The Unfolding Highway…part 1

I remember watching my Dad fold a road map on vacation while driving the highway. It is a lost art and the original texting while driving. Those maps had memory, and if you ignored the memory creases, there could be a thousand ways to fold the map, but only if you got in a hurry. So you looked or felt the memory at the fold line, the crease.

My family has always loved maps and the great American car vacation. Sometimes we unfold that highway map and see Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, the Gateway Arch, a Disney cup in a small world after all and a runaway mine train in Silver Dollar City. I saw the folded paper and squiggly lines as a treasure map and the longing for the highway was passed down from the ghosts of Okies travelling route 66 to California. Dad and Mom have always enjoyed driving vacations and seeing the country and the sights.  

This love came mostly from Dad because he was afraid to fly. That was my theory anyway, but he would insist that driving the highways of these United States is a love affair, topographical intimacy at 70 MPH that goes deeper than asphalt, into the soil of our nation and those who have built cities and bridges and monuments and National Parks. I inherited this love like a dog in a Norman Rockwell station wagon, head out the window and tongue flapping in the breeze.

Although, I must confess my sins of omission, that I skipped a family frontier photo shoot at Worlds of Fun and I also skipped a Washington state vacation to play in the Little League state championship. Once, while vacationing in Orlando my junior year of high school, I flew back alone to Tulsa for a golf tournament. That first airline trip was a rite of passage, a happy moment. And even as I felt a bit alone leaving my family in Orlando, I felt a sense of independence, that my Dad and Mom had confidence in me to let me fly back on my own. I flew Delta Airlines and listened to canned airline music on my headphones, Eric Clapton’s Layla and Marry Me Bill by the Fifth Dimension. It wasn’t as manly as the Inuit Indians sending off a sixteen year old brave into the Arctic Sea in a sealskin canoe to hunt for caribou on a distant island, but it made me feel grown up.

My penance though, for missing those vacations is to write about the moments I remember.

I remember vacationing with the Davis cousins in Washington state and playing whiffle ball with Mark, Brooks, Greg and Toby, and riding a pony. Listening to Mom read doses of literature, her medicine from Reader’s Digest or the Bible was enabled by captive attention, our ears within the sound of her voice for extended hours as we drove. This was her highway pulpit encased in steel and glass, and as we listened, we were oblivious to the fact that the fuel needle was below “E” and Dad had speeded up to accelerate the resolution of out-of-gas suspense. Mom used teachable moments before anyone thought to call them teachable moments.

Sister Terri two-stepped and fell down the steps in front of 35,000 fans at Busch Stadium, the same place a $5 bill was pilfered from my 9-year old fingers at the hot dog stand. I was fascinated by a thousand cars leaving a stadium parking garage descending a corkscrew driveway, and addicted to chocolate malted ice cream frozen like arctic ice, and the ubiquitous lyrical serenade of wandering vendors, “Hey, ice cream…hey, hot dogs, hey cold beer.” At the Houston Astrodome I snagged a foul ball hit by Jesus Alou on a pitch by the Cardinals Nelson Briles.

Before Ralph Nader and the NHTSA, all 7 of us could fit in a red 1967 Ford Mustang driving to church and we piled 8 into a Chrysler Imperial for a vacation to California. We drove west a lot in those early years, to California, Colorado, Texas, and we once calmly watched a twister travel across a plowed field in west Texas like it was an antelope running across the prairie.

Once in Texas, after staying overnight at the Cochran’s in Spearman, Texas, Mom left a 10 dollar bill stuck in the door as some kind of tip or bed and breakfast fee and Aunt Nordeen took offense and they passed back that 10 dollar bill back and forth, screen door to wiper blade, through the mail slot and back to the car visor…I thought we’d never leave because these two children of the Depression were fighting over $10.

To be continued (part 1 of 2)

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Country Driving

My mom, Charlotte Taylor, recently attended a York University retreat and was challenged to write and she did, writing a story called, Country Driving.

Mom instilled in her children a love of story. She read to us, her captive but nevertheless attentive audience, as we drove to California or Florida or Mt. Rushmore. She read from Reader’s Digest, Life in these United States or Drama in Real Life or just as likely, a chapter from the Bible.

