Saturday evening, I walked my dog into the past.
It was a perfect evening here in Cleveland: 80 degrees, but the humidity was low. The sky was blue, and the slightest of breezes lifted the leaves; even flags were too heavy for its gentle touch.
We came up a different street than we usually walk, one that is rich in trees and older homes. And half a century just evaporated. I was back at my great-grandparents’ house at the end of 8th Avenue in The Dalles. The long blocks of manicured, green lawns gave way, on the west side of my grandparents’ house, to the desert from which it they had been claimed. The street rose abruptly in front of their house, almost like a horse rearing from danger. And danger there was, indeed, for just across the street, behind Marge Kraft’s house, was The Bluff.
It might have had an actual name, but for us kids it was just The Bluff.
There were always skid marks on that part of the street, where it was steep enough to require the application of horsepower and a running start. Then it curved around Grandpa’s house to become 7th Place, a street that would have been an alley in any other part of town but for the fact that the houses on the north side of it had nothing beyond but The Bluff.
That little crescent on the west side of Grandpa Lemuel’s immaculately kept lawn was our own little chunk of wilderness, when we were little. Rough and broken granite pushed up in large and small chunks, and the prairie grass grew wild. In the spring there were blue bonnets and bachelor buttons and other wild flowers that we would gather and present to Gramma Lemuel for her many vases. In the summer there were prickles and burrs that scratched our legs and had to be wrestled from our clothes.
Those jagged rocks were stepping stones over hot lava. Over poison. Over rough seas. And they were milestones as well, demonstrating the triumph of our growth when we grew tall enough to make the leap between two stones that had been impossible a month before.
I can’t count the number of banged-up knees and elbows that were Bactined and BandAided through the years. Parents and aunts and grandparents scolded us for our tears, pointing out that they were all our own fault. But they never told us to stop playing on those rocks.
And when we were old enough to cross the street by ourselves, there was the magnificence of the pirate ship in the Krafts’ yard. Oh, to you it might only be a giant, ragged chunk of granite. But for us? The magnificent way that it started high at the south end, dipped low in the center, and then rose into a prow at the north?
Captain Hook never captained a better ship than this. The hours that we passed, half a dozen kids scrambling over that rock, can’t be counted.
Never mind that the north end of it dropped off about 12 feet to more craggy rocks and then the long, steep roll off The Bluff. A fall from it could have been fatal, but the couple times we tumbled off led to nothing more than bruises and sprains and admonitions to be careful.
We had no electronics. We came in at night filthy and exhausted. We climbed into bathtubs where we yowled at the hot water on our scratches and cuts.
They were the best times ever.