Saturday, August 17, 2013

Rocks In My Head... (And Other Childhood Memories)

Whether making art or writing stories, I believe a person's best work comes when they have a personal connection with their subjects. With that in mind, I always revisit my childhood for inspiration.

In 1970, I was seven years old when my family moved to Roanoke, Virginia. It was there that my brothers and I began to experience and appreciate the wonders of nature. We moved into a new neighborhood with a beautiful sprawling countryside behind our house. The gentle downward slope of our backyard met a creek before turning upward into a great hill. Cows would graze on the weeds along the hill and often continue their daily feasting right up to our back patio.

My brothers and I loved to explore our new environment. We caught Monarch caterpillars that were hiding under the leaves of milkweed plants growing along the creek. They were absolutely beautiful creatures with silky-smooth skin and bands of green, black, and white wrapping around their chubby bodies. We kept the caterpillars in a bucket and used a tennis racquet for a lid. We fed them fresh milkweed plants until the day that we found chrysalis suspended from the strings of the tennis racquet. The chrysalis resembled jewels with little yellow beads lining their green polished exteriors. Weeks later, we returned from school to find Monarch butterflies erupting from their transparent encasements. Their miraculous transformation was complete. We watched in wonder as they aired out their wings and eventually lofted into the afternoon sky. I would later pay tribute to these butterflies in my book, CHALK. They were the only magical creation left at the end of the story.

The creek was always the source of our greatest adventures. In addition to the caterpillars on the milkweed plants, we pulled newts, frogs, tadpoles, turtles, and crayfish from the small creek's rippling clear waters. Each day was a new opportunity to investigate our aquatic backyard neighbors.

One day, my younger brother, Joe, and I were looking for newts when I spotted a small board at the water's edge. It should be noted that when exploring a creek, a discarded board almost always has an amazing treasure hidden beneath. On this occasion, turning the board over revealed something we had never seen before... a small reddish-brownish shape was uncoiling and stretching for the water. Before Joe could finish screaming the word, "snake!," I had scooped it up in my blue metal Maxwell House Coffee can and slapped the clear plastic lid on it. Joe and I looked at each other, and then I slowly lifted the lid so we could have a peek inside. The snake lunged towards our wide eyes, and I slapped the lid back down. In unison, my brother and I sprinted back up the incline towards our house, all the way shouting, "Mom, look at what we caught!"

We burst into the house and ran up the stairs to find Mom by the stove making supper. She was talking on the phone and we contorted our bodies under the outstretched phone cord to get closer and show her our catch. She continued her phone conversation and leaned down to see what we had. Again, I peeled open the lid of the can, and again the snake exploded towards the opening. It was only then that my mother interrupted her conversation to say, "get that filthy thing out of this house". Apparently, Mom wasn't as impressed with our catch as we were.

Then we had one of those guardian angel moments. Our excitement undeterred, Joe and I walked out the front door and were met by a car pulling into the driveway. An old family friend named Fred was in town on business from Connecticut. We quickly ran over to him, hoping our snake might generate a more enthusiastic response. I repeated my can-opening ritual for a third time. However, this time our audience recognized exactly what the can contained.  Fred said that the snake was a Copperhead and it was deadly! He told us to stay in the front yard while he took care of it. Joe and I watched as Fred took a shovel from the carport and disappeared around the back of the house with the can. A few minutes he returned with the shovel and an empty can. Fred told us that he buried the snake in the field and not to look for it because the snake's fangs were still poisonous. We always approached snakes with much more caution on our future adventures.

Dramatic moments aside, one of my favorite memories of the creek was when new construction extended the bottom of our street to the top of the hill in our backyard. My brothers and I were mesmerized by the parade of construction equipment that slowly cut their way up the hill. The new road went over the creek and a pipe was installed to allow the water to flow underneath. This created something new for us to investigate.

Surrounding the pipe was a field of rocks that had been unearthed by the bulldozers. We didn't give the rocks much notice. They only warranted our attention when we tried to climb down the slope of the creek and the sliding rocks created a minor avalanche. Splashing rocks scare frogs, so we always tried to be VERY careful navigating over them.

One day, I tripped and slid down the bank with a cascade of rocks and dust. As I scrambled to get up, I saw an unusual shape on one of the rocks. The rock contained the fossil of a fern! These insignificant annoyances suddenly became a great source of fascination. We found that the rocks split easily, and many more of them revealed the impressions of ferns and other strange shapes inside. Who would have imagined that a dirty old rock could contain such amazing ancient treasures? Inspecting each impression was like taking a peek at a secret past hidden by time. The thrill of that experience never left me and I have had rocks in my head ever since. Forty-two years later, this memory would serve as the inspiration for my latest book, FOSSIL.

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