Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The straight and narrow can be the best way home

I didn’t have to walk to school very often, but I did walk home quite a bit.

I never really minded the walk. It was short and gave me a few minutes of thinking time before I hit the front door. There is no telling how many plots and ideas and schemes resulted from that walk home.

I could have opted for a long walk, but being a fairly lazy kid, I wanted to find the shortest distance between Point A, being the school, and Point B, being the house.

The “shortcut” was a path that ran behind the back fence of the football field. It was a visible path, about a foot wide and worn down to the earth from years of little feet making their way to our homes on the east side of town – “the other side of the tracks.”

The railroad tracks ran just a few feet east, at about a 45-degree angle to the trail. The land between the path and the tracks was full of wheat stubble, from the edge of the path clean up to the railroad right-of-way.

The stubble we walked beside during the fall and spring indicated hard work we never saw during the summer when school was out. The farmer who tended the ground used up every last square inch of soil in that section to nurture his wheat crop planted there, and out of respect, we never stepped foot on his land.

Those of us who used the trail had the instinct to know that if we abused our privilege, we could find ourselves taking the long way home permanently. The path was less than a block long, but it saved us from walking around the entire section, which was a good four or five blocks, and that sometimes felt like a long way for little feet.

In my younger years, only a cable barrier separated the trail from the outer lane of the school’s cinder track, which encircled the football field at Chief Stadium. When we walked in groups, sometimes we would sit on the cable and talk awhile before heading our separate directions.

Later, the school erected a chain-link fence, and we loved to run our tiny fingers along the links while walking and talking along, our conversations amplified to be heard over the steady “chink-chink, chink-chink, chink-chink.”

On nice days, we would take our time, protecting each other from wasps during the fall and spring. Other times, we collected grasshoppers, chased butterflies, bravely knelt down over large red ant dens for closer inspection and picked up anything that looked new to the trail – or at least that we had not noticed on a previous trek.

My favorite part of the trail was the end. Even though the end meant that some of us would go our separate ways, it also meant we got to cross the wooden bridge that took us over the ditch and onto the Fifth Street pavement. Our house was exactly two blocks from that intersection.

How I loved to cross that bridge. It was no more than 10 feet long, but a new challenge arose almost every time we stepped foot on it. Sometimes we would have to step on every board. Sometimes we would have to skip across it. Sometimes we would have to leap across it in as few as jumps as possible.

It was sturdy and rugged when we were young. The boards were unpainted, however, and they lost strength over time. By the time we were in sixth grade, some boards had loosened, and we took a little more caution when we crossed. I noticed years and years ago that the bridge had been taken away and the path was grown over, lost to time but preserved through memory. I never knew who owned or built the bridge. That was the last thing that would have crossed my mind back then.

I doubt kids from the elementary school can even get across that lot anymore, and I’m certain none of the present-day students know anything about “the trail.”

Only a few of us can pass on its history because only a few of us actually used it.

The Russell boys, Cody and Ricky, sometimes took the shortcut if they had to walk to their aunt’s house after school. Their aunt was our neighbor, so I enjoyed when they had to stay with her. The east side of town was kind of lonely as far as kids went.

Sometimes, Patrick Ritter would walk with me. He didn’t really live on the east side, but he was a good friend, and it was about as close for him to take the shortcut as it was for him to head west around the other side of the football field.

Sharon Cushenbery was another walking partner on occasion. She lived in the opposite direction, but she would come over and play once in a while after school and then walk home when her mom got home from work. Sharon also got in trouble a lot for not telling her mother, Linda, she was going to my house to play. We didn’t care. Linda was pretty cool when it came to playing.

Two of my favorite walking buddies were Travis McNabb and Kory Hungerford. They walked with me almost every day, and we would play in our backyard for a while before they headed home. I was kind of a tomboy in those days. We liked to play tag and climb trees and joke and laugh about different things that happened during school. Of course, both of them had captured my heart in kindergarten, so I was glad to have each of their friendships through the years, and since they always were together, it worked out great for me. How splendid is innocence when we look back on it.

In the sixth grade, my friend Tracy Reavis moved just a block away from us. I couldn’t have been more excited. My mother, however, thought Tracy was a little wild, so mom kind of balked at us hanging out. Tracy didn’t generally walk anywhere. She was too high-strung. Either she walked at a pace akin to my jog or she rode her bike. She generally went on ahead to her house, and we would catch up to one another after our chores were finished.

I liked when friends came home with me after school because they always helped me with my chores, which were few, but still sometimes daunting to an 8-year-old.

One of my chores was to gather the chicken eggs. We had two chicken coops in the backyard, and every day after school, my job was to grab the fresh eggs.

I hated those chicken coops, not only because they were dirty and stinky but also because I was scared to death of those chickens! They were semi-tame and would sometimes peck at my ankles and toes as I made my way through each hen house. Almost every day, there would be at least one hen keeping watch over her one egg, waiting for me to stick my little hand in her nest so she could give it a quick and painful peck.

I learned to be quick. I also learned to grab gingerly with only two fingers to avoid any gray and sticky clumps Miss Hen may have left clinging to her spiritless offspring.

Sometimes, my friend Kentra Ginder and I would get prior permission from her mom so that she could walk home with me after school. Kentra loved to gather chicken eggs, and I loved that she loved doing it. I never even had to step foot in the coop when she came home with me. She wanted to gather those eggs all by herself.

As a courtesy, I usually went with her, but I let her reach her hand into that angry hen’s nest and risk a swift pecking. She figured out the quick-grab method in no time just as I had.

When we were finished, we sometimes would grab a couple handfuls of feed and scatter it on the ground. We would watch and giggle as those silly hens and our one rooster would gobble up the corn and bits of grain. Then we would take the eggs in the house and wash them and be on our merry way, doing who knows what, until it was time for her to go home.

I guess our friendships are kind of like that old trail – grown up but not forgotten. We’ve weathered lots of storms; we’ve been lavished and drowned in rains time and time again; we have been bathed in sunlight so that we bloomed, withered and repeated the process season after season.

We harbor wildflowers, bee stings, ant dens, wheat stubble, mud and sandburs, but we always can depend on sturdy old bridges to escort us to safety. Sometimes we’re left just a couple blocks from home. Sometimes we’re stranded miles from any familiarities, but we always know the trail is still there, beckoning to lead us home, calling us to follow, providing us all the direction we need.

"But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7: 14

Today’s readings:

Matthew 9:27-38
Acts 14
Psalm 22:12-31
Genesis 49

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