“Other than childhood, what was there in those days that is not here today?”
The past is a bittersweet smorgasbord of delights that are forever new in a writer’s memory rather like Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” where he was “green and carefree” and “famous among the barns.”
My Fern Hill was owned by Mr. Henry who arrived at my best friend’s house around the corner and drove everyone who wanted to go out to his farm for a morning of unfettered play. The woods and the fields were ours for the day, all because Mr. Henry wanted to do something for others, as a debt he owed the doctor–my best friend’s father–who saved his life.
We worked, too. We stacked bales of hay in an old lime house, helped build fences, fought an occasional grass fire, moved cattle from one field to another, cleaned up stuff that didn’t belong where it got left. Every Saturday ended with a line of beer cans on a row of fence posts behind the house where each boy held a .22 rifle and five .22 shorts. “Fire when ready.” And we did.
One day I went off to college and never saw Mr. Henry again. Another day, I heard that he had passed away. He was one of those teachers who didn’t know he was a teacher, and his lessons have long survived him and perhaps most of those who were for a few short years “young and easy under the apple boughs.”
I don’t remember truly thanking him for what he did other than telling him we had had a great time when he brought us back to town. If spirits read the verse of those of us who are still here with our memories, perhaps he found this poem of mine published several years ago.
Debt, Paid in Full
Without fail at first light,
the old Ford materialized on Saturday mornings
to carry us out the canopy road to Mister Henry’s farm.
When Doctor Smith saved Mister Henry’s life,
his patient saw within that unexpected miracle a living,
breathing obligation to be repaid with time and space.
While Mister Henry had reason to believe
one’s days are numbered, he knew the doctor’s children
and children’s friends perceived an infinity of time on their hands.
We took for granted our Saturdays would never end
and loosely defined our mornings with minnows and tadpoles
in the branch trickling through the sweet Southern woods.
We presumed all fences were made for climbing,
claiming all fields and building infinite afternoons with bales o hay
stacked high in the lime house en route to heaven.
We blended work and play on those magical acres,
carrying home tall tales of our grand adventures as talismans
to protect us from the world outside our dreams.
Within the immortality of youth, we saw little threat
from the bull in the field, the copperheads in the woods
or the eventual day when the Ford would not appear.
Without fail or sufficient thanks at last light,
childhood and Mister Henry’s farm slipped into the night
before we knew the debt was more than right.
from Forever friends, edited by Shelagh Watkins, 2011