Like Popeye, I was born as a very young child. My earliest years were spent in the hinterland of Knox County, a brisk 10-minute walk from the Union County line. We dwelt so deeply in the country that until I was 9 I thought Running Water was a Native American Sioux.
The thick woods behind our modest house were a mysterious yet compelling place in those days. Youngsters can see and hear things in the forest that escape the notice of even the most experienced hunters.
For example, not a single adult noticed when outlaws carved hideouts from the steep bluff that ran down to a spring-fed stream which became my personal Mississippi. Often, Robin Hood was by my side as I flushed out the bad guys with my trusty six-shooter. (How he got from Sherwood Forest to the Old West has fled from memory, but I must have cooked up a rational explanation – I read a lot of comics.)
I also witnessed things I would never again see, like the day my mother sent a copperhead snake to reptile Valhalla by clubbing it with a hoe. Afterward, she hung the lifeless creature across our clothesline because everyone knew snakes didn’t really die until the sun went down.
My life in the country would go on forever it seemed, but, in the summer of 1960, I received the first great shock of my life: We were moving! And to the city, no less! (My next surprise was discovering that Japanese filmmakers totally invented Godzilla. I was one disillusioned kid and immediately scuttled plans to bag the monster myself when I was a little older.)
After my parents pulled me off a southbound freight, explaining that hitching a ride with long-haul truckers was much safer, I bowed to the inevitable and accompanied them and my younger brother, Shut-up-Harold, to our new home in Fountain City. I now resided in the shadow of Central High School, where I would occasionally attend classes in the coming years, and a short jog from Fountain City Park where I would find fresh adventures.
It lacked the wild air of the old forests I had roamed so recently, but the park had its charms. There were huge trees, rocks to scale and a stream running through it that fed into First Creek on the park’s western boundary. Swings, a teeter-totter, a kid-powered merry-go-round and monkey bars promised and delivered the assorted bruises that made a young boy feel alive.
To my surprise, I made some friends rather quickly. Danny, the first, became the older brother I was probably better off never having. He attracted trouble like honey attracts bears, and I was just brave (foolish?) enough to tag along with him.
Danny taught me so many useless skills that I haven’t mastered them all to this day. Among the first was how to attach a baseball card to the spokes of a bicycle and create the most annoying disturbance of the peace in the civilized world.
The sound, somewhat resembling an extended Bronx cheer, is especially infuriating when it interrupts an otherwise solemn proceeding. One balmy spring night, a Central High graduation procession made its way along the sidewalk below the school. Those kids were as somber as Druid priests when we came barreling down the hill, a slapping baseball card duet. Maybe it was the atmospheric conditions that evening, but those spokes and cards were never so majestically maddening again.
Danny also schooled me in the practical science of making a sturdy dam across streams, a skill which may have come in handy when he worked for TVA years later. (He really did.) Of course, nothing would do but to put such knowledge to the test, so on a warm summer night, I joined Danny and several more of his gullible friends in Fountain City Park to design a test dam across the stream.
I don’t recall all the materials that went into that dam, although I’m pretty sure concrete wasn’t among them. But there were enough sticks, branches, large stones and bits of brick scattered around the park to build our dream dam.
To everyone’s surprise, it worked! Within minutes after the last stone was set in place water began to pool. In no time we were gazing at a miniature Norris Lake, sans catfish.
By the next morning, there must have been a quarter-acre underwater and every adult in Fountain City had spies circulating to unmask the offenders. Mr. Clark, who owned the dry-cleaning plant across from the park, eyed me with suspicion, but I had vowed never to reveal the identities of the dam builders, especially the ringleader, and I’ve honored my vow to this day, Danny Clevenger!
There’ll be more about growing up in Fountain City in a future installment if my publisher doesn’t immediately terminate my employment after reading this one.
Larry Van Guilder is the Business/Government Editor of KnoxTNToday. Contact him at email@example.com.