Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Old Man BB Eyes

My sister and I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore in a modest split-level in a subdivision of working dads, stay-at-home moms and kids, lots of ‘em. We walked to school, rode our bikes everywhere and lived for the days when the telephone repairman would work on a pole nearby and leave us a rainbow of hundreds of plastic-coated wires to play with. Summers amounted to lots of wagon-float parades, where moms came out on front steps to cheer a one-minute event, which had been days in the making. On warm evenings the neighborhood kids would be bathed and in their jammies, wet hair combed to heads and smelling of baby powder. Our parents would let us run around outside before bedtime while dads talked about yardwork and moms fanned their faces and exchanged stories of pre-school and successful recipes. There were lightning bugs to be caught, playing cards to be clothes-pinned to bicycle spokes, and the bell of the Good Humor truck to bring us all to life on the most oppressive and humid of August days.

There was a group of kids (me, sister Beth, Alan, Cathy, Lee, Bryan, Karen) who all lived within two houses of each other. Adjacent to our houses there was an old cemetery. The portion of the cemetery that bordered us was a huge field with wild grasses as high as our necks. It was great for catching butterflies, which for a while there we did with a vengeance. In the summer we’d wear our bathing suits, wrap sarongs around our waists and carry large, wooden salad bowls on our heads and walk through the field playing “Africa.” We’d sing “My Own Home” from The Jungle Book. The boys would take sticks and beat at the grass pretending to “harvest.” Every hour or so someone would yell “lion!” which meant that the men had to save the women, taking them to safety in a line of trees, where the boys would scamper up the branches and be on the look out for the retreating danger. The game would last until we heard moms call for dinner.

The graveyard itself was old (est. 1882) and overgrown. A few of the plots had marble bowls or urns as decorations, and we girls would mash berries in them and pretend we were making food. The boys liked to hide behind the tombstones and carry out wars with neighboring, invisible tribes. An old, slight black man was caretaker of the property; he lived in a rickety house within eyesight of where we played, but far enough away that we felt brave enough to trespass. The grassy field and cold, white marble tombstones and statues were magic to us. Living in this world far outweighed any fear we had of being run off. To us we were on another continent . . . we were in Africa. We never did any damage when we played, although there were older kids in the neighborhood —hoodlums our parents called them — who vandalized.

We called the caretaker Old Man BB Eyes, because one day when he came out on his porch to shoo us off, my sister thought she saw him carrying a gun, and yelled “he has a gun.” To this day she swears she saw him wielding a shotgun. Somehow in the spinning of the legend, the shotgun became a BB gun and a nickname was born. That’s all it took to instill fear and fable into our cemetery days. One kid swore the old guy was both black and white (not sure how he came to that conclusion) and so he also became known as Two-Tone. Whatever his moniker, I look back now and think that that this dear old man was probably a grandfather, a widower, perhaps a war veteran, who was just living out his retirement years earning some extra money by looking out over this quiet, holy place that we called the best place in the world to play. And as only kids can do with their wild imaginations and need for drama, we turned him into a boogey man.

Those days were rich in imagination, and most of today’s kids don’t have a clue what a grassy field, a bowl and a stick can become. I sometimes feel like my generation was the last to know sweet, unadulterated play, without the electronics and media to muck things up. The lesson here: play dress-up with your kids, start a lemonade stand, gather up a bunch of pieces of furniture and throw sheets and blankets over everything to make a giant fort, get the neighborhood kids together on a warm summer evening, plop your own self down in a lawn chair with a flashlight and play flashlight freeze tag. Pretend you’re on another continent.

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