Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Church Bells

Celebration is supposed to be the archetypal Small Town U.S.A. of a bygone era. While it does have some facets that remind me of my growing-up years, there are also some glaring differences...and a few precious things that are the same.

Perhaps one of the biggest gaps is the absence of the corner store. We used to have a grocery store downtown that is long gone now, but even when it was there, it wasn't quite the same. In my old neighborhood, there was a corner store literally every few blocks. I look back in wonderment on how they could have all survived in such close proximity. But of course that survival was limited, and as the supermarkets gained dominance they died out one by one. If you go through my old neighborhood now, you can see the faint ghosts of Corner Stores Past. The buildings are all still there, but the windows are long since boarded and painted over and the shop space is now just extended living areas.

I miss those corner stores, where the main stock in trade was milk and bread and lunchmeat. All of those stores seemed to have the same smell, sort of an odd, musty odor of vague disrepair. Indeed, they weren't the cleanest places, not like the antiseptic, white-flourescent stores of the modern world. But instead of a faceless cashier, you were rung up by your neighbor Joe. Even before you said it, he knew you were going to order a quarter pound of sliced ham.

I made many runs to the local shop, money clutched tightly in my grubby fist and mind focused on my mission, which was usually to buy a gallon of milk. As a matter of fact, that's what everyone in our neighborhood called our nearest shop: The Milk Store. It had a real name, but nobody knew or cared.

Corner stores were also treasure troves for kids, as they tended to have a great stock of sweets. I'm old enough to actually remember penny candy, although young enough to recall when it moved up to two cents and then to a nickle. It was pure heaven to head out with a quarter, or maybe even fifty cents, to buy a bag of Heaven. Candy lipsticks, candy necklaces, Pixie Sticks, Alexander the Grape, Pez and their bastard cousin, Candy Tabs (which I actually preferred), Razzles, Beechnut candy coated gum (make mine pepsin or fruit, please), Super Cherry Chicklets...ah, the list could go on and on.

But alas, here in Celebration the kids have no equivalent. The grocery shopping gets done at Super Target or Sam's or Publix or Wal-Mart, and interim milk or bread can be grabbed at a gas station or convenience store.

We do have pools, but they're nothing like the neighborhood pool of my childhood. Our local pool had three diving boards; back then, high dives were seen as something fun instead of as potential lawsuit magnets. I'll never forget the first time that I ventured off that high dive. It was only ten feet tall, but it seemed like at least one hundred to my scaredy-cat younger self. I ventured up the concrete stairs a few times, sidled my way to the edge, and then retreated in terror. But finally one day I got enough guts to actually take the plunge. What a rush!

In those days, we also loved to do the Nestea Plunge from the sides of the pool. Nowadays I imagine it would be forbidden as a good way to crack your head open.

That pool also had the world's best snack bar, serving up greasy cheeseburgers and fries and frozen Charleston Chew candy bars for dessert. In my adulthood, I have eaten at some of the finest restaurants, but I would trade them all to go back for just one summer and relive the simple joy of huddling beneath a towel and downing french fries drowned in ketchup as rock music blasts on a tinny speaker system and the smell of chlorine tickles my nose, beckoning me back to the water. There are no snack bars or high dives at the pools in Celebration, and I feel sorry for the local kids who will miss out on the memories that those things would create.

A couple of years ago, I read that my old neighborhood pool was shut down and concreted over. A year before that, two kids had scaled the fence for a midnight swim and drowned. I imagine the ensuing lawsuit spelled doom for my childhood stomping ground. After all, the neglegent park district didn't have the fence electrified and patroled by Dobermans, with half a dozen security guards, strobe lights, and signs posted every two feet reading, "Warning: Acting Like a Dumbass Can Be Fatal."

But even though Celebration lacks many of those genuine small-town touches, I was reminded today of one small thing that instantly transports me back to my childhood: the church bells. As a kid, my house was only a couple of blocks away from a church whose bells sounded on every quarter hour. It became an accepted part of the background soundtrack of my childhood. There was something comforting about the bells...I could always tell that time it was, and I always knew that I was on my home ground.

I don't know the name of the melody they played, but I think it might be the Big Ben chime. It would play a brief part for the quarter hour, a little more for the half, a bit more for three quarters and then the whole melody when striking the hour. It's funny how that made an impression on me, even in my earliest years. My grandparents lived in the house before we did, and I still have vague memories of being perhaps two or three years old. My grandpa was pushing me in the kiddie swings at the park down by the pool. It was just turning dusk, and I remember feeling the breeze on my face, looking up at the twightlight sky, seeing the treetops beyond the park, and hearing the hour chime. Ah, to be that age again, with no worries of a mortgage or work responsibilities or why the car is making a funny just be and to know that you have grandparents who love you and that everything is right with the world.

I was driving down Celebration Avenue recently, and as I passed Community Presbyterian Church I heard the bells toll the half hour. At first it startled me, as we don't live close enough to the church to hear that from home. Thus, I always forget that little bit of nostalgia unless I happen to be downtown at the right time.

They say that smells are powerful at stimulating memories, but in this case sound was just as effective. There I was, in the midst of frantically running errands, when suddenly the bells made me pause and return to a simpler time. The stress melted away, if only briefly, replaced by a spreading smile.

Perhaps one day around twilight I will walk down to Lakeside Park and sit in one of the rockers near the pool, looking at the treetops beyond the park. My beloved grandpa won't be there, except in spirit, and rocking will be much tamer than soaring in a swing. But when the church bells chime, perhaps I can just be for a few moments and know that everything is right with the world.

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