Friday, October 17, 2008

Cullen: The Wall

I grew up an Air Force brat. In the early ‘80s we lived on Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Enlisted Air Force housing is typically styled like townhomes with two, four, or eight individual homes smooshed into one large unit. There would be several of these units per “neighborhood.”

It was pretty nice housing, honestly. A long, straight street would have several inlets. These inlets had two sets of garages on either side and dead-ended at a housing unit. The garages served this unit and another two housing units behind each set of garages. So, each of these inlets served, roughly, 12 families. And, usually, military kids at that time were quick to make friends or, at least, hang out. The number of times one had to move while growing up kind of made the ability to insinuate yourself into a new group a survival method.

I digress.

These particular units were of two kinds: four homes in a row, like a typical townhouse design; or four homes where two a smooshed and two sets are joined in the middle. In front of the homes that were four straight across, there were these walls that were, I imagine, supposed to be decorative. They provided a façade that covered things like air conditioning units and other utility pipes and such.

I was about 10 years old when we lived here. That was a weird time. I was still very much a child. There were plenty of GI Joes and Transformers all around. I lusted after these products just like any good American kid was supposed to. However, we had cable and I discovered MTV. I don’t think I was there for the launch, but it wasn’t long before I was watching and discovering these things. I won’t say that this was a threshold age. I think 12 or 13 (and I hope that’s still the case) was more likely an age where there was a chasm crossed. But there was an awakening to a much larger world.

Looking back on this time, there is something that we kids all did that symbolizes all of these emotions, meshes it all together into one event.

Those walls that were in front of the row units were about six feet tall. In my memory, they seem huge. Imposing. But I can remember my dad and friend’s dads standing next to these walls so I do have a realistic perspective on their true height. But to the mind of a 10-year-old, they were high. And, being young boys, we jumped off these walls.

It was a game we played a lot, actually. We’d climb to the top of the wall and see who could jump the furthest, or, in some cases, who would jump at all.

You know that feeling you get in your stomach right before you’re about to do something that’s both exciting and frightening? That feeling that both warns you and eggs you on to do this thing? That’s what the wall was. Every. Single. Time. It seems a small thing now, but then it was fun and thrilling. Like the first time you learn that you could launch yourself through the air from a swing … it was freeing and competitive.

And that feeling is what I associate with being 10 years old. It was a dawning awareness of the greater world, but it was still fun and exciting. There was knowledge that there were scary things on the threshold of our existence and yet there were still the naïve childish thoughts of invincibility about your surroundings. But there was that nagging something going on … that nagging in the pit of your stomach. Warning and goading.

My oldest daughter is about the same age that I was when I was doing these things and I wonder how she sees the world. Is there an approaching and dawning awareness of great, scary, exciting and frightening things? I hope so.

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