“ALL I SAW WAS A WASTELAND”

by Chief New Leaf, ©2016

(Oct. 12, 2016) — Half a block from my house, at the bottom of the hill, right next to the schoolyard, there was a gem of a world inhabited by little ducks, little fish and big cattails. This whole world consisted of a quarter-acre, and it was a never-ending source of awe and wonder.

Bats visited at night and butterflies during the day. The water was crystal clear: when it froze in the winter you could see the pebbles on the bottom. We used to make rafts and pretend we were living the days of Tom Sawyer. The only visitors of this little delightful kids’ playground was us little kids, about ten of us.

We grew up with the pond, as we fondly called it. Our parents referred to it as the “slew” or the “mosquito hatchery.” We kids never, ever even saw a mosquito there; the little minnows saw to that.

The change of seasons was a never-ending fascination. We watched the cocoons hatch and the mother ducks leading the young ducklings around the pond. We watched the geese land and make a racket. We tested the thickness of the ice and took great pains to keep “our pond” clean and free of trash.

Even when I went to high school, the pond was always there, talking to me – chirping, croaking and singing — as I walked by it in the morning on the way to school and on the way home after cross-country or tack practice.

Then I went off to Vietnam. When I finally made it back home four years later, the pond was transformed into a tennis court that sat empty and unused 99% of the year. Take away the windy days; minus the rainy days; forget the cold days; don’t consider the school and work days, and what you’re left with is a monument to the progress of the times: a tombstone laid on its side only to be occasionally trampled upon.

I had been out of the service for only a month or so, but there was one thing I knew I had to do. I put on my uniform, my dress uniform with the medals – no ribbons, not for this ceremony – checked my spit-shinned shoes and walked on down to where the pond used to be.

And so I stood there, on the outside of the fence, looking at the green court with its straight white lines. I looked for bright colorful flying insects; I stopped breathing while I stood still listening for the birds; I imagined the splash of the frogs and yearned for the rippling of the water sending me rainbows of light through the sunlight, but all I heard was noise: a train in the distance; a plane on its way to O’Hare International Airport; cars driving by, and all I saw was a wasteland.

I might have wiped a tear away; I don’t know. I think I did, but if I didn’t I’d have taken it as a great honor to report to you that I honored the death of that pond with at least one priceless tear. And if I didn’t shed a tear, my heart certainly broke in two. Goodbye, little ducks, noisy geese and little fish; so long, frogs and bats; maybe, as I die, I’ll get to spend a fleeting moment of my life back in the day when the pond was a big part of a little boy’s life.

And so I saluted, and it must have looked strange: a warrior home from the war saluting a tennis court in full dress uniform presenting a textbook salute. And after I saluted I uncovered (took my hat off) and slowly walked back home, never to put on my uniform again.

(Big Yellow Taxi)

Chief New Leaf

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