I go back here so often in my memory, I have written many pages in my journals, and dreamed of going back. I suppose everyone has at least one idyllic moment in their life they remember fondly. For me, this time period became an obsession that stayed with me for over forty years. How could a two year time period have had such a lasting influence, which, ultimately shaped who I am today? Maybe there is a window in every childhood that opens up in our soul and allows us to take in our environment, all of it, the good and bad, in its purest form. In my case these memories set up camp in my writer’s soul, lit a fire in the darkness, and fed that fire while it waited for me to be ready to pour it onto the page.
And so the time has come. If you want to know who I am, if you wonder why I love nature and and animals so, or if you ever felt rebuffed by my desire for long periods of solitude, or puzzled over my lack of interest in wearing shoes or nail polish or makeup, this may give some insight.
But most of all if you like a good story, and you ever played outside in the “country” then I hope you will read on and enjoy the tales of Johnnycake Road.
Disclaimer: what you are about to read is based on true stories as recalled by me with a little fictionalization thrown in to make it more interesting when necessary .
I would love to hear your feedback whether it is good or bad!
The Move to Johnnycake Road
By Kimberly Nash
Chapter 1: The Adventure
When I was nine years old my family left my one and only childhood home in a small Upstate New York village and moved to the country, to a place that has forever lived in my memory as “Johnnycake.” Johnnycake Road became as true an oasis in my childhood as any fictionalized middle of the desert dream escape.
The day was a warm and sunny one in mid summer when my father took us to see our new house. The sky was such a bright blue, and a light breeze was whispering over the tops of tall grasses, and gently shaking the thick green leaves on the Maple trees lining the driveway.Our new house was a tiny, ranch style box of a home, seated up high on one acre of weedy grass. It was surrounded on all sides by a green and yellow checkerboard of pastures and corn fields, as far as the eye could see. It seemed a wild place to me, a place with an eerie absence of civilized sounds. There were none of the small town noises of life I was accustomed to. No droning lawnmower, no shouts of neighborhood kids playing, no complaining neighbor voices filtered through window screens between houses so close you could lean out and touch the one next door to you. There were no squeaky tricycles wheels or bicycle bells, the usual summer music of my childhood. Just the shushing sound of the wind blowing through the corn stalks in the field that rose behind the house.
“The quiet is deafening,” stated my mother. She clutched her pocketbook in one hand, and my baby sister’s hand in the other, and cast an inscrutable gaze around her. A cloud buoyed by the wind far away blocked the sun and the brief darkness made me shiver, and I wondered at how something so far away could cast such a long shadow. My sister pulled her hand away and flounced out of reach of my mother.
“How about an adventure?” My father’s dark eyes smiled and the sun came out again. “Let’s explore the cornfield!” He turned toward the back of the house where the green expanse beckoned with it’s leafy, swaying arms.
The cornfield towered over the heads of me and my two younger siblings. My sister was just 4 years old, a sunny towhead whose thumb was permanently plugged into her rosy bow lips. Her index finger rested on her button nose. Like a cat’s tail, you could tell her mood by the twitch of her finger over the bridge of her nose; lazy sweeping finger meant all was well, but stay away if her finger clamped tightly over the end of her little schnoz. Today it scratched the area between her white eyebrows in a contemplative way and after careful consideration she turned away and rejoined our mother who stood staring at the house. My brother who was six at the time opted to stick close to me. We often were together, he and I, and we had one of those tight sibling bonds; the kind where we could beat each other up, but woe to the outsider who even made a hint of a threat. We followed my father’s disappearing back into the undulating green wall of cornstalks.
Part of the cornfield had been harvested in a seemingly random pattern. The result was a twisting path that made a trail and disappeared into the dark green stalks. The stalks were tightly planted together in rows as dense as a jungle. It seemed to me like without our father, we could get lost forever in this place. I clung to my father’s hard knuckled hand, and wondered what would happen to us if he faltered and became lost. I had to swallow my fear in front of my brother, who was always the braver of the two of us, much to my shame as the oldest child. It was so easy for him; if my parents told him not to be afraid, then he simply wasn’t. For example, He always stood quietly in the long clinic lines where we had to get our shots, and closed his eyes and held his breath while they poked both arms. Me, I started crying in the parking lot, and never stopped until we were back home.Ever the bad example. It was embarrassing but I couldn’t help myself. I never could completely believe in the infallibility of the adults surrounding me. It’s just how I was wired. I was often very privately and quietly afraid. In the cornfield, I worried about getting lost. I worried that the farmer would be angry if he knew we were trespassing. I worried that at any moment a tractor could come chugging around the corner and mow us down along with the cornstalks.I spoke of none of this to my father. He was the one person I tried very hard not to question.
My father began pointing out landmarks as we passed them. He explained that paying attention to your surroundings would help you find your way back home if you became lost. Here were twisty tangly grape vines on the edge of the field, there was the “bob”wire fence to keep the cows in the pasture. A wood chuck hole over there, partially covered by a tuft of grass next to a rock was probably the home of an entire family beneath the ground. With each discovery, my fear of the unknown melted away, and I felt reassured by the rare and pleasing sound of delight in my father’s voice. Happiness began to course through my body like liquid sunshine poured straight into my veins.
