Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Three memories come to mind when I reflect on 1980. Some guy named John Lennon was shot to death, and Mom took me to see The Empire Strikes Back. The third is visiting Dad for the final time, who'd
passed away the year before.
The Southern sunlight peeked through my window, calling me like the sound of a banjo bouncing from the East Tennessee mountain tops. Each day would bring a brand new experience, and all I had to do was soak it up and bask in the beauty of freedom only rewarded to a kid my age. A quick "I Love you, Mom" was the first and only recognition she received most mornings. Before she could even turn around to acknowledge my words, the slam of a screen door was the indication I'd be back home before dark.
My pilgrimage began on a well-worn path I'd blazed many times before. While the course was familiar, the spectacles along the way never failed to astonish. The curiosity of a nine-year-old is easily ignited, but I choose to believe mystical moments materialize with each stride. Several trees had been cut down the prior week and left lying in the woods. These were monumental works of art tangled and stacked, enticing my imagination.
What an incredible fort! Maybe it was a wrecked pirate ship. I could be Tarzan swinging from limb to limb and climbing within the fallen timbers. Foliage cracked under my feet while peeking up into the sky. A breeze whispered and gave kisses through the mangled labyrinth as I caught subtle glimpses of passing clouds.
I'd probably consumed more hours in my pretend castle than I realized. Time slips quickly for a child unless spent sitting in a classroom. As far as I was concerned, I was still in the earlier stages of my quest. So much more to explore, and the day was mine! I continued further into the woods, which eventually led out of the woods into the river bottom. I could see my oasis shine through the last bit of brush that stood in my way.
A lovely cold spring awaited a thirsty traveler, and an ancient oak stood beside the calm welcomed body of water. A single nail pierced the bark while a dented tin cup hung under its shade. I'd always presumed the chalice was for well-deserving risk-takers like myself. I would envision the mug offering extraordinary powers or the spring granting eternal life like the fountain of youth. To this very day, I can not think of a time I enjoyed the flavor of water as much as I did from that old tin cup by the spring.
Looking over the Cumberland River, I noticed darkness tiptoeing around like a sneaky bandit. "Is the sun already beginning to set?" I contemplated. Impossible, my day had only just commenced, and dinner time had to be hours away. I still have way too much exploring on my agenda to turn back now. Revitalized by the mysterious goblet of life, I took off in a full-fledged sprint deeper into untapped regions.
To my surprise, the sun was indeed slipping, and trouble was hot on my tail because I had missed supper. It was time to run, unlike I had ever before. Branches slapping me in the face, roots emerging from the ground with each stride, and rocks appearing from nowhere made my return treacherous. I was lost.
There I sat, a terrified nine-year-old in the middle of the forest isolated from the comfort of familiarity—every inch of my body, covered with bruises, cuts, and dirt from head to toe. Tears filled my eyes, creating tiny trails flowing down my cheeks, parting the dust on my face. Dropping my head, I wrapped my hands around the back of my neck for protection against danger. Rocking back and forth, I noticed a small burst of light in the distance. I pushed to stand and used every bit of energy remaining to make my way toward the beacon.
I second-guessed myself and was unsure if the sparkle had even come from in front. Maybe my mind was playing tricks? Another subtle twinkle captured my attention, so I moved quickly to the illuminations. Radiant bursts happened more frequently, providing a precise route to a modest opening. It was like passing through an enchanted doorway into a sensational sanctuary far away from peril. Whatever led me to the spot also provided a single stump to sit and enjoy the performance.
Millions of fireflies encircled the space. It felt like my spirit floated beyond the solar system while eavesdropping on neon stars echoing amid the florescent moonbeams shooting in every direction. The cool glow of each candescent light cradled me as time unraveled, signaling safety. Panic dissipated, giving way to a friendly pathway, and I understood it was time to return home.
Luckily my mother had fallen asleep on the couch watching television. She had no clue I had been out so late. The radiant beauty of the painting my mind sketched out that night is still one of the most awe-inspiring memories. Darkness offered a final moment with Dad I will never forget because I knew he was directing my steps.