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December 17th, 2003

porch swings and roly polys

I miss screened porches, like the porch on Clifton Street in Camden, Arkansas, at the home my grandparents rented for decades on end.

Their back yard had mossy trees, abundant fishing worms, and endless arrays of capture-eligible "roly-polys" (the vernacular name for the common sowbug), which were named for their tendency to roll up into tiny balls whenever they perceived a threat.

On a few rare days, I'd gather dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, and then let them free on the screened porch for elaborate race rallies. The first roly-poly to cross an imaginary line won.

I remember reading up on their habits, and determining that, like my ant farm, roly-polys could be kept alive in captivity on leaves, moisture and good will. Sadly, though, rather than making intricate little civilizations, roly-polys tended to just stay at the bottom of the jar, burrowing beneath the leaves. We all have Mondays like that. Perhaps this was a kind of countercultural reaction to the doings of colony insects, though. Leave the dead to bury the dead. There's points to ponder. We all have Mondays like that.

That screened porch was a refuge on rainy days, a place to drink glasses of milk (a constant childhood drink, virtually never something I take by the glass now). On that porch my little sister broke a Dr. Pepper bottle, cutting her hand.

My grandparents later built a red brick home in the country. They owned their first home at age 70 or so. They built a catfish pond nearby, in which the channel catfish would almost "boil" the water while seeking food in the early evening. I caught many of those catfish, using worms and artificial lures called "beetle spins".

My grandparents are gone now, after each living to over ninety. My grandfather, who passed away second, sold the house and pond some months before he died. I have not been to their old rental home on Clifton Street in years, though I do walk by it sometimes when I visit my parents. The Cleveland Avenue School, where I used to play on the playground and touch sensitive plants, to watch their leaves "curl up", has school buses parking where the playground used to be. The Cleveland Avenue grocery, where I'd buy Richie Rich and Superman comics, is long gone. Marino's, where one got snow cones, also departed. My parents' home town is shrinking, its principal industry having moved away in search of cheap labor.

But when I think of rest, I imagine a weekend at my grandparents, watching Jungle Jim and Tarzan on television, buying a dollar's worth of toys, looking with fear at black and yellow huge Texas grasshoppers, falsely rumoured to be poisonous.

This was before the fire ants came. This was before the killer bee scourge. This was before airplanes crashed into buildings. A war raged in Vietnam. Nuclear war seemed inevitable, as the Cold War lingered on. I felt safe on my grandparents' porch.

Everything passes. It's a great recycling system, and I'm just one more bit of composted memory. But I can see that back porch as vividly as if I were ten, and in my mind, it's awash with a sea of roly-polys.