 

Becky with grandpa 2

Grandpa Jess with Becky Davis

My wife was getting a massage recently by a friend who knows me and she said, “Brent is the woman, you are the man.” As my wife repeated this story to me, I took absolutely no offense. I’m in touch with my softer, feminine side, yet I still like the idea of driving a bulldozer. Both of these sides came from Mom which you’ll realize after reading her story called Country Driving.

 

I embrace my softer side (I use that term to describe beauty, not a lack of toughness) because I’ve learned at the feet of many beautiful but tough women who could drive a harvester by day and cook a meal for 8 by evening. My great-grandmother was the first one that I remember talking when I prayed aloud at the dinner table…”yes, Lord”…Grandma Beck would say, right out loud in the fat middle, not the end, of my prayer. Grandma Mildred spoke to me whenever she was awake, about vitamins and good food and gardening and hard work and modest shorts. And my mom has always been the fiber in my moral compass along with my wife who grows lovelier and more Godly every day, and my two daughters who teach me about beauty and creativity and joy and tenacity.

 

Becky w sisters

Charlotte is 2nd from right

I am part of the harvest of prayer and diligent work that my mom provided. I realize I’m changing, like a seed coming out of the earth, little by little…becoming what God intended for me to be from the very beginning, and all the things I once longed for as a 21-year-old who had no idea what he didn’t know, those things seem trivial now. I’m getting closer to the wonder of seeing the One who dreamed me up in a funky quirky ironic moment, if moments indeed happen in the place beyond time.

George Steiner writes about how depriving our children of words can kill them: “To starve a child of the spell of the story, of the canter of the poem, oral or written, is a kind of living burial—a comic book is better than nothing so long as there is in it the multiplying life of language–if the child is left empty of texts, in the fullest sense of that term, she will suffer an early death of the heart and of the imagination.”

Mom is 81. And she is still a creative force. She is the primary reason I love to read and write and create. And when I see her reach back and plow up the field of her childhood into words and emotions, I can’t help but see what is still growing 70 years later. Families, rose bushes, lovers, gardens, creators, artists, the analytical, and the poetic.

Thanks for sharing this story from your youth. I love you Mom!

 

COUNTRY DRIVING

Living in the Panhandle of Oklahoma, I was aware of the wide open spaces that surrounded me.  Our farm was two miles from the closest neighbors.  So there were no obstructions to get in the way when I learned to drive – maybe an occasional cow.  But I didn’t drive in their pasture very often.  

Dad had five daughters before he got a son, so as his second daughter I was chosen to be his right hand girl. I was taller and “sturdier” than the other girls so I’m sure that was part of the selection process.  And I’m sure he knew I would always know just what to do.  “Charlotte, get me the lug wrench from the garage”.  And when you bring back the wrong one, you learn to be more discerning the next time.

I don’t have distinct memories of learning to drive or how old I was, but there were plenty of vehicles to learn on.  The pickup truck, the old Chevy truck with granny gear, the Case tractor and the International tractor were all mastered by the time I was 12 or 13.  I was a little older when I drove the back roads to the elevator in Boise City with a load of wheat.  Of course, Dad was ahead of me with a load in the old truck.

There were lessons learned as I drove the tractor pulling the combine as we harvested the wheat crop. Dad gave me hand signals because there was no way of hearing his voice above the roar of the tractor.  When the wheat was thick, Dad’s signal was “Slow down, Charlotte!”.  So I learned from Dad’s signals.  

There are times in life when things feel “thick” and I need to slow down.  And other times when it’s easier going and I can speed up.  The memories of Dad and his quiet, gentle ways linger with me today.  Because of his gentleness with me as I learned to drive and help around the farm, I can in turn show that patience with my family and others in my life.

Another lesson learned was the endurance of my parents.  As I drove the Case tractor around and around the field plowing up last season’s wheat stubble, it was hard not to be bored by the monotony.  But now I feel amazed at their ability to start over again after being hailed out or no rain or winds blowing it all away.  

To remember their courage and willingness to start anew each day is a blessing I will always remember.  And Dad would say, “Charlotte, get up and be thankful for each new day that the Lord gives you”.  Thanks, Dad!

The Eyes of a Teacher

Karen and I enjoy a good debate. Last Friday night, we sparred over the significance of eye contact with another human, or even our dog Abby, who when overwhelmed with too much eye contact will look away. We debated about whether looking someone in the eye is a sign of social dominance, friendliness, affirmation, or something else.

