by Christopher Nyerges
I hadn't been able to sleep much the night before, so I arose very early. It was Saturday, and the sun had not begun to rise over the hills to the east. It was very quiet, and I could actually feel the collective heave and sigh of relief as the city took a break from the madness of racing around day after day so you can afford to do whatever it is that you believe you'd rather be doing than racing around every day making money.
The streets were still dark, and cool, and devoid of people. I began to bicycle through the streets of Pasadena, working my way first through the downtown apartment areas, and then gradually north where there were more trees and bigger yards. The mountains were glowing with the rising sun, and by now the sky was light and birds were chirping everywhere. A few cars were now on the road, and an occasional jogger whished by on the sidewalk.
The city was magical when everyone slept. Oh, I knew that there was some chance of encountering no-good criminals who would try to accost or rob me -- that's part of the tightness of the city. But everyone seemed to be asleep, even the muggers. I didn't even see homeless, for they too were tucked away in whatever spots they'd found for staying warm.
The sun took its time in rising and the sky was overcast and cloudy on this early Saturday morning. A cool breeze blew down the city streets as a mountain breeze might blow down a canyon. Where you'd expect to see hawks perched high in the tallest mountain trees, I saw pigeons perched on the edges of the tall buildings. No matter what man does, nature usually adapts, and ultimately overcomes.
I began to bicycle to the north, towards the mountains and Altadena, to nowhere in particular except north. What had been a truly casual and leisurely ride was now becoming a bit of work as I went uphill closer to the mountains. I slowly and eventually rode to the very base of the mountains and watched a group of Boy Scouts unloading from the family vans and station wagons and loading on their backpacks for a day or weekend of adventure. I could see the excitement in their faces and hear it in their voices. For most of them, this would be a first adventure in campcraft.
I turned my bicycle around and began to coast back down the hill, and after a few miles, I turned down a street where a family I knew lived. I slowly bicycled by and saw that only Jim, the young six-year-old, was out in the yard playing. I said hello, and he recognized me and said hello. He asked me if I wanted to see the dirt people. I got off my bike, and got down on my hands and knees, and he showed me the little tunnels and trails of the dirt people, and he showed me where they lived, and how they drove around on little pebbles. He pushed a pebble with a long stick, and made a sound like an automobile engine.
"See how they go?" he said, excited. "Make yours go," he commanded, and so I began to push a little pebble around with a stick. I had to make sounds like a car when the dirt people wanted to turn quick or stop suddenly, and I had to keep the pebble on the roads that Jim had built. Jim told me about the monsters that come out sometimes and the dirt people have to run and hide, because the monsters are so powerful.
He pointed to a little ant that had come out of a hole, and Jim gave voice to the monster-ant, a slow, deep growl as it walked along the dirt people's road. I was informed that the monster always takes the easy path along the dirt people's road, because the monster was lazy. That was its weakness, and the dirt people could use that fact to their advantage when they wage a war against the monsters.
Each pebble, each leaf, each stick, each undulation of the ground had a name and a meaning in Jim's world into which I had entered. I was lying there in the dirt with him, pushing a pebble, making sounds, and truly enjoying myself when his mother came out.
"What are you guys doing?" she asked.
"The dirt people are all getting together because the monsters are getting ready to invade. We watched the monsters begin the war, and the dirt people are now all trying to defend themself, right?" he looks at me.
His mother looks at me sideways, noting that I am covered in dirt as is Jim. She smiles, and says only "Oh." She just stands there and looks, and I know that it means nothing to Jim, but I feel the censure of an adult in the adult world, and I realize that I should feel embarrassment. When I think about it, I realize that I did feel a little embarrassed, but mainly because somehow I've been taught that some things are for children and some things are for adults. Adults are not allowed entry into the make-believe world of children, at least not by other adults.
So after a while, I got up, and shook off the dust. I told Jim's mother that I was just passing by, and I said goodbye to Jim. I rode on, and eventually headed back home.
I had truly enjoyed myself lying there in the dirt, without video games or electronic entertainers. We were enjoying a simple pleasure of life that required nothing but an active imagination and the ability to believe. And that's what's wrong with adults. Our bodies got older and we allowed our minds to ossify. We put aside imagination for pragmatism, and we gave up the ability to believe for hard-earned cynicism.
That morning, I realized that childhood ends when you can no longer lie in the dirt and imagine.