Saturday, January 7, 2012

Graven Images

On Honeysuckle Lane, past the Old Garage, a boy walks home from school, left to right across my field of vision. My mother holds my hand beside the cinder-block enclosure we call the Incinerator, where we burn our rubbish. She points to the boy, but I don’t think he notices. He is maybe six, perhaps a first-grader, I am only four or five. I am not big enough to be noticed.

We have just moved to Deephaven. I have no memories of our previous home in Excelsior, except for the grayed-out awareness of some child’s birthday party, maybe my own. So this memory of a boy walking by in the distance, not stopping to notice me while I gaze at him, is my first memory.

I idolized him.

David Wiper—for that was his name, a name we made occasional fun of when our young minds turned to bathroom things—became more than a mere mental image as my childhood in Minnesota unfolded. He became an ideal, something concrete but just out of reach that I aspired to while placing far too much importance on dear old David Wiper, who was a very nice guy, as I remember.

I soon discovered that my new neighborhood was populated by five or six boys, all one or two years older than me. Since two years is an almost insurmountable gap at that age but since they were the only boys around, I aspired to an impossible ideal. David, Billy, Tom, and Steve already rode two-wheelers; I walked, apparently holding my mother’s hand.

Once I had become aware of the bicycle gap, my father did what good fathers do: he bought me a bicycle. We drove into Minneapolis, his birthplace, and bought a 26-inch Raleigh, a really good bike from a really good dad. Problem was, I was four or five, and much too short for a 26-incher.

While Dad became my best friend in his last years and I revere his memory, he could be stubborn when he was still relatively new to fatherhood. Maybe he thought a bigger bike would last an extra summer. I remember a long, tearful afternoon of Dad propping me and my bike up against the split-rail fence opposite the Old Garage and basically shoving us toward the blacktop, with inevitable result. I did not ride a bike for another year, while all the boys in the neighborhood got bigger, faster, and better at taunting me for not riding a two-wheeler.

I only idolized them more.

While the neighborhood kids became my playmates and eventually accepted me into their outer circle, I have concluded that idolizing eight-year-old American boys in the 1950s wasn’t a particularly wise thing to do. For one thing, it led to trouble. I learned things in the Old Garage that I shouldn’t have, and I received my first stitches—four above my eye, two below it—thanks to my friends. They were playing on a construction site one day when I walked out of the woods and into their game. I don’t remember a warning shout, only the thunk of a rock against my head. Fortunately, one point hit my brow and the other missed the eye itself.

I conclude that any time we make persons, places, or things the cause of our happiness or unhappiness, any time we give them so much importance that they become idols for us, we’ve already gone astray. The good news for me is that I met a new gang of friends at the private day school I began in third grade, and then a newer gang when I moved to Connecticut in fifth grade.

But the pattern was already set, imprinted on me like that first memory. I would repeatedly make the mistake of counting on other kids for my happiness and sense of self, like an Israelite who can’t look past a graven image to the one true God it represents.

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