Karen argued that eye contact is generally a good thing and signifies that you are interested in the person you are looking at and in what that person is saying. If you look down or away from a person rather than meeting his or her gaze, you are considered to be distracted or uninterested. I countered that eye contact isn’t always a good thing. For instance, if my daughter is backpacking alone through the Balkan Mountains, she should not make eye contact with a man who would consider prolonged eye contact to be an advance toward intimacy or a bear who would consider a long stare as an invitation to dinner.

So, in some cultures and settings, it is considered more polite to have only brief eye contact, especially between people of different social registers, like a student and a teacher. But what do I know…I lost the debate.

The morning after I lost the debate, Karen was shopping for jalapeño jelly and veggies at the Farmer’s Market while making eye contact with everyone and she bumped into my kindergarten teacher, Mary Brock, her husband Leonard, and their daughter Dana.

Leonard Brock drove a school bus and remembers our children well, including Brandon, who was a very quiet lad. One day Leonard completed the after school bus route and he got up from his seat preparing to lock down the bus and noticed a blond head in the back. Brandon had fallen asleep. Leonard started up the bus and took Brandon home. Brandon apparently believed that he would get home eventually without asserting that right verbally. I can relate to my son sitting on a bus quietly going for a ride back to the bus barn because it’s probably what I would have done when I was five.

Karen and I marveled that Mary remembers one child among many after 52 years have passed. My memories at five-years old, of Mrs. Brock and that two room kindergarten in 1965, just a stones throw southwest of the old Limestone School, are remarkably few, and yet they are crystal clear.

I had a feeling like the world had suddenly become too big, like a big yellow bus I couldn’t get off and I was unable to look anyone in the eye for more than two seconds. The walk to school on Mission Drive was a pit bull obstacle course, although in hindsight, the dog I feared was a poodle with a Napoleon complex. Texas Instruments had not yet revolutionized calculators and I was still a year away from the fat pencil and Big Chief paper. So I performed complex math in my head, addition and subtraction, while diverting my gaze from anything that moved.

Brockmarykindergarten

Mary, Dana, and Leonard

One day I held up my hand for the first time. I said, “I know what 16 + 16 equals.” Mrs. Brock was perplexed and either didn’t know the answer or was stunned at my foray into full sentences and complex math so I said, “32,” and I sat back and stared at the cotton looping of my towel avoiding any further eye contact.

Karen mentioned to Mary, a blog post I wrote several years ago about Limestone School. Mary’s eyes twinkled and she said, “I remember your husband!” She told Karen, “He was quiet, shy, wouldn’t look me in the eye. But he was good at math!” 

kindergarten 1965

What is astounding is not that I remember any of that, but that Mary Brock remembers.

Would Mrs. Brock be surprised that the kid who was good at math is now an amateur poet?

Or did she already know, because that is what teachers do, help us become who we are? 

It’s the reason why teachers are so underpaid and yet so beloved.    

Karen came home and told me about their conversation and we marveled that we had just been talking about eye contact the previous evening. Mary Brock knew my five-year old identity well, and so I wrote this verse about how teachers help shape us into the selves that we do not yet own at that age, nor could we articulate our identity at that age. But we do have these moments hidden away that flash before us at times, moments that remind us how we got to be ourselves.                                          

One Plus One is 32

We were ring around the rosie kids

sitting on the floor indian style

doing math in our heads.

And if we were lucky we had a teacher

who drew from the well of fresh springs,

answers to questions never asked.

A teacher knows when our world is too big or too small,

and when we can’t seem to get off the bus,

because nobody else can see us,

lost in plain sight cradling the answer,

to a question we do not understand.

Our eyes meet, a hand raised,

a teacher knows, so we say it out loud.

We speak because she hears,

the peaceful and the angry

the lovely and the broken.

A teacher looks upon a child with unbroken gaze.

Her gaze is forever new in a child’s eyes,

 and she sees what others cannot,

that poetry is math

and math is poetry

and one plus one is 32.

“The highlights of my teaching career were my students, to see their eyes light up when they learned something – such as tying their shoes or whatever we were doing at the time – was such a reward. I wouldn’t change anything if I had my life to do over. I would be a teacher all over again.”  Mary Brock

In 1981, as an instructor at Limestone Elementary School, Mary Brock was named the Bartlesville Public School District’s first-ever Teacher of the Year. In 2011, she became part of the second class inducted into the Bartlesville Public School Foundation’s Educators Hall of Fame.

