Vagabond Boy
A Memoir of a Youth's Journey Through a Heartland of Chaos
   
 
   
 
 
 

 

        Vagabond Boy 
 
 

 
 

Full Excerpt from the Book

Excerpt from Chapter 1:

We rolled through 1950s America swapping landscapes as frequently as some folks changed their underwear. Like other eager new families that poured onto those landscapes after World War II, my parents were restless in their search for fresh opportunities. They tracked clues to the American Dream that lay strewn across the fruited plain, rambling along dusty roads before interstate highways were built.

Many of our experiences on the road during those years have stayed in my memory. I have always wondered why some of them, even seemingly insignificant ones, had a way of persisting with me. When these scenes would play in my head as a young adult they usually did so as isolated unconnected vignettes. I never paid a great deal of attention then to the memories representing events that occurred before age ten. They were born in my distant past and waves of new experiences had washed over me for decades since then. Even so, now and then the old ones rose up through the murky depths and floated on the surface of awareness where they bobbed around, seemingly innocuous and curious, beckoning scrutiny before once again submerging.

As I grew older they floated less often to the surface and most of them eventually settled as suspended sediments do in quiet waters, and became buried by layers of fresh memory fragments, unremembered and unexamined. After decades of living, the feelings those memories once generated had largely vanished like a fleet of lost treasure galleons. For much of my life I viewed most such memories from my childhood as just ordinary features of my life, no more noteworthy than the topography of my face.

I long suspected, though, that some of those persistent memories might have had some influence on my attitudes, motivations, and the choices I made along the way. Yet it was not until middle age that the sense nagged at me about how those unburied, persistent memories might hold an emotional ocean of meaning about my life and who I became. It was then that I decided it was time to dredge some of them up and see what it was that caused them to persist and if there was anything of value to salvage.

When I began hauling them out of the water, so to speak, and into the mental laboratory of critical self-reflection for closer examination, I realized their impact was much greater than I had ever expected. I discovered that indeed there were treasure galleons that had long rested undisturbed within the dark depths of my memories. But there were also other things. Things that made me shiver when I was a young boy after I opened an adventure book with a picture of an old pirate map, and off in a far corner was the warning, “here there be monsters.”

 

Excerpt from Chapter 10:

Without warning Dick swerved the car onto the gravel of the road shoulder, yanked on the brake, leaned over the seat, and said in an angry tone, “Open the door and both of you get out of the car.”

Michael and I just looked at him and then at Bea, not sure what to do.

“Go on, get out!” he barked.

I pushed the door open, swung my legs around, and hopped out. Then Michael scooted over, rolled on his stomach, and tried to push himself out legs first. I grabbed him around the waist with both arms to ease the longer drop for him from the seat to the ground. Once there I pulled him beside me next to the car and we both waited silently.

“Shut the door,” Dick growled and I did. A moment later the engine revved, spinning tires crunched gravel, and tiny road cinders spewed against my legs as the car lurched back onto the road. The two of us watched it speed away as though it was pulling out of a gas station before the bill was paid.

Wide-open prairie country surrounded us and the empty two-lane highway where we stood. The road stretched far ahead of us before curving off to the right a half a mile away. Though I was [six years old and] a foot taller than my brother, I could not see what was beyond the curve where our parents had just disappeared with the family car. We remained as motionless as two prairie dogs raised in captivity when the cage door is opened and they find themselves outside the bars for the first time in their lives—confused and unsure what to do.

Another minute passed. I looked down and saw, among the roadside litter, the shredded remains of a Dixie cup poster next to my foot. It showed some kids with expressions of joyful anticipation about to be served juice-filled Dixie cups and cookies by a pair of slender feminine hands with polished nails. They belonged to their smiling mother, no doubt. It was a portrait of the perfect American family. I kicked hard at the wad of paper and then took my little brother’s hand as we started walking in the same direction as our vanished parents.

The sun was low on the horizon and I knew we had perhaps an hour before darkness. I started wondering where we would spend the night and who would get us supper. Then it occurred to me that with Dick and Bea gone it would be my role to take care of both of us from now on. But when I searched my mind on what to do next it was suddenly as empty as the landscape ahead of us.

