Wednesday, September 11, 2013

From Section Two of My Memoir: NORRIS (Chapter Six)

When TVA sold the town to David Epstein’s Philadelphia-based syndicate, Norris residents, under the terms of the sale agreement, were entitled to maintain their leases for one year. Epstein had also assured the community that all residents would have the opportunity to purchase their homes. The syndicate kept their word. By the time we move to Norris a year later, nearly every home had been bought, financially placing the syndicate’s investment decisively in the black, even though it had a substantial amount of non-residential property yet to sell.

The remaining assets of the town were not sold until 1953, after the creation of a permanent municipal government and the formation of another citizen-owned company. The newly established Norris Corporation bought the town’s commercial district and 650 acres of undeveloped land for $200,000.

By then we had been living in our new home at 198 Oak Road for nearly five years. When we moved in, it was a small simple two-story, five-room, one-bath, cinder block house with a fireplace and a metal roof. Within those four years, my parents had the exterior façade bond stoned and added a Florida room on the east side of the house.

198 Oak Road in 1953

In our front yard, bordering our property line, my father (with limited help from me) built a series of stone-lined flowerbeds. Using Crab Orchard flagstone he also excavated and paved a sidewalk from our front door to and through two stone, four-foot high, rectangular gate columns that supported a wooden-arched trellis. In addition, he landscaped (again, with my limited help) a portion of the backyard with another series of flowerbeds, constructed a small concrete block tool and storage building, and built an outdoor dinning area with a stone fireplace, a cooking grill and table. At one end of the table he fashion a seat for me out of wire mesh and concrete in the shape of a saddle. My father and I gathered much of the stone used in the making of the fireplace and chimney from an old, abandoned homestead at the north end of the Norris watershed.

It was during that excursion that I learned a very important lesson. As my father stop to explain and demonstrate how to safely pick up each stone (making sure to only lift the far end of the stone while keeping the rock mass between you and whatever may be beneath it), the nose of a large copperhead struck the end of my father's left middle finger as he carefully raised the stone. I nearly jumped out of my skin.

There is no doubt, if one survives; experiential learning trumps abstract learning every time.

Our next-door neighbors were the Hammonds and the McBees; the Hammonds to the east and the McBees to the west. Both families had two boys and a girl, although Erin Sue Hammond was not born until I was 16 years old. Erin Sue’s brothers, Pat and Billy, were, respectively, two and four years my junior, as were Danny and Kenny McBee. Their sister Peggy McBee, I believe, was six years my junior.

The circle we lived on enclosed a communal play area used by all the kids in the neighborhood. In the middle was a clay basketball court with a hoop and backboard attached to an old hickory tree. We played just about every game imaginable within that circle – from kickball to kick-the-can, from mother-may-I to hide-and-go-seek.

Our house sat on more than an acre of land. The back of our property adjoined the southern section of the town’s surrounding greenbelt, which consisted of a dense hardwood forest with an undergrowth of flowering dogwoods and redbuds. A small portion of our property also ran along side a section of the only farm within the city limits of Norris.

Located within the forest, a quarter of a mile south of our house, near the Norris Freeway in a large open pit, was the town’s dump. It was a marvelous place to explore, offering a trove of discarded treasures. In fact, I still possess an old pewter pitcher that I discover there over 60 years ago.

Me as a cowboy in 1952. I was 7 years old.

I have fond memories as a young boy extensively exploring both the forest and the farm. I remember lying in wait, watching and observing the habits of an abundant wildlife population (including deer, fox, raccoons, rabbits, snakes, tadpoles, frogs, salamanders, turtles, hawks, and owls).  My observations of domesticated farm animals (mainly cows, horses and chickens) provided me the opportunity to witness a number of other distinct and extraordinary events, including conception, birth and death.

I once saw a cow jump the farm’s fence, which ran along the southwest corner of our property in order to graze with the deer on the lush green grass growing in our backyard. Granted, the fence was on a slope, which reduced the height of the barbed wire barrier a good foot on the farm side of the fence. Nevertheless, I would have never believed it possible if I had not witnessed it with my own eyes.

Norris was truly a paradise for a child like me who loved the out of doors, who took great pleasure in exploring the natural world. Even as a young boy I had a deep sense of being free and independent. I knew that as long as I did not dishonor my parents, or myself I had the run of the town, as well as the greenbelt surrounding it.

Besides, the town was so small I knew that if I did anything wrong my mother would know about it long before I got home. There were parental eyes everywhere. Perhaps that is the reason I enjoyed so much being alone and in the wild.

Though my mother never discourage me, I do not believe that she ever truly became comfortable with the various and sundry wild creatures I caught and brought home for her to see, especially all the snakes and spiders. Most of the creatures I captured I released immediately. Occasionally, I would confine a creature for a short period of time, no more than an hour or two.

For a long while I believed my capture and release strategy to be benign – that is until one hot summer day when I uncovered a mole in our backyard. As I was examining its velvet fur body with no noticeable eyes or ears and its short powerful forearms with large furless paws oriented for digging, my mother yelled out the back door and asked me to run an errand for her. I quickly put several handfuls of dirt in the bottom of a large discarded flour can that I had found at the Norris Dump and had converted into a temporary enclosure for my captured creatures.

