practiced my numbers, letters and words, or tried to stay inside the lines in a coloring book, but that was about it for “work”. I got tucked in bed at night for Christ’s sake, rested my head on my pillow, and listened to wonderful, happy ending stories my Mom read to me.
My Mom made the biggest cake in the world for my 6th birthday. The thing was in the shape of a clown. I still have no idea how she did it. I got Lincoln Logs for my birthday that year. I could never get the doorways right, but I was proud of everything I built. I remember.
I thought our basement was kid heaven. We somehow managed to squeeze a Lionel train set into the damp furnace room with a smaller American Flyer running inside the outer track. I’d be in there for hours, unloading barrels and moving cattle in and out of box cars. I’d run out of those little pellets that made the American Flyer engine spew out smoke faster than my Dad could buy them.
We had an old pool table down there. My brother and I played a perverted game of handball hockey, trying to slap the ball into a corner pocket. I put the cueball through an aquarium once. The darn thing made a perfectly round hole in the glass, and the water and fish poured out onto the floor. My brother raced upstairs to tell on me, but even my Dad was impressed with the precision entry made by the errant projectile.
My Dad put a basketball hoop up on our garage. You couldn’t put too much arc on your shot or the ball would bounce around in the telephone and electric wires above the basket. I can still picture my friends running for their lives when the wires were wildly flopping around above their heads.
I was Bob Cousy of the Celtics. I knew I would someday play in the NBA, and I could only hope it would be with Celtics. When you’re a kid, you can be anyone you want to be, do whatever you want to do, but not so much when you…I shudder to say it, grow up. I practiced rain, shine or snow. I’d be out there chopping ice and shoveling snow to clear the court so I could shoot baskets. I would take shots from five different spots on my undersized court, and I wouldn’t quit until I hit the five shots in a row. Some days that took awhile, but I loved every minute of it.
Wiffle ball in my backyard. The strike zone marked with chalk of the side of the house. Past the pitcher, a single; over the fence into the alley, a double; on the roof of Cooper’s garage, a triple; over the garage, a homer. Into Christiansen’s yard, the meanest guy on the block, go get a new ball.
The alley was a multipurpose facility. Touch football by day on a playing field marked by two telephone poles. Poor Johnny Cramer once caught a pass, crashed into the north goal pole and fell flat on his back along the goal line. An argument of epic proportions followed while Johnny was directed not to move until a determination could be made as to whether he had scored. I could take you there right now and draw a crime chalk outline of where poor Johnny’s body lay that day. I remember.
At night, the alley was transformed into the hunting ground for the Ghost. Kids hid behind cars, fences and garbage cans while the Ghost, eyes shut tight, leaned on the Johnny Cramer memorial telephone pole and counted to one hundred faster than was humanly possible before embarking on a spine-chilling search for victims.
Sometimes we would just hang out in the alley, trade or flip baseball cards, or just talk stupid. No worries, no troubles, carefree. When the street lights went on, we’d all head home.
In the summer, I could walk five blocks in two different directions to find a place to play baseball. There would almost always be a pickup game going on. I was a decent fielder, but I sucked at batting. I considered it a successful at bat if I didn’t get hit by a pitch, but I loved every minute of it.
My Dad would drop me off at the County Park on a summer morning. I would fish all day, landing a few undersized bluegills and maybe a couple of carp. The ultimate prize would have been a turtle. I never caught one, but God knows I tried. Today, my Dad would probably be arrested for leaving me there. It was a different time.
Ice skating was a big deal in my hometown. I’d call the weather information number every winter night hoping we had sub-freezing temperatures. Weather permitting, I’d see my friends there every night. Sixth grade, I met my first “girlfriend” at the rink. We held hands, actually gloves, as we skated under the lights to the screechy tunes blaring out of the loudspeaker hung on a light pole. I remember her, the old wooden benches in the warming house, and skating into a snowbank to stop. I remember it all.
Snowmen, snow forts, epic snowball fights that were waged all across the neighborhood. In the alley, front yards, backyards, even porches. There were no safe havens. The battles would go on forever, or at least until I could no longer feel my fingers.
I liked high school, friends, girlfriends, sports, parties and proms, but that’s when it started to slip away. The pressure to get good grades, make a team, and of course the fear of rejection by the girls who had captured my heart. College cranked all those same pressures up several notches.
And then the real world. Work eight hours a week, fifty weeks a year, mortgage payments, credit cards, car repairs, house repairs, the pressure to move up the ladder at work, get a bigger house and a nicer car, get that yard looking like a page out of Home and Garden magazine. Hop on that treadmill and keep moving, keep moving, keep moving.
A person doesn’t “grow old”. One day you realize you are old. The first step for me was when the young bank teller called me “sir”. I remember the moment. That was many years ago, but I could pick her out of a lineup today. Somewhere along the way, I had become a “sir”.
Step two was the bag boy at the grocery store asking me if I needed help carrying my groceries. When did I start looking like a guy who needed help carrying a grocery bag? If you haven’t been there, trust me, it’s a troubling moment.
There are too many step three’s to enumerate, but I’ll give you a taste. The twenty pound bag of dog food became two ten pound bags. The small hill next to my house somehow got steeper. I injured my shoulder playing football forty-seven years ago. It hurts more today than it did then. The little numbers on the inside of my “cheaters” keeps going up. Tying my shoes became more challenging. Doctors appointments and meds until my head spins. I think you get it.
But as the physical declines, the memory stays intact. I remember.
Play. Where did play go? I want to go outside and play. Maybe I could get the widow Jensen to step outside, and I could recruit some other senior citizens to play ring around her walker. Or I could put a sign up at the entrance to the grocery store and get a team of old guys to meet at the park to roll a basketball around. Then we’d walk over to the big slide and hold a competition- “Who Can Reach the Highest Step Without Falling Off?” No, I’ll have to settle for memories.
Sometimes I’ll take long, lonely walks through the park. I don’t understand the empty basketball court, the silent tennis courts, and birds hunting for worms between the weeds on the baseball field. I haven’t seen a red and white bobber bouncing around in the lagoon for years. On a winter walk through the neighborhood, I will see snow covered lawns, but no snow forts. There are no signs of snow splattered against cars, fences, houses or any other evidence that a great battle was once fought there. I feel bad about that, but then again, maybe these kids will never miss what they never had.
How do I differ from my younger self? I’m old, and I know what comes after that. Thanks for asking.
“Rosebud”. I understood what it meant when Charles Foster Kane uttered it with his last breath. But now I know it, now I feel it. We all will.