It’s intriguing how perceptions changes as we age. When I was in the sixth grade a teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. My response was a professional basketball player. Over the next couple years when I was no more than an average starter on average junior high basketball teams, it wasn’t hard to figure that my sixth-grade response was more than a little unrealistic.
But it wasn’t really my fault. Around the same time I answered that long ago question, I attended a basketball camp for two successive years. One of those years an outstanding shooter for Wittenberg University came to talk to us. He told us that if we took something like 500 basketball shots a day, every day, we could become professionals.
I think he was living in the same fantasy world I was. Oh, I followed his advice for a month or two, even toted my basketball to a couple distant family outings so I could continue my daily routine.
But other things eventually got in the way and somewhere along the line I realized it didn’t matter. Because no matter how many times a skinny, 5-9 white boy, who could not jump much and was not exceptionally quick or fast, shoots a basketball, he doesn’t have a prayer of playing in the NBA.
Those youthful misperceptions come into play in other facets of life, too.
When I was a little boy there was a large woods behind my parents’ home. I spent much of my childhood playing in and around it. It seemed like its own little realm, with long, winding paths to who knew where, towering trees, never-ending hills, and even a perilous pit.
Far back in the woods there was a hill that we played King of the Hill and other childhood games on for hours on end. It seemed like when someone pushed us off the top of the hill, we rolled forever until we finally came to a stop.
There was an old quarry there, too. It had a little water in the bottom, along with lots of trash, and its walls seemed as tall as a large building. One time I was playing with some friends at the quarry and was trying to push a dead tree off one of its walls. When the tree gave away, so did my footing, and down the side I went, bumping my backside off the rocks as I slid to the bottom. Other than a few scratches I didn’t get hurt. But for a long time I wondered how I survived such a calamitous fall from those towering heights.
There was a large clearing near our primary entrance to the woods. We jumped out of trees, rode swinging ropes and spent so much other time playing there that the whole area was worn down to bare dirt. My sister was really young then. But she played there as much as anyone. In the warmer months, every night when she came in from outside, she would be so dirty that you couldn’t tell what color her skin was, until mom gave her a bath.
One time I was heading toward the woods when I saw our gray cat creeping out of it – the same cat that had disappeared a month or so earlier. I grabbed Smokey and dashed toward the house with my miraculous discovery. The cat stuck around the house for a day or two, then disappeared, never to be found again.
I should not have been fond of that darn cat. One Easter, probably after I begged mercilessly, my parents bought me one of those little chickens you could get at the Five and Dime store back in the day. They came in all different colors. Mine was purple. I think I had the chicken for one day. I woke up the morning after I got it, looked in its box, and there it laid, very still, with a small drop of blood next to its neck. I was still pretty naive, but it was obvious that the cat had killed my chicken.
I don’t remember my reaction much, but to this day I remember the box, exactly where it was located in the house, and seeing my dead little pet with a small blood stain next to it.
My family moved away from the woods after my first week in fifth grade. I missed it, but there were new places to explore and adventures to be had in the new neighborhood, and the wonders of the woods faded away. Then one day when I was in my 20s, I found myself in the old neighborhood. I had been there before, but this time it felt like the woods was calling me. So out of my car I hopped and into the woods I headed.
The dirt clearing was pretty much gone. I found the hill we played on quickly, but it was not nearly as far back in the woods as I remembered, and it was only about as tall as I was. The quarry was there, too, and looked much the same. But those towering walls reached no higher than 10 or so feet.
That was about 30 years ago. I have not been back to the woods since.
I wonder what it looks like now. I suppose I could go visit it again since a good friend’s mother lives in the same house my family did. But no, I prefer to remember it as its own little kingdom and me as its king, with dreams of professional basketball dancing in my head.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.