Years Pass, But Some Things Never Change

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the summers of his youth.

The book was in a trunk in a shed on my in-laws' property, left there years ago when my wife I were moving from one city to another. The inscription is dated December 1961, when I turned 12 years old.

"Set a goal and work toward it," it reads. "Nothing worthwhile is accomplished by doing nothing. It takes work and determination. We love you very much." It is signed "Granny and granddaddy."

The book is "The American League." It includes chapters written by different authors about the history of each of the then-eight American League teams. It was a birthday gift or Christmas gift. Since my birthday is on Christmas Day, I don't remember which one. The inscription, in my grandmother's handwriting, referred to what was then my dream of becoming a major league baseball player.

I wasn't a threat to become a major league baseball player, of course. I wasn't even any good in the Center Point Little League. But the aging book brought memories rushing back of another time in another place, of the innocence of childhood.

It's tempting as you get older to remember the old days as somehow better, but I'm not sure they were. No one had heard of terrorism, but we lived in fear of a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union. No one talked about illegal immigration, but African-Americans couldn't even drink from public fountains or visit public parks.

It seems like there are a lot more sickos in the world these days, the kind of animals that will abuse and kill children. Or maybe there's a lot more information available and we just hear about it more.

My mother's parents were simple people. My grandfather was a carpenter and, for much of his life, a part-time farmer. He had fought on the battlefields of France in World War I. My grandmother cooked three meals a day. Her chicken and dumplings remain, to this day, my favorite food ever. She made the best biscuits I've ever eaten. Mostly, she doted on her grandchildren and had a sense of humor that can still bring a smile to my face today.

There was rock quarry in the woods not far from her house that was a wonderful place to swim. It was known to everyone around as the Blue Hole. Legend had it that it was so deep and had filled with water so rapidly that there were trucks and cranes on the bottom. My cousins and I spent many summer days splashing in the water. When we got older, we would camp out on the bank. My grandfather built a little wooden pier.

One summer, when my grandmother must have been in her mid-60s, she went with us to swim. We were running and jumping from the bank with inner-tubes on our rear ends. We could jump into the air and hit the water sitting in the inner-tubes. It was typical that my grandmother decided she was going to try it.

When she hit the water, she flipped over. The inner-tube was stuck, but she was upside down. We were laughing so hard that we almost forgot to go get her out. When we pulled the inner-tube off, she popped up laughing harder than we were.

It was at the Blue Hole that I lost my fear of swimming in deep water. I was splashing around with my hand on an inner-tube when my grandmother snatched it away. "Swim!" she said. I did.

Throughout my childhood, the one place that was always there was my grandparents' house on Old Springville Road in Chalkville, east of Birmingham. Chalkville is a bustling suburb now. In those days, it was out in the country. I can still see every room in that house. I can still remember the smells. My cousin, Raad Cawthon, lived next door. Another cousin, Don Keith, lived not far away. I spent as much time at my grandmother's house every summer as I spent at home.

Raad, Don and frequently other cousins and I roamed through the woods. We camped in pine thickets, pretending we were toughing it out. We pilfered apples off trees at nearby houses. We winced at bee and wasp stings. We sneaked away and smoked something called rabbit tobacco. It was a delicious time in my life.

Raad remains today as close as a brother. Aunt Millie, his mother and my mother's sister, has been a special person in my life as long as I can remember and still is. Don and I have recently spent some welcome time together after years of seeing little of each other. Aunt Julia, Don's mother and my grandmother's sister, at age 97 has the same wicked sense of humor my grandmother had.

Not long ago, Don and I drove out to the site of my grandmother's house. There's a church there now, which is fitting because my grandparents were tremendously devout. The house where Raad lived remains and looks much the same as it did all those years ago.

As we walked around where we once spent so many happy days, I remembered Uncle Toad, Aunt Gladys and Uncle Bert, Uncle Jimmy, Aunt Carlie and Uncle Luke, Uncle Cage and Aunt Mooney, Uncle Tuck and Aunt Mickey, Aunt Arnold and Uncle Richard and so many others. I remembered family Rook games and Christmases when my grandmother's house was filled to overflowing.

My children had no opportunity to have experiences like I had. They followed me from one city and one job to another. In those days, we played in the woods and in the water, hiked to Uncle Cage's store up the road. Those days are long gone.

But some things never change.

"Set a goal work and toward it. Nothing worthwhile is accomplished by doing nothing. It takes work and determination."

The wise words of my grandmother ring as true today as they did in 1961.

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More copies of Phillip's book, "The Auburn Experience," have become available for purchase at a reduced price. An oversized coffee table book published in December 2004, the book features more than 300 slick pages of stories and photographs of many of Auburn's greatest traditions, teams, players and coaches in every sport. Originally selling for $69, it is available now for just $20, plus $5 shipping and handling. For orders of multiple books, there will be just one $5 charge for shipping and handling. Send check or money order made payable to Phillip Marshall to The Auburn Experience, P.O. Box 968, Auburn, AL 36831.

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