In the Gravel Driveways of My Youth

We moved to a new street when I was two. That was nearly 33 years ago. I have no recollection of this event, but it would shape the following 12 years of my life, through toddlerhood, elementary school, and junior high. We moved to a house in the middle of a crescent. Jeff lived next door. He was a year older, and as the story goes, he presented himself at the door of my house, wanting only two bits of information from my parents: Did they have any kids, and did they have any toys? The answer was yes to both, and that's a good thing, because Jeff would be my first "best friend" until he left the city when we were 12 and 13. We'd sit around listening to my parents' Jan & Dean, Beach Boys, and Beatles records, and making tape recordings of our own radio station, complete with all the breaking news that's fit to report to 8 year olds. We wouldn't keep in touch as well as we had hoped, and we'd eventually lose touch altogether until we eventually found each other again via the internet.

But that's not what this story is about. This story is about Dianne.

I ran into Dianne earlier this week. A quiet night of browsing grainy grade-school pictures on one of those networking websites brought back confused feelings of mis-rememberings: people I knew but couldn't place, and names I could swear I recognized but couldn't determine whether I knew them or not. I attribute this to living in a community where half my friends chose to go to a different junior high after sixth grade, and even then, I'd leave my remaining and new junior high friends two years later, before those telltale days of High School, when my family moved out west. Maybe it's normal to have these hazy, mistrustful recollections the way I do, but I feel as though I've failed my past friends when I can't quite place everyone from those days. But today a memory came rushing back to me, and it's all because of something Dianne said to me in a message.

She remembered hunting for crayfish in the creek, and walking along our back fences. She recalled playing cars in Jeff's driveway.

As all boys (and tomboys, if you'll permit the term) would know, the best driveways to play cars in are those driveways that have the right kind of gravel; gravel you can push around and make roads and hills, but shallow enough that you can drive them on the hard packed base and not lose your cars. It's also a bonus if your two-car driveway has only one car parked in it. Our driveway was paved. Jeff's was perfect. His parents had an '84 Mercury Marquis (I still remember thinking how cool those headlight blinkers were.), so we filled the rest of the driveway with our never ending collection of Hot Wheels vehicles. And when the gravel got too packed down, we either transported it from those less-used parts of the driveway, or begged his parents for more gravel. We always had a great place for our cars.

Just the boys. And Dianne.

Make no mistake: Dianne was no tomboy. At least, I didn't think she was. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure she wanted all that much to play cars with us, but she always did. She had a steady supply of Little Girl Things, tea party gear and Holly Hobbie paraphernalia, but no cars. This was no problem, as far as we were concerned. She could play with whichever of our cars she wanted. But she wanted to bring something to the party.

As I remember it, one day she showed up with her own car. It was a little purple thing that looked nothing like our cars. This was a girl car. And frankly, it was pretty cool. Delighted in her new acquisition and passport into Little Boy world, she could want for nothing else. She neither wanted to play with any of our cars, nor was she interested in a temporary lending. In short, no tradesies. I could never understand how any kid could be happy having just one car, but that was all she needed. And she never came to play cars without it.

I can't do much to fill in the details of our coexistence in the years following that. If pressed, I would wager that she was really more a friend to Jeff than to me. I was the secondary friend, not that it really mattered on our street. The whole street came out to play Hide and Seek, Home-Free always seeming to be out front of Eddie's house. Maybe it was because there were three kids in that family to swing the vote. Jeff, Dianne, and the kids from the other half of the block would all be there until dusk, or until we were all called in for supper and the game fizzled out.

Street life and school life were very different. In the days after school, we'd ride bikes and play guns and cops & robbers (they were somehow different games). We'd play marbles at the other end of the street and still find time on the weekends for longer-lasting activities. Sojourns to the creek would last for hours and take on a new significance as we expressed our sovereignty, venturing out of earshot of our parents' calls. The long, cold winters kept us indoors a little more, and changed our outdoor activities greatly. They afforded us much time for street hockey and sledding, but little opportunity to play cars in the driveway. When school was in, life changed again. Days under the fluorescent lights had a different circle of friends, but that core group of kids on the street would stay largely the same.

Soon those days would be behind me, fading into the background like that floral wallpaper and the heavy green curtains of my mother's disco-era kitchen in the bungalow in the middle of that crescent. I've become especially grateful for people that can recall those little tidbits of the past that bring warm waves of nostalgia to both heart and mind.

I'm sure Dianne doesn't have that little purple car anymore; she tells me she's keeping her hands busy (and dirty) in the aerospace industry. Perhaps those days of cars and driveways sparked something in her. Maybe she started amassing a collection of bigger and better toys to take apart and put back together. Dianne still lives close to those streets where we burned the daylight, shuffling around on skinned knees in the rocks, in the sun and the rain and the snow. I don’t know how often she thinks back to those days, but it’s nice to know your co-conspirators from way back when are still out there somewhere.

The whereabouts of my Hot Wheels collection is unknown; it probably didn't make it through the two or three moves since I lived in that house. Truth be known, I don’t miss it much.  And this week will see me pass precisely into the middle of my fourth decade. I've got my own house with, sadly, a paved driveway, and so my kids will have to hunt for the perfect place to play with their growing collection of newer, stranger vehicles.

The events of this past week or so have served to underscore the importance of carrying those childhood memories into our adult lives. So in the name of supporting nostalgia, I’ll do all I can to ensure sure my own children can find those cherished childhood places, whether those are gravel driveways or not. Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave all the remembering up to them. And to Dianne: Thanks for helping with my memory.

Posted bythemikestand at 12:38 PM  

3 stepped up to the mike:

Steph said... 2:48 PM, March 12, 2008  

Beautifully written, Mike. It takes me back to the days I spent playing cars and Star Wars with my male cousins... and to the waning sunlight and the sounds of a last game of "tag" in the neighbour's back yard.

FYI: My "girl car" was a black Lamborghini Countach. I painted over the flames with black fingernail polish.

Charlatan said... 10:25 PM, March 12, 2008  

Excellent piece...

I have been getting a bit nostalgic of late as well. I think I am finally beginning to understand the whole nostalgia thing that the babyboomers seemed to foist on us with shows like Happy Days and films like the Big Chill.

Your word have brought back all kinds of memories of the various empty lots, backyards and forests I used to haunt when I was a little kid.

I had hot wheels but I was much more into my Big Jim rescue rig and Planet of the Apes Treehouse...

richgold said... 8:05 PM, March 13, 2008  

You've reminded me of my brother's 16th birthday. The last one we had as a family together (my parent's started divorce proceedings the following spring).

I guess he'd asked the parental units for a car for his birthday. He got one. It was red. About and inch and a half long. He was happy with that until he could buy his own many years later.

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