By RAHN ADAMS
It had been a long time since I’d thought much about learning to drive on that long, winding country road of my youth.
As we get older, our attention turns to other, more grown-up concerns, like finding steady jobs, finding people to love and to love us, and finding good ways to leave our marks on the world.
Before long, we forget the thrill of being 16 years old and driving that old car home late on a Friday night, and punching the accelerator at just the right spot coming out of the last curve — where the patched asphalt dips — before the long straight-away up, up, up and then over the dimly-lit hill, then down the narrow two-lane blacktop, staying on the gas and off the brake pedal until the last possible seconds before that hard right turn toward the distant bridge, with tall, dark cornfields on both sides of this pot-holed rural byway running along the widening river near and far, but always within sight of the trees along this shadowy watercourse’s banks, as these streams of grayish water and lined pavement wind together and cross one another time and again, through the heart of this beautiful valley.
When we’re young, we take our chances — too many, perhaps, and too often. But when we’re old, we often play it safe and put on the brakes, maybe just a bit too soon. If we’re not careful, that’s how we handle not just experiences but also the people in our lives.
Thanks to 44 years’ worth of road improvements, it is now much easier to drive Highway 268 in Caldwell County from its intersection with U.S. 321 at Cheek’s Crossroads, through Happy Valley where I attended elementary school, to Piney Grove Circle where I grew up, than it was way back when I got that all-important driver’s license.
That was in the summer of 1975 when Jaws was the blockbuster movie everyone wanted to see, the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin'” was the disco hit everyone loved or hated to hear on the radio, and President Gerald Ford was completing his first year of unelected office after Richard Nixon’s resignation that had short-circuited the seemingly never-ending Watergate scandal.
My little brother, who also was my best friend, was still alive then. It would be another year before he’d start having the severe chest pains that would lead to a delayed diagnosis in October 1976 of a softball-sized tumor and to a 3 1/2-month cancer treatment program of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
I say “delayed” because we had taken Ken to our family doctor when his chest pains had begun. After a cursory examination, the doctor had diagnosed the athletic 10-year-old’s problem as merely “growing pains,” and he had even joked that Ken was “going to live for a long time yet.” But he was wrong.
A week later, when those growing pains had grown so intense that Ken couldn’t sleep, Dad took him back to the doctor, who this time ordered the chest X-ray that found the mass. Ken was hospitalized as further tests were done. I remember that it was a Friday and that before the dire discovery earlier in the day, Ken had been all set to come back home and ride with me into town to attend a fundraiser and football game. I still have his unused ticket to that hamburger supper tucked away in an old horsehead-embossed billfold.
That first night, before he was to be transferred the next day from Grace Hospital in Morganton to N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, Ken experienced total paralysis of both legs. No one could explain why that happened right then, whether the tumor had grown just enough by that night to press against Ken’s spinal cord and paralyze him, or if one or more of the day’s many tests and procedures had done the damage. I’ve always suspected the latter, but this happened before most folks would have dared to question the hometown medical community’s competence.
So the little boy who had won football competitions, played baseball in the field with his big brother, and dreamed of playing basketball for the Happy Valley Eagles, then for the Hibriten High Panthers, then for his beloved University of North Carolina Tar Heels never walked again. Like me, his favorite sport was basketball. But unlike me, he would have been tall enough and talented enough to easily make at least those first two teams and have an outside chance to make the third one, if he had lived.
That’s what I always think about when I drive down Highway 268 to Piney Grove Baptist Church, where the old basketball court once stood, where Ken and I had happily spent so many hours together so many years ago. But the small, unlined, black asphalt court shaded by tall poplars, the stained white, plywood backboard and rigid, orange rim with its plain white or red-white-and-blue net were razed long ago for a children’s playground of colorful, plasticized blocks, castles, ladders and slides within a chain-link fence.
I didn’t look in that direction a few Saturdays ago when wife Timberley and I were there to attend the funeral of an old friend’s father. Though we had been close friends in high school, he and I have seen each other only a handful of times since then, as he had gone off to the big-city college first and never moved back. We’ve had the smallest measure of contact through social media but nothing like those raw green, teenage days of church camping trips in the cow pasture that had been converted into a ball field, the late-night catfishing safaris through the tall, scratchy corn to the riverbank, bicycle rides over the mountain to Buffalo Cove, and just being two bored but hopeful teenagers, sitting around, always sitting around — in school desks, in church pews, in cars, on school buses — and talking about how things made no sense back then and how we hoped things would be more fair for poor country boys like us in the future.
Timberley and I arrived at the church about 30 minutes before the family’s pre-service reception was scheduled to start, so we waited in the lower parking lot, where in the ’70s my brother and I had played football when that particular spot had been another green, poplar-shaded grove. (I’ve never figured out exactly why it was named Piney Grove. Coincidentally, green is the color that I’ve always associated with that place, maybe from all the grass I used to mow there, while yellow and brown are the colors that I associate with poplar trees.)
Presently, a car that I recognized zipped past us, going the wrong direction on the one-way exit road from the upper lot. The lone driver was another old classmate, this one a fellow with whom we had been in close contact for almost 20 years until he dropped out of touch. That old buddy, however, simply chose to ignore us that Saturday, electing not to speak to us after he went through the line nor to even stay for the funeral itself. But that was really no surprise. I guess he was in a hurry to be somewhere else.
What did surprise me somewhat that day, though, was my bereaved friend’s reaction in the receiving line. “Well, if it isn’t Rahn Adams,” he said as he gave me a hug, something he’d never done before. He took off his wire-rimmed glasses to wipe a tear and then thanked me for coming. I don’t think I’d ever seen my old pal cry, not even back when he wrecked his 10-speed and broke his arm while sailing down the mountain from Buffalo Cove on his way back home.
After the funeral service and graveside rites, we spoke again, introduced our better halves to each other, and agreed to get together sometime later under much better circumstances, either in Lenoir when he comes back to spend time with his sweet mother or in the big city where he still lives. Either way, I hope we can reconnect.
Whether or not he and I see each other again really isn’t my main point, though. The crux, the crossroads, of this matter involves all the memories we make with the people we love at different times in our lives, and all the life experiences that those of us with sound minds but uncaring hearts choose to forget, sometimes far too soon on our journeys home.