By Timothy Nelson
It was a dark, damp, frightening place known to all in the neighborhood simply as The Swamp. It lay only a short distance behind the edge of the housing community in which I lived, just before a railway that ran parallel along the Illinois-Indiana border. Many adventures had been dared be- neath the shadows of the canopy of the swamp’s trees that served to shield the dank, dark pool of water within from nearly every ray of the sun- light above. It was the place I only dared enter in the company of my older brothers and friends.
A makeshift fort had been constructed on the swamp’s edge. My brothers, friends and I fought many battles there using sticks as spears and swords. Whenever those who held the fort were routed, it usually resulted in a re- treated out the slumped plywood back door along a muddy path that led far into the deepening dark of the swamp’s interior toward a great pool of water. A a single log lay across the pool as the only dry crossing over the murky swamp water of the pool. That crossing, known as the log, was the only path to the other side, and it was very often guarded during attacks by one or more of the fort holder’s warriors who stood quite vulnerable if rushed by too many invaders. Easily forced to the fort-side of the log, these log guards thus gave a defensible bottleneck to the invaders which also cut off the back escape route in the event of the fort having been sacked from outside its defensive works along the swamp’s edge.
The Swamp was only one of two weedy, tree encircled areas behind the houses, however. The second lay must closer to the fence line immedi- ately behind the houses and had not a full canopy of trees but consisted of a couple of trees only that had grown close together. The surrounding wildly tall bushes and prickly plants served to create a naturally defensible fort-like location of only some forty feet or so in diameter. Although not a piece of coveted real estate like the Swamp’s fort, it was from within this location that the invaders planned most often their invasion the Swamp fort. It was far less defensible and usually held by the littlest child-warriors in the neighborhood. I was often amongst this group, being one of the younger warriors, only about seven or eight years old at the time of the particular even which follows.
This is how I saw the landscape which lay behind the houses on my neighborhood as a child, an area known to everyone as The Field. It had strange power over my mind. I was attracted to the company of the other kids and enjoyed pretending to be a warrior as they did, but, I mainly just enjoyed being in their company. There wasn’t any particular joy experienced in plung- ing into the Swamp to invade the others, nor did I enjoy pretending to hold the fort in the Swamp (the few times I did) against invasion. I just wanted to play—to talk and run around in the company of my peers. That privilege came at a price, however.
One summer day while immersed in the darkness of one of many Swamp wars, I was assisting a failing effort to invade. Our objective was to remove the log guards from opposite side of the log. The combat was going poorly. I was struck many times and after a couple of us littler warriors complained over the great difficulty we were having against the larger kids we proclaimed a time out. Refusing, the larger kids began hurling insults, such as crybabies, complainers, wimps, and so forth at us. The older kids began teasing us, saying that if we didn’t like being killed in battle then we should “get bigger or get better.” It was proclaimed that “only sissy’s (girly-boys) complained when things got tough or when they lost.” And further, that if we did not want to be sissy’s then we should “shut up and take it or get out!”
Shocked by the older, bigger kids’ disapproval of us littler kids’ dissent, I grew very angry. “Fine!” I exclaimed, pitching my make-believe sword into the center of the deep pool in the middle of the Swamp. “I thought you were my friends; I thought you were my brothers! You’re not! You guys suck!” Turning I stormed off and ran out of the back end of the Swamp. I began to cry when I realized that the other little kids failed to follow.
Once outside the Swamp and a good distance away, I called to the others, “Come on! Where are you guys?” I called each of the other three littler kids by name. There was no answer. I turned once more away from the swamp and home and continued walking parallel to the fence line, continuing on for some time across the open field as the warm sun stood high in the noon sky.
Thoughts flooded my mind, like dagger points, reminding me of the piercing painfulness of the bigger kids’ rebukes. Tears ran down my dirty cheeks and turned to mud streaks upon my hands as I wiped them from my face. I traveled an unknown distance before collecting myself. It was farther than I had every walked along the fence line of the field before.
Thirsty, tired, and alone, I halted and looked around. I stood in the midst of a small gently sloping hill covered in the greenest knee high grass and ra- diant yellow dandelions. Away upwards on the slope towards the fence line were deep purple flowering bushes. High above was the noontime sun, big and blindingly bright. Closing my eyes, I let the sun warm my face. The light permeated my eyelids to create a welcomed orange hue which filled my pupils and my heart. Brushing the tips of many blades of grass with my hands about my waste, I lowered my chin and opened my eyes to take in the beauty of this undiscovered place. I wanted to live there in that moment. I wanted to be like the grass beneath my feet, in harmony with all its surrounding blades of grass and swaying in the wind as the breeze blew across the wide open meadow to disappear up the slope and beyond.
Below my feet I felt the soft earth. I imagined what it must be like to be rooted in such an intimate soil, all drinking from the same flow of moisture, each blade intertwined with the others and all being nourished by the same source. Glorious peace and harmony overcame me and I basked in the moment for a long while.
Time fled away and all of a sudden the sun had actually moved locations. It felt like time had skipped. I turned in the direction of the Swamp north- wards in the Field and was struck dumb by the view. The Swamp looked so small but less dark in the distance as the sun shown upon it. In fact, the tree tops of the Swamp looked vibrant and as green as all the other trees in sight. The memory of the Swamp war events and the darkness within surfaced easily, however, as I recalled them to my mind. Quickly I turned away and looked up the green and yellow slope behind me to the purple flowers along the fence line once more, fearing it may have disappeared. It had not.
At that moment a thought burst into my mind, choice. I turned around and peered at the Swamp. Then in a moment I returned to the beautiful slope behind me. I turned one direction, and then chose to turn toward the other. I looked up at the sun. Then I looked at all the places where the sun shown about me. I looked across and around the field a full three hundred and sixty degree and saw that the sun shown upon it all: the house tops, the tree tops, the tops of the flowers and the grass and the patches of bare open dirt, the railway in the distance westward and the upon the mounds of barren earth far away south—even upon my outstretched arms that I then held out in front of me.
My hands were sweaty and dirty from my pretend battles. Places of that dirt were smeared due to moisture mingling with it from wiping my tears. It all overwhelmed me on the inside. It was so big! My heart felt large but my brain felt small, and all that I surveyed seemed the consequence of my choice to walk away from the imaginary world of The Swamp. And al- though I was still in The Field, I had chosen to take another path than I was accustomed too. And even though I was not near my brothers and friends, I did not feel alone.
The sun was going down and I was growing painfully hungry. I didn’t feel angry anymore, however. I did not even care about being rebuked and ejected from the group. My heart sank a bit as I realized that this was not a place I could remain—not in the open field, not in the glorious moment— but I must go back to my house and all those I had left in The Swamp. In fact, I just felt scared and deeply sad that I would not be able to find the joy and sense of wonder and belonging I had just experienced once I left the small spot of ground upon which I stood at that moment. In truth, much of my since has been essentially a series of attempts at recovering the experience of that beautiful slope in the field beneath the sun.