A few years ago we reconnected, now middle aged, married with children and grandchildren. We are no longer those starry eyed kids dreaming about life, much has happened and life has taken us far away from our hometown and brought us close to it again.
This is an ode to innocence, friendship and that first bloom of love.
The Mailman’s Son
I always thought that there was something curious about Sam Courier. Perhaps it was the way he looked, all pale and pink like a rabbit. Or maybe it was the way he smelled, like musk with a hint of Clearasil. Or it could have been because he seemed to know things that no one else knew. But now I think that it was probably because his father was the mailman in our small town. All the foreignness from all those letters and cards and packages that Mr. Courier picked up, somehow must have transferred itself to his family, Sam in particular.
Mr. Courier drove a jeep with the steering wheel on the wrong side. He’d shipped it to his father -- also a mailman-- from Korea during the war. That was quite a day in town. Hardly anyone got mail from “our boys” let alone a crate. Mr. Courier strutted about, chest puffed up like a Banty rooster. He drove that jeep everywhere. Frog McIntyre, the sheriff saw him careening down the hill behind Frodge’s General Store no one behind the steering wheel apparently, and Frog pulled Mr. Courier over but couldn’t figure out quite what to charge him with. Frog let him go with a warning to “Slow down, you hear!” So it seemed to me Sam wasn’t the first curiosity in his family.
The first time I truly remember Sam, was the day in second grade, when he came to school in knee britches. He called them knickers. He said people wore them to play golf. He had a wool cap with a fuzzy pompom sewn on top. I assumed this was worn for golf also. Frankly, I didn’t know anyone who played golf. In fact no one in school knew anyone who played golf, although Donnie McIntyre, the Sheriff’s son, watched it on TV. He said that no one looked like Sam though. Sam said we were Philistines. We all knew that was from the Bible and probably not a bad word but the way Sam said it made us feel unsure and stupid.
As we got older, Sam continued to excel in his oddness. In seventh grade Sam started to look like the hippies we had seen on TV. They had long hair and wore beads and ruint blue jeans. They had no respect for anything or anyone. They were the curse of our country or so said the men in Froedge’s General Store as they sat around the potbellied stove drinking Co’ Colas and spitting. Sam came to school one day with a pair of wide legged jeans that he had poured bleach all over. He’d fringed the cuffs and sewn patches on them. He had on one of his father’s vests but no shirt, and we could see the beginning of fuzz in his armpits. Kids were laughing at him and calling out things like “Hey, Sam, it ain’t Halloween yet” and “Who dressed you this morning, the ragman?” and “Courier, Courier, crazy as a cootie louse.” Sam just looked at us all and smiled a little half smile.
“Neanderthals” was all he said.
About that time the principal, Mr. Branstetter, came out. He called Sam over and talked to him in a low whisper. All of us had fallen silent and strained to hear what was being said, but we couldn’t make out a single word. Sam and Mr. Branstetter walked into the schoolhouse and later on Sam came back to class wearing a brand new pair of straight-legged blue jeans and a red sweatshirt from the University of Louisville where Mr. Branstetter got his teaching degree years ago. I think he got the blue jeans from Earl Froedge’s General Store. The price tag was still on them and nobody told Sam until after school was over.
It was also in seventh grade that I developed a figure and Sam developed an interest in me. He started to stare at me in class. He began calling me at home. At first I hung up on him, but then one night I was bored, and Mama and Daddy were at choir practice. The house seemed awfully big and quiet, so when the phone rang and it was Sam, I decided to talk to him. It was funny because he wasn’t so weird over the phone. I even sort of liked him. But I wouldn’t talk to him at school. We could only talk over the phone. I made him swear not to tell anyone that we had talked, and if I found out he told about us talking, I’d never speak to him again. So having reached an agreement, we started talking every night.
During those hour-long phone calls Sam started to tell me about magazines he read, like Creem and National Lampoon. I’d never heard of them, they sounded like the dirty books that high school boys read. He started to play music to me over the phone. I had only listened to Country or Gospel music, but Sam changed all that. He played Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, the Rolling Stones, and lots of Alice Cooper. I’d listen, trying to make out the lyrics, as he held the receiver next to his record player, but I never really could understand the words. The rawness of the music scared and thrilled me like the time I rode a roller coaster at Beech Bend Park. I can’t say if I loved this music, but it did make me feel different, older somehow. It sure wasn’t anything I had heard in church.
At school Sam ignored me most of the time. He’d only talk to me when I was with someone else. That was allowed. But before he’d leave, he’d slyly look at me and wink. I’d get furious but I couldn’t show it. Later over the phone I’d say something about him looking at me and he’d deny it. He said I was “paranoid”. I had to look that up in the dictionary, which ticked me off. I may have been ignorant but at least I wasn’t “paranoid”.
