When I was growing up, school started on a normal schedule. School ended in May and didn’t resume until the Tuesday after Labor Day. Labor Day was the last day of summer. Now the scientist and weatherman will tell you that summer doesn’t end until late September, but when the school-bell rang that Tuesday morning, as a kid, you knew summer was over. It was always hard looking out the window that first week of school at the bright sun in the trees knowing that you should still be having adventures. During winter, when the leaves were off the trees, the sun hidden behind an endless gray sky, and bitter cold surrounding you, school could almost be a relief. But those first weeks of school extinguished freedom in the sun.
That last Monday, Labor Day, was the last day of freedom for a young man. The day before I entered high school was a particularly warm and humid day. Such days are not uncommon in the South when the heavy air seems to weigh you down in midday and the lazy song of the grasshoppers drone on your tired ears. My prize possession was an off-road bike. On its knobby wheels and spring shock absorbing frame, I would ride through the neighborhood and woods that surrounded it with my friends. We would make trails through the woods from road’s end that took nearly a summer to construct. My older sisters and their friends built the first trails that we took a duty to maintain, not out of tribute to them but for our own enjoyment.
I remember a particular bike ride. I stopped to look around being hit with the knowledge that I had school tomorrow and this would be my last midday midweek ride for a long time. I felt as if something were being taken from me. Like a man who knows that he is about to be sent off to a far country for work or war and wants to savor the feeling and sense of the place. I wanted to remember the sun on my face and the smell of cut grass. I wanted to remember the freedom before I assumed my seat and read, wrote, and did what society deemed a young boy should do.
Although I could ride my bike on the weekend when chores were done and homework finished, it was more of a reward than the everyday pleasure of summer. Realizing this was the last day of summer I rode as if I was recording the feeling and sights around me. Leaving the pavement I descended into the woods on the trail leading to the old logging road. I didn’t fear wild animals, which mostly consisted of squirrels, rabbits, and rarely a snake. Although one time I was sure that I saw a black panther across the logging road as I came near the end of the trail one day. His eyes caught mine and he stopped in mid-stride. I froze in place as well. My mind was racing, Did panthers come this far north into Alabama? Were my eyes deceiving me? Could it be a dog. Yet it seemed like I heard a low purring growl like the tigers on the nature documentaries and at the zoo. It was a low guttural droning sound. But he must have been as alarmed and frightened by me as I was of him, because I turned to dart back down the trail hoping to outrun him, and he darted back down the way he came just as quickly. As time passed I considered it was an overactive imagination, bad vision, or truly a scared panther but it didn’t stop me from going into the woods. Though I did scan a little farther up the trail when I traveled in the future.
The woods surrounding our neighborhood were a youth explorers delight. A the edge of the neighborhood behind ours was an old dirt logging road carving through the woods to the power lines. From there you could go down a trail to the right and catch tiny fish in a small stream. The stream was narrow but deep and cut along the bottom of the hill. Walking down to the left you came to Five Mile Creek. It was a mostly shallow stream, several feet in most places, but there were a few places large enough to wade in on a hot summer day. There was one place, under a tree overhanging the creek where you could catch some small bream. One summer some of the boys and I were able to catch fish on bare hooks. As soon as they hit the water the small fish would bite the hook. Occasionally you would catch some worth eating but most of the fish were too small to fool with.
On this day I rode back to the edge of the woods and down to Five Mile Creek. There was a road along side of it, rarely used because it was blocked near the main road, though older kids going drinking in the woods or hunters would occasionally drive through. I rode along the road occasionally stopping a places that I spent during the summer. I climbed upon “Big Rock”, an imposing bolder that sat at the edge of the creek where we would climb and sit or lay in the sun talking about nothing.
I had to push or carry my bike up the walking trail that went from the back of our neighborhood to the creek. It came up behind someone’s house who didn’t know or care about the kids who would emerge from the woods to return to the neighborhood. We never were destructive so if they did see us, they knew we meant no harm. Having said the summer places good-bye, I rode leisurely through the neighborhood just enjoying the last hours of freedom before school the next day.
I didn’t know at the time that it was almost like a final tribute to the places of youth. When you start high school and begin to put off childish things, the bike rides and lazy summer days do not seem so important. We got cable so I was watching MTV and other programs that caught my interest. My friends were older too and cared little for games of our youth. The bike might come out occasionally but it was to get to a friend’s house quicker or to visit someone farther away. The bike became transportation, not a source of adventure. And when I got a car, the bike became a dust collector and was eventually given to some other kid or left by the donation box at the Goodwill or King’s Ranch.
I wonder if some sense of this drove me to explore my childhood haunts that day. Did my “self” from the future get a message to me to visit and savor these places? Did I get a message that I needed to say good-bye? Is that why I see myself sitting on my bike from outside, because I was able to reach across the past and tell him to seize the day?
I’ve sat in boring meetings in a conference room on summer days, my mind drifting. Looking out the window as the project manager and others droned on I saw the bright sun in the trees and wished to have a bicycle and ride across the neighborhood one more time. Not riding as a middle-aged man huffing and puffing up the hill but as fresh young man, ready to enter his teenage years, laughing with his friends and feeling the sun on his face.