The light changed to green, and a decision had to be made. Straight ahead was the business meeting for which I was an hour early. To the left was a much different destination, a trip down memory lane. It was to be a lane filled with potholes, dangerous curves, and what might be a cliff at the end.
I turned left and pointed the nose of the car down Mt. Olive Street and towards the elementary school that bore its name. It had been a long time since I’d travelled this way, even longer still since I walked those pathways.
As the houses slipped past, behind rusting fences and dilapidated homes the pathways were still there, or at least I imagined they were still crisscrossing the backyards flanking either side of the road. Years ago, 41 to be exact, each school day morning, I had walked those paths with the other kids from Flamingo Street.
It started out innocently enough, as a simple business trip. At the end, the drive back through the old neighborhood I grew up in became anything but simple. It was much more than that.
The old saying, “You can’t go home” was proven wrong last week, because I did, but then again I really didn’t.
I went back toward Mount Olive Elementary and what I found wasn’t what I expected. As a matter of fact it was quite disturbing. Over time things had changed and somehow, along the way, gone horribly wrong.
I circled the bus loop and parked in a visitor parking place because, oddly, I was a visitor. Honestly, I could have parked anywhere.
Mt. Olive Elementary was much smaller than I’d remembered. Everything was much smaller. After 55 years of service to the surrounding community, the school board finally voted to close the school’s doors. That was 10 years ago. The front double doors that we used to push through at the end of the day were now all padlocked.
The triple-wide sidewalk where Old Mrs. Crabtree held eager bus riders back until their numbers were called was worn by time and neglect. Tall weeds had grown through the cracks, and were flattened by each step I took along the way to the back of the school. If there was entry in it would be back there, just as we had found so many times during the long summer vacations.
As I rounded the corner, I stopped and stared. Like giant dinosaurs with legs caught in tar pits, metal swing sets still loomed over the playground now also choked with weeds. To the right stood the basketball courts; much larger back then, they had somehow magically shrunk to a fraction of their original size.
To the left was the dodge ball pit. Many a victory and many a bloody nose had been attributed to team Flamingo, led by the rocket arm of Bubba Hanks and the dodging skill of Goofy Steve. The sand pit now featured a magnificent weeping willow tree growing out of the middle. Its limbs draped over and covered the entire area.
To my surprise the back doors stood open. In my mind, I could hear the kids stream past as I made my way down the lockerless hallways. Twenty layers of old paint pealed from the ceiling and hung in foot-long stalactites, threatening to give way at any moment.
Around the corner was the library. The giant globe of the world that once stood in the center of the room was also gone. It was because of that globe, and perhaps the spitball I shot through its axis, that got me chased around the library by no other than Down the Street Bully Brad. That was the first and only time I was sent to Principal Baker’s office.
I made my way down another hallway towards the lunchroom, pausing every so often to listen and look over my shoulder. The tug of childhood memories is strong, especially when it comes to Bully Brad.
The double doors leading into the lunchroom had been removed, but the three doors to the kitchen still stood. The doors leading to the hot line, sandwich lines, and salad line, were padlocked, as were the doors to Principal Baker’s office.
I guess even after all this time he still wanted to keep students and irate parents out. Suddenly, to my amazement, the large red bell above the office door started to ring.
As the light turned green, a decision had to be made. Turn left down Mt. Olive and memory lane, possibly altering childhood memories forever, or continue straight to my meeting.
Sometimes roads just shouldn’t be taken. The driver behind me sounded his horn once again and I pulled forward. I was an hour early for the meeting, but I didn’t mind waiting in the parking lot. It takes a long time to travel 41 years and back again.
[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, has been a firefighter for more than two decades and a columnist for The Citizen since 2001. His email is email@example.com.]