Crestwood–the Birmingham neighborhood where I lived during my four years at Woodlawn High–was indeed, once upon a time, a wooded crest at the tip of the very southern-most Appalachian Mountains. Baby boomer demand for houses turned it, in my childhood, into a sprawling brick-ranch suburb on the flanks of the Atlanta highway.
I clearly remember on one of those sloping lots arose the “house that was built in a day”–as new houses popped up like mushrooms on a wet lawn and Woodlawn slowly became the old part of town.
On the Saturday morning of my recent weekend reunion event, I drove the perimeter of memory–English Village, Highland Avenue, Avondale, East Lake, Crestwood, Gate City, Irondale, Woodlawn–thinking about that instant house; thinking that you can build a house in a week, but home takes a lifetime.
I was intent that morning to go as slowly as possible. I had made the mistake the day before when I arrived of taking the quickest route to my motel -the interstate, new to me, driven for the first time since leaving my last residence here in 1989. Memories blurred past at 70 miles and hour–a two second snippet of East Lake disappeared in the rear view mirror and it was gone. Familiar blocks of my childhood are now Flyover Country. There is no there there. But you get someplace else really fast. Eminent domain brooks no nostalgia.
So I’m back in my time machine Saturday morning before the tour of the high school where you can never go home again; back in my time machine that navigated the once-familiar, less between landmarks than people marks; less visible the architecture and road names than the stories of my personal WHEN in that where.
Block by block, the characters stepped out of the morning shadows into the cool morning air, giving up only fragments of entire memories. Fragments. I am happy for them, however incomplete. And there were very many, even after all these years.
Once upon a time. Never twice. Time’s cursed (or merciful?) arrow never rests.
With a half hour to go before the high school tour, I drove past a ball field where I had found arrowheads–many hundreds of years old– and from another vacant lot (across from what used to be the popular upscale Gulas’ Restaurant, now boarded up) I had once filled my pockets with crinoids and blastoids–fossils from before the era of the dinosaurs.
Once–here were Indians and dinosaurs; graduations and houses built in a day. There is nothing else in time available to us but once-s. We seldom cherish them as we might. There were more of them compressed in the amber-memory of the high school years for me than in any other four-year block of my life.
And so my classmates from 1966 had come to participate, I explained to myself, in a kind of archeological reconstruction of a whole narrative of a special time, built together from our privateÂ fragments–those odd and very personal shards of memory and meaning.
The hours passed quickly. They always do. We cobbled it together, best we could–the story of our youth, Â once upon a time.