How We Were
by Fred Reed: Morale
to the Left, Morale to the Right, and Not a Stop to Think
peaked early. It happened in tenth-grade English in King George
High, in rural King George County, Virginia, in 1962. The teacher
had asked us to write the beginning of a short story, which she
would read aloud to the class for criticism. I wrote about an Indian
fur-trapper named Three Feathers in Quebec who at the local trading
post bought traps made by Bob Ferguson, an English Canadian. But
it seemed that competition had come in the form of a French-Canadian
named Jock Lerouu, which I thought sounded French, who made stronger
traps. Mrs. Souder duly read my effort to the assembled studentry:
want Bobs traps? the store owner asked Three Feathers.
Feathers no want Bobs traps. Three Feathers want twelve Jocks
Like I say,
life has since been mere, dull, and pedestrian, without savor. You
cant go up from the top.
was forested, abutting on the Potomac River, with muddy Machodoc
Creek, catfish rich in that part of Virginia, three-quarters
of a mile wide is a creek emptying into the river. At sixteen
we sailed along winding wooded roads at night in ailing jalopies
that remembered compression as an octogenarian remember the ardors
of youth. We had guns, fishing poles, deer and, blessedly, almost
no adult supervision. We parked endlessly in the deep woods with
the nicest girls on this or any other planet, and
supervision! Adults assumed we had sense enough not to kill ourselves.
Rather to our surprise, we did have it.
If we wanted
to paddle half a mile into the Potomac in a canoe and jump overboard
to swim, we did. Sunlight. Brown water. Sparkling waves slapping
against aluminum hull. Nobody knew where we were, or cared. No life
guard. No Coast-Guard approved floatation device. We
didnt need one. It would have taken a major federal program
to drown us.
We had less
sense that a blue-tail fly in a moonshine jar, but it didnt
seem to hurt us any. Steve Hunt and I once made a ramshackle raft
by putting four inner tubes under the corners of a sort of platform
knocked together from packing crates. Unfortunately one inner tube
had a robust leak. We set from bravely from the boat dock at Dahlgren
Naval Proving Ground on the Potomac, where we lived, Steve paddling,
me working the bicycle pump
The rural South
was car country. We thought cars, breathed cars, drove cars, or
at any rate drove wheel-born ruins resembling cars. They were necessary
in a county where anywhere you might want to be was miles from where
you were. A car was a heraldic emblem, codpiece, bar, salon, identify
and, far more in hope than in practice, love nest. Flashing past
each other in the night, we recognized each by the merest glimpse
of tail fin. And we talked cars, endlessly.
night, saw Bobby in that fitty-sedden Chev he got, ba-a-a-a-ad
mo-sheen, oh man, 283, log manifold, three-quarter Isky, magneto
ignition, solids, lake pipes an cutouts, phone flow, ported
and polished, bored out like buckets, Sun tach, udden udden udden
this meant that we had seen, or hadnt and were lying about,
a 1957 Chevrolet so hopped up as to go fast and noisily, briefly,
before throwing a con rod through the oil pan. Phone flow
is four-on-the-floor, a totemic form of gear shift, hopefully involving
a Hurst narrow-gate shifter. It was good juju.
shared the gun culture of the South. All the boys had shotguns and
rifles. Id estimate we could have overpowered the average
Central American army. The first day of deer season was a school
holiday since the teachers knew the boys and Becky B. werent
coming anyway. Guns were thought a natural part of life. No one
cared. You walked around with them.
a frigid winter night when my friend Rusty and I went to shoot rats
at the dump near Colonial Beach. He had his twelve gauge, I my prized
Marlin lever-action .22. We drove my 53 Chevy, a disintegrating
wreck in two-tone dirt brown, and ooched down the dirt road through
woods to the dump, lights off so as not to alarm the rats, Rusty
sitting on the right fender. Ice in frozen puddles crackled under
the tires. We could hear rats squealing and knocking tin cans down
the garbaged slopes. I switched on the lights, Rusty snapshot Blam!
Blam! And fell of the fender onto his head with the recoil.
Becky and Rusty
eventually married. It actually made sense, but they did it anyway.
yes, but nobody shot anyone, or thought about it. The boys were
hardy and muscled from chopping cord wood and lifting hay,
heaving bales into trucks collecting them in the field. They were
not delicates. You could get smacked in the mouth if you chose to
start a fight, but nobody would have kicked an opponent in the head
or picked up a length of rebar or ganged up. It wasnt how
We lacked many
of the appurtenances of modernity. Anorexia and bulimia, for example,
of which we had never heard. The girls were entirely sane and didnt
know what Prozac was, since it wasnt yet. The boys often did
have attention-deficit disorder we called it boredom,
and cured it by finding something interesting to do. Hyperactivity
disorder? When you play three hours of fast-break pickup basket
ball after school,plus phys ed, and spend most of your life in the
water or on it, or on a bike, you dont have time to be hyperactive.
They say global
warming doesnt exist, but it was sure colder then, and twenty
high school kids would drive to Paynes Hill or various ponds
to sled and ice skate, no adults, life guards, surveillance cameras,
nothing, just snow and ice and stars, and wed hoot and holler
and slide until most had gone home and you were alone in the night
with the ice creaking glooonk, and the wind coming up, and
it was a different world.
Now, I cant
say that we always had good judgment. One day Franklin Green and
I decided to explore Pepper Mill Creek, at the bottom of a sharp
valley on Route 206, in my canoe. When we got there, the creek turned
out to be more a rivulet. It was also so convoluted that the canoe
couldnt turn its corners, so we got out and lifted it around
turns. The underlying problem was a lack of water. Sometimes just
sitting in the canoe grounded it. Stubbornly we continued, stopping
often to sit in the canoe and drink Pepsis.
creek, if such it was, debauched into a wide plain of wet mud covered
in marsh grass. We found that we could stand in the canoe, stick
our paddles in the mud, and pole along. Once I did this and the
canoe shot out from under me, leaving me up the paddle without a
creek. It was a new concept in unwisdom.
The only drugs
we knew about came mostly from Anheuser Busch. We often got them
from a country store I shall not name, as it may still exist, but
would have sold beer to a nursing babe. We were not a particularly
drunken lot, usually. The first time I ever drank, some country
boys and I went to a road house where you could get adults to buy
you booze. I didnt like the taste of beer, so I got a bottle
of evil, sticky red wine such as you might use to seal a driveway.
Later the boys began chugging beers at one swig in pursuit of a
manhood barely visible on a remote horizon. Not to be outdone, I
but even now I cant bear the thought
And now, somehow,
we are sixty-five. How did that happen?
knew me in those days can contact me at [email protected].
Other mail to this address will be heartlessly ignored.
is author of Nekkid
in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A
Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest
book is Curmudgeing
Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit
© 2011 Fred Reed
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