“We’ll know as children again all that we are destined to know, that the water is cold and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.”
– Jim Harrison
I came near to drowning when I was nine or ten years old, with my neighbor M__’s arms around my neck. The water swirling downward in the pool of his life was as dark and cold as anyone would ever need for that.
One morning he decided we should play a new game that I had to keep a secret. Made me swear. But not the usual we’ve now come to expect. He had to repeat the name of it a couple of times because it wasn’t easy to pronounce at first. But finally he was ready to explain the rules of Ku Klux Klan.
He wanted us to wrap ourselves in sheets and go from room to room having secret meetings with pretend walkie-talkies. He muttered a lot of stuff behind his hand I won’t repeat, but I didn’t understand it at the time either. It was a dumb game and after a little while I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was boring watching him try to tie a noose. I wanted to go outside and play army like usual. I lived in the never ending black-and-white WWII movie on TV, and preferred it that way.
One day when we were out ranging, we ended up in a field of tall, dry grass. M__ pulled out a box of matches and began lighting them and throwing them in the hay-like stalks. At first I tried to stop him but then turned to stamp out the flames. He kept too far ahead of me, lighting more. Pretty soon there was a real brush fire going, with dark smoke billowing up and sirens going off. The field was next to a Jewish Synagogue, and the fire was moving towards it.
For the next few days every time I heard a siren in the distance I was sure it was the police coming for me. Finally, in a scared-kid version of Crime and Punishment, I cracked and blurted it all out to my mother and father. Luckily the fire fighters had made it to the synagogue in time so there wasn’t any damage, but that was it for M__. I never saw him again after that, and his family moved shortly thereafter.
At home, my parents changed the channel from WWII to Civil Rights and then Vietnam.
Innocence be damned
Childhood eyes a lynching –
Drowned in sheets of fire