Cottontop


Memory is a tricky, private thing. While it’s true for everyone that Guthrie, Oklahoma in the 1970s was a very historic, very small town, we didn’t live in Guthrie. We lived near it in a pocket universe of flannel and scrub oak.
I grew up in the woods near Lake Liberty, at a little bend in the water we had all to ourselves. Only the occasional duck blind or abandoned Coors can gave us signs of intrusion. Our three acres, with my grandparents’ pink brick house at the top and our trailer at the bottom of the little hill, were as far from civilization as you could get. I don’t remember a time without corduroy and jean jackets, chickens and BB rifles, or my orange tackle box. Going into town was a big deal. The school bus took forever. Trips to Wal-Mart or the feed store were rare and necessary.
It was a whole other world, and never one in which I quite belonged. I wanted magic and spaceships, droids and a robot dog. I asked my uncle to build me a wooden box that I could paint blue and pretend it was a TARDIS. What I didn’t understand was how magical my world already was. I could be gone all day, wandering paths through the high grass that pooled when the woods of scrub oak broke. Lightning storms were common in the fall, as were the lime green skies that marked the chance for a tornado in the spring. We’d find lumps of iron, pitted and black, in the red clay or soft sand. We called it lava rock. Perhaps it was bog iron, though any bog that might have produced it was long gone. Perhaps they were meteorites.
The smells were acrid, like the garbage we burned, and verdant as the leaves uncurled. Everything had a taste, the metallic air that came from our trailer’s heating vents in winter and the leaf mold of the shady earth beneath the branches.
Summer’s light would strike the oak leaves, giving them an emerald glow that contrasted so sharply with their black, flaky bark. We chased fireflies in the years we had them, missed them when we did not.
In the few photos I have my hair is white, so pale they called me “cottontop.” I am not alone. I had older brothers, a younger sister. I didn’t think about the hand me down jeans and threadbare clothes that marked us as poorer than some other kids. I had a wild, infinite backyard. And I had my head, my imagination: a world full of space and science fiction.
Then I had the city. For my father, always aspiring to a better life, the climb was uphill. He wanted more than a trailer at the bottom of his in laws’ little hill. We left Guthrie, that magical world, behind us. I remember crying forever about Patches, the cat I could not bring with us. I vividly recall the big steel barn that marked the turn off, the way down to Forest Hills, our “neighborhood” of similarly sized plots.
I can still drive that road. The barn still stands, but Guthrie isn’t a place I can recapture. Going home for me means visiting a tiny world where the woods are only a few feet higher than I am. Drizzle and rainstorms still make the red clay bleed, but now houses line the lake. Those little paths are someone’s property. The forest is divided by lines.
What I had, where I lived, is a memory. I’m not even certain how much of it was real. Trying to write about it, I come across images and anecdotes, none of which I’m certain really happened. When I talk to my siblings about it, their memories are just as tangled and unreliable. That just makes it all the more magical, a world I may have created, like so many others.

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