Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Rumble of the Ages

Halloween's over.

My eight year old son made the big candy haul last night, whoofed down a few chocolate nuggets of some tooth-decaying matter, and crashed like a big dog around 8:15.

I remember well acting the same way 36 years ago, and it got me thinking about the 'memories of youth' that are framed in golden-hued nostalgia that probably isn't real, but that's the difference between memories and film.

The place:
My old home town- Kings Mountain, North Carolina.

The memory:
1973. There I was, age 12, exiting the 50 year-old Joy Theater after a Saturday matinee movie.

The Rat Palace, we called it, where fifty cents would gain you admittance to the latest badly dubbed Godzilla flick or Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.

Where your feet stuck to the seldom-cleaned floor; sticky with the Sprite of Ages- and the popcorn was the only fresh thing you could depend on for a cinematic munchy.

Where the padlocked door on the right side of the main entrance was a vague reminder of a time when it was the only portal the black folks of this town had for gaining entry to the theater. The doorway led to a separate stairway that offered them seating in the balcony of the theater.

But that was six years earlier and now I'm twelve, everyone uses the same set of doors no matter what color they are, and we're going to the theater without a parental watchdog (those were the safe days). Just my friends and I, our feet raised up on the seat backs in front of us, throwing Milk Duds at the screen until Mac, the big, tall, gruff manager, made his rounds and slapped our feet down. Mac's office, just to the right of the lobby, had a huge, stuffed albatrose that hung from the ceiling. It was pretty damn creepy.

After the movies would end we’d wait across the street where the Southern Railroad Line ran straight through the middle of town. The National Guard Armory had a monument set up there-a small cannon from World War II. I have no idea of the caliber. It was large in my preteen eyes. It was mounted on a big concrete platform with chains around it. Of course the chains never stopped us. We’d climb around on it and play GI Joe, feigning gunshot wounds to the chest and legs and throwing ourselves off the cannon’s base onto the ground.

Playtime stopped at the sound of an approaching train.
Quick! Get you pennies out! Hurry!

We’d place our remaining coins on the rails and then lie on the ground some five or six feet away from the track. We’d focus on the location of our coins and wait.

The rumble and crunch of the approaching locomotive would shake our prone bodies and the always-excitable minds housed in our small skulls would race with thoughts of the train jumping the tracks if it didn’t hit the pennies just so. The freight whistle would blast loud enough to make us squint our eyes shut and grip the grassy bank with tight fists as the train thundered ever closer.

A hundred feet, twenty, then with a deafening roar and thunderous shake it would pass us, and we’d catch a brief glimpse of our coins flying hither and yon.

After a mile of boxcars and the caboose passed we’d rush up and search the gravel between the rails for our coins. Sometimes we’d not find a single one and then there were times when one of us would raise our hand in triumph.

We’d all gather round and examine it as if it were found treasure from an uncharted island. No longer resembling a penny, it was now an inch and a half-long ellipse of smooth copper, slightly curved like a crescent.

The brotherhood would then be broken up by one of the mothers showing up to shuttle us back to our homes.

The trains still run through the middle of my hometown. The cannon is now gone, and the old Joy Theater has at times been an evangelical church, and most recently refurbished as the new Little Theater for our local thespians. And as sure as the tracks still carry the thundering trains of my youth through the middle of that small town, there’s still roughly a buck fifty in stretched-out pennies lying amidst the gravel of the early 70s.


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