He’s a good driver, but he’s too young to be on the highway yet. That’s why you’ve brought him, this bright Sunday afternoon, to the deserted parking lot of your old grammar school.
Here there’s a half-acre of good ground and a circular driveway he can navigate until (wishful thinking, on your part) he gets tired enough to come home.
Being a father, you show him the limits, first – don’t go near the blacktop road or get too close to the building. You point out a ditch he should avoid, one a little hidden by its dry grass so that you don’t notice how deep it is until you’re right on top of it. You show him a patch of loose gravel, and demonstrate how it can make a car slide or spin if you hit it too fast.
And that’s it. You get out, he moves to the driver’s seat. You squeeze his shoulder once before you shut the door, and then you go sit on a grassy bank to watch.
He rolls up the windows, turns the air conditioner and the radio both to very high settings, gently eases the shift level into DRIVE and he’s off — his head nodding in time to a song you can’t hear.
And while the small blue station wagon circles the school grounds with slow precision — forward, reverse, forward, parking parallel at a spot on the curb, forward again, reverse, circling, stopping, forward again — you have all the world’s time to look at the building where you spent six years of your life, a quarter century ago.
The view has changed. You imagine yourself looking out the windows of Miss Kelley’s second-grade room, and you see a new brick house across the road where there once were pine trees and honeysuckle.
At least the old water tower still stands — just to the south, along the road that goes to the high school. But the giant square marker that moved up and down its side, going forever between EMPTY and FULL, appears rusted into place now.
You’re amazed at how small all distances have become. The dirt playground that seemed vast enough to get lost in is only a good stone’s-throw wide, now. When the principal or one of the teachers would drive over to the high school, then, for a meeting, you’d imagine it as a wilderness safari to the very seat of government. Now it’s half a mile, maybe less.
Home seemed an infinite distance away, and that was doubled when you were sick and waiting for a ride there. Two miles? Three? You realize you could run home, now, from this spot, and not even be out of breath.
To the north is the church cemetery. It seems larger than it once did. You start counting, in your mind, how many of the stones have the names of your kinfolk on them, and you decide to think of something else.
You think, instead, of the small blue car in the distance, being driven with exquisite care by someone with your name, who’s singing a song you don’t know the name of. Clouds pass over, a jaybird cries out from a grove of trees.
And you think: So this is how it is.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, books, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com and is archived afterward on his website.