Stolen Babies and Shallow Advice

I was holding Jude when I realized why I steal babies. We were at Jace and Carly Davis’ wedding and Jude looked like he wanted me to hold him so I held out my arms and he held out his and we sashayed about the dance floor doing the Baby locomotion. More about baby stealing in a moment…

It was during the trip to the Davis wedding in Little Rock with two of our adult children and their dates this past weekend, that I told my wife something I had shared with no one else. It was about a waning feeling as a young man while losing the Samson-like invincibility grown from long hair and vanity. It was the feeling of power Springsteen sang about in Born to Run, “…girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors and the boys try to look so hard,” which is really difficult to pull off when my barber is cutting my hair and referring to the recession again and again before I realize he isn’t speaking of the economy.

It sounds comical to me in my mellow years since I rarely try to look hard anymore, as I once did in my raging Springs-teens. I’m more into comfortable quirky, like Andy Griffith wearing Sanuks and strumming Suwanee river on the front porch swing. And my ego is unaffected by insult because there is none left to shatter when my wife says to me, “You are the hippest man I know, from the ankle down.” “Thank you,” I reply, before the subtlety of the insult becomes clear. (This means I have great taste in shoes and socks…and nothing else)

I am no longer invincible and it’s a relief to be unburdened. Once nothing remained to be admired in the window of shallow self-reflection, there still remained my teen Geist masquerading as a father, doling out wisdom like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation. (Good talk Russ) Some of the most useless advice I’ve given to my children over the years, although stolen and shallow, is nevertheless memorable, which often returns to me in remarkable ways wearing the garments of profundity.

When my son left for college, I told him what Steve Martin’s father told him. “Always carry a trash bag in your car, it doesn’t take up much room and if it ever gets full, you can just throw it out.” And I’ve also passed along to my son a love for colorful socks and advice on wearing them. One Sunday morning we were loitering in the garage waiting for the girls as they put the finishing touches on their Sunday go-to-meeting outfits. Four year old Brandon was wearing a Lord Fauntleroy outfit with shorts and dress shoes and I envied his dapper look, the socks-on-full-display style I couldn’t pull off due to my age and social convention. He sported a black sock and a blue sock, which I advised would be frowned upon by those who devise the color matching rules. He said that mattered little to him. He told me, “You can’t really tell in the garage, it’s too shadowy. Besides, I don’t go by color, I go by thickness.”

Youth is indeed wasted on the young.

And when Jenna was seven-years old, I took her aside before a soccer match and said to her, “I’m going to give you a little advice. There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.”

Of course, that’s Ty Webb telling Danny Noonan how to excel at golf in Caddyshack, but Jenna didn’t know that. A ball is a ball is a ball and there does seem to be a cosmic force connecting the ball with the feet of the greatest players. As Jenna grew older, I shortened the pregame admonition to, “Be the ball.”

So, back to baby stealing. As I was holding baby Jude at the wedding, my cousin told me that just for a moment, he caught a glimpse of me holding my own son, 22 years earlier. And I realized that I was still holding my son, because these moments with our children are not restrained by time. They move freely in and out of our consciousness like the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision crying “Holy, Holy, Holy,” to one another. And so I remember those moments when Karen and I left the kids with Nammy on date night and returned to find them snuggled up in pajamas and we raced to get to them first, literally knocking each other down to be the first one in the room upon our return. So I guess stealing babies is about returning to those moments on some level.

We watched Carly and Jace kiss after saying “I do for as long as we both shall live.” And I thought about how happy Jace and Carly looked as they danced among family and loved ones. I remember Jace Davis and Drew Taylor and Brandon Taylor just a few months old, rolling on their backs on the carpet together like upside down turtles trying to get upright, to get on with it, this business of life.

And when I see my grown children, and understand that they have survived my dim and strange advice, it’s like looking beyond time and seeing the glory of God flowing like wine, as they discover for themselves the force in the universe that moves mountains. It’s amazing how the Good Lord can make something good out of advice like Be the ball.

I sometimes struggle to describe what it means to be a Dad, because I feel like I’m cheating, like somehow I get more than I give. My kids are all grown now, and I find myself at a wedding holding baby Jude and I remember my own children, like it was yesterday. There goes my daughter walking onto the pitch. “Be the ball,” but how can she possibly know what that means?