I began to relax enough to notice the clods of dry dirt underfoot, making my patent leather black shoes dull with dust. I longed to kick them off and peel the sweaty ruffled ankle socks from my captive feet, and sink my toes into the soft dust. I noticed the way the roots of each cornstalk heaved up out of the ground, as if an invisible giant’s hand had tried to yank it out, then gave up halfway from sheer exhaustion. The bottom of the corn stalks were yellow, thick and resilient, gripping the earth for dear life, while, at the same time the deep green middle and top of the stalks strained upward toward the bright sunshine. I could relate to the struggle.
”Corn plants are like giant stalks of grass,” my father explained. “They need three things: nitrogen, water and sunshine. Farmers spread cow manure before they plant to help the soil become more nourishing. In the old days, Indians would plant fish heads with each hill of seeds.”
”Sometimes,” he added, “The farmer must plant a different crop because the corn uses up all of the nitrogen and won’t grow as well.” I blinked. I was lost in a daydream, imagining the Indians living here so many years ago, planting their corn by hand with fish heads, from fish pulled straight from the Mohawk River nearby. I wondered if tepees had dotted this very hill. I pictured many beautiful Indian warrior horses standing under the apple trees out in the pasture. Maybe, one day, Mom would buy me some beaded moccasins instead of Buster Browns. Maybe I could even have my own pony. I could pretend to be one of the Mohawk Indians who had once inhabited the valley we were moving to very soon.The uncertain future suddenly began taking shape in a hundred happy ways. My reverie was interrupted by my brother’s singsong voice.
”Daddeee, I hafta got to the bafroom!”
We hightailed it out of the cornfield back to the house. My mind was spinning with new plans. I felt slivers of hope pierce through my fearful soul’s heavy armor.
Chapter 2 The Race
Before we could move in, the house needed some work. I have since learned it was a foreclosure, and being so, it had been abandoned and neglected for some time. As a result, my parents could buy it for a “song”. All of this went over my 9 year old head, of course. I just knew it would be a wonderful day to play outside in the country!
“You kids go and play! Stay away from the work area! All kinds of stuff you could get hurt on, nails, glass or who knows!You keep your shoes on!” My mother looked so pretty standing there shielding her eyes from the sun. Her dark hair was tied back with a blue kerchief and the pale skin on her face had developed a sprinkling of ginger colored freckles across the bridge of her nose and under her hazel eyes. She wore pedal pusher shorts and an old button down shirt of my father’s. She and Kat, my sister, would stay inside the house cleaning, leaving my brother and I free to explore.
A neighbor named Harris Harvey had volunteered to help my father out with some of the junk piles of old construction debris left outside in the overgrown yard. Mr. Harvey wore horn rimmed glasses and sported a black handlebar mustache. He brought a six pack of beer for he and my dad, and his three sons to meet and play with my brother and I. Much to my disappointment, there seemed to be a shortage girls my age in the immediate vicinity. The Harvey family lived about a mile down the road from us, on a dirt road that dead ended at the Johnson farm. I had overheard my mother refer to it as “Tobacco Road” on the phone to one of her friends. I didn’t know what that meant, but her tone suggested something not so good. I asked her and she told me to “never mind” and go play. The Johnson farm was one of four dairy farms in the area. The three Harvey boys were close to mine and my brother’s ages. Curiously, their names all started with the letter D. Danny was 6 years old, Damien was 8, and David was ten, a little older than me. Danny and Damien seemed a little shy, and let David do most of the talking.
“So, I guess you guys are a coupla city slickers!” David sneered at my brother and I.
What the heck is a city slicker? Not something good, apparently. “Are NOT!” I bristled, and folded my arms.
“Oh yeah? Well prove it.”
I would be happy to, but wasn’t at all sure how, since I didn’t even know what it was I was accused of being. Rather than admit ignorance, I began to think. Obviously a contest of some sort was being suggested. What was the one thing I could possibly do better than this boy? Lots of things probably, like read, spell, and sing, for example. I smirked to myself. But, what BOY thing could I do to prove myself right here and now? An idea struck like a flash.
“OK, then let’s have a race,” I said. I pointed to the cornfield. “From the corner of the cornfield up the hill to the grape vines, and back. Loser’s a city slicker.”(Whatever that was!)
Little Danny spoke up. “You’re a girl!” His little boy voice squeaked in outrage. “You can’t beat a boy!”
“She can beat ALL of you!” My little brother Robbie had came to life. Nobody was going to best his big sister. And he knew I could run.
