Eclectic, Alabama. Lake Martin. The sun rose over the distant tree line. The sky changed from pink sorbet to the same blue as my aunt’s ‘62 Eldorado, a car roughly the size of a Waffle House.
I heard a common loon. The birdsong bounced off the smooth water, and I was all smiles.
I haven’t heard a loon since I was a boy. It was such a lovely song that it was almost eerie. A lonesome sound. The sound of the lake. The sound of bygone memories. And most importantly, the sound of expensive lakefront real estate.
I’m getting closer to the age my father was when he died. And this feels weird because, in my heart, I’m still a puppy.
I’m not a boy, of course. Not even close. I don’t remember becoming middle-aged. But it happened. There are slight wisps of white in my beard. And when I wake up most mornings I feel like someone has beaten me with a length of rebar.
But deep inside, my childhood isn’t that far away. I can still remember wearing clothes with my nametag sewn into the collar. I still remember damming creeks and building forts.
Swinging from rope swings. Jumping from branches. Riding bikes down impossible hills and trying seriously to give myself a subdural hematoma.
I remember each dog who slept at my footboard. I remember how my mother made Spaghetti-Os on a stovetop, long before microwave ovens ruined the world.
I remember Swanson TV dinners in tin trays, cooked in range ovens. The mashed potatoes were always partially frozen, and the apple cobbler was boiling magma.
I remember playing in the woods until sundown, listening to loons on the creek. I remember smelling like dirt and sweat and stale Kool-Aid.
We lived outdoors as children. We stayed in the woods until everyone’s mothers emerged from tiny, distant houses and shouted out their nightly songs.
You’d hear Mrs. Fisk sing to her daughter “Margaret,” and stretch Margaret’s name into four or five syllables. “Maaahh-gahhh-rahhh-ett!”
You’d hear Adam’s mom call him home using a special tone that often sounded like Adam was about to fall victim to corporal punishment.
And whenever you heard your own mother’s voice, you ran toward it. No questions asked. It didn’t matter what you were doing. Didn’t matter where you were. You simply gave your friends a parting glance, then raced home.
My mother called me home every night except weekends, when she worked the midnight shift at the hospital.
On weekends it was my father who called me home for supper. And whenever it was him shouting my name, this meant two things. It meant that: (a) my father had cooked supper, which meant that (b) my supper would consist of beans and franks and sips of his Natural Light.
I can recall hearing his tenor voice in the faroff, calling my name. I would drop what I was doing. I would look at my friends, who were all knee deep in creek mud, and say, “Gotta go!”
And I remember my heart would be filled with a lot of joy. Because that’s the thing about childhood. Even if your childhood was less than optimal, even if your childhood stunk, children still feel more joy than adults.
Childhood is nothing but a continual buzz. A non-stop adventure novel.
I would run through those black woods until I neared our house. I’d see Daddy standing on the porch, shirtless. His silhouette in the bright doorway. A dishrag draped over his left shoulder. He’d be smiling at me. As though watching his little boy run home gave him pleasure.
I would sprint even faster once I locked eyes on him. I remember feeling happier than I have ever felt in my entire life. Just because. Everything was perfect. Boyhood was eternal.
And sometimes, here on this pristine lake, I wonder if that’s the way my father felt when God called him home.