Yesterday I opened a mysterious package thinking it could be a bomb, so I opened it slowly so the bomb would detonate slowly…but no, I realize my birthday is only a few days away. Maybe it’s a gift.

It’s a gift from my 24-year-old daughter who is now a soccer coach in Nashville.

And I find my stolen words have returned to me written on a shirt.

 Be the ball Jenna

My New Tattoo in Old English

Yogi Berra was describing his own version of Einstein’s Relativity theory when he remarked, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

I thought of the future that used to be as I sat in a deep leather recliner at Eggbert’s cafe, waiting for a table on a Saturday morning, a pager in hand while sipping coffee. Sitting across from me separated only by a low table, was a very young girl, perhaps three years old.

She balanced her own Eggbert’s pager on her lap, the pager that lights up like a Christmas tree when it’s your turn to be seated for breakfast. She held it with both hands, looking down into the face of the device, both thumbs poised above, in the manner of a teenager preparing to text at warp speed. She was awaiting a sign of life, an electronic pulse of social interaction…she was trying to communicate with her pager.

That made me flinch, and I usually only flinch while eating raw sea urchins or when I see a tattoo on one of my kids.

I saw this kind of behavior once in college when I discovered my roommate sitting on top of the television watching the sofa while listening to a John Wayne movie. Now he is a school board member and a deacon at church. So there is hope for the little pager girl and for a generation of hyperactive thumbs.

We see what we want to see when looking back at another generation. When I see a tattoo, I think of a sailor with “Mabel” inked on a bicep. But my children think of something else. Batman, good coffee, a mission trip to Uganda. Which leads me to a recent conversation in our Bible study group.

“As far as I know, none of my children have any tattoos,” was how the older gentleman worded his comment in a way that implied that if they did, it would have reflected poorly on his parenting. Instantly, someone in our group asked the gentleman, “Do any of your grandchildren have a tattoo?” The question befuddled him, as if he had never considered that.

Every generation has a sense of what is acceptable, and when I look at my children’s generation, gaining on me like Secretariat chasing down a braying mule, I think of the generational riddle that older folks try to solve by observing superficial clues like tattoos, attire from Goodwill dumpsters, and bare feet in $300 loafers.

My generation was by no means easy to figure out. Churchill once said of it, “She is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  Okay, he might have also been describing Mother Russia.

Come to think of it, Russia and three-year olds are the same. They are not aware of the device they hold in their hands nor what buttons to push. Soren Kierkegaard said of the young, “Your own tactic is to train yourself in the art of becoming enigmatic to everybody. My young friend, suppose there was no one who troubled himself to guess your riddle–what joy, then, would you have in it?”

Coming of age requires both intimacy and mystery, vulnerability and come hither enigmas, a longing to be one of a kind, yet gently folded into a community of unconditional love.

Which reminds me of the chimichanga I ate from Maria’s Taco truck last week. It became a part of me, yet I had no idea what was inside it. I just liked it and invited it inside my soul. And if someone from the generation before communicates via a pager or skin art, I am a house guest invited into the parlor of that person’s mind and it’s rude to pick up the chenille throw off the floor and drape it neatly over the wing back Queen Anne chair. Just let it be as Grandma Mildred often said.

Perhaps it is time for my first tattoo, the first line of George Eliot’s Middlemarch written in Old English on my right forearm. It seems much more practical than mismatched clothing. However, getting older means unwrapping the mysterious cloak, telling the world who we really are, people who sometimes didn’t get where we wanted to go, and we are naked, broken, and bleeding.

I’ve been revealed. I have fewer riddles and zero tattoos. And now I am being replaced by children with fast thumbs and fast phones, by the tattooed and mysterious, wrapped in the cloak of potential.

Maybe that is what grace is all about, impossible to describe with words, easier to say with children and old people who understand grace across time and space. Grace, that great cornerstone of the Christian faith, is received by the enigmatic and the revealed, the young and the old, the bumbling and the nimble, the broken and the bleeding. People who belong to one master creator, yet are somehow still marvelously one of a kind.

“Let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are the kingdom’s pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Words of Jesus from ‭‭Luke‬ ‭18:15-17‬ ‭

Reading to my Children

I’m a lousy Dad. At least it feels that way sometimes, the feeling you get that you didn’t say enough or share enough or that you put on a mask and didn’t reveal your inner self to your children, that they never really “found you out.” And maybe that’s best, because as my wife often says, “Just once I’d like to get inside your head for a day and see what it’s like…or maybe not, I might not recover.”

