The neighborhood of my earlier years was somewhat rural. While not isolated, it was a small group of homes in a section of town called Shadybrook. Since this time was during the mid-1950’s, there were no shopping centers and box stores, which were, unknowingly, in our future. But what we local youngsters did have during those free years between being a child and adolescent was open spaces full of fields, unfenced yards, woods, a ravine with a creek and kudzu, a sawdust pile, and what we called Red Hill.
A rise of red clay next to the ravine and creek, Red Hill was where we held court at the intersection of Dogwood and Applewood Streets, both unpaved roads. Because of the density of its hard, red clay that had poor nutrition, no vegetation graced the dome of Red Hill. But that is just as well because the constant traffic of rambling, young feet would have trampled any blade strong enough to break its crust of iron.
We group of neighborhood youngsters played in all our spaces. We built camps in the woods, we dammed the small creek to make a knee-deep swimming hole, we used old planks as sleds on the damp side of the sawdust pile, and we used Red Hill for our base of operations. From its dome we commanded all of our conquered territory. From its open height we gazed over our seemingly endless opportunities and planned many excursions– such as choosing sides in order to have a dirt-clod fight in the woods. (The hard, red clay of Red Hill furnished an ample supply of hard dirt-clods perfectly sized for a small hand to grasp and wing at an “enemy” in the woods.) Our short, young, and strong legs climbed Red Hill almost each day of play. It was our Camelot, and we its knights. We had swords and lances fashioned out of broken tree limbs from our woods. We had each other, even when choosing sides for an imaginary battle. We had our long days of free play when no adult interfered.
One hot, muggy summer we decided that we could use a real swimming pool that would be better than our swimming hole. One of us borrowed a shovel from a father’s garage, and we set to at digging a deep hole in the dome of Red Hill. I don’t remember how deep or how long we dug, but an older neighbor, Larry who was a young teenager, asked us how we planned to fill our swimming pool. Daunted by the task of hauling water to our well-dug hole, and the heat and the humidity, we abandoned our plan for a Red Hill swimming pool. But the hole, like the hill that held it, was ours. We used it for protection and a supple of dirt-clods as we repelled attacks from pretend enemies.
We were not aware of Red Hill’s significance then. We were just young children who had been chased out of our homes on good weather days by a knowing parent. We only wanted to run and call out and invent games. We had an inquisitive desire to explore our world. We were innocents in a trusted world. Free dreamers, we saw Red Hill as our meeting place, our base, but did not understand Red Hill’s multiple meanings. We only saw a mound of hard, red clay rising above a ravine full of kudzu that was there for our pleasure.
Memories of childhood in later years come distorted because everything during childhood is larger than it truly is. As children, our world and everything in it loomed over us. So, it was a surprise when, as a college student, I visited my old neighborhood to show it to a girlfriend. As always, when reality meets memory, much aligned and much had changed. For instance, the two roads were now paved, and some of the open fields now had houses in them. What had been Mr. Brindle’s magnificent garden was now a fallow field. And over to one side at the intersection of Dogwood and Applewood Streets I saw a patch of hard, red clay.
I parked the car and we got out to stand on the shoulder of Applewood Street. Looking at the mound, no more than a bump in the field, I looked, hoping that some harsh stares would make that circle of dirt what I remembered it to be. Yet, no matter how hard I studied it, Red Hill could not become what it had never physically been. As a child I saw it as a real hill, almost a mountain. But, here, fifteen years later, I saw it for what it was—a patch of bare, hard, red clay. Leaning against the car’s fender, I was disappointed and sad. But as we drove to my mother’s home, I was suddenly uplifted by the memories of youthful, innocent, free play that happened on and around Red Hill. Sure, I now knew what it really was, but as a child when my friends, siblings, and I needed it, Red Hill was our Camelot. Full of adventure, fun, risk, and free. Red Hill dirt is in the veins of us all who played on and around it.