I don’t remember exactly when Eldon became my friend. I do, however, remember the first time I saw him grabbing fistfuls of blackberries off of Grandmaw’s shrub in the backyard. He stood there smashing the fruits in his mouth, his faded overalls dangling off one shoulder, feet bare and hair straight up on his head. He jumped in surprise when I yelled. “Y’all get outta my grandmaw’s berries!” Really, I was thinking – get out of MY berries. It made me red-hot mad to see all those yummy fruits going down someone else’s throat. I came off the porch in time to see him run off over the hill blackberries in both fists.
It would be several weeks before I knew his name, and that came after church one Sunday. Leaving from Assembly of God Church was an exercise in frustration for us kids and eternal patience for our parents. The slow procession out was made excruciating by the old folks who normally sat in the front and always were excused first. Their conversations with each other and then with Pastor Norris made the entire line stop and start in hiccupped convulsions. Kids, with a fevered desire to get out in the sun, would dash in as the line began to move only to be stopped short within footsteps from where they left; such was the sudden calamity that I experienced. I found an open spot and ran for it only to find my face smothered by the backside of a rather large-skirted lady.
“Oh, honey, are you alright?” she turned and patted me on the head. I didn’t look up for fear of seeing Grandmaw’s face frowning back, not that I could have seen anything since my eyes were blurry from the knock. As my vision cleared a round cheeked face appeared from the outside of the big skirt. My mouth popped open in surprise. It was that berry swiping kid! I hardly recognized him, his clothes were pressed and clean, and his hair was pressed too, down and to the side. He smelled like Grandpaw’s hair tonic.
Little did I know of the talk taking place above my head until Grandmaw poked me in the back and said, “Mind your manners Dickie, say hello to Eldon.”
“Hhlow.” I sputtered. Eldon just stood there wide-eyed with his mouth open. I knew he was remembering me from the berry bush incident.
By the time we all made it out into the sun, the sting of the backside buffeting including my introduction to Eldon had gone away. The sunshine invited play and Eldon made the first move. “Ya want to see my baseball?” He pulled a shining white ball from the front pocket of his baggy trousers. I thought maybe this kid was not just a berry thief after all and eased up enough to give him a second chance. “Race ya,” I motioned with my head to the vacant lot by the church. We scurried over and played catch while the grown-ups talked.
From then on it seemed like Eldon became part of our family. He was my age and fun to have around, so it was no surprise that everywhere I went he went too. Jimmy and me would make a plan and it couldn’t possibly be complete without Eldon along. Well, mostly, Eldon had lots of good ideas. He was the one who figured out that the broken boards off of Miss Parson’s old fence would be great as bunks in the clubhouse AND he finally came up with the way to get them to stay nailed to the walls – even though we spent half the day picking ourselves and the boards up off of the floor. He also knew where to find the best branches for making really good slingshots.
Soon August was well along and the big kids were starting talk about school. Summer beat down with unbearable heat, Jimmy and me, bound by Grandpaw’s swimming rule needed another place to play. Eldon helped us find a great spot up on the mountain that we could walk to and have a rumpus in the cool shade of the timber. The “hiding spot” was a great place to have adventures. After chores we would band together and make our way up the mountain to play war. Hours were spent searching for and collecting little piles of acorns and other nuts for ammo. After a short time pelting each other with the booty, we would abandon our efforts to get home in time for supper. Sometimes we just gathered up the ammo and would have to high-tail it back home; returning the next day we’d find our ammo eaten up by squirrels and deer. We tried hiding the stacks under twigs and leaves, but it was no use.
“We need a ammo box.” Jimmy sighed after the third try.
“No, we need a hideout!” Eldon exclaimed.
While we set to collecting up our ammo, I imagined a glorious lair in the trees – something like Robin Hood. We could go up and down on rope ladders and swing down to attack our enemies below . . . My imagination was working overtime when Jimmy popped me between the eyes with a walnut. “C’mon, I’m hungry, we’ve gotta get home.”
We spent the next week finding big branches and trying to stack them up between trees for a suitable hideout. Our efforts kept falling down and there wasn’t enough water and dirt to make a good mud pack to stick it all together. It was decided that we would start collecting boards and nails and we would have to haul them up to the site. This was gonna take a while. Since time was at a premium, we also determined that we could salvage a big chunk of the day if we helped each other out with our chores. This was an agreement that nearly led to the demise of me and Eldon’s friendship – but that story is for another day.