It was during the second semester of seventh grade, that Sam started a pen pal club. He was the founder and lone member. He’d gotten names and addresses from the back of one of his magazines and passed out copies to all the other kids. Everybody just threw their copies away, or made paper airplanes out of them, or stuck them in a book and forgot about them. Sam, however, started getting letters from all over the place. They came in from Chicago, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Dallas and even a few from other countries. He read some of them to me. They were filled with strangeness. Kids in the city sure weren’t like the kids I knew. City kids went to concerts: we went to singings. They smoked “dope”: we smoked tobacco if we smoked at all. They spoke a different language. Everything was cool and groovy, it was all “Make love not war” and “What’s happening” and “Keep on trucking”. I can’t say I understood much of this. It made me wonder what Sam wrote about. The most exciting thing that happened around Summer Shade was a hailstorm or Medford Huff getting drunk on his own moonshine and singing and crying all night in the cemetery until Frog McIntyre came and took him home to sleep it off in his tiny cabin. Somehow I couldn’t believe city kids would be interested in any of this. All I know is about a month after Sam started getting letters, he convinced his mother Miss Lucy to take him to Della’s Beauty Shop and he got a permanent. Of course he called it an “Afro”. It was definitely the biggest head of hair that the town had ever seen. Miss Della was quite proud of it. His daddy, however, pitched a fit. They say he screamed at Miss Lucy like a banshee for letting Sam do that. He said she was ruining their son, turning him into some kind of freak. Miss Lucy cried and cried. Sam for the first time in his life stood up to his daddy. He told him not to blame his mother, but that it was his idea and that it was cool. His daddy smacked him good. Sam stood there and looked at his father.
“You’ll be sorry you did that, Daddy, that’s the last time you ever hit me you hear, ‘cause the next time you do I’ll dye my hair purple!” Well, needless to say Mr. Courier hit him again and said, “Sam get out of my house and don’t come back until you get a haircut and some respect for your elders.” I found all this out later because Sam came to my house. My daddy took him in. Just like that- curly hair and all. I couldn’t believe it. What was my daddy thinking?
Daddy told Sam he could earn his keep by milking cows and chopping wood. He could sleep in the little room off the barn, there was a bed and a chair and a coal oil lamp. Sam looked around, smiled, and said, “Nothing like roughing it.” He lasted two days until the Barlow twins found out where he was staying and stuck a polecat in his room. Sam had to get a haircut then, just to get the stink off him. So he went home and Miss Lucy cried with joy and baked him a ham with all the trimmings.
Sam continued to be weird, just in a more subtle way. Somehow he got seeds and grew a bumper crop of pot in Miss Lucy’s tomatoes. She didn’t know what it was, but she thought it was “just the prettiest little weed she’d ever seen, like one of them Japanese maples”... Sam offered to take care of it and pulled it all up when it got too big. All that next year he’d come to school just smiling away like he had the biggest secret in the world, well at least the biggest secret in Summer Shade.
In Fall when school started again and we were eighth graders, Sam convinced me to start meeting him after school in Hiram Watson’s barn. Hiram didn’t use it anymore, he was too old to farm much more than a kitchen garden, and he had his Social Security to pay for everything else. So this big old barn stood empty, waiting for someone like Sam to transform it. He did, too. Some days it was a castle and we were the king and queen. He’d make me a crown of clover blossoms and teach me dances like the minuet and the Viennese waltz. On rainy days Sam and I would climb up to the loft and lie on top of the old hay bales still sweet from some long ago summer sun. Lying there under the tin roof listening to the patter of the rain, Sam would recite poetry to me. Beowulf, Evangeline, Hiawatha all came to life in a musty old barn and forever embedded themselves in my soul. He would sing Simon and Garfunkel songs, folk music, ballads - whatever came to mind and touched his fancy that day. When we were in the barn, the outside world ceased to exist. We made our own universe. We had our rules and we played our games, and all was innocence and wonder.
It was in Hiram Watson’s loft that I received my first kiss. It was during Christmas break and Sam and I had figured out a way to keep meeting secretly. I’d told my mama I was going sledding packed a bag of buttered biscuits and took Dinky, our old coonhound to add to the ruse. I don’t know what Sam told his parents but when I came across the field I saw his sled propped up against the barn wall. I tied Dinky to a post, tossed him a biscuit to hush him and climbed up to the loft. At the top of the ladder I froze in awe.
There was the most beautiful Christmas tree I’d ever seen. It was a cedar about seven feet tall and wound around and around with strings of bittersweet berries. There were birds’ nests sprayed gold and silver and each one had tinfoil-covered eggs in it. Peppermint canes and toy soldiers hung beside tangerines and apples. Glass icicles winked in the wintry sun coming through the cracks. Real snow covered the floor. It was so unexpected that I could only stare at the beauty of it.
“Do you like it?”
Sam’s words broke through my reverie. I climbed the rest of the way up and walked around the tree. Sam watched me the whole time, his face filled with fear, with longing.
“Oh Sam, it’s lovely. Is it for me?”
Then he walked over and kissed me full on the mouth. His lips were soft and his kiss was as warm and gentle as a down quilt. We stood there frozen in time. After the first kiss we had our second. And our third. I discovered I loved kissing him. After the fourth kiss Dinky started to howl and brought us back to reality. We tossed him another biscuit and Sam threw down a ham bone with a red ribbon on it.
“That’ll keep him busy for a while” he said.
Then he gave me a little box also with a red ribbon.
“Hope it’s not a ham bone,” I giggled.
