By Kevin S. Giles
Writing a novel set in my childhood brought a flood of memories, many of them good, reminding me that kids in the pre-driving, pre-job years see life with eyes of wonder.
As I drafted Summer of the Black Chevy those memories stirred the senses: Catching the scent of lilacs down the block while walking to school, my grandmother’s chocolate cake coming out of the oven, fresh earth when winter ice gave way to spring thaw. I heard the siren blowing curfew at City Hall two hours before midnight and the chimes ringing on the hour at the Catholic Church. I saw the lights of the big prison on Main Street at night, the spray of stars when the town went to bed, the red fire skies and the black thunderheads sweeping over the mountains.
I recalled my mother cooking over a steaming stove, reading us stories at night, taking us to buy school clothes in August like clockwork. I remembered my father heading to work in his prison guard uniform, loading rifles and rods when he took me hunting and fishing, shuffling to the living room couch in his old red-black robe when he was dying of congestive heart failure. It was the same robe he wore when he was a new dad, introducing me to my first Christmas.
In my old neighborhood we walked on gravel roads. Dogs ran without leashes. We sledded and skated in the winter and, in the summer, played baseball until we dropped. I was all about the Beatles after they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and turned American rock and roll upside down. I played my “Please Please Me” 45 rpm at least a thousand times. I still have a clipping of JFK’s assassination, the breaking news of it interrupting my slumber on a day when I was home sick from school. I heard the first frantic bulletins on our black and white TV.
I recalled the tough days when I didn’t do well in school, when I didn’t have enough pocket change to buy my parents proper Christmas presents, when kids did cruel things to one another. I puked blood after my tonsillectomy, crashed face first on the pavement on a runaway bicycle on Powder House Hill, survived a dog biting with teeth marks below the knee, and learned the hard way that being shy didn’t pay off around girls.
We went to the Presbyterian Church, where I was dutifully marched into Sunday school class and despite the teachers’ best efforts, I never felt at home there. We camped at Seeley Lake in the Swan Valley in summers and I loved it. Being outdoors always stirred the imagination of a young boy.
I recalled the good days when I worked hard in school and succeeded, when I saved my summer lawn-mowing money and made good use of it, and when friends stood by each other no matter what. I remembered the joy of Boy Scout trips to Camp Aquatic and Camp Arcola, learning the clutch on my dad’s gray pickup truck, building a two-story “fort” with neighborhood kids and, in later years, going to formal dances on my best behavior.
These are idyllic memories for the most part, carved through time like wind on rock, leaving evidence of my being long ago.
(Kevin S. Giles wrote the novel Summer of the Black Chevy, and Jerry’s Riot, the examination of Montana’s 1959 prison disturbance. He also wrote the biography One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story. He is one of those Montana writers who finds stories in the woods and valleys and streams and small towns of western Montana.)