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.