“No, it’s not a ham bone.”
I opened it up and inside was a ring carved out of some dark and shiny wood. It was simple, plain, but unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
“I made it,” said Sam. “It’s walnut.”
“Oh. Sam… it’s beautiful. I love it. I’ll keep it always.”
Sam watched me as I slipped it on. It fit my finger just fine. I looked up and smiled. His face went kind of funny. Then he smiled that funny little half smile of his. At that moment I realized that no matter what, I loved him.
I gave him the gift I‘d brought for him. It was Alice Cooper’s latest 8-track. I had sneaked and bought it the last time Mama took me to Glasgow to shop. It had taken some maneuvering to get it in the house unseen, but I’d stuck it between a Loretta Lynn tape and Porter Wagoner’s Christmas album. Mama knew I’d bought music for her and Daddy so she pretended not to notice when I ran and hid them in the back seat of the Ford.
Sam opened the tape, and said he didn’t have it and had really wanted it because he knew his parents would never get it for him. I was glad he liked it because he was my best friend, even if I wouldn’t admit it to anyone else. After that we sat down and ate the few remaining biscuits I had, kissed again, and decided to actually go sledding after all.
When I think back about that day I wouldn’t change anything except for the sledding part. Because that’s where the trouble began.
We left the barn separately because we didn’t want anyone to find out about our secret place or about us. I left first, pulling my sled behind me as Dinky raced ahead chasing squirrels.
When I got to the big hill behind Froedge’s store, I could see that all the McIntyres were there as well as the Merediths and the Barlow twins. I waved and ran to the top of that hill and threw myself full tilt into the fun. Sam showed up a while later and of course the Barlow twins made fun of his hat and his sled and he smiled that half smile and said “Cretins.”
We all forgot that we were mature eighth graders and we played like we hadn’t played in years. We made snow men and snow angels, and we had a huge wonderful snowball fight, and of course we rolled Sam down the hill and stuffed an icicle in his pants. And we all laughed and laughed until our sides hurt and we collapsed in a big soggy heap. When it started getting dark, Mrs. Froedge called us all in for hot chocolate. While sitting around the stove, the air thick with the smell of wet wool and chocolate and the crispness we’d brought in from outdoors, Miz Froedge said, with a smile:
“Honey, I am sure gonna miss you when y’all move this summer.” I looked at her, wondering who she was talking to when I realized she was talking to me.
“What ... We’re not moving.” I said. Her smile wobbled and her eyebrows arched way up high.
“Oh Lord, Honey, they haven’t told you yet? Your Daddy done sold the farm. Y’all are moving to Lexington when school ends to stay with your Mama’s sister...”
I don’t know how long she went on chattering away, because I set down my cup and ran out the door. I ran all the way up the hill and cut through the field behind Mr. Watson’s barn. Dinky ran beside me barking at this new crazy game, but I didn't notice him any more than I noticed Sam yelling and dragging my sled. I didn’t notice anything, not even the tears freezing on my cheeks.
That last semester of school flew by. I tried to hold every moment, every memory close. I was so afraid of forgetting them, I was so afraid of losing my friends. I knew a big change was coming, more than just moving away, and I dreaded it. I spent more time with Sam than ever before, not caring if the other kids knew. He seemed to be the only one who understood what I was feeling. He was the only one I ever let see me cry. I loved him so much that I couldn’t even think of him not being part of my life anymore, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t let him bring up the move, so we never talked about it.
That last morning in Summer Shade, I got up before my parents and walked across the dew wet fields in the glow of the dawning day. In front of Hiram Watson’s barn I stopped. The early morning light turned the weathered boards silver, spider webs in the weeds glistened with dew and sparkled as if hung with diamonds. Queen Anne’s lace bobbed and nodded in greeting as the breeze gently blew by, touching me lightly. I slowly opened the door, the hinges moaning and creaking and stepped inside. Gentle clouds of dust rose with each footstep, and the newly risen sun peeked through the cracks, striping the air with fingers of gold. I stood still in the center of that barn; empty stalls around me, wisps of hay scattered about, and looked one last time at the safest and most magical place I had ever known. I didn’t want to leave it, but I knew I couldn’t stay. As I turned to go, I saw him. Sam Courier was standing in the door just quietly watching me. Tears slowly trickled down my cheeks and a sob escaped me. Sam walked over and gently took me in his arms. We stood there Sam and I, trying desperately to hold onto our childhood. Finally he lifted my head from his shoulder, dried my tears and gently kissed me. Then he turned and walked away without a single word. I watched him go. I let him go, my best friend, my confidant, my first love. Only as I was leaving did it occur to me: it wasn’t the barn that was magic, it was Sam.
When we left that day, Daddy drove the Ford out the back way, past the barn, the sledding hill, Froedge’s Store and I watched it all slip by, dry eyed and determined never to forget. I haven’t either. The smell of cedar, the bright red orange of bittersweet, Queen Anne’s lace bobbing in the breeze all bring back memories. By my reckoning, my childhood officially ended that first Saturday in June, and all I have left of it and Summer Shade are my memories. And a ring I wear on a chain over my heart. A ring made of dark and shiny wood.