“And please hurry, honey,” my wife said as I drove away.
Filled solid with appointments for the next two months, the little book in my suitcoat pocket wouldn’t let me do anything else. It set the pace, a pace geared by times jammed so closely together that if anything else but business affairs had come up, I’d have fallen behind and would never have caught up.
That had been two hours ago. Now the road swept gently north, cool in the shade of clay-capped sand hills. Houses lined the one paved street—most of them old, a third boarded up, one burned down—making a total of thirty-three houses in the small town.
I slowed the car as I passed the first house. Every object—house, tree, tumbledown barn—conjured a pleasant-painful time, shadowed deep inside my mind by things more urgent than the past. By jobs, by time, by tense taut days. By acquisition of material things and plans that keep both hands and feet on the rungs of the crowded ladder.
But now those times stole from the shadows, stretching, flexing, crowding the present and reality aside. For this is where I had spent my youth, where time was endless, life was easy, free, and fun. Where competition meant a game on a hard dirt court beside the barn or a football in a vacant lot.
“But didn’t you have to study, Dad?” That was our oldest son’s response whenever I spoke of my hometown—of how we’d chased those clay-sand hills; of building huts and making trails; of cutting posts and rabbit hunts; of midnight roasts and moonlight walks, to think, and plan, and dream of when.
“If I goofed off and spent my time doing things like that, I’d fall to the tail end of the class and end up not even getting in college.” As he sat at his desk, books piled high, I had tried to picture the past and how many lessons I’d brought home when I was a first-year teenager.
Suddenly I braked the car and wheeled it in against a bent and battered wire fence. It hurt to see the tall brown grass and ragged weeds that choked the yard, seeds bulging in September heat, a cluttered spot where the old house stood, left to rot, against my will, fifteen years ago.
I cut the engine, took the keys, and slowly walked the old dirt lane to the hills behind the town. A strange ambivalence crowded my chest at thoughts of then, and here and now. And the need and want struggled deep within: the need to turn again to the car and tension and time that covers it all, and the want to forget, just for a moment, time and war and riots and drugs and burned draft cards and planted bombs and the fanatic screams for everything free—love, money, position, and life.
Past emotions became the victor, and when I reached the end of the lane, I searched for the once well-used trail that led to the top of the clay-sand hills. But no footprints marred the rain-pocked sand as slowly I moved up the slight incline. The trees and hills remained the same. But the huts and trails and laughing voices were obliterated by time now.
“When are we going to climb the hill, Daddy? I’d like to see what it’s like from there.” That had been our oldest daughter, glancing up from an open book as we had driven through the town a few months before.
My hopes for our children’s youth had bubbled over the rim again. “I’ll show you sometime, sweetheart. Someday we’re going to move back here.” Silence reigned as I thought of then and dreams made long ago.
But this silence had a short life. “And we’ll climb the hill and I’ll show you where—” I glanced back then and our daughter’s head was buried in the book again, as though her entire future—all time beyond her eleventh year—depended on the knowledge there.
Breathing hard, I reached the crest of the clay-topped hill. I grasped a limb of a pine tree, waiting, resting, trying to catch my breath as I turned and saw the tiny village spread in the canyon far below.
The faded green of the old bell tower rose over yellowing trees. I caught a sudden, long-ago whiff of freshly polished wooden floors, the touch of warmth from a winter’s sun slanting through the west windows, and a sudden surge of an unseen power that made me rise from the wooden bench to bear testimony, for the first time ever, that Jesus is the living Christ.
I saw those same wooden benches lining walls on a Christmas Eve, children dancing, playing games, yet one eye always on the big front door. Or the rows of somber tear-streaked faces raised to the strong, yet wavering, voice that searched the past for works that will make the loved one long remembered after the casket is closed.
Yes, that white rock shell of the old church house stood tall and still in the fading light, a symbol of faith and hope and love to the tiny village stretched below.
Shadows crept up the red-white mountains that form the east wall of the narrow valley, and a hawk swooped high, burnt orange, in the dying sun. From the north of town a car appeared, moving south past the lonely buildings, buildings so much—like the old church house—a part of my entire life. Like a minute bug the car moved on, but emotions held my eyes to the lot where the brown weeds waved and the green car sat. Waiting. Waiting until its owner’s hunger was satiated by pleasant memories from years already lived.
“You mean you really lived here, Dad?” Our youngest son had pressed his nose against the glass as we’d driven by, trying to see just what it was about an old deserted place that made me talk and brag and want. But it didn’t show, for as the town passed from our view, the puzzled look still lingered there. “What did you do? There are no antennas on the roofs.”
And his serious words activated my memory banks—nights so cool and clear and clean, with crickets chirping and new-cut hay lying fresh and damp in the silent, moon-swept fields. Kick-the-can! Numbers fading, strained silence, the sweet warm smell of clean-washed hair, and my first-love’s hand in my palm as we raced for the battered can.
And along the banks of the Virgin River, a shining ribbon the length of the valley, I heard again the shouts of friends at play. When school lessons taught about early America, shouts were those of raiding Indians; during roundup time, whooping cowboys; and through the long years of World War II, the battle cry of fighting men.
But now those bushes stood stark and still in the almost-dark on the valley floor, the Indian forgotten, the cowboy gone, and the war, to those players of yesteryear, now a cruel reality.
“I don’t see any kids here, Dad.” Our children were more than a little concerned, for the last time through we hadn’t seen a living soul.
Kids? There must be some. For a light winked on in a house below. And another. And another. Yet I thought of the trail at the foot of the hill, crusted and barren.
And I wondered if the kids of the town ever climbed up here just to watch the night—moon rising high, smoke curling gently from chimneys below, an autumn breeze crisp as it tugs at your hair. Do the kids of the now-generation ever have time to see where they live? To see the glory of God’s creation? To paint in their minds the pictures that hang, pictures exhibited ages from now to offset and balance the harried, tense-filled days?
“But how come you and Mommy want to move back, Daddy?” For everything our youngest daughter needs a clear-cut explanation.
My eyes moved center and west of the town, to the gray headstones nestled there. But that was really only part of the reason—my dad down there, and close by him, our son, our daughter. The other part was on the verge of the almost unexplainable. Only a feeling, really, of wanting somehow to give our children a part of the joy that had been my youth. But even more, a joy now.
Huge black holes separated the lights as full dark came to the valley below. A blotch of light spit out at the night and was suddenly swallowed up again as someone opened and closed a door in one of the houses of my town.
Across the valley the moon was full, lifting away from the mountain now, unobstructed by haze or smoke or skyraking buildings or harsh-ear sounds.
I took a step and my legs were stiff from the hard, quick use after years of easy living. The tension eased, mingled now with a mellowed sadness.
From the back of my mind I pulled tomorrow—places I was overdue, times neglected in the book, competition waiting there. But, too, I saw my family home. I thought of Sunday, and Monday night. And a strange eagerness started to mount, driving me down the steep sand hill as the past receded in my mind, there to wait till the hectic pace again was flushed by the cooling streams of its being.