And so just like any Dad, I have regrets. I worked too much, played too much golf, didn’t laugh enough, cry enough, teach enough…and then I realize that maybe the best thing my kids can know about me is that I’m broken, I’m a jar of clay, brittle and easily shattered, but sometimes capable of holding vast amounts of beautiful refreshing drink. I think they’ll get that, because they’ve experienced the same human condition of loneliness coupled with euphoria, brokenness mingling with beauty, the spiritual world breaking in on the physical and revealing itself as the real one, the happy one, the way to perfection that trumps all the masks that we wear.

I used to read to my kids, not as much as I should have, but I read to them some. So when I read Robert Bruce’s blog, “The Time Robin Williams Read Narnia to His Daughter,” it struck me as so true. That our children just want us to be Mom or Dad, not some made up character with lot’s of money and jokes, a walking Father Knows Best.

Here is an excerpt from Robert Bruce’s blog, 101 books, which talks about Robin Williams reading Narnia to his daughter Zelda.

“I would read the whole C.S. Lewis series out loud to my kids. I was once reading to Zelda, and she said ‘Don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself.’ So I did, I just read it straight, and she said ‘That’s better.’”

Robin Williams was famous for his voices—and the frenzy at which he shifted in and out of character. To have Robin Williams as your father—it would be like having a Monet, a Hemingway, a Jordan.

But, still, he’s your father. He’s not “Robin Williams” as we know him. He’s just dad.

 

lion-book-cover

Revealing truth to our kids is sometimes as easy as getting out of the way and being real. Of letting other spirits speak for us what we cannot say well. Wisdom, beauty, relationships, truth are the things we should pass along to our kids. Yes, they remember the funny faces, our jokes, our quirks…but they long for meaning that we often miss because we wear masks of adult condescension, always trying to teach more than we need to teach, or hide what we don’t need to hide. We just need to live and speak and work and play and read…in our own voice, without the mask. Just be real, that’s all my kids ever wanted or any kid wants really, just read to me about life Dad, in your own voice. That’s better.

Here’s the entire piece written by Mr. Bruce if you’d like to read it.

The Time Robin Williams Read Narnia To His Daughter

The Heavens Dark Matter and the Andy Warhol Swing

Once in my youth, I felt heaven unreachable, sterile, a place of thou shalt not have fun, and my fervor was not equal to the pill-box hatted lady sitting in the pew in front of me blocking my view of a preacher imploring me to get right and ready to go home. Since I didn’t understand home in the theological sense then, I felt no longing for streets of gold, no thank you, I preferred dirt, wood, flagstone, or perhaps on a Sunday, asphalt.

In my neighborhood, my eyes were often drawn to the first heaven, this wonderful sky, filled with sonic booms, baseballs leaving yards, geese flying south, and like the dark matter confounding today’s scientists, I sensed something alive in the midst of the air I breathed, something not yet imagined, a force felt but not seen. My young mind felt this as empty air, boredom, nothingness, providing a seedbed to cultivate wonder and imagination out of which grew childhood masterpieces including battle scenes along forested creeks and sidewalks chalked with business plans to conquer the neighborhood one lemonade stand at a time. We painted broad swaths of our suburban canvas using paint flowing from vats of vacuous nothingness and our winters were warmed by a campfire lit from a gas wellhead.

It was my first heaven, a place where the air we breathed was not just oxygen but space, a canvas of time, sky painted Air Force blue brushed with ribbons of jet contrail, a three-dimensional palate we filled with Superman, pollution, and everlasting optimism. And in that atmosphere drifted inspiration enabled by a world that was bigger, bigger in the sense that we were further apart, informationally disconnected, less urgent, less immediate, living within broad swatches of space and time giving us the freedom to be bored and cured of boredom.

We watched Walter Cronkite interrupt As the World Turns with news that, “President Kennedy died at one p.m. central standard time,” then take off his big thick black glasses and pause for five seconds to gather his emotion, then put the glasses back on and try to speak again, emotion choking the words he said next, “Vice-President Johnson…,”and we all knew right where we were at that moment, because it felt easier to be one then and our grief and sorrow was one along with our sense of injustice and helplessness.