Placing the mole in the can with some more dirt, I snapped on the lid which I had punctured with numerous air holes and placed the can beneath a tree in a cool shady spot. Unfortunately, when I returned an hour or so later, the sun had moved westward and the once shady spot was directly in the sun’s rays.

When I pulled off the can’s lid the temperature inside the container was unbearably hot. The poor innocent mole had been baked to death. It was the last time I ever captured and confined another innocent sentient being that was doing me no harm. I decided that my observations from that point on would have to rely on strategies and actions that were truly benign.

I soon learned that by choosing a suitable spot and sitting very still and quiet, patiently watching and waiting, all kinds of creatures who normally were extremely wary of humans (including deer, rabbits, squirrels, and birds) would venture close to observe me. There was no need for stealth stalking on my part. As long as I remained and appeared harmless, their fear was quelled by their curiosity.

There were many wild creatures that took no effort at all for me to observe. It was common to see deer, raccoon, fox, snakes and box turtles in our backyard, as well as hawks and owls perched on nearby limbs. The strangest creature I encounter in our backyard looked prehistoric, with three distinct rows of spikes and raised plates.

Early one morning while my father was working on a crossword puzzle at the kitchen table and I was preparing some cinnamon toast for breakfast, we heard what sounded like 'Mr. Mack' (Clyde Mack) collecting our garbage. But it was Saturday, not a garbage pick-up day.

When I opened the back door, I immediately saw one of our large metal garbage cans tipped over, chaotically rolling from side to side. Stuck halfway within the can was what we referred to as a 'sawback', a gigantic alligator snapping turtle. It must have been a least 24-inches wide and weighted over 100 pounds. I remember struggling to hold the can as my father pulled and tugged on the turtle’s long, thick tail.

Once we had achieved its release, it did not seem a bit appreciative of our efforts. Its enormous neck and head kept turning back and forth, snapping first at my father and then at me. Each time it opened its jaws to snap at us a strange worm-like appendage on the tip of its tongue was prominently displayed.

When it finally calmed down my father slowly and carefully grasped the turtle’s shell just behind its neck and in front of its tail. He then picked it up and carried it toward the greenbelt, releasing it at the forest’s edge.

But perhaps, the most significant and meaningful animal observation of my childhood occurred not with a wild animal, but with a group of domesticated farm animals. I was no more than 10 years old when I came upon a scene I will never forget. A lone cow appeared to be surrounded by a large number of other cows. As I ventured nearer, I saw a new born calf lying motionlessly on the ground. The calf had obviously been born dead. When I looked closer I saw tears rolling down the face of the one I believed to be the calf’s mother. She was actually crying.

For a long time I just stood there – amazed, watching and waiting for the mourners to disperse. But they continued to maintain their vigil, ignoring my presence. Eventually, I left the wake and continued with the day’s exploration. Several hours later as I was returning home I happen upon the scene again. None of them had moved. They were all still standing there, keeping watch over the stillborn calf.

Twenty years later I told a colleague of mine who had been raised on a farm the above story. She did not believe me. That is until she went home to visit her parents for a long weekend and observed with her own eyes a very similar scene. Her father who had raised and lived with cows for nearly his entire life assured her that he had witness the phenomenon a number of times.

The road we lived on (Oak Road) extends both north and south from Garden Road. The north end of Oak Road leads up a long step hill to where the old Community Building on Ridgeway Circle used to stand. A horrific fire of an undetermined origin destroyed it in 1978.

The south end of Oak Road curves up a gradual hill in a southeasterly direction and then north to a cul-de-sac on a wooded knoll. Our house was on a small circle just south of the dead end. By road, it was over a mile and a half to Norris’ town center and the school. As the crow flies, we lived farther away than all the other children in town. For that reason my sister and I soon learned every short-cut to take to school.

Heading in a northeasterly direction we walked up to the cul-de-sac at the end of Oak Road. From there we took a path down and through the woods to the corner of Garden and Orchard. Continuing in a northeasterly direction, we walked up and across the commons on Orchard Road through the Jernigan’s yard to another path that led to a service road behind the houses on the west side of Dale Road. Taking the service road we walked north to West Norris Road. Turning right we then followed West Norris Road down to the corner of Dale and hiked up and across a steep grassy hillside to and through a line of large white pines that bordered the west side of the school’s athletic field.

Every morning during the school year (rain, sleet or snow), from kindergarten through the 12th grade, I made that mile-long trek, often running the entire way.


mythopolis said...

This was such a great read, and I was caught up in numerous reflections about how life changes from one generation to the next, and the adventuring and explorations as children, and so on. And I loved the idea of that saddle seat your dad made!

Stickup Artist said...

I agree with Myth, a great read. I particularly enjoyed the idea that thoughtful observation of nature over long periods of time leads to a greater understanding of the world, the self, and the self in relationship to the world. Your childhood reflections put me in mind of how Buddhist monks often describe aspects of a retreat.