Our salvage operation was very successful as by the time school started we had most of the makings of a good hideout. We’d made a few new friends in the meantime and they were really good at scavenging areas that Jimmy, Eldon, and me weren’t familiar with. Sherm was best at finding nails and Red had a knack for bringing along rope. We worked feverishly every afternoon to gather up the necessary supplies and would spend Saturdays in our building endeavors. By the end of September we pounded in the last nail. Our hideout was complete, or so we thought. We all stood back in admiration. “So, how do ya get in?” Sherm questioned. In our hurry, we forgot to build a door! Thwack, thwack, thwack. Eldon got right on the solution. He took the claw-end of his hammer to the nails on the middle three boards. In no time at all the entrance was made.
We jostled for position to get through the door. I, being rather skinny, slid in first. Inside the hideout was dark, cool and peaceful. The earth was soft under my feet and the air smelled musty and rich, like mushrooms. We all sat inside just looking at each other for a few minutes. All of a sudden Jimmy hopped up and declared war on the rest of us. I was glad since my britches were starting to get wet from my seat on the ground. After a short time pelting nuts at each other, Jimmy jumped back on the idea of an ammo box. We took the wood that was cast off for the door and made a good size box that also made a really great bench seat inside the hideout. By the time we collected a few nuts and put them inside the dinner bell was ringing back home.
Early October brought the first heavy frost and the afternoons didn’t stretch out long enough to allow us back to the hideout on the weekdays. I longed for Saturday when we would run up to the hideout, adventure, stash our nut ammo and other treasure and drag back home giddy and exhausted from play. As the month began to wane, we all knew that we’d soon have to leave the hideout behind for the winter. Eldon came up with another great idea – a camp out. It took Jimmy and me a bit more effort to convince Grandmaw that we could manage ourselves late on the mountain. She allowed it only if we bundled up and agreed that my older sister and cousin would go fetch us up an hour after dark.
On the day of the camp out Jimmy poked me in the ribs before the sun was up. “C’mon, we gotta get our camp gear packed.” I jumped up and pulled on my thermals. I gathered up my gear and turned on Uncle Otto’s headlamp to check the battery. The excitement bubbled in my stomach and I had to eat one of the apples that I packed the night before. We were dashing through the kitchen when Grandmaw stopped us short. “I made you boys some sandwiches, they’re on the table.” I grabbed the grub, kissed Grandmaw on the cheek and raced out the door.
We met Eldon on the top of the hill. “Your light’s on,” he pointed to my head. I felt a sharp smack on the back of my noggin compliments of Jimmy.
“Rats.” Now I would have to conserve the battery until the walk back home.
The trek to the hideout was made a bit slower by the gear, but we were still the first to arrive. Sherm got there soon after and was showing us the Boy Scout kit he borrowed from his brother when Red finally came along.
“How long were you planning on staying?” Sherm asked Red – this was prompted by the enormous rucksack that Red had hauled up.
“I din’t want to get cold, or hungry, besides I brought this.” Red revealed a spread of chocolate, graham crackers and marshmallows – enough to feed all of Miss Lambert’s second-grade class. I liked Red’s thinking.
The day seemed to fly by and I felt a bit heavy as we collected up firewood in the afternoon. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the hideout or the fun we’d had. Before the sun got low we had a good size fire in the pit and were poking marshmallows in. We each took a turn at spooking the others with scary stories. I really liked the one that Jimmy made about crazy Miss Parsons being a witch, but Eldon’s about the miner’s ghost was voted the best. Darkness blanketed the woods. Cold crept into my skin and I didn’t know if my shivers were from the frosty air or the stories that were told. We watched the fire dwindle to white-hot coals as we ate up the last of the graham crackers. I could hear my sister’s voice calling up from the hollow below. We rummaged around in the beam of Sherm’s Boy Scout flashlight to gather our gear. No one said a word as we covered up and stamped out the last of the fire’s embers.
My gear felt extra heavy on the walk down the trail toward the government road. Sherm and Red left us at the junction. I didn’t have the heart to say goodbye, so I just waved at their shadowy figures as they trudged slowly away. Sis had had enough of our lollygagging and left us at the top of the hill where we were to bid Eldon goodnight. It was there that I realized something and I got to poke Jimmy in the back for a change. “Hey, we didn’t play war all day,” I smiled. I could tell that he didn’t understand by the way he looked at me; but Eldon knew, he smiled too. “See ya tomorrow?” He said.
“Yeah, tomorrow.” The load was lighter the rest of the way home as I carried along visions of the hideout ammo box and the treasure that waited inside.