In the distance…
Around the beginning of March, I was excited to have hired someone to redo a portion of our backyard. It wasn’t a decision that came lightly and I had saved over time to be able to do this. When we first bought the house, the backyard was a sticking point. I always loved the idea of redoing it, while my wife didn’t see the vision yet. There are certain things she sees well and a number of things I see well; we combine our hodgepodge of dreams together and form a life. That’s how this house works, anyway.
Our back yard is carved out of a mountain. 20 feet from the back of the house is a steep incline up. Through rock, strange growth and some grass, it leads to a clearing at the top of the hill which is state land. Behind that is miles of forest. When I first saw this almost 10 years ago, I fell in love with it.
Growing up in Flushing, NY my parents found a similar State-Park type of back yard. The connected houses in the piled-upon city intersected with a driveway in the back that we all shared behind each small 2 bedroom connected house. Past that you stepped on a small 20×20 back yard which then ended right on state land. The houses were so small and thin that we practically were all on top of each other. City living in the suburbs.
I remember distinctly as a child the wonder at this incredible play-opportunity. There was a huge field behind the house that was mostly old dry weeds that looked like golden wheat. Only if you snapped off this wheat and tried to eat it you’d probably get really sick. If you gazed out from my moms room which overlooked it, you would see what seemed like a mile of moving wheat waving in the wind. The wheat was old weeds, but I felt I was in a country pasture in Kansas. I was 7, give me a break. I didn’t see the buildings and houses popping up right over it not even a half mile away.
Every once in a while, my friends and I would venture out into the weeds to play man-hunt, some strange new version of tag or just go treasure hunting. Generations past had dumped everything you could imagine back there. TV’s, old electronics, bodies- you name it. Sometimes, I would wake in the morning and see a car burning back there. I remember feeling this very real sense of awe when that happened. Come to think of it- did I live in a Mad Max wasteland where all the wonders of the world were actually horrors? That would explain the worry from my mothers face when we would venture out there.
“Going out into the field, mom!” waving goodbye eagerly as if I am going out on a venture in search of the holy grail. Train conductor, walks past me looking at his watch saying, “you’d better hop along son or you’ll miss it.”
My mom waving worriedly “make sure to wipe off the ticks!” Wiping a tear away from her nurses’ uniform and realizing something as she walks backwards to her car that will bring her to her nightshift. “Dinner is on the table.”
Turning again, “I love you!”
I turn and wave enthusiastically. The scene’s music is loud and at a high point.
I turn and then plunge into the “Field of Dreams” weeds like a tiny Shoeless Joe disappearing with a slight “woosh” sound. Not on my way to heaven but in it none the less. My mom drives away to her double night shift. What the hell is a double night shift?Somewhere in the distance, you can hear footsteps breaking through old weeds, the cracking of branches and the unmistakable laughter of children.
That’s what I imagine when I look into my own backyard present day. Sans, imaginary train conductor and weird weeds of course. Standing there in 2012 however, looking at the amount of work that needed to be done, I was all for it. I remember my wife Melissa thinking I was coo-coo for cocoa puffs- but I was serious and dead set on making a childhood.
“No, the kids will love it. Trust me.”
Trust me she did and here we are all these years later. Took me 2 years to clean up half the yard. I put in a patio, planted bushes. Cleaned years of neglect.
One year, we had a little extra money and I convinced her that we should get a pool. I settled on a small 12×17 above ground pool that we would put off the deck. After 2 weeks of dreams that all the kids would jump from their windows and willingly commit suicide into our pool, we set out to do it. Being severely budget strapped, I needed to be mom-creative.
I get this house creativity from my mom. She was a single mother in Flushing during the late 80’s early 90’s. Everything was on the table for her to do herself after a 45 hour shift at the hospital. My favorite was the time when she was patching a hole in the bathroom wall. I remember walking up the stairs from my room in the basement and hearing the scratch-scratch of someone doing something fix-related there. At the top of the stairs, I closed the door with a “creak” and took the one step towards the bathroom door. Here, my mom fresh from her night shift looks at me and brightens immediately.
I ask, “What’re you doin?”
“Fixing a hole!” (a la Beatles?)
Plaster dripping off of a kitchen spatula, covering what looks to be a hole (How does a hole just appear or pop up in a bathroom?), I can’t help but ask:
“Mom, why are you stuffing newspaper into the hole?”
It was just as ingenious way to get the plaster to stick and to use it as insulation as equally dangerous it probably was. I imagined thousands of holes in the house and the walls filled with newspaper. One match strike and
I hugged her tight, asked if I could help and ran quickly out of the house.
This type of ingenuity stuck with me as a homeowner. No, I didn’t hire a pool company. No! That would be too easy. I would self contract this thing and save a few thousand. Looking at the pool project, I found 2 crazy people and they agreed to flatten the area with some machines they rented- or stole, who knows? They half finished the project and I needed to rent a machine to complete it. Then I found a person on Craigslist to put up the pool. This guy, to this day, is my favorite.
He arrived in an old truck that was filled with junk inside and out. I think I saw newspapers, pots, old appliances and a creepy naked doll plastered up against the backseat glass. The kind that opened their eyes when you picked them up? When he pulled up, each person in my house eagerly came to the window that looked out over the front lawn of the house and the street to see his truck. The kids were eager because this was “the pool guy” I had been talking about for weeks.
