My Tuscaloosa boyhood: Going back makes me feel young, going back makes me feel old.
This memory begins in the woods behind our house in Guildswood, a neighborhood near the University of Alabama. Those woods are mostly gone now, much like my boyhood.
It was 50 years ago. Since then, I’ve lived much of my life in Birmingham. But I still drive through the old neighborhood every now and then. And I often find myself thinking about The Pipe.
It was behind our house. Mom didn’t want me playing there. I was 13, I knew better. It called me.
Hidden in the woods, big enough to walk on; it loomed overhead, rusty and foreboding. The path leading there was covered with thick sharp vines, poison ivy lurked everywhere. The odor — caked mud, thick, dried and cracked — was distinct. I’d done it before. There was no turning back.
I was confident — yes cocky. I was even wrapped in one of my daydreams: Scoring the winning touchdown for the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and being mobbed by my teammates.
This day, though, there were no touchdowns. I stumbled, fell down the drop-off at the end of the path, landed on my hands and knees, scrapping my knees badly. The jagged stones, peeking through the mud, were waiting for me. They deepened the scrapes, puncturing my skin.
But I was determined. I climbed the wobbly ladder, reaching the top of this huge rusting pipe. It was wide, it was big, and I ascended to the top of the pipe and stood up; I looked out in all directions — more woods, a view of the Black Warrior river, a glimpse of other houses in the neighborhood. On top of The Pipe, I was on top of the world.
And here was something, no one — at least no one I had ever known, certainly not my brothers — had done before. I was going to run along the top of the pipe; maybe not for the Crimson Tide, but for me. It wasn’t going to beat me.
But The Pipe had other things in mind. This was a day it was not going to be conquered. I fell — six feet, but it felt like six miles. And when I landed, the impact jarred my body head to toe. I tried to breathe; at first, I couldn’t. I thought I was going to die.
Finally, I took a deep breath and the air rushed in. A few seconds is a lot of time to be scared. I got up slowly and studied the imprint of my body in the mud. That image remains to this day.
It was time to go home. I started walking then ran. I needed what no 13-year-old boy would ever admit he needed: Mom. She would take care of it, she would take care of me.
I could see her in the distance planting flowers in our yard. It was then I slowed down because I understood that this might be a moment in my life that I would want to hang on to. She saw my hands, she saw my knees, she saw the mud, she saw the bleeding. She saw the tears in my eyes. She knew her job in that moment was not to ask, but to love.
She’s gone now and so is The Pipe. But that day is not, nor am I.