One hundred million of us watched Peter Jennings on ABC, Cronkite on CBS, and Huntley and Brinkley on NBC, as they delivered to us the newspaper for the day in images and soundbite commentary. We enjoyed three channel choices, so our news was common to everyone, bellowed from three town criers instead of a thousand, familiar voices, few choices, news and events funneled through three men behind the network curtain. In our neighborhood I saw the beginning of an unraveling, of hippies just a few years older than me yelling at America to pay no attention to those men behind the curtain. The yellow brick road still was the path for most, but I could see many of my generation veering from the gold bricked interstate, some into majestic byways and others into the ditches. Mostly though, we were happy as we lived in an atmosphere the ancient philosophers called the first heaven.

The neighborhood of my childhood was infused with a collection of sounds, a bit Nascar and Animal Planet, here a touch of ABC’s Wide World of Sports with the human drama of athletic competition writ into driveways and backyards, and there a touch of Ed Sullivan. And Saturday was our soundstage. Our neighborhood volume elevated on Saturdays and our sounds were truly shared because we weren’t immersed in unique playlists with headphones and earbuds, we shared one another’s noise like the constant droning of lawn mowers and Bob Barry’s play-by-play call of another Steve Owens Oklahoma Sooner touchdown coming from Mr. Johnson’s garage to the north and the lyrical droning of cicadas as they turned their vibrating tymbals to lazy summer dusk volume. From the Warner’s garage came the pleas of summer love in the amplified guitar riffs of our neighborhood band dreaming of the Ed Sullivan show and screaming teenage girls. Engines of all kinds whined and roared, a Shelby Mustang, a Yamaha 65 cc motorcycle with a duct tape seat, a Honda 50 minibike, the grinding gears of eighteen wheelers just a block east on state highway 75.

There now is the hiss of the mosquito truck spewing a final solution white fog into our neighborhood aspirations as mosquitos go limp like marathoners hitting the last finish line. The wind rustles the crimson and orange leaves, whispering restless notes, winters gentle hint in the rolling hills of our American suburbia mingled with oak trees, maple, and elm, lining asphalt streets. The creeks teem with crawdads chased by adolescent hands like Godzilla chasing victims onto the beach while stirring muddy bottoms and minnows into distressed eddies of malted milk. Bermuda lawns are dotted with limestone rock outcroppings where grass refuses to grow and goat heads thrive and kids dare not tread barefoot.

Roaming a dirt and rock dump one afternoon with my neighbor Dale, we discovered a baby blue plastic chair, body-conforming, chrome-legged right off the set of the Brady Bunch, which we claimed and toted home. Watching with amazement, Dale took a rock and hammered a hole in the seat, then threaded a stick and rope through to the bottom of the chair then flung the other rope end up across the meaty limb of a massive oak that stood on the east edge of our yard. After cinching the chair to the proper height and tying it off, he said, “Hop on,” as I stood looking at this great Modern plastic wonder. This was not my grandfather’s tire swing. It was designed by Andy Warhol and built by kids without a blueprint using tools of time and imagination.

I asked Dale in a tone of awe, “How did you do that?”, “Good ‘ole American ingenuity,” came the reply. I told him, “I’m American and a genius, but I couldn’t make that!” And he just laughed and we began swinging ourselves high and horizontal into the Oklahoma sky under this great oak, amazed at the wonder of what we had created. After a few days, we turned up the adrenaline by using a Schwinn Fair Lady bike with the front basket removed, Dale pedaling furiously down the hill and me grabbing the rope from my perch on the front handlebars while sliding into the Warhol plastic seat in one motion defying common sense but trusting in the youthful physics of eye and hand touched by a dusting of the angel of mercy, our top speed providing the force to fling us past parallel to the ground as the bike continued on down the hill, and I peered straight down into the lawn at great height until feeling a slight slack of rope tension, then retracing the arc of the swing in a tic toc that gradually lowered my racing heart.

We also knew how to slow down our hearts before New Age mysticism made it fashionable and high blood pressure prescribed it, and in our void of activity, like the rope swing at it’s zenith we sought our inevitable nadir of tension, we went slack and subdued our young minds like the gradual slowing of the swing, just letting gravity and a little lemonade and shade slow us down as we quit chasing and let life come to us. In my neighborhood we relaxed in the cool canopy of a forked elm tree which we called the Shady Rest, and from that shady hangout, I could see places and moments.