The pool will be built! Hooray for bob-vila-dad!
The man oozed out of the jalopy and you can see him pile junk back into the truck that fell out when he did. The green Ram, about 25 years old, had seen about a million miles of road. The guy that stepped on to my lawn, shirtless and lean like a steak on a summer day, hadn’t seen a tooth in a long time.
I immediately panicked.
Melissa shot me a look that said, “Who the hell did you hire?”
The kids were ecstatic and dancing in the living room singing a made up song about a pool and farts. I was thinking about packing my bags and leaving.
I tapped my wife on the back and kissed her forehead in a “I got this don’t worry” way and headed to the door completely not knowing what I was doing. He was standing there on that early May day, no shirt on, rain falling off his strangely chiseled body. We both looked at each other and acknowledged our faces with a slight nod. Something growled in the distance.
Leg up on one porch step, jeans ripped from a tiger, cigarette dangling from his mouth he said, “alright where is this fuckin’ pool?”
I brought him around back where I had brought 6 tons of sand via wheelbarrow the day before like a lumbering idiot. We worked out a plan so that he would flatten the rest of the area, put up the pool, install the vinyl covering and fill it for a price that even I felt guilty about. He was fine with it, cigarette drooping from the side of his mouth, ash falling against his bare chest. The last day he was with us he had to fill the pool with water. I will never forget him barefoot in the cold water, tiger-ripped jeans rolled up, pushing out out the vinyl covering so there were no lines. It was pouring out and the rain was soaking the already soaked rain. You could barely see the man with no shirt on, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, without shoes on and working diligently.
Lightning blazed and thunder barked in the distance.
I opened the screen door to the deck slightly. We all peeked out, 3 kids, myself and my wife. Rain pattered down hard slapping the deck and hitting my leg. Lighting, thunder again.
“Maybe you should stop?” I asked stupidly, fearful for my life. Fearful also that I may have a dead man floating in the pool soon from a lightning strike. How do I explain the dead man to the kids? Do they swim in the completed pool after? Does the man that built the pool and died in it haunt it underwater like some spirit of the deep? “No honey, there isn’t a shirtless, toothless man haunting the bottom of the pool”
“I swear it dad, I swear!”
It was mind numbingly crazy to watch. By some miracle, the cigarette was completely lit, dry as a bone and slight puffs of Marlboro man smoke emanated from his soaked face. He completed the task and didn’t die. This is how I rate most of my house projects now: 0-10 how much will I die from this?
So when I found someone to redo the rest of the yard this past month (prepandemic), I keep these lessons close to heart. Yes, Mr Amazing (the name we have for the shirtless, toothless pool guy) was actually a really good guy and did pretty OK work for the money, yes I inherited my mom’s propensity to stuff paper into the wall to patch it up to save money (because we were both low on it), but also keep in mind that I didn’t want to half ass it.
It hurt not to be able to get the current backyard project started because of ‘Rona. It would be irresponsible to start that project when I didn’t know what would happen to the rest of humanity in a week’s time. I tabled that project and stare at it each morning longingly.
Like my parents, I want a yard for the kids so they can live in it. I had the honor to be a latch-key kid. I am part of a generation that wasn’t afraid of sticking their fingers into an outlet to see what would happen with their parents around the corner and I sure as hell wanted to find all the ticks in the field behind my house and let them feed on me.
My childhood backyard holds a secret that no one understands. In the waving weeds, beneath the trees outstretched to the skies, under the square mile of dumped debris and probably a slew of dead gangster bodies lies my childhood. Also- graffiti on rocks. What a bitchin’ 80’s thing to have in your field!
Unafraid, unwilling to accept boredom, we set out like a movie to find our imaginations rolling in the grasses of the world. Imaginary gunfights, climbing weed-trees that had thorns on them so big I think one impaled a friend and we left him to die. The group of us, a half baked friendship from a 1980’s movie where wedgies, noogies and punches in the face were pretty often a part of our lives, we found freedom. The freedom of imagination in a field of weeds.
Staring at my backyard this morning, I still remember the smell of my childhood and I think there is still dirt in my fingernails from those days. The smell was a wind that swept up our imaginations and pushed us further into the fields. Pushed us further away from the reality of homework that we didn’t do, imminent parental divorce, tests that I didn’t study for or any responsibility besides cleaning our rooms or being nice to our sisters. Once a doorbell was rung in my 80’s childhood, before it was finished ringing we were out the door and running into the fields.
I know my kids will never have my childhood- they have their version of it and I am ok with it. I want to build out the backyard for them, I want to use paper machines to bulldoze the rocks and build my own escalator to the top of the hill made of sticks just to make them see the potential of creativity in childhood. As a society, most parents today want our kids to either grow up too soon or stay young too long. Where is the field of dreams for these kids?
I know that I will probably not be able to build out the rest of the yard for them anytime soon. My heart breaks a little because I want them to be able to enjoy it before it’s too late. Thing is it’s already too late. We just finished throwing out all the toys, cleaned out all the rooms of childhood memories. We have some for safe keeping but the days are dwindling and the nights seems to be getting shorter.
If I could go back to one thing in my life and bring my kids with me, I would bring them back to those Flushing days. Where no one knew where I was hiding, where the wind was at my back and the field was pushing me forward to catch up to my friends; laughing- and not a care in the world.
Right beside a burning car.