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Pieces of the past
© St. Petersburg Times,
One day, I'll tell my two grandsons why I wouldn't let them play with the four bricks they found in my carport.
And years later, when they're my age, maybe they will understand.
The bricks were nothing special. Just plain old red-clay bricks. Chimney bricks, the kind you saw on every house on south Georgia farms that depended on fireplaces for heat. In the '50s and early '60s, all of them did.
The bricks they were playing with were no different from all those others in all those chimneys. Nothing is inscribed on them. They are not lacquered. Some are even chipped, and red dust falls from them when they're jostled.
The only thing that distinguishes them from every other brick is where they were picked up about a year ago. They were four on a3-foot-high pile that was the only identifiable thing remaining in the spot where the house I grew up in once stood, abandoned for the last 30 years.
There was no sign of the huge oak tree that dominated the front yard. A year earlier, its trunk had split like a wishbone under the weight of its sprawling branches.
There was no trace of the wagon wheel my mother turned into a standing rose bush, or the tire she changed into a flower bed. The well, which stole forever the first pair of glasses I bought on my own -- a pair of horn rims I thought were cool-looking but were hard to keep on my face -- was filled in and smoothed over so completely that I had to guess where it used to be.
All that was left was a pile of bricks that used to be a chimney, in a field that used to be a home.
I sorted through them looking for one that I would remember. My brother Clarence -- who also grew up to be a writer -- and I used to constantly challenge one another on our eye for detail: How many hands of tobacco did it take to fill a stick? How many watermelons formed a row across the bed of the truck? "I count stuff," he would boast when he got one of my challenges right.
I was sure that somewhere along the line, one of those bricks had been a test. Somewhere in that pile, I was sure, would be a brick that carried a visible sign of the life that had flitted around it.
I didn't find it. Nothing triggered a memory that would have made one brick more valuable than another.
I looked for a white spot that could have been some of the shoe polish my brother used to draw a large replica of the Milwaukee Braves mascot on the chimney. The Braves were his team. Mine too, but I couldn't let him know that. I had to settle for my second choice, the Baltimore Orioles. Back then, two of my brothers and I had an understanding: When one of us claimed something, especially if you were the biggest of the brothers -- or the best boxer -- it was yours. Exclusively. The Braves were Clarence's baseball team. The Packers, his football team. Wake Up, Little Susie, his song. To challenge that ownership risked an unwanted lesson in boxing, as my brother Horace learned one day after having a moment of insanity and singing a few words of Wake up, Little Susie.
Being the youngest, I did a lot of "settling for": The Orioles, the Colts, Peggy Sue, the color blue and -- when we finally got a television and could claim a night that was ours when we could select the channel to watch -- I had Tuesday.
I didn't see a trace of shoe polish on any of the bricks.
Maybe Ernest had wiped away all traces of it after we left. He lived down the road and was a Yankees fan. He answered my brother's drawing with a big No. 7 and Mickey Mantle's name scrawled on his chimney.
I looked without much hope for a scuff mark or stain from the million times I threw balls against it, but rubber doesn't do much to bricks. The chimney was good for playing catch: It never got tired or told me to squat like a catcher the way my brothers did. I could even play nine-inning games with it. The base of the chimney was staggered doorstep fashion, and balls thrown there bounced off in unpredictable directions, just as they would off a baseball bat. Sometimes they were popups, ground-hugging liners, easy bouncers or long shots over your head and over the pomegranate tree for a home run. A catch was an out, a miss put a runner on base. Nine innings and a lot of sweat later, a winner emerged.
None of the four bricks had a scuff mark.
I couldn't even find any signs of the fires that burned in the fireplace, many of which I made, getting up before anybody else and relishing the moment when a sweating piece of firewood would flare with a flame. My father would brag on me: Getting a good fire going quickly was not something everybody could do.
Apparently no sign was even left by the tire we threw in the fireplace because my parents were in Florida visiting my sister and none of us boys felt like going out and cutting wood. The flame was so hot and the smell was so bad, we had to leave the house anyway.
I guess it was foolish to think 30 years later I would see evidence of that fire; my parents didn't even see any when they returned just a few days later.
Of course, I would never be able to show my grandsons a spot on the bricks where my head rested on my forearm a thousand times while my brothers and sisters and cousins scattered to find hiding places while I was "It." The base of the chimney was usually the "base" for the game.
Peeking while I counted to 100 didn't leave any marks.
Knowing that some smart aleck was always hiding just on the other side of the chimney waiting for the words "Ready or not, here I come," so he could spin around and beat me to the base, left no trace of anything on the bricks.
The hard slaps on the base as we both tried to touch it first stung our hands but didn't faze the bricks.
So with nothing to distinguish them, except where I found them, where a house for 30 years defied the laws of physics, nature and probably architecture by standing, I just grabbed four of them and drove them home to Florida.
One is for me and one is for each of my three sisters' households -- if they want one.
They are, after all, just four bricks, just like millions of others.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.
From the wire