14 April 2009

My Summer Friends (1 of 2)

I was very good at entertaining myself when I was a boy, and I can't remember ever feeling lonely. I had a very active imagination and I could stare at maps for hours and read encyclopedias for days. I would take what I read and apply it in our gravel driveway and front drainage ditch, building watercourses, rivers and lakes when it would rain and brushing gravel around with my hands when it was dry to make streets, roads and nations. I'd name them the St. Lawrence River, the Rhine, the Liffey, the Danube, or Alsace-Lorraine, the Holy Roman Empire, Ulster; I'd recreate the momentous events that I'd read about, armadas and wars from history, though with the Catholic Irish, French, Austrian or Spanish always winning over the apostate Protestant powers of England and Germany. Thank god I grew up in a small town like Fowler, Indiana, where eccentricities like this were indulged and broadly taken as a sign of intelligence.

I hadn't always had to entertain myself, though.

There were no boys my age in our house as there was a seven year gap between me and the next eldest brother, and while I liked playing cards and others games with my sisters they were older than me, too, by four and five years, which is literally a lifetime when you're four.

The only neighbors we had, the family across the road, were in the words of my grandmother "not real neighborly." That was fair enough, as far as it went - there was some issue of our dog Ginger getting shot at with rock salt by one of their boys, which sounds improbable now as I write it but that was said and believed at the time, and there were some other, unnamed sources of bad blood between respective older brothers. (The youngest boy, Kelly, was a lifeguard at the Fowler pool and always very nice to me, it being easier to be nice when we weren't around our families, I suspect - but that's a different story. Kelly was four years older than me, in any event, and a McCoy to our Hatfields for all practical purposes.) Their youngest daughter was developmentally disabled, and so for a combination of reasons our playtime together was pretty limited. Our mothers got along (to the chagrin of both fathers), and there were times when Stephanie and I would play while our moms talked, but it wasn't often and it wasn't long.

In my youngest memories - from three and four til when I was in grade school - my ma was a county health nurse in Benton County. Among other things, it was her duty to make sure that the migrant farm workers who came up from Mexico to work in the fields and at the Joan of Arc canning factory in town were taken care of. It was a duty she took seriously, and likely would have dispatched if it weren't part of her job as she was personally invested in their physical and spritual well-being. This was not a popular job; even today Benton County is 98% Anglo, and in the early 70's the Mexicans just stood out. Some kids at my kindergarten were "not real neighborly," saying that the Mexicans smelled funny and that they were dirty. This struck me as odd, even then, because I'd never seen any of my school friends around any of the Mexicans so how could they make such assessments? Some people in town some were outright hostile, some were ambivalent and some were good and decent - but even in this last group there weren't many who pursued fraternization. My ma did, and I loved it. I'd look forward to the Migrants' arrival because it meant that my summer friends were back.

They would arrive in late spring and immediately move into what was called "The Migrant Camp" next to the Joan of Arc canning factory. I can remember very clearly visiting the Migrants in their "camp" - cinder block heat sinks with one bare bulb hanging from the cieling. Some were every bit homes and were occupied by families and well-settled with furniture and touches of domesticity: curtains, tablecloths and pictures of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Other houses in the Migrant Camp were simply four bare walls, a dirt floor and a bed, some without doors and windows, and usually occupied only by men. Even at that young age I sensed poverty - here were people with less than us, and we had less than anybody else I knew. But I also remember guitar music and singing at night, and a sense of community, and always feeling very safe. In fact at that age I wouldn't have known how to express that, having never been afraid anywhere I'd ever been, but I certainly was never afraid at the Migrant Camp.

I was always welcome in their homes when I'd show up, alone on foot or on my bike, and I'd be fussed over in Spanish by women with jet black hair, and offered aromatic food and something to drink, just as their kids were welcomed and fussed over and fed in our home. We had always been taught that if someone offered you food or drink you declined the first two times in case they were being polite and couldn't afford to share what they had, and to accept only if something was offered a third time. Whether because of that or other reasons I don't remember too many meals with my summer friends (or any of my friends, for that matter, through grade school), but we were in and out of each others' homes and in the way of kids we didn't think a thing of it. It was natural for me: we had a statue of the Virgin Mary up on our filing cabinet, so that felt very similar, and if their kitchens and their clothes smelled different than ours it was nothing to be remarked upon because Gramma's kitchen and clothes smelled different than ours, too. As the summer wore on I no longer noticed the scents, any more than I noticed from one night to the next if ma was making fried chicken or fried bologna for sandwiches. We were together a lot, my summer friends and I, and some of their mothers would grow comfortable enough to bring their laundry over to do their washing in our tired but functional washing machine and then hang it out on the clothesline with ours, and some days we'd cook together and eat in our back yard under the shade of the sugar maples on our big picnic table.

(When I moved back to Los Angeles from Hawai'i and was apartment hunting, I looked at one place near Vermont and Marathon Streets by LA City College in what appeared to be a predominantly Mexican American building. As I walked up the stairs I passed the laundry room, and the scent of the fabric softener from the dryer vent immediately took me back to Fowler, Indiana, in 1974, and the smell of my friends' clothes, and I got a tightness in my chest from the force of the nostalgia, remembering the early summers when I was three and four.)

1 comment:

Jimmy G. said...

Wow! I am originally from Hoopeston, Illinois and I grew up visiting the Joan of Arc migrant camp as a child too.

I never realized there were other Joan of Arc Camps. I thought the one in Hoopeston was the only one of it's kind.

Thanks for sharing your childhood experience, it reminded me very much of my very own.