KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—It’s sunny weather. The college town is filled with frat boys and sorority pledges who buzz around the city like fire ants on a fallen Snickers bar.
The happy city that feels like Disney World for 20-year-olds this morning. There are a lot of people wearing Tennessee Orange.
Today I am meeting with my friend’s son, Peter. Peter is a 19-year-old student, and he is going to take me to visit The Mound. At first, I didn’t know what mounds were. But now I do.
The North American mounds are prehistoric hills that were formed by early-early-early Native American tribes. As it happens, there are mounds all over the Knoxville region. Some estimates suggest that there were once over 200 mounds in this area. Today, about a dozen are left.
I’ve known Peter since he was a baby, he’s always been into history-type stuff. It used to be dinosaurs. Today, it’s mounds.
Peter is a brilliant young man who looks like a college kid on the outside, but has a nuclear-physicist’s brain. He is on the autism spectrum, and it was not always easy for him growing up.
This is why when he decided to leave home for college his parents were worried sick about him being on his own with friends. But Peter was determined to do it. So they let him go.
Peter’s dad told me, “It’s hard having your son leave. He’s my best friend. Hardest thing I ever did was driving away from the school, seeing my baby in the rear mirror, waving goodbye. Ripped my heart out.”
But getting back to the mounds, Peter tells me all about them.
“The mounds are really cool,” Peter says, “Knoxville was originally built by the Mound People. They lived here back in 3500 BCE.”
Peter talks like a professional tour guide, and he keeps looking to me for appropriate responses to his speech.
“Wow,” I say.
Peter leads me to our first exhibit of the day. It is located on the university campus so we navigate through the busy byways of Knoxville on foot, trying not to become traffic skidmarks.
On our walk, I notice about 90 percent of the college kids walking the streets are looking down at phones. Everyone wears a surgical mask.
I can’t help but notice how different this modern world looks.
Pete is a wealth of knowledge. He tells me that the North American Mound People were pre-Cherokee, pre-Shawnee, pre-pre-everything. These mounds predate the Spanish explorers, the colonists, and according to new groundbreaking studies, they even predate the iPhone.
The more I learn about the historic mounds, the more my energy starts to fade. I am really feeling like an old man in a city of gum-chewing teeny boppers today. There are so many hormones floating in the air you have to hold your breath to keep from coughing.
Peter’s friend Thomas joins us for the walking tour. The two boys have a long conversation about girls, Star Wars, and girls. And the old fuddy duddy accompanying them ceases to exist.
But I don’t mind. Because watching Peter have fun with someone his own age is a treat. His father would be so proud.
Yesterday, his dad said they’ve been working on eye contact since before Peter left for school. They have been practicing for months.
“Peter has a hard time making eye contact,” says his dad. “We’ve been working on it, because it was his idea.”
And it paid off. Peter makes a lot more eye contact than he used to.
After our long walk, we finally arrive at our destination. The mound sits upon the University of Tennessee campus, near the corner of Joe Johnson and Chapman Drive. This dirt is officially the oldest thing in Knoxville. It is a feature on the agricultural campus, part of the beautiful university gardens.
Peter shows me the mound with a big “Tada!”
I act very impressed. But to tell you the truth, I don’t get it. This is a hill.
“No it’s not,” Pete insists. “This is a burial mound, built in 600 AD. Look at it.”
“I’m looking,” I say.
“Don’t you think it’s cool?”
“Are you REALLY looking?”
Actually, I’m looking at a great young man. I’m remembering when he was born. You’ve never seen happier parents. And you’ve never seen a mother work so hard to make sure her son was treated fairly in a judgmental world.
Society isn’t always kind to those who don’t fit their molds.
But Peter’s family never let this hold him back. And their hard work is paying dividends. Before me stands a handsome young student with an active social life, a glistening future, and all the prehistoric mound dirt a guy could want.
Peter is having the time of his life at college.
After our tour, we walk back to my hotel. I’ve got a long road trip ahead of me today, and I need to get on the highway.
I bid him goodbye. And before we part ways Peter shakes my hand firmly. He’s never shaken my hand. Not for as long as I’ve known him.
He says, “I enjoyed seeing you today.”
And my heart hurts. Because I can’t believe how fast kids grow up, or how quickly boys turn into men. Or how beautiful another human can be. It seems like only ten minutes ago I was his age, filling the atmosphere with smelly hormones.
He releases my hand and says, “Maybe you could write about the mounds in one of your stories sometime. You know. For me?”
Consider it done, Peter.