I Peaked Early: A Rural Memoir

I 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:

“Do you want Bob’s traps?” the store owner asked Three Feathers.

“Three Feathers no want Bob’s traps. Three Feathers want twelve Jock’s traps….”

Like I say, life has since been mere, dull, and pedestrian, without savor. You can’t go up from the top.

The county 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…again…no 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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.

“Saddy 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’ cut-outs, phone flow, ported and polished, bored out like buckets, Sun tach, udden udden udden sceeeeeeeeech.”

Decrypted, this meant that we had seen, or hadn’t 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.

King George shared the gun culture of the South. All the boys had shotguns and rifles. I’d 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. weren’t coming anyway. Guns were thought a natural part of life. No one cared. You walked around with them.

I remember 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 snap-shot 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.

Gun culture, 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 wasn’t how we were.

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 didn’t know what Prozac was, since it wasn’t 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 pick-up basket ball after school,plus phys ed, and spend most of your life in the water or on it, or on a bike, you don’t have time to be hyperactive.

They say global warming doesn’t exist, but it was sure colder then, and twenty high school kids would drive to Payne’s Hill or various ponds to sled and ice skate, no adults, life guards, surveillance cameras, nothing, just snow and ice and stars, and we’d 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 can’t say that we always had good judgement. 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 couldn’t 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.

Finally the creek, if such it was, debouched 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 didn’t 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 chugged…but even now I can’t bear the thought….

And now, somehow, we are sixty-five. How did that happen?

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