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Revisiting the Private Turf of Childhood

IT didn't seem like the 4th of July, sitting in my new condo, imagining a solo picnic among a group of strangers in the city park, waiting for the fireworks display over a lake I had seen for the first time only two weeks earlier. In a way, I had come home; this town was only 30 minutes from where I had grown up. But in another way it was just as far from home as the places in which I had lived in California and Connecticut. I had been away for decades from the city outside of Chicago. I had left it at 13 to go to be schooled near New York, in order (my secret agenda) to be closer to Broadway. Anyway, there I sat in the suburban moonscape that was too close to home and too different from the aging edifices of my youth to become home so soon. On that 4th of July, I decided to opt for the familiar. I got in my car and drove that 30 minutes to the Joliet Country Club. Don't get me wrong. I am not an avatar of clubbiness. I just grew up spending summers in this one club which was, for my mom, a safe place for us to go when we didn't want to be home and when she certainly didn't want to deal with our perpetual summer boredom. My brother and I went there, and in a weird way it opened up a wider world to me. Joliet, Ill., in my time, was a nonviolent Belfast. I knew no Roman Catholic kids at school; they were all part of another system, and since the city had the highest percentage of Catholics outside of Boston, that was quite a system. Well-heeled Presbyterians had their own fortress too. But for three months of the year we mixed, and oddly enough, it was because of that mixing at the country club that I never accepted the prejudices of religion. But, of course, we were all white with parents who could include green fees in their budgets, if they bothered with budgets at all. I remembered how the 4th-of-July celebrations always started, with contests in the pool. We were insensitive to the cruelty of them. The guards bought goldfish, hundreds, and tossed them into the chlorinated water. We dived in with baggies and caught as many as we could. They usually died before we could get them home. I remember one 4th when someone threw in a turtle as well. A group formed a ring around it as it thrashed about in the water. I swam underneath the ring of floating bodies and lifted the thrasher out of the water to the poolside, told the others to get away, got my dad, and took it to a stream. Dad told me that it might be able to find its mom. That comforted me. But even better was learning that I could be myself when the ring of others had made its closure; there was a way to follow my heart, and I did it. Later in the day was the huge buffet. The country club had the best pecan rolls I have ever eaten, drippy and gooey but still soft in the middle. My brother and I "signed" for dinner (country clubs are the original cashless institutions) and ate up a storm, looking out the huge picture windows over the pool and, from there, over the second and third fairways where the fireworks were being erected. Then came the wait for twilight and the beginning of the club's relatively small fireworks display. That day we would bring blankets, find a place on one of the best bunkers, put on the bug repellent, and wait. Around eight, everyone started to find their places, many turning the poolside chairs around to face the golf course. I remember, who knows why, watching one woman do this, a drink in one hand and her little Gucci bag dangling from her elbow as she turned the chair and laughed into the face of someone else's husband. They always started the fireworks just before dark, and they went on for 45 minutes or so. I liked the ones that either blasted my ears or exfoliated in the sky like a huge fiery mum before falling into the darkness, like the falling colors in the most abstract of Whistler's paintings. But the poetry ended, as did the display, in the firing up of the American flag, with its red, white, and blue stripes ablaze and stars a-poppin'. That always seemed anticlimactic to me, an obligatory gesture rather than a successful bonding of patriotism to the boomers and sky-mums. But I could never think of a better way to end the show. I just wonder why things at the club that promised to be so special brought me back to the humdrumness of things as they were. I still believed back then in the possibility of money buying promises that would come true. After the flag went off, we usually went home. But one year I noticed some action on the third fairway, some guys getting ready to run toward that burning, firecracker flag. I asked a friend about it, and he said there were always leftover firecrackers in the flag and that they were going to get them. And not only that. He said black people would be coming through the bushes that bordered the club to get some too. I DON'T know why, but I started to run when the others did. As I got closer and closer to that burned-out flag, I tripped and fell. And as I fell, I looked up and saw a swirl of black faces rushing around me, faces I'd never seen on that fairway before. They had come through. On the other side of those bushes was one of the most wretched, impoverished streets in the city. I had heard that they came through at sunrise to get stray golf balls. But that night they came through and were all around me grabbing, as I had hoped to do, for those unblown crackers. I never got any. All I got was the falling and spinning into a mixed moment of physical and social vertigo, the likes of which I had been sheltered from all my life. This moment defined in my youth the feeling of "no control." Control was (is) such a social and economic thing, even as it is physical and emotional. I fell that night into a wholly new personal and social space, as Old Glory gave its last pop on that perfectly groomed third fairway. When I finally got to the club on that 4th of July of my 1980 homecoming, there was no action. A sign was posted reading, "Fireworks cancelled due to lack of funds." I was amazed and disappointed, but I was glad in a way to know that even this place was no longer immune to the economic ravages which, in 1980, had beset that community. I have only been back once since then, for one last look at the old place before moving to Florida. It was Ladies' Day, and I was no longer, through my parents affiliation, considered a member. As I entered the dining room to look out the big plate-glass windows over the pool and over the fairways, I was approached and asked what I wanted. It was clear what the other person wanted: for me to get out as the ladies began to come in for lunch. I wanted to reclaim moments in that private place, moments that opened up to me the pressure of a world on the other side of the bushes. Doing so brought into focus the adult choices I had made for institutions where "coming through" isn't denied and where power gives people access to more than stray golf balls and firecrackers. That was one thing I wanted, to measure my zigzagging growth from privilege into service. But there was something else, something that cannot change. There is just no better place than that private turf to make the journey through the looking glass of my childhood. So, one last time I just wanted to go through.

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