Having been a sensitive, empathetic boy, I was prone to all sorts of daydreams and flights of mind and spirit. At grade school and high school, I was clumsy, half-hearted in athletic pursuit, and didn’t have a great deal of rapport with the other kids in my neighborhood, who could be cruel and vindictive. When I was at home, I often entertained myself. I read books and whiled away whole afternoons and Saturdays daydreaming, staring at the mud puddles in the worn spot beneath the jungle-gym my father had erected in the front yard. Though I had three siblings younger than me, and we played together, my wants and desires wandered past the neighbors’ fences around our backyard.
Behind the grocery store in a strip mall down the street stood a rough patch of undeveloped land about a third of a mile square. Part of that land was crisscrossed with motocross trails, where kids on their Stingrays raced up and down the steep hill in the center and did tricks and jumps along the ravines either side of the hill. Through the paths up and down steep inclines were well worn, I never saw a motorcyclist or another kid. It was my realm I called “The Trails.” Since rode only hand-me-down bikes from one or more of my seven uncles, I could only dream of a Stingray, something I envied of the mean, bullyish boys in the neighborhood.
When I was 13, I built a fort behind the grocery store from wooden pallets and milk crates I’d foraged from around the store’s dumpster. It was not an elaborate place; six pallets formed the floor, the walls, and the roof, which I covered with plastic sheets, also from behind the store. Small and hard to get into, it was mine and I was proud of it. I had a milk crate for a table and another for a chair. While I could let my imagination run rampant in and around this edifice, I found, too, that it could be a lonely place. But I went there daily, mending and strengthening the pallet joints with nails and hammer I asked my dad for.
It was a good place to disappear after school for a while. One day, I went there and found it torn to pieces, the plastic ripped off in strips, the pallets laying hither and thither. Though I was saddened, I wasn’t quite angry. The fort was a solitary venture, and one that kept me anchored to one place in the wilds that was that rough patch of land.
After the destruction of my pallet palace, I ventured further and deeper into the unkempt forest and, down by another busy cross street, abandoned businesses and overgrown parking lots. Pushing farther into the woods, I would come upon Indian Creek, a murky brown stretch of water with the distinct smell of sewage and algae. After the destruction of my fort, I spent whole Saturdays exploring and running around that land. Sure, it smelled of the creek but it also had the odors of fallen leaves and walnut husks. But the towering, old shingle and post oaks, the dark interior of the woods, and the ways my voice echoed under the canopy gave me a feeling that whatever I encountered there would be my own experience and not that of my siblings or parents. It was a place I could call my own.
And I played there and later joined other boys who were friendly to me in building a treehouse from salvaged wood my dad had gotten somewhere and stacked against one the neighbor’s fences in the back yard. Frank and Scott and I chose a forked shingle oak, in the crotch of which we built a narrow, long treehouse from scraps and pieces and limbs from other trees and plywood we scavenged from the undeveloped land—which, over the years, had been a favorite dumping place for all sorts of building debris and leftovers. Under the tree fort, we pulled up the shell of an abandoned washing machine and used it as our fireplace. Since the woods had not been cut or cleared for decades, we had a nearly endless supply of firewood, as well a plenty of old, discarded boards for fuel.
While I was something of a loner as a kid, I did have a place to disappear to and a couple of friends who sometimes had time to goof off with me. I had a place to build fires and retreat and use my imagination. While Frank and Scott often had time on the weekends, they didn’t usually join me during the week after school when the nights weren’t so short or cold. I spent a lot of time in and around that treehouse and wandering around those woods, feeling for moments at a time, a kind of freedom I never experienced on the school yard or at home.
That sort of playland was also absent the racist and mean-spirited language and conversation that so bothered me as a young kid and in my beginning years at high school. Once in a while, a Black kid from the apartments east and south of my house would drop by. He seemed to be an older boy, sophisticated and worldly. Tall and skinny, his skin was the color of black velvet and he wore his hair in a medium-length afro. He often wore sports jerseys and shorts, even in the coldest of weather. He shared his cigarettes with me. He was friendly but noncommittal. He struck me to be out in the woods to do the same sorts of things I did—daydream and escape. I never really knew his name and didn’t get to know him more than a person crossing my path. He treated me civilly and with a kind of respect I didn’t get at home or school and only occasionally from Scott and Frank.
“You have a bike?” I asked him one day shortly after he appeared in the clearing around the treehouse.
“Yeah,” he said. “I got a Stingray. What’s yours?”
“Wow, a Stingray,” I said. “My bike’s an old one. It’s a regular bike.”
‘Why you asking?”
“Well, why don’t you bring your bike next time and we can ride the trails behind the grocery store.”
“No, thanks,” he said. “There’s too much a guy like me can get into in a place like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those motorcycle guys don’t take to Black folks well.”
“What do you mean? Why don’t they?”
“They just don’t take well to guys like me. I don’t need the trouble.”
I asked the boy one day to walk with me down the hill and through the woods to the creek.
“No way,” he said, dipping his head and shaking it. “I’m not going down there.”
“Why not? There’s nothing down there but more woods.”
“It’s dark in those woods and I don’t know what there. You tell me there’s nothing down there, but I can’t know that. What if we run into someone down there? I don’t know how they are going to treat me and a white boy like you can’t defend me. And, besides, you might just get in trouble for being with me. I don’t want to get involved in any of that.”
I was puzzled. What did he mean? In this, the conflicting thoughts on race and Black Americans came to the fore. I didn’t fear him as a Black kid. He seemed nice enough to me. I had found little to nothing to scare of threaten me in the woods. I couldn’t convince him that there were only raccoons and mice in those woods, that I had never seen another person deeper in the forest. It interested me that Frank and Scott rarely strayed far from the tree fort when we were there. I thought maybe they were all afraid of the same thing.
“What if we take some sticks with us, like these,” I said, lifting a piece of a branch from the pile of firewood I’d gathered for a fire I hoped the light later in the afternoon. “We could use these in case somebody started something.”
He laughed and drew on his cigarette. “Hey, kid, listen, we’re going to need more than that if we run into a couple of good-old-boys down there. There’s no way.”
Need something more? What exactly was he talking about?’
“Knives,” he said when he saw the question in my face. “Or guns. Them’s the only things that’re going to keep rednecks from doing something to us. You know how to handle a knife?”
I was still clueless. The afternoon sun beat down on our small clearing in the forest. The flies began to gather above us and I noticed suddenly it was quite hot and humid. On the one hand, I didn’t want to alienate my worldly friend. On the other, I was scared to say I could do something with a knife. Did he have one? Was he willing to use it on another human being?
“No,” I decided to answer. “I’ve only ever had a Boy Scout pocketknife. I’ve got it up in the treehouse. Do you want to show me how to use it?”
“No way, kid,” he said. “One of those piddly knives ain’t going to do shit. You need a real knife, one with a blade that’ll do damage. Let’s leave it for another day. I don’t feel like getting into it and I ain’t going down in those woods.”
“What school do you go to?” I asked.
“It’s none of your business,” he said. “I’m not being unfriendly. I just don’t want any trouble. Like I said, another day. I’ll see you later.”
He disappeared up the trail toward the apartments. I saw him only a couple of times after that. We smoked his cigarettes and maintained a superficial relationship based on small talk. After I didn’t see him anymore, he was as much a mystery then as when he first walked up to the tree fort several months before.