King of the Road

Garvin’s grandmother calls him. Silence. It’s Saturday, after 9 a.m., and he has other places to be. Protest and concern are evident in her voice. She is successful on the second call. Sounds like he wasn’t close, but at least he couldn’t have been that far away.

“Where you was?”

“Jus’ outside dere, granny,” the boy says. His best angelic look radiates from his face.

Street outside Garvin's grandmother's house
Street outside Garvin’s grandmother’s house

“Do’ go on the field, eh,” she admonishes him before disappearing into the house again. Five minutes later, she tests his obedience. Two loud calls later, the second louder than the first, she knows he’s flown the coop. She’ll teach him a thing or two when he returns. It’s a recurring decimal. Garvin has been there before, just like I was. He’ll deal with his grandmother’s ire as best he can on his return. Maybe he’ll get a few stripes, maybe he won’t—he already has this thing figured out. His punishment will hurt her even more than it hurts him. But, now is not the time for thinking it out. He’s got his rough thirty inch by two and a half inch bat tucked beneath his left arm, a used tennis ball in his right hand, and a following of five or six boys running after him to the place where they’ll put their young, cricketing skills to the test. Now, as the proud owner of the main implements of the game, he’s the King of the Road.

Flashback. New Village in the late sixties. Single or two-parent families, it was all the same. Boys eight to twelve would quickly take care of their appointed tasks on Saturday mornings, wolf down whatever breakfast was available, and take to the street on bare, hardened feet. Except for the few parents who didn’t want their boys mixing with the “wild” bunch, the usual suspects would all be there. And, the adventures would start with tall tales—who had said, seen, or done what. Or, whose parents owned or had accomplished what. And, each submission from each eager throat sounded more outrageous than the one that preceded it. Amidst the raucous, laughing accusations of “You lie!” coming from well-rehearsed throats, other voices would clamor for their chances to give their unblemished accounts of an incident or two. From supernatural sightings to feats of strength to heroic or never-been-done-before deeds, everything contended with everything else for a place in little-boy lore.

Street sports are serious business. A fierce, competitive spirit always dominates the atmosphere. Cricket, ‘small goals’ football, tennis, or racing, once we decide on an activity, we become transformed. The rivalry is intense. Bowling, batting, fielding, dribbling skills, top-spin, bottom-spin, smashing, drop shots, back hand flourishes, racing uphill or downhill, everyone wants a place in the oral chronicles of fame, but not in the ones of shame. Sometimes deeds of infamy halt a game’s progress or stop it entirely. A batsman refuses to accept that he’s out while the bowler and his teammates on the opposing team are adamant that he is. A footballer from one team vehemently denies that he’s handled the ball while members of the opposing team insist that he has. In protest, one or two players stand in the middle of the playing area until the dispute is decided in his team’s favor. Alternatively, the owners of the bats and balls angrily take possession of their equipment and return to their respective homes, thus effectively ending the game.

Back to the immediate present. Showered and dressed for the road, I hail Garvin’s grandmother through her open doorway. She is nowhere in sight.

“Good mornin’, Miss Marina.”

“Good mornin’, she replies from the interior of the house. She doesn’t show herself at the door—probably too busy inside. “If you see Garvin on the field, tell him I callin’ him.” There is a half-hearted firmness to her voice.

“Okay,” I say, before commencing the approximately one hundred and twenty steps that will bring me to the playing fields.

Dirt playing field strewn with grass
Dirt playing field strewn with grass

 

Garvin is not on either of the playing fields—the dirt one with grass growing in several places, or the concrete one built just before a past election to sweeten the resident voters’ disposition towards the ruling political party. The only occupant of the concrete field is Gregory or “Mad Gegs” as he is unkindly called by some of the young men of the community. He sees me aiming my camera and angles himself so he can be included in the picture. I oblige, and Gregory’s beaming posture becomes part of the ‘still’ on my digital. Looking around, I am not surprised that Garvin is nowhere in sight. With so many quantum leaps of change since my boyhood, some things have not changed, I muse. And, instantly, I am back in New Village; I am back in the late sixties on a Saturday morning being told by my older sister not to venture too far from home as I prepare to take to the street to join my prepubescent peers.

