Every school day commute began the same way. Out the back door from the kitchen, down the iron steps into our small back yard, unlatch the chain-link gate, step into the alley, and start picking up my friends for the half-mile walk to St. Bernardine’s. First stop, the Warfields.

Bobby’d already be stepping out from under the trellis at the end of his yard, his mother standing at the kitchen door calling Freckles, the Warfields’ black-and-white cocker spaniel, to get back in the house.

Bobby’s wardrobe mirrored mine—the compulsory blue pants, white shirt and blue snap-on tie of a St. B’s boy.

We’d exchange muffled “heys” as we adjusted our book bags, which were just that—coarse blue denim sacks with a white cinch rope at the top. Slung over the shoulder, they held a lot of stuff and made great swinging weapons to hurl at one another later in the day, when we were livelier than at 7:30 in the morning.

A couple row houses later, Wayne the Brain would fall into step. Then Mike, and maybe his little brother, Jeff; although Jeff lagged a few paces behind, just as we yielded a few to Bobby’s older brother, Skip. The hierarchy was unspoken, but understood. About half way to school, Gene and his twin sister, Jane, would fall in. Jane was the only girl allowed, partly because of her unique relationship to Gene, but mostly because she probably could have taken most of us in a fight.

The rest of the route to school was an ever-expanding blur of blue and white (albeit somewhat diffused by the non-uniformed heathens who attended PS 88, about halfway along our trek) until some 400 of us were assembled, by class, on the St. B’s macadam-paved school yard. There, we were brought to regimental order with the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the National Anthem to the accompaniment of a bugle-blowing girl, standing alongside a flag-bearing boy, at the top of the steel steps leading inside.

Seven hours later, the school day over, we couldn’t get out of our parochial threads fast enough. Ties unsnapped, shirttails flying, we raced home with our friends to play with our friends. The same kids who’d just slogged through Catechism, Mathematics, Spelling, Geography, and other mind-numbing subjects were now energized by the promise of a game of two-hand touch football before supper.

I loved those games, played into the autumn dusk as the aroma of frying meat, roasting potatoes and boiling cabbage signaled that dads were coming home and suppers were in the works; a signal soon confirmed by Mrs. Warfield. “Boys, time to come in,” she bellowed.

“In a minute,” Bobby and Skip would retort.

“No, now!” Mrs. Warfield would counter.

“Gotta go,” the Warfield boys would confirm. “See ya tomorrow.”

Later that night, when I was up in my room doing my homework, I could glance across the alley and see Bobby in his room. It was like a scene out of Rear Window. Bobby and I would wave to one another across the chasm. Or I’d hear Mrs. Warfield call for him to take the garbage out or let Freckles in. Our connection didn’t end until darkness descended on our rooms in preparation for the next day.

It was that way for years. The seasons would change, and with them, the games. Two-hand touch gave way to wiffle ball, wire ball, dodge ball, or any of a dozen other kinds of ball games…some of which, I believe, were unique to our alley—the concrete spine running down the back of a continuous row of thirteen houses on either side. It was our world, wonderfully simple and ’50s innocent. I never thought it would change.

Until one of those school day mornings, when Bobby met me as usual at his trellis and said his family was moving away. Something about his dad getting a new job…in Cleveland, I think. Within a few weeks, they would be gone.

The day they left, all of us kids stood in front of their house and watched the last of their stuff being loaded into a moving van. Then we watched as Mr. and Mrs. Warfield, Skip, Bobby, and Freckles got into their car and drove away.

I don’t remember anyone crying. I just remember feeling emptier.

The Warfields were the first people to leave our neighborhood. Before the next decade would end, virtually everyone would be gone, as racial integration merely spawned new boundaries of racial segregation.

The exodus of my childhood friends became steady and unrelenting. But nothing ever felt the same as watching the Warfields drive away. Their departure was my first exposure to the concept that nothing in this life is as constant as change. It was the beginning of the end of my childhood—a slice of which had driven off with that first good-bye.

Occasionally, now, I drive through the old neighborhood. I stop in front of my childhood home and imagine the boy who lived there more than 50 years ago. I see him sitting on our front porch glider assembling a model airplane. If I concentrate really hard, I can smell the hobby shop glue that turned a box full of plastic bits into a dream machine, lifting my imagination high above the long row of brick houses. I continue driving to the corner, wondering if I’ll see the new neighborhood kids playing two-hand touch, or hear a mother’s call to supper. But it’s quiet, deserted almost. Then I turn down the alley, where I invariably cross the trip wire of that first good-bye.

Bobby’s back yard trellis is long gone now, but I still see it—Mrs. Warfield’s yellow roses climbing up its sides and cascading off the top. Then I see Bobby, a dimple-faced eleven-year-old, looking out the back window of an old Chevy as it drives away for the last time.




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