by J E Bennett
Roads. Old roads.
Dirt roads effervesced with Oklahoma dust behind the occasional traveler’s vehicle clipping across the Red River basin.
This land was once fertilized with urea and nitrogen, fostered by farmers gambling with their meager resources while keeping hopes of raising Alfalfa or Sudan grasses, necessary to sustain their precious bovine gold. Rustic fields and valleys; simple, yet majestic to those who loved them, now lie gouged and scarred with deep wounds.
When I was young, I remember my Papa driving an earthmover that looked as colossal and ominous as a mountain from my boy-like perspective. He called it a Yuke. It’s curious how our perspectives change as we become adults. We’re unimpressed by some hunk of construction equipment that just a quarter of a century earlier made me stand in silent awe. I recall my encounter. I gaped at it for aeons before unabashedly squeaking:
“AWESOME! Can I ride it with you Papa?”
He knew that wondrous childhood zeal was fleeting. He swiftly pulled me into the seat and with a delighted laugh said, “Hell, I’ll let ya’ DRIVE her!” I was beaming.
On another family trip to see my grandparents, one of Papa’s many gray Hanes T-shirts (the only style of clothing he wore to work) was splayed upon the top of the humming deep freezer––which occasionally doubled as a table––in their kitchen. Dried blood was fanned down the front of the shirt and my inquisitively wide eyes let him know there was a story needed tellin’. Two earthmovers had collided during his work that day. My Papa, being one of the two drivers, was more than happy to tell us the bloody tale. He enlightened, embellished, and entertained us while leaning on the high back of a wooden kitchen chair with a Carnival cigarette wedged between his rugged fingers, puffing and chuckling between sentences for his rapt audience.
My dad told stories of hunting wild boar among the tall corn fields when he was younger. Once, he inadvertently came face-to-snout with a wild sow charging at him full speed. His mere .22 caliber rifle was no match for her thick bones, yet with a single lucky shot he managed to pierce her skull between the eyes, bringing her down in a billow of red dirt. She slid to a stop a chilling four feet away. Dad said he was lucky to be alive. His stories never got old and I reveled in his tales of dangerous adventures.
Although the most memorable times were shared alone with my younger brother, exploring the riverbanks and fields at night with nothing but our flashlights and provisions for our ramblings. We dug up nightcrawlers to fish the river, made hidden trails through the corn stalks, and frantically illuminated anything that scurried in the nearby brush. We laughed until we cried when we discovered it was a lizard or toad. We would run barefoot through miles of tall grass, stirring up thousands of fireflies and giggling as we tried to catch them in jars.
I’ll never forget how clear and bright the stars were on those dark nights, far from the bustling, sleepless cities and their light pollution. I’d look up and dream of flying to space and felt a deep yearning to explore all those planets and galaxies when I grew up. In those moments, I knew anything was possible.
Now, those stories and experiences could never be repeated. Decades have passed and I hardly recognize the once sprawling and magical land of my childhood. Where the Red River once flowed wildly, it now trickled timidly as a pitiful stream strangled by damming. Huge swaths of land were simply gone and replaced by quarries and rusted machines––ever scraping, crushing, and scarring this most sacred place. The tall grasses and crops have long since disappeared, giving way to industrialization. The last vestiges of nature can be seen at the edges of deep ravines filled with water: hundreds of Cattails camouflaging the horror, as if nature were desperately trying to hide her shame.
My stomach churned and my heart ached.
How would I explain this to my son, Adam?
In his seven years on earth, he’d listened to me recount all the wonderful stories and experiences this place offered. How memorable a childhood I had had there. How magical it would be for him, too.
Adam was perched on his booster seat as we approached the old farm, long abandoned since Nana and Papa had passed away.
I had been longing to show him where his great grandparents had once carved out a life for their family, the fields my Papa had tended, and the wondrous machinery he had operated. I wanted him to see where my dad, his grandfather, had adventurously hunted and fished––surviving to tell the tale as he grew into a man day-by-day.
How could I show my little guy all the beauty and mystery his daddy had discovered so many summers ago? The wonder, fascination, and unabashed joy I’d always hoped he would experience just couldn’t be. As we pulled to a stop near a dry, rocky pit, I watched his face solemnly, waiting for the inevitable disappointment.
It never happened.
To my surprise, Adam sprang from the truck and ran to the edge of a ravine. He didn’t notice the trees had been clearcut, the farmhouse bulldozed, or the diminutive size of the once mighty Red River.
He looked over the edge of the ravine, eyes sparkling.
“Is this the Grand Canyon?” he asked, exuding amazement. Hell, with the different rock formations and varying colors of layered strata, even I could see a resemblance.
“Sure looks like it,” I replied, stunned.
What I regarded as a scarification of my pristine earth, Adam saw as something bigger and beautiful.
“Wow! I think it is, daddy! Look down there. Are those caves?” (More holes dug by profit searching machines.)
“They look like caves to me, buddy.”
Adam chirped, “Yep, and I’ll bet there’s monsters living in them. They probably ate all the plants that used to be here, huh?” I guess he did notice the missing foliage.
“Well, that explains it!” I laughed out, still amazed at his enthusiasm.
His attention was then focused toward the ground with the millions of rocks that had been churned and uprooted. His hand carefully lifted a spiral shaped rock toward me.
“Why does it look like that?” he asked.
“Oh wow, you found a fossil, buddy! It’s millions of years old and very special.”
He was pleased and could barely restrain himself. The hunt was on. He didn’t care that the fields of grass were gone. This was now fossil hunting territory. In just a few hours, we had collected so many that our pockets bulged and pants sagged.
He didn’t mind that the river was just a trickle, as there was still plenty of mud to dig. He laughed until he cried as he chased me with big clods of mud while I’d trip over rocks in retreat.
He was fascinated when he came across a pile of bones, and insisted the monsters must’ve eaten the poor creature after they’d run out of the green sanctuary. He even urged me to carry the skull back to the truck so he could ‘scare mama good’ upon our return home.
I suggested searching in the caves for the monsters, but he nervously tittered and said, “Um… maybe later?”.
As the sun began to set, we walked to the bottom of one of the deeper, newly dug pits. Rain water had yet to be trapped there. Adam tried his first echo call. We laughed and shouted until dark, and even though night was falling, Adam wasn’t frightened by monsters anymore: “They’ll think there’s too many of us to fight!”
I was astonished at the extraordinary time we were claiming in a place I thought would sink me with sadness. While I was lamenting the lost stomping grounds of my childhood, my son was having the time of his life here. It was that sublime childlike perspective we all remember having when we’re young.
Night had taken over. We climbed out of the echo pit and headed for the truck. In the dark, I felt Adam’s little hand clasp around mine. He pointed to the sky, “Look Daddy, look at all the stars!”
He had showed me the truth. So much had changed. So much had made me sad. I’d been too busy loathing the scarred land that I’d forgotten the best part of being here: the magnificent universe so clear for us to behold.
We sat down and gazed at the heavens for hours; pointing out planets, satellites, the Milky Way, and shooting stars.
“Maybe I could go to space someday,” he whispered, awestruck.
“I’ll bet you will buddy, anything is possible with that imagination of yours.”
I caught him beaming upward in the dark, and I realized…
…some scars heal.