I remember nothing about my first bus ride home from school, but I'll never forget Todd's. It happened around the start of our second grade year, which was his first school year since he skipped the first grade due to his reading skills. Being new and different, he boarded the bus and sat alone. Naturally, some of the older kids took notice and began making fun of him. I wanted to defend him, but, being a scrawny second grader, I didn't stand a chance. Instead, I simply moved to his seat and struck up a conversation. He didn't need a hero that day, he just needed someone to talk to. So, we talked and soon discovered that only two houses separated ours. A few days later, I walked to his house and we played. And that is how our friendship began. From the start, we were closer than brothers.
Many factors contributed to the bond we shared, but the rural setting was key. We grew up in a small community called Leeville, located just outside the city limits of Petal, Mississippi. Thick pine woodlands surrounded us on three sides and a two-lane road winded along the front. Over the years, we explored all the nooks and crannies of these woods.
To some of the more prominent landmarks, we gave names. There was Calf Hill, which was the highest and farthest point from our homes. It was our Mount Everest minus the snow capped peak. We only visited there a few times, but each trip was memorable. The most direct route to it required a trek through the thick briers of the Powerline. I hated the trip because the undergrowth made it impossible to see where I was stepping or what creatures I may be stepping on. With its tall electrical lines, the Powerline marked the back boundary of our realm. Hundreds of acres of thick forest stood beyond it, but we didn't dare venture there until later in life. Snake Hill was not as high, but closer as it lay adjacent to the Sandbar on the Morgans Place.
Our rationale for choosing the names of these places was as mysterious as the names were confusing. We never saw a snake on Snake Hill, but we saw more than enough on the trail to Calf Hill, where we never saw a calf, or cow, for that matter. Perhaps in an attempt to justify the names, we concocted stories about some of these places. For example, a legend emerged about a vicious battle between a copperhead and rattlesnake that occurred on Snake Hill. The only spot with a logical name was the Gullies; a small patch of land across the street from Todd's house. It was filled with many small hills, perfect for riding our bikes.
Gently meandering along the back of our family's land was a small creek that never ran dry and often flooded the surrounding lowlands during heavy downpours. It was perfect for testing our hand-made wooden boats, which often sank. We found ourselves in the creek on several occasions, especially at the Sandbar, where we met most Saturday mornings. We used an old willow tree that hung over the creek on my family's property to carve our initials and those of a few girlfriends. Carving in the tree often prompted us to dream about settlers, Indians, soldiers, and other boys who may have roamed the area long ago. We were always on the lookout for artifacts, such as tree carvings, arrowheads, abandoned tanks, and civil war rifles. The only significant thing we found was an old water well. Many years later, the old willow tree succumbed to the high winds of a hurricane. I helped my dad cut it and pile the debris at the edge of the woods, where it eventually rotted away.
Most of the interesting features were on a stretch of land situated between our families' property. Sticking to our unconventional naming system, we called that area the Morgans Place even though the family actually living there had a different name. The Morgan family lived there prior to the current owners and they developed a legendary status. I never knew them, but, thanks to Todd's recollections of them, I had a picture in my mind of the Cartwrights from the TV show Bonanza. This area featured a wide, grassy hill with an old barn standing at the top. The older couple who lived there never complained about us roaming around their land or using their barn. We assumed they didn't know, but they probably did and just enjoyed watching us. From the barn loft, we enjoyed a commanding view of the entire hillside and most of our landmarks. Given its strategic position, it was an ideal fort.
In the early years, we spent most of our time together exploring the woods. We would decide on a time and place to meet the day before. We always carried our pellet rifles, and we often paused to shoot at birds and squirrels. Lucky for the animals, we were horrible shots. I only remember hitting one bird, and seeing it die made us cry. Our parents gave us strict time limits for reporting back to our respective homes. Instead of watches, we used our internal clocks to know when we should head back home. If we stayed away too long, Todd's mom would sound the horn on her Buick and we would drop whatever we were doing to run home. In those days, the majority of the sounds came from us, so the horn seemed as loud as a freight train.
In fact, I only recall one time when we didn't hear her horn. It was our first solo mission to Calf Hill and we foolishly decided not to tell anyone about our plans. Sometime after lunch, we took the Powerline route up since the power company had recently cleared it. When we arrived, we relaxed and played in the same creek that ran behind our homes. Our shoes and sock were soaked, so we hung them to dry on limbs and sat around talking and shooting at squirrels. Todd soon began to wonder about the time, but I assured him that, given the angle of the sun, it was probably 2 o'clock, so we had plenty of time. He shouldn't have trusted me, as we soon heard people shouting our names down the Powerline. After sounding the horn a few times with no response, our parents had dispatched my older sister and Todd's older brother to locate us. His brother usually escorted us to Calf Hill, so he probably guessed we would be there. Anyway, we ended up in a lot of trouble over that adventure, but we had smiles on our faces as we walked home because we had climbed Everest alone. Over the years, we probably reminisced more about that adventure than any other.
Usually, we played in the woods until lunch and spent the rest of the day traveling back and forth between each other's home. Because we traveled along the road so often, we formed a path, like a cow trail, along its edge by riding our BMX bikes or walking. Our bikes were identical, purchased before we met. We took this as an omen that it was our destiny to be best friends. Todd often walked barefoot to my house in the summer, which never ceased to amaze me. One summer, we decided that we would only skip when we traveled to each other's house. I can only imagine what the neighbors and those in passing cars thought as they saw two boys skipping along the edge of the road, one barefoot.
We spent most of our waking hours together and often had sleepovers. The best part of our sleepovers was the food prepared by our moms: lemon icebox pies at Todd's house, fresh popcorn from the stove at mine, and a breakfast feast at both. The only breaks came when we were grounded by our parents. Usually, if I was grounded, he was too, because any mischief we engaged in we did together. We even made a pact that it was completely legal to blame each other when we got in trouble. I think we formed the pact on the walk home from our big adventure to Calf Hill. I'm not sure how effective this strategy was at reducing the severity of punishments, but we felt clever.
We usually camped out in the woods a couple of times each year. We would spend hours preparing our campsite during the day, collecting wood, setting up the tent, and clearing out a place for a fire. At dusk, we would light the fire with help from Todd's brother or my dad, roast hot dogs and marshmallows, and just shoot the breeze under the stars. When we were ready to sleep, we usually walked back home, either because we missed our beds or, more often than not, because we spooked ourselves by telling ghost stories. The next day, we would develop poison ivy rashes or chigger bites, usually both. It usually took at least a week for us to recover, but it was worth the trouble.
Looking back, I can't imagine a better setting for two young country boys growing up. We enjoyed wide open spaces, avoided TV and other worldly distractions, and our imaginations flourished. If we had lived in the city, I doubt we would have been so close. The woods were like a catalyst that strengthened our friendship and yielded a multitude of golden memories. Although we were close, we had our share of arguments and a few fights, probably because we had spent too much time together. That said, it never took us long to patch things up and pick back up where we left off. We were polar opposites, in some ways, and yet identical in other ways. Clearly, the chemistry worked well. Perfection, we both knew, was reserved for heaven, but growing up together in our corner of Leeville sure seemed like paradise.
© Chad A. Steed