Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Vacant Lot

[Cross-posted to WAAGNFNP]

Our house on Ironwood Drive, in Donelson Tennessee, in the 1950s, was a typical example of post-War construction, cinder block walls, asbestos exterior shingles, and shoddy construction. My parents discovered years after purchase that the overflow pipe from the attic water heater didn’t actually exist; there was a short pipe in the attic and another short pipe beneath the house and nothing in-between. “Shoddy” doesn’t actually cover something like that, since it was pure fraud to fool the building inspector. There was something similar with the septic tank, which, after we’d left, turned out to be covered only with plywood that finally rotted through, much to the distress of subsequent inhabitants.

It was an “all-electric” house, electric stove and electric “radiant” heaters that were nothing but wire wound around ceramic cores. The heating and cooling expansion made little clicking noises whenever they turned on or off. The electricity was cheap, though, courtesy of the TVA, a fact that made Goldwater’s loss of Tennessee in 1964 inevitable. He’d gone of record as wanting to privatize TVA, even saying he’d “sell it for a dollar” if he could. The voters of Tennessee thought that the fight against socialism could maybe be first started in another state, for example, Arizona, where there were plenty of Federal water projects to privatize first. The Senator from Arizona never quite grasped that logic.

Before tossing up the masses of houses, the developers had done some landscaping, which is to say that they’d bulldozed the tops off the hills and used them to fill in the gullies. One of these landfills was in our back yard, where some trees had been half buried, but still managed to grow. So the soil on the downslope was rich (for that part of Tennessee), while the soil around the house proper was not.

The slope started about halfway to the property line in the back yard, then leveled off in what we always called “The Vacant Lot.” The nearby roads were twisty turny, and the vacant lot was an orphan plot, surrounded by hastily built homes on their hastily graded lots, but it had no direct access to any road. I have no idea who owned it; possibly the power company, since we also were graced with a nice, high transmission tower only a few hundred yards away.

The lot was where the debris from the construction had been dumped, as I vaguely recall. I recall more vividly the lot clearing operation that the neighborhood mounted sometime after we moved it. It culminated in an enormous bonfire, fueled by the leftovers, some of it entire tree trunks, one of which burned for days after the bonfire was over and which still wasn’t completely consumed. It left a charcoal husk that seemed huge at the time, though I’ll guess it was chest high to someone who is only four feet tall. Nevertheless, it was there for years afterwards, on a little ridge-let behind some houses that were behind us. The little ridge was cool because there was a full ‘dozer cut in it, so I can say with authority that our particular area had layers of sandstone under it, with clay sometimes sandwiched between those.

After the clearing, the vacant lot went through what I now know as ecological succession, first weeds, then short bushes, finally small trees, though we kids tended to cut down the small trees, using the ever popular “machete,” which I believe was actually a WWII vintage bayonet. I recall it as being Bill’s property, Bill being the alpha male of our particular group, one year older than me, and notably larger and more physical. As the weeds grew, we used the machete and other cutting tools to create paths, then sometimes tunnels through the weeds, culminating in hidey holes of various kinds that appeal to children before the age of reason.

I think there was another weed clearing, years later, after I’d started school, because my memories of the vacant lot later show a less jungle-like terrain, though some of it is probably also just physical growth, with we kids “growing like weeds” and, if not outpacing the actual weeds, holding our own.

One gray day in winter, my sister and I were playing out in the back yard, then down into the vacant lot, since we could go pretty far that way and not disobey the dictum of her not crossing any streets. Given our ages, it was probably a matter of me playing and her tagging along. Or maybe she was out exploring and I was being a good brother and making sure she didn’t get into trouble. I’d guess that I was somewhere around 7-9 and she would have been 5-7, so either of those was plausible.

I don’t remember how it was that we came to look into the tool shed of the people who lived all the way on the other side of the vacant lot, at the corner of Cottonwood and Sinbad. We were definitely trespassing, though without felonious intent. In any event, the thing that trumps all other memories of the day was the monkey.

It was young; I’m pretty sure of that. I don’t know what kind it was, but I can say that its arms were very long. I don’t remember if it had a tail, so it could even have been a chimpanzee, though I doubt it.

It was shivering from the cold, and it climbed onto my back, no doubt trying to get a little warmth, and maybe also because young primates ride their mother’s back. I heard its breathing, because it wheezed. I imagine that it had a respiratory infection and I doubt it lived much longer after that.

I now know, of course, that the way that monkeys were captured in the wild is to shoot their mothers. They were then loaded into cages, shipped to foreign lands, then sold, as “pets,” often to owners who had no more knowledge of how to care for them than did the owner of the unfortunate simian that I met briefly that day. Maybe it was an impulse buy, later repented, but without an exit strategy.

It’s a long chain of accountability, and it’s ever so easy for everyone in it to shift the blame. The pet owners don’t know how the system works. The store owners are only meeting the demand. The hunters are just trying to make a living, and besides, they’re only animals.

The monkey in the tool shed, of course, immediately peed on my back, and I peeled him off of me and we put him back into the shed and closed the door. I was pretty anxious to get back home and clean up, after all. We didn’t tell anyone about it because we were snooping where we had no business being. And I rarely think about the way the monkey looked at me, or how human his eyes looked, and how much misery was in them, or that we might have done something for him if we hadn’t been afraid of the consequences.


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