Just down the street from the elm tree is an oily spot in the asphalt road at the crest of the hill where neighbor Charlie once poured gasoline and then tossed a match atop just to watch it burn, and the neighbors driveway to our west was a place to ride our bikes where we wheeled around a 1922 silver dollar imbedded in the concrete using it as a lap marker, and across the street where Charlie lived, they didn’t lock their doors at night and Jana Wilkins sleepwalked right into Charlie’s living room apparently not satisfied with the accommodations of the slumber party at our house that night. Further east, from our elm, we saw the woods and dirt road down to the old gas wells where kids hung out at the perpetual flame campfire flickering from an old wellhead as they smoked cigarettes, the same woods where we built forts of timber and grass pretending we were American pioneers homesteading in the hills and hollows of our first heaven.

According to an ancient way of explaining the atmosphere, we humans occupy the first heaven. We don’t live beneath the sky, we live in it. I was reminded of this one Sunday morning sitting on the peak of a mountain with my son in the Boston range of western Arkansas. On a Sunday in this pinnacled cathedral, a storm blew in from the north. It was my first recognition of living within the cauldron of developing weather. Most weather is observed by looking up, but this was wondrous because we were literally stirred into the stew of weather, and a bit frightening as lightning crackled and blistered the air all around.

However, a neck-craning vertical sense of the sky is what most think of when considering the firmament, rather than thinking of it as part of their canvas of life. My neighborhood friends playfully imagined that a cloud was Dumbo or Mark Twain floating in the brilliant azure canvas of our first heaven, a place where I crossed two highways afoot with a dime in my pocket that would get me a handful of Jolly Ranchers or Atomic Fire Balls at the Ben Franklin 5&10 store. A place where we would race when we heard a misplaced noise, like a car wreck, and sprint to see the carnage, the girl sitting in the ditch with a blanket over her shoulders shaking and in shock, a neighborhood that smelled of cut grass, fireworks on simmering summer asphalt, flowering crabapple trees, and as the Monkees famously sung, charcoal burning everywhere.

Once I peered through the first heaven and into the second, looking for the man on the moon. And one Sunday evening on July 20, 1969, I stepped out of the back seat of a white 1968 Buick Electra and saw Neil Armstrong, who once told unfunny jokes about the moon following them with the real punch line, “Aaahh…I guess you had to be there.” Our driveway was surrounded by a cluster of scrub oak so I walked out to the center of our yard to escape the trees, and I peered into the evening sky as it gathered the orange creamsicle and blue day and mingled it with shades of gray, blue and black melding into dusty shades of infinite space. I saw Neil Armstrong in the Sea of Tranquility planting the American flag in moon cheese. At least I thought it was him. The shadows may have fooled me. I rushed inside to confirm my suspicions and watched a black and white TV image of Eric Sevareid declare, “We’ve seen some kind of birth here.” Sevareid, the CBS commentator, described Armstrong’s clumsy first moments on strange ground as a “clumsy creature, half-blind, maneuvering with great awkwardness at first, and slowly learning to use its legs, until, in a rather short time it’s running.”

Mr. Sevareid could just as easily been describing me, growing up in the schoolyard just down the street where I was taught to climb under the desk and curl into a tight ball on my knees and cover my head in the event of a nuclear blast…clumsy, half-blind, maneuvering with great awkwardness at first, then emerging from beneath my desk to peer into the atmosphere, through the mushroom cloud of humanity to find heaven, a place where I could drive about gilded streets in angelic golf carts like Mickey in the Magic Kingdom.

The ancients thought of the heavens in three senses. Neil Armstrong has seen the first two heavens, our atmosphere and the space beyond the air we breathe, but he hasn’t seen the third. The third heaven, maybe it’s the dark matter I couldn’t see but felt, as a kid growing up in the first heaven of a neighborhood in the middle of America.

I think the third heaven is a place I’ve imagined often but have seen only in flashes of brilliance in the first heaven, a place where justice prevails and forts always stand unmoved by the elements, a place where swings never go slack and our walks are wide-eyed and aware, a place where shade trees are shared and plentiful and the perpetual flame of restoration and goodness gathered around and never extinguished. A place where garage bands sound better than the Beatles and Elvis and where Ed Sullivan stands and applauds without ceasing at a really good show.