Objects have the unique ability through memory and association to become a kind of time machine. One of the most memorable objects of my childhood was a beer can. I found it hidden under the stones in a creek that flowed near the trailer court where we were living at the time. The stream flowed through a tiny patch of wild that was holding desperately onto the edges of the altered landscape surrounding it. Our trailer court was right across the street from the town dump. We didn’t live there long enough for me to discover where the water in our creek came from or went to… I wonder now what kind of stuff was lurking in its water? Whatever… it was clean enough to harbor all sorts of creatures, crayfish, minnows and water insects. It was my favorite place. The creek was down a dirt lane between the rows of trailers. Across a wire fence, through some trees, a few jumps down the hill, a run through the grass, some hops over the rocks. The narrow, ankle deep rivulet bubbled along over pebbles and stones. Most of the kids and all the adults ignored the little stream. It was the most perfect thing I knew. There was a an occasional disruption, a neighborhood dog sniffing around or another inquisitive kid. There were animals that lived in the holes along the banks. Birds loved the stream too. It was an alien world I could immerse my body and mind into, escaping all the junk around me. I’d take off my shoes and socks and roll up my pant legs before I’d step into the chilly water. Thinking back now, part of it’s allure and power was how it transformed me. I became Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians. I had at least a little control over this world. Searching under rocks for crayfish or pollywogs and minnows. I lived a very different life there than in the trailer park a few hundred feet away. The stream was a companion and friend, my first totem.
There was a patch of woods on the far side of the stream. It belonged to the older kids from the park. I’d spy the older boys and girls sneaking into and out of the woods. They’d hold each other in funny ways and I could tell they were doing some things they probably shouldn’t. When they’d creep back home along the woods edges the boys would elbow and push each other and laugh like you did when you were making fun of somebody and the girls always walked ahead of them like they were in a big hurry. I watched my older brothers friend George makeout with a girl there once. It didn’t look like much fun.
The day I discovered the beer can I was lifting up rocks, looking for crayfish. I found the unopened can wedged between stones hidden in the current. Whoever had put it there had blown it, this can was mine now! The kids in the trailer park lived by an unwritten law, finders keepers losers weepers.
This discovery became one of my first “Eden experiences.” I came from a family of strict prohibitionist and I was also only eight years old. A good portion of that eight years I’d spent on my butt, sitting in a church pew, hearing about how bad the stuff in this can was for my soul. This stuff was a ticket straight to hell. I couldn’t believe my luck! There were no poptop cans in 1959 or I would have orened it and taken a swig right then. I needed a can opener! Going to a friends house was out of the question. I’d already learned none of my friends could be trusted with a secret , especially one as big as this. The last thing I needed was one of the big kids beating me up for stealing their beer. I was going to have to sneak it home. Which met I was going to have to get it past my big sister Kathy. Kathy was thirteen years old and took care of me after school until our parents got home from work. She accomplished this job with a combination of indifference and eagle eye attention that left me a little paranoid and always watching over my shoulder. I was going to have to appeal to her curious side and tempt her with this forbidden drink. It was my only chance. What would she do? What could she do? She wouldn’t go near the creek and if mom found out she let me go there alone she’d be in big trouble. She’d either help me or confiscate it. I was convinced Kathy could read my mind, she could always tell when I was up to something even before I knew I was up to something. To my eight year old mind she was a kind of grown-up so I was shocked how easy she gave in to this conspiracy. Kathy found the can opener and opened the can, she took the first swig and then handed it to me. I was in awe and amazed, there was more to my big sis than I knew! I’d smelled this stuff before, on street corners downtown and on the breath of a man that showed up in church occasionally. Whoaaamundo… it tasted worse than it smelled. We only drank one sip each, threw the rest away and hid the can… I spent the rest of the day waiting to Satan show up and escort me directly to hell.
I think mom may have been in her seventies before she found out this story. It was one of those holiday times, when we were all together, and it isn’t long before somebody starts telling old stories. The years had turned us into “grownups” but this kind of moment turns you back into kids. The nostalgia of these moments acts like a truth serum and the story of a “forbidden beer” finally came out. My mother just laughed and told us all a similar childhood secret of her own.
As I wander the streams around my home in search of fish, sticks and stones. I occasionally find an empty beer can someone has tossed. For a moment I am an eight year old boy again, filled with a yearning to know what I do not know and a willingness to have secrets I’m beholding to.