The father of one-time neighborhood playmates I treasure in the hallucinatory chambers of my memory was in touch recently after finding me on the Internet. He wanted to “reconnect.'” He had divorced and remarried long ago. “Hard to believe it has been 60 years,” he wrote.
I remembered this man vividly as the retired navy commander father of one playmate in particular, his only son, with whom I once concocted secret rocket fuel made from weed killer and turpentine. The foul mixture simmered and we grinned like gremlins. Later, the playmate boasted of the liquid to the man who lived further down the alleyway. Soon, the fire department appeared. The man was a physicist and he believed we’d mixed unstable components. We were at once alarmed and thrilled as big men draped in black uniforms wearing oblong hoods descended from a truck to water down our perfect alchemy. We were both forced to go home, forestalling further caprices we’d planned for later in the day. Punishment followed.
But the next day we were at it again. My playmate, bored, decided to climb to the top of the telephone pole where he’d pin a banner, an undershirt we’d dyed red and orange, the global colors of dissenting eight-year-olds. He clambered up, attached the “flag,” saluted it, and then asked me to do the same. Terrified, I did as instructed.
More mischief lay in wait when I got there because he again ran down the street to alert the physicist who came out in his purple tie and demanded I climb down immediately. My playmate laughed but I sobbed, since once at the top I was afraid to move.
This time the police came. A squad car parked beneath the fat pole and a young officer shimmied up to get me, all this as mothers and fathers and physicists gasped. “Come on down, kid,” said the policeman, and I gurgled and sighed and put my feet back on the rungs, closing my eyes. After this incident, I was quarantined for a week and my playmate laughed with others at my expense.
We made up, of course, since young explorers must stick together in the cause of greater dissent (and neighborhood havoc). We later dismembered a dead mouse, which stank, feeding it to the physicist’s scowling and usually disdainful cat “Arthur,” who enjoyed the meal so much he came back for more daily, disappointed our mouse kitchen had vanished.
We used a screwdriver and hammer to pry lose a piece of a gutter spout overhanging a garage, allowing rainwater to gush freely on a neighbor’s car and ruining the beloved shine he’d given it one Saturday. This made us giggle greatly, though the rain soaked me, and I was banished to my room.
A year later, the schemes of child biology changed suddenly, and we found ourselves together watching one of my playmate’s three sisters — the prettiest — kissing a boy under the eaves of the yellow family carport. We’d wait until the right moment and blow whistles we’d brought to disrupt the occasion. As penance for this, my playmate was forced to iron his sister’s hair.
When my playmate’s father got in touch, these memories came rushing back, and with them the shapes of faces and physicist’s purple tie. Choosing between a “reconnecting” now and the tapestry of the mischievous then proved no choice at all. Best, I thought and think, to see memory as a trance in fruition. Let it embellish its own décor as needed. Best not to spoil it with potentially ruinously updating. Best sometimes to not connect, to leave cavities unfilled, to let six decades ago dwell as a wooly mammoth in ice. Best to ensure the mind’s version of a once-upon-a-time stay capricious until death exhausts the possibility of connection, allowing memory to finally breathe easier.