Concrete playing field with Gregory angling for a place in the picture
Concrete playing field with Gregory angling for a place in the picture

Flashback. New Village has become too small to contain our unbridled sense of adventure and competition, so we race on bare feet to George the Fifth Park —named for a former English monarch—or “The Gardens” as it’s colloquially known. The park is a place of tranquil beauty: fruit trees, flowering trees and shrubs, birds calling to each other in the trees overhead, four feet to six feet wooden benches for daylight sweethearts and nocturnal, illicit lovers, and a small fountain in the midst of it all. When we burst onto the government-maintained property from off the Chausée Road, it retains its beauty for the duration of our visit, but its tranquility is dreadfully disturbed. Whether pitching marbles, engaging in the usual sports, climbing one tree after another (if the caretaker is not around), or hunting birds, our noisy exuberance fills the open space, and sometimes elicits frowns from park-bench or strolling adults. And, when kite-flying is in season, we abandon The Gardens for Barnard Hill.

View of The Gardens from the Darling Road entrance
View of The Gardens from the Darling Road entrance

 

Favorite bench for park users
Favorite bench for park users
Park office
Park office
Two small boys enjoying the shade of a park tree
Two small boys enjoying the shade of a park tree

Kite-flying atop the grassy, Barnard Hill hillside brings exquisite joy and, sometimes, almost unbearable pain. The kites are basic, or elaborate things of beauty with long, flowing cloth tails. Their appearance is enhanced with multi-colored crêpe paper stuck firmly, with a thick flour paste, to the concave framework of nine-inch to fifteen-inch spines cut from the leaves of coconut tree branches. One hundred to five hundred yards of twine or sewing thread is wound round a short piece of iron or sturdy wood, one end of which is securely fastened to the front end of the kite. Wait for the wind to pick up. When it does, unwind five to ten feet of twine and cajole the kite upwards. The breeze gets stiffer. It’s time to ‘let go’. Unwind another ninety to one hundred feet of twine quickly and watch in unrestrained wonderment as the kite rushes upward and outward over the Castries harbor. There are twenty to thirty kites in the harbored sky now. They are part of the seabird environment, moving in and out among the graceful gulls and herons that are out to feed. Unwind another two hundred feet and shout in glee as the kite soars higher and farther away. It grows smaller in the distance, but can still be seen bobbing and weaving in the wind’s current. Now comes the time to “play” your kite. Now comes the time to distinguish between the skilled kite flyers and the rank amateurs. Kites are way out in the distance over the harbor. They appear as tiny things with lives of their own against a huge expanse of sun-blistering sky. Can they be brought back in against the fierce tide of the wind without busting the twine and losing the kites forever?

 

Twenty-first century Barnard Hill
Twenty-first century Barnard Hill

 

Barnard Hill buildings now block most of the view of the harbor
Barnard Hill buildings now block most of the view of the harbor
A car park is now part of the Barnard Hill scene
A car park is now part of the Barnard Hill scene

Fight the wind gently, ever so gently. Reel the kite in five to ten feet at a time. Patience. The wind is too strong. Let it ebb a little bit before reeling in again. Snap! A kite goes. Then another. It now becomes a gentle, loving, passionate thing. Caress the wind with hands and wrists that open, close, tug, and twist. Faces mirror fierce concentration as kites and their handlers dance in the wind. A long, defeated sigh punctuates the boy/nature battle. Another boy disgustedly hurls what’s left of his twine to the ground; it’s over for him. It seems they’re all losing the battle today. One by one, they watch as their kites are lost to the wind. But, it’s not yet done! One older boy has become one with his kite and the wind. Raggedy shirt open to reveal his chest and belly, and barefoot in the tall grass, he speaks barely above a whisper to the high-flying, demented thing in the sky. His movements are not rushed, nor are they uncertain. He has become a lover long before he’ll experience the first intimate embrace of a woman. He is no longer aware of the others around him whose now-reverential silence has become a prayer of collective redemption. Less than two hundred feet of twine left to reel in. Less than two hundred feet to bridge the huge chasm that separates him from his kite. The boy doesn’t know or care about distance. He’s not even concerned about the sunlight and sweat in his eyes. His audience dares not breathe as the last eighty feet remain. Breaths are suspended in throats grown tight with desperate hope. Finally, he is there! The last few yards are brought in and his kite is in his hands again. A shrill chorus of cheers erupts from freed throats.  There is some envy, yes, even a little resentment, but there is also camaraderie. His victory has become theirs. They celebrate with him.

I open my eyes to a twenty-first century scene far removed from the space/time separation of close to forty-seven years. Descending a long flight of concrete steps to the main street below, I am temporarily halted by an excited babble of childish voices and a stampede of running feet. Just before they disappear from view, I see Garvin and his followers burst from a dirt access road facing the concrete playing field and race away in the direction of Garvin’s grandmother’s home. I smile and offer a mental salute—from a twentieth century, former King of the Road to a twenty-first century successor.

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