The landscape of childhood covers everything from playgrounds and vacant lots to woods and parks. Mike Paulus tells us about finding his roots in a wide open space in Eau Claire.
I grew up on Eau Claire’s west side, across the street from a big empty lot. The lot was covered by a crop of tall grass, but it had a few small pockets of woods and an old dead tree just laying on its side out in the middle, all by itself. It hadn’t been cut down. It just got old and died.
That field – it belonged to me and my friends. It was ours.
We had secret hideouts and trails. We had shortcuts and battlegrounds. We had a different set of games for every square foot of that field. Because we owned it.
That old fallen tree I mentioned was pretty big. Beaten smooth by years of wind and rain, we could straddle it like a horse. But we didn’t play cowboys and Indians. The Lone Ranger enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early ’80s, and my parents bought me some of the toys, but the Masked Man could never hold his ground against Darth Vader. That big log was the Millennium Falcon more often than not, and we’d scramble across the field as Storm Troopers blasted laser bolts past our ears, yelling, “We gotta get off this planet! Run!”
Then we’d hop onto the old tree and argue over who got to punch the imaginary hyperdrive button. And sometimes one of us would – “Oooooh nooooo!” – fall overboard during takeoff, forcing a dangerous high-speed rescue.
Eventually, we all learned to ride our bikes, and that big dead log just seemed kind of … slow.
But back then, in the summertime, even the rain couldn’t stop us. We’d tromp through the field, our pant legs getting soaked, our butts getting dirty, our boots glooping into islands of mud as we waded through a sea of weeds.
Have you ever just bent over and grabbed a big clump of grass with both hands, just to … I don’t know, pull on it? I used to do that all the time. After the rain stopped, if the field was mucky enough, I could grab a bunch of weeds and slowly drag their root system up out of the ground with a satisfying thhhhweeeerp. I’d feel like He-Man, Master of the Universe.
But if the roots were stubborn, refusing to be ripped from their sockets, I’d lean back on my heels and feel the heft of my body, hanging there like a little counterweight. Seconds ago this grass was a meaningless clump of dead-ish plant matter. But now, feeling how fused it was to Planet Earth … it meant everything.
I had absolutely no doubt about this: If the world was suddenly flipped upside down, I knew the weeds would hold me. I could just hang there, grasping onto that clump of grass as my feet dangled towards empty space, the clouds chugging along far below. If my little kid hands were just strong enough to hold on, I’d be safe.
And everything else would tumble down into the hazy blue summertime sky.