Every few minutes vehicles whooshed past us but none of them stopped. I don’t know how any of their occupants failed to notice us with the waning sunlight flashing off our blond heads like distress beacons. The day was pleasantly warm but the inside of my head burned with a familiar, searing heat as the scene of the family car speeding away replayed in my mind. Neither of us spoke a word as we walked alone along an unfamiliar highway in an unknown land with darkness fast approaching, abandoned by our mother and father.

After a while Michael started to get tired. The sun was noticeably lower on the horizon by then and I walked with my other hand shielding the hard glare. I started thinking about where the road we were on might be going, and if we should go the other way. Maybe we should head to Chicago, but I would have to figure out where it was, I thought. The first thing I knew I had to do was find us a bush or old shack nearby to spend the night. I wasn’t very confident about suddenly surviving on our own, but at least thinking about what I might do unknowingly pushed aside fears concerning the hazardous position we confronted.

When they left us to fend for ourselves, Dick and Bea certainly did not consider that in leaving us behind, even for a short time, we might come to see ourselves as less valuable than the tarnished pots and pans, chipped plates, and dirty laundry that stayed in the car. As we stood among the roadside trash we watched everything familiar disappear around a bend in the highway, unsure if our parents and their more cherished belongings would ever return.

 

Excerpt from Chapter 13:

On a typical morning we would meet under the peach tree, disperse to scavenge objects to test on the rails, and then run over to the tracks next to my house, anxious to see what happened to yesterday’s experiments. Often there was nothing left and we speculated it was probably because the train smashed whatever was there to smithereens. Sometimes it would still be there but it would be so squashed and misshapen that it was nearly unrecognizable. We would marvel at the devastation to these tiny objects and envision what a speeding train might do to something bigger like a bicycle or a car tire, but neither of us had a bike or found a tire.

I liked to test the coins, especially pennies, because they would be flattened and enlarged to twice their size and Abe Lincoln’s head would become huge and weirdly misshapen. The tomato was interesting in that only a film of hard, dried skin remained fused to the steel rail. It stayed there for a week, baking in the sun until it completely disintegrated.

Tommy scrounged a whole watermelon once from his back porch and we couldn’t wait to see if the massive iron wheels would just slice it in half or vaporize it like the tomato. It was heavy but we dashed with it to the tracks and tried to set it on a rail but it kept rolling off. We used some rocks and sticks to brace it and inspected the setup to make sure it was secure. It looked like a green striped blimp ready to lift off and hover over our heads.

While we stood looking at it one of us got the idea that we should cut out a tiny plug and taste it before we went home. It would be a final farewell ceremony like Indians did in the movies when they thanked and praised the noble spirit of a buffalo they had killed. We figured the watermelon spirit might appreciate our kind intentions before we let a giant locomotive obliterate it.

I used my new pocketknife, a replacement for the one I left in the fort on the Washington frontier, to cut a little square through the rind and then pulled the plug out. Unfortunately the rind was thick and my blade was too small to remove much of the red edible part. We agreed that a slightly bigger cut was needed. Even that proved too small to get a real taste but after a few more stabs I was able to get my fist through the hole to scoop out a small handful of red pulp.

The flesh was firm, sweet, and delicious and we pronounced it worthy of the sacrifice it would undergo. Yet we had to be sure that its goodness was not just near the surface and that its heart was also pure. So we took turns clawing into the melon body as though grasping for the heart of an Aztec sacrificial victim. Through grunts and nods while stuffing our cheeks we confirmed that the deep central innards were also commendable. Even so we were unsure about the quality at the blunt ends, so we sliced arm-sized holes in those sites, too.

By the time we were completely convinced of the melon’s virtues we had eviscerated it. Red tissue and fluid soaked our clothes as though we had botched an autopsy. It was apparent to both of us that the subject had to be disqualified as a candidate for the tracks on the basis that it was now a complete mess. We had no choice but to finish our butchery and consume every succulent handful until the ground was littered with nothing but seeds and thick green chunks of its once protective hide. We had eaten it all down to the rind, and when it was entirely gone we were so bloated that we stretched out in the weeds near the tracks for an hour, groaning with a curious contentment.

 

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