It was the best of times

Evans “Buddy” King

I saw my first lightning bug of the summer last week. They usually come out in mid-June in North Central West Virginia, pretty much the same time as in the Christiansburg of my youth. And, just like those long ago childhood days, the lightning bug’s time is short.

The firefly evokes memories for many of us I’m sure. Mine are of my father using a screwdriver to punch holes in the lid of an empty Peter Pan peanut butter jar; it always was a Peter Pan jar, showing respect to Tinker Bell I suppose. I would then run around the yard of my home on Cherry Lane, or occasionally at my grandmother’s house on Junkin Street, grabbing at the elusive little things and sticking them in the jar.

There was great delight in the capture and great fun in seeing the fluorescent specs on your hand. I couldn’t wait to be praised for how many I had captured, feeling no remorse for my actions.

We did try catch and release sometimes, but, again, their hours were numbered and they rarely took off, languishing sadly at the bottom of the jar.

Thus were summers in the Christiansburg of my childhood. They seemed endless, wonderful times of chasing lightning bugs and daily neighborhood games of baseball and night times of kick the can. Like the old Fifth Dimension song, we thought we’d “fight and never lose, we’d dance forever and a day”.

Do kids still play kick the can? I hope so but times are so different, neighborhoods are so different, lives are so different, I fear they do not. For those not familiar with this wonderful childhood game, it was hide and seek with rules (minimal).

Whoever was “it” tried to catch hiders and then race back to the can (an empty frozen orange juice can in my memory) and count “1, 2, 3 on whomever” and the victim would then have to sit on the front porch of the home hosting the game with the other kids who had been caught.

But there was hope! If someone sneaked in and “kicked the can” all detainees were released, free to roam the backyards of Cherry Lane and Second Street and Mountain View Drive and seek new hiding places.

Needless to say, being “it” was a difficult task, the chances of capturing all of the hiders before they were liberated being about the same as the Yankees not winning the pennant in those years. Usually the game ended when parents started ringing bells or yelling for their kids to come in and go to bed.

The phrase is now most often used in the context of “kicking the can down the road,” i.e., to make minimal progress and delay final action. Our childhood games were anything but indecisive, however. The competition was real and injuries frequently occurred.

Many of us learned the torture of disinfectants known as merthiolate and mercurochrome (as the names suggest, these remedies contained mercury, not held in much repute in later years) – heinous red-tinted ointments that stained your skin and made you suffer for your scrapes on neighborhood sidewalks when running towards the can.

A more significant injury occurred once when a boy from “up on Mocking Bird Hill” sacrificed his front teeth on a clothesline in the Reed’s backyard one night. Luckily he was not beheaded. However, his injury was nothing compared to the pole-vaulting injury the he suffered a few years later in high school. Those details best be spared here.

Suffice it to say that it was a good generation or two before Christiansburg High produced many boys willing to try this event. See one of my earlier columns on my pole-vaulting experience.

Chasing fireflies and playing kick the can paled in comparison, however, to the sun up to sundown baseball games in the neighborhood. They took place in the Sturgill’s side yard or the vacant lots behind the Reeds’ house. I was one of the youngest kids in the neighborhood, my main claim to fame in these games occurring one summer when I snagged a “vicious” line drive (it certainly seemed that way at the time) saving Mrs. Sturgill’s kitchen window, the ball miraculously landing in my outstretched glove at third base.

I was probably eight at the time, with major league aspirations. Those long ago fields of dreams now rest under the weight of homes in my old neighborhood. When I first saw our fields were gone, I felt much like Brooklyn Dodger fans must have felt when Ebbets Field was turned into an apartment complex.

Those were glorious times, punctuated by agonizing interruptions such as Vacation Bible School and scout camp (my Dad finally accepted the fact that collecting badges and sleeping in the woods meant little to me). Praise the Lord that no one on either side of my family had a lick of musical talent or else these times away from “the game” would have been even worse.

One lasting consequence of these glorious days was my name. There was another “Buddy” in the neighborhood, five years older and a nice and respected and well-known kid.

He was “Buddy,” I was always “Buddy King.” I was a junior, named for my father, who had first dibs on “Evans”, but thankfully my parents eschewed the southwest Virginia custom of calling me “Junior,” deciding on “Buddy,” with “Chip” having been a close second from what I heard.

“Chip” was a common nickname in the post World War II era, as in “chip off the old block,” signifying similarity to your father. Apparently my Dad adopted a wait and see attitude, deciding against Chip.

Only after I joined my law firm did I become “Evans,” when the partners decided at my first firm retreat that a 26-year-old lawyer who looked 16 did not need to sound even younger.

Interestingly, one senior partner told me that night in the bar at The Greenbrier that I should stick with “Buddy,” that all of his friends called him “Lanky.” When I told him I had never heard any of the partners call him Lanky, he said “that’s right, I said all my friends.” But to my old friends off of West Main, I was always “Buddy King,” the other “Buddy” getting top billing.

I cannot write this column without mentioning the ringleaders/medics/wardens of our neighborhood: our parents.

They provided the sustenance to fuel our games; they treated our wounds and they issued the orders that brought our games to an end at night.

On Cherry Lane, we pretty much had the run of each other’s houses, locking or knocking (on) doors not being required.

Most of us called the other parents by their first names, the pleasantness of our existence being made infinitely better by parents who cared for us but chose not to control our lives. They were our parents, not our best friends.

If my remembrances of the Christiansburg of my youth seem too idyllic, I am NOT apologetic. Most of my contemporaries from that time share the same feeling. And what’s wrong with feeling good about your childhood? We were blessed.

Evans “Buddy” King grew up in Christiansburg and graduated from CHS in 1971. He lives in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he practices law with the firm of Steptoe and Johnson PLLC.

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