I must have spent most of my early childhood in that gully behind Calvin Coolidge Grade School, most of my earliest childhood memories seem to originate from and around there.
In June of 1975, when I got out of the Army, I took a little road trip to Fort Madison, Iowa to visit an Army buddy that had gotten out a week before I did. We'd spent the last two and a half years serving in Germany together, me as a treatment room medic who specialized in giving out the V.D. Penicillin shots: "Bend over, say ah, little sting, this won't hurt much," (a bold-facec lie.) My buddy was involved with fire control on the Lance Missile ( basically a tactical nuclear weapon designed to make the East Germans or the Soviets think twice about marching over us on their way to the rest of western Europe).
When I got to Fort Madison, my buddy and I had a great old time, drinking beer and doing Dukes of Hazard style dust doughnuts in a big field in the back of my Buddy's place in my beat up old '69 Ford. Then I realized that Peoria was only an afternoon's drive away from Fort Madison and I decided to take a little nostalgia trip there and checkout my old childhood neighborhood.
Just before I started to drive for Peoria, my bud layed a really decent hit of windowpane acid on me, and I put it under my tongue to dissolve, and then started out on my journey. I was peaking by the time I'd reached the Illinois boarder and there was a thunderstorm brewing to the east. A big one, and I was heading straight into it—high adventure my friends!
I had installed a stereo tape deck in my '69 Ford a few days before I'd left for Iowa, and I had two tapes with me. One was a Jimi Hendrix greatest hits tape, and the other was a collection of Eric Clapton's better efforts. Those two gentlemen serenaded me all the way to Peoria, high as a kite and driving on a two lane blacktop reaching endlessly through miles and miles of corn with lightning splitting the sky and sheeting rain and thunder crashing all around. I felt like I was invincible, like I was Thor the Viking Thunder God and I'd never had that much fun driving a car before or since. Hours later, coasting to a mellow halt both in my mind and in my car, I made it to Peoria.
I stopped at a gas station with a big shit-eating grin on my face and bought a map of Peoria from an attendant who was giving me looks as though he didn't quite know what to make of me (but hey, fuck him if he can't take a joke) and went back to the car, looked up the way to West Peoria and Kenwood Avenue and started to drive. Before long, I was rolling in to the neighborhood where I'd spent the first twelve years or so of my life. I felt...well...a little like that one Twilight Zone where the guy goes back into time and his old home town to find and confront himself as a young boy.
And then, on the front porch of the house that was right next door to my old house I saw a grown woman who looked familiar to me. I got out of my car, and mindful of the fact that I was still tripping on acid, I reminded myself to behave myself and walked over to talk to her...and yes, it was her...all grown up and wearing a nurse's uniform, it was her.
It was Terry Kelly.
Terry Kelly was my next door neighbor and one of my best friends back then, and maybe—just maybe, I loved her a little. Terry was like...well, years later after I moved out of Peoria I saw a comic strip in the National Lampoon called Trots and Bonnie by Shary Flenniken. Terry was a lot like Pepsi from that comic strip.
Terry shared my love of exploring the aforementioned huge gully that ran in back of Calvin Coolidge grammar school (my old alma mater) out there on Rohmann Avenue, basically a landfill with an assortment of abandoned junk all up and down its slopes.
There was some really cool stuff to be found in that gully. There was old refrigerators with their doors and latches still on them and ancient televisions with their cathode ray tubes still intact just waiting for a kid like me with a home made wrist rocket slingshot to blow a hole in it. There's nothing quite so satisfying to an eight year old kid with a slingshot than the hissing death agony scream of an old TV tube as the air pressure in the tube equalizes after having been hit dead center with a well placed shot, heh heh.
That gully was full of all kinds of dangerous rusty shit, some of it sharp as hell, guaranteed to give you a raging case of tetanus if you fucked with it, and whenever I made my way down there, I was in a kid explorer's version of seventh heaven. The place was a rich environment, ripe with targets for my slingshot and I was a deadly shot with that thing, let me tell you (I took a bumble bee off a dandelion at fifteen paces once and left the dandelion perfectly intact.) Whenever I was down there in that gully I was in a wonderland that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have envied.
This brings me to what I would call: “Terry Kelly's Big Adventure.”
The slopes of that gully were quite steep and on the other side of it was a cemetery where I once horrified a grounds keeper who caught me trying to gain access to a family tomb because I thought it was a public building with a toilet inside and I had to take a dump (one of my earliest memories, I was quite little at the time).
One fine winters day, Terry Kelly, Terry the Fearless, Terry the warrior princess, decided she was going to try sledding down the steepest part of the gully and slalom past all those TVs and refrigerators and all the way to the bottom of the gully. I thought that if Terry was going to kill herself in such a novel manner, that was as good a place as any to do it because we could always bury her in that cemetery on the other side of the gully! I thought it was a crazy stunt to try and told her so.
But Terry Kelly knew no fear.
Terry the Invincible was going to do it, and damned if she didn't.
Terry broke just about every bone in her body from the armpits on down and spent the rest of the winter and most of the following spring in a full body cast.
Around the middle of May of that year, her folks started letting her spend some time out in the back yard on one of those aluminum tube framed lawn recliners in her cut down body cast so she could get a little springtime sun and socialize with her friends. Sometimes her mom would put a tabletop model Zenith black and white TV set on the back stoop so Terry and I could watch Captain Jinks and Salty Sam while we played black jack or go fish or whatever on a battered old folding frame table in her back yard.
Terry and I spent a lot of afternoons that way. Sometimes Terry could be a demanding little grouch monster after spending all that time in the body cast. Once in a while I would overhear her mom and her sisters conspiring out loud how they were going to smother her with a pillow in her sleep if she didn't knock it off with her playing off every body's sympathies. I thought that was kind of mean, but then, I wasn't the one that was running her bedpans to and from the toilet all the time like they were.
Terry would affect this wounded, self righteous little look on her puss that would make her mom and her sisters pretty crazy sometimes, but there was something about that look that I found highly entertaining and yes, quite endearing. Like I said, I think I loved her a little.
So now, back to 1975. Terry and I chatted a while, Terry told me about who was still around and who had moved out or died since 1966. After a while I held her hand and gave her a peck on the cheek and we said our goodbyes, and I headed back to my '69 Ford.
It was time to take one last look at Calvin Coolidge grammar school, and the gully behind it.
Well, the landfill that was the gully had served its purpose and the gully no longer existed. It had been filled in and hot topped. It was now a parking lot. A huge part of my childhood had simply disappeared off the face of the Earth. I smiled wistfully, shook my head lightly, and turned to go back to the car. Time to head back to Fort Madison to say goodbye to my Bud, and then drive back to Minnesota. If I started right away, I could make it back home by midnight.
One thing about that gully I'd like to mention on parting though—as I remember, there was a small dirty creek full of garbage running along the bottom of it. And I think that's where the fireflies bred. In deep summer, especially around twilight the skies in my old neighborhood ran rampant with fireflies, they were everywhere. Us kids used to catch them and goosh glowing firefly juice on our hands and fingers and chase each other around in the gathering darkness playing “Monster.”
At twilight time.
In the deep summer.