back when then was now
by tobias crabtree
there was a time when i just believed. if my dad said i could do it, i believed him and i tried like i believed. handstands and unicycles and wrestling moves and races and backflips off the high dive, they all fell into the category of trying because my dad said it was possible. of course, i landed on the back of my head a few times; it’s part of the game, you know what i mean. i’m less like that now, way less. i still believe in stuff that seems impossible, and i even kinda know that it won’t work out, but i believe because i don’t like the alternative. maybe that’s what my old man was going for anyway; it certainly wasn’t that he thought the unicycle would land me a solid job someday. (although i did try to get into the circus when i was 14. the carnies putting up the tent in the mall parking lot called me over from atop my 10 foot unicycle and asked me what i was doing. “wondering about a job,” was my answer. the thick bearded dude with the eastern block accent told me that you can’t just run away and join the circus anymore. “come back when you’re 18,” he yelled as i rode off with a red face.)
once my dad wanted me to go to where he spent his early childhood, redrock, oklahoma. he told my ma we were going on a trip. neither ma nor i knew what dad was planning, that he had worked it out so i would ride my own motorcycle down there from colorado. to top it all off, my older sister, malia, was on the docket to go as well. the facts came out all at once and my ma gave in with a look that said, “if something happens to my kids….” my dad was a confident fella. we were going. i was 15. i didn’t yet have a license and that didn’t seem to sway ol’ chuck in the least, “it’ll be fine, tobe, you and your sister will just follow me.”
we left early in the morning. it was summertime. interstate 25 south and then east into kansa. dodge city then south. i rode a honda 354 motorcycle and my sister was on a honda 750. even my kid brother, cory made the trip on the back of my pa’s old bmw 750. it was quite a group. as we dropped into oklahoma, i realized that it was a whole different world. the humidity made the air feel like i was sitting in a warm bathtub. i was in a dream state. i was 15 and i was on the rode! the truth is, that trip sent me off and i have never really stopped. in some ways, i never came back from oklahoma. poncha city, enid, eucha, redrock, tulsa, disney and on up the neosho river to the grand lake o’ the cherokees. we were in kin-folk country. i met my great uncle edgar, who coulda been my gramp crabtree’s twin. same kinda man, same look. he was a choctaw indian and spoke clear and simple in a way that called out from the woods like a cicada song. great aunt ellen was as sweet as the smell of the lilacs growing wild along the fence. my brother and i swam daily in the cow pond and left with a solid case of giardia, straight out of a cow’s hind end, i’m sure.
in redrock, we stopped where my dad used to swim in a pond out behind the garage my grand dad owned. the pond was still there some 40 years later. a rope hung from the tree where the kids still swung out and dropped in. my dad said, “look at that rope, it must have been replace a dozen times since i swung on it.” i wasn’t so sure, it looked like it had been there since time began. i remember seeing my dad as he looked into his past, his eyes, green looking glasses that kind of shined from the inside out. i think back at his face, and i can feel his blood in my blood. for as much as i thought i’d be different, i see quite a few similarities between us. funny how we end up like our parents in so many tricky ways.
on that trip i saw one of my cousins drag an alligator gar out of the water with fishing gear that looked like it was made for sharks. as that dinosaur of a fish flopped and snapped in the mud i could see the older ways written on the ruddy face of my kin. at night, down at the bottom of the field where the fence ran along the forest and off into the edge of forever, i saw the lightning bugs blink on and off with a silence that tugged at my need to be laid up against all things wild. barn kitties bred like, well, like barn kitties. dogs ran up the dirt roads with their hind ends swinging wide and wonky like trailers out of alignment. oklahoma has a jungle feel. oklahoma is old country and it hides it’s old ways in the deep, black mud back among the big-leafed trees. oklahoma brought out my pa, it brought him out and fired him solid as a hickory stump.
and along them pocketed roads with the big dips and all along the fences and the endless power lines and then that once (was it on that trip or another? i don’t know.) when ol’ chuck and i stopped and dipped in a creek and a snapping turtle grabbed at his achilles tendon and he howled and we charged, naked, from the ditch. and under heavy summer skies with black clouds that threw down lightning in sheets and rain in buckets. and diners with women in gingham dresses serving coffee and chicken fried steak and the women winking at me, just a kid, and my dad with the eyes that knew what was in front of me. we adults all know and fear what the future holds for the little ones. we know that life will come and get the young ones. and they’ll grow and be hurt and tossed and some will fall far from the load. they will fall out in the wicked thicket and there’ll be no getting them back. some will make it. some won’t. i see the tendency to lose the care for the humans once they’re old enough to know better. i do it. but i fear for the little ones before they become the ones we don’t care about anymore. if you have a heart, you must care for the kids, you simply must. every forgotten prisoner was a child under the stars. every person, no matter how dark their deed, was born under some wondrous moon. we all needed help when we got here.
so it was that my pa looked at me, in my teens, and the wrinkles that formed along the sides of his eyes showed the hope and the fear of all my tomorrows. and so it is that i’m here in the now that was hanging way out there in my future, back when then was my now. i love the old man. he’s a damn good dude. my path is different than his. i’ve no children that are of my blood, but i have lots of kids that i love. i remember my grandpa telling me that i had the heart of his ancestors regardless of the percentage of indian blood in my veins. that makes me feel different about my bloodline. i’ll give what i know to the kids that want it, and in that way, i’ll pass along whatever it is that i am to younger, more sparkly minds.
the sweetest things are simple. it doesn’t matter the billions of bucks you might be made of, you can be a complete loss. it doesn’t matter how great you look if your insides forgot how to love. there are old roads in oklahoma that curve and turn and hum with something lovely. steinbeck felt it. it’s simple and old. the songbirds sing it. the rising suns color it in. the indigo nights still carry the thoughts of some dreaming child that will grow and become someone. and on and on. we fill in the blanks. and when we’re gone, our now will become then.