Oh brother, I thought. Now I had to race all of them to prove I was not something that, for all I knew, I very well may in fact, be! But, from beneath the withering glare of four sets of beady male eyeballs, I knew there was no turning back now. I pulled a tall piece of grass, put it between my teeth and chewed, while I sized up my three opponents. Danny was a non-contender, being barely out of Kindergarten. Damien was tall and lank, with gangly legs. He had a chance. David was the wildcard. He was my height, but more solidly built, with wiry looking legs. His chest looked less concave than an average adolescent boy, and he likely had pretty good wind. Plus, he had the swagger of someone twice his age. Swagger gave him the mental edge, I knew. But, I had my own mental edge. Of course, it would be necessary to pretend I was a horse. I was big into The Black Stallion books at that time. There was the Black Stallions’ sulky colt, a fiery trotter, or Flame, the crazy speedster. No, neither of them would do. Today, I would be The Black himself. I tossed my imaginary mane and that was when I noticed the footwear of my opponents. All three boys were wearing leather workboots, like their father’s. They were unwieldy for running gear. I knew I found their Achilles heel, so to speak. I smiled.
“I’ll make it easier for you guys,” I said. “I’ll run BAREFOOT. And I’ll race all three of you at the same time!” I had some swagger of my own. Huh. I was even willing to risk contracting lockjaw. My mother forever warned me about going barefoot lest I step on a rusty nail and God forbid, get lockjaw. I looked up the symptoms in her medical book once, and wished I hadn’t. I felt lockjaw-ish for weeks afterward, randomly clenching and unclenching my jaw just to make sure it wasn’t stuck, which of course, had made it hurt after a while which surely had to be a symptom of – LOCKJAW. I awaited in fear of death, until I confided in my mother who sighed, rolled her eyes and told me to “stop the melodrama” because I did NOT have lockjaw. At least not yet!
I kicked off my keds before they could disagree about the shoes. Danny and Damien snickered and held their noses. “PEEE YEWWW! You’re gonna lose!”
David’s eyes narrowed a bit, and I held my breath hoping he wasn’t smart enough to catch on. But I needn’t have worried. His expression changed, and he clapped his hands together in glee. “Robbie can be the starter guy.” He put a stick on the ground. “Everybody lines up behind the stick. When you get to the vines, you hafta touch the fence post, then run back down to the stick, which is the finish line. Robbie calls the winner. And no cheating cuz it’s your sister!” He warned with a raised finger.
“I don’t cheat!” Robbie snarled. This was a touchy subject for him, as he had been known to produce very suspicious windfalls at critical times during our heated Monopoly games which often ended in fistfights.
I looked up the hill at the grape vines, which were located in a woodsy corner of the pasture, and dangled haphazardly over the barbed wire fence. Behind them lay a tantalizing thicket of maple trees and blackberry bushes I had been meaning to explore. I would pretend to be an Indian scout and spy on my house from high up the hill. I had beautiful plans that were right now being spoiled by a bunch of freckle-faced bratty hillbilly boys. Maybe if I beat them, they’d run home in embarrassment!
We lined up behind the stick. Robbie made sure everyone was evenly lined up. I leaned forward on my right foot, ready to springboard off my left foot which I stretched out behind me in a starting position like the track stars I saw on TV. The grapevines suddenly looked far away. All was quiet except for the men’s voices drifting from the back of the house. Time almost stood still. Then Robbie’s shrill voice rose excitedly.
“On your mark! Get set! GO!”
We were off! I became The Black. I knew from the many books I read that it’s necessary to pace yourself and be strategic about running. But The Black could not be controlled; he was all heart and ran like his soul was on fire. I quickly left Danny in the dust. I came up behind Damien, who shuffled to the right to block my way but I skipped sideways and he missed, and immediately fell down hard. I tried not to laugh in order to save my breath. I could see David was way ahead of me, as I had feared. He was touching the fence post and already heading back my way! He was on the downhill and there was no way I could catch up! I pushed myself hard, like The Black, who would run himself right to death if he had to in order to win. In two strides I was at the fence post. I stretched my hand out toward the post and had one more step to go before I could wheel around to face downhill and and my impending loss. As I grabbed the post and began to put my right foot down, a horrible sight met me: a green head with glittering gold eyes and a forked tongue raised itself from the grass directly beneath my lowering foot. “SNAKE!” I shrieked. Without breaking my stride, or putting my right foot down, I whirled around on my left foot in an unplanned pirouette. Screaming like a banshee and propelled by terror, I flew down the hill. I don’t think my feet even touched the ground. Down the hill past the whispering cornstalks, past an open-mouthed David, over the finish line I went, and kept going. Right through the back door and into the house and straight into the kitchen where my mother was cleaning the sink.
“What happened?” She cried, as I threw myself into her arms.”Did you step on a nail?” She looked sharply at my dirty bare feet. “I told you a hundred times to wear your shoes outside!”
“I almost s-s-s-stepped on a snake!” I sobbed at the thought of how perilously close I had come to touching a snake, perhaps even squishing it between my toes! After a few minutes I heard a sound. I looked up and over my mother’s shoulder I saw the four boys staring through the screen door. “Yup, she’s a city slicker alright, afraid of a little garden snake,” said David. But instead of derision I distinctly heard a hint of admiration. “But she sure is fast!” All four heads nodded in unison. “She sure is,” my brother crowed. “She won fair and square!