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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Pumpkins into Coaches

In 1961, when I was nine, I fell under the spell of a crum­bling stone tow­er. It stood on the weed-choked prop­er­ty of the Port­ner Manor in Man­as­sas, Vir­ginia, cat­ty-cor­ner from my cousin’s house. As a devo­tee of Trix­ie Belden books, I craved mys­ter­ies the way oth­er kids longed for ponies. Here was a mys­tery with­in spit­ting dis­tance!

My cousin and I talked about the “Civ­il War look-out” tow­er until we final­ly had to climb it. Fight­ing bri­ars, we thrashed our way to its base. Ivy cloaked the three-sto­ry red sand­stone struc­ture topped with gap-toothed bat­tle­ments. Up close we noticed port­holes and arrow slits. Some of the spi­ral steps out­side the tow­er had caved in. We strad­dled the gap­ing hole, half-expect­ing a bony hand to grab our ankles, and crawled to the top.

The two upper floors had col­lapsed, but the round walls were intact, cov­ered with creamy wall­pa­per and fad­ed squares where pic­tures had once hung. We crept back down the steps and peered into the hole, cer­tain a tun­nel con­nect­ed the tow­er to the estate gate­house. Then we flailed through the bram­bles as if chased by Portner’s ghost. Back at my cousin’s, we threw our­selves on the ground, sweaty and vic­to­ri­ous.

The “Civ­il War” tow­er real­ly dat­ed to 1882 when the man­sion was built. But even if we’d known that fact as kids, we wouldn’t have cared. Man­as­sas was steeped in his­to­ry, but we traipsed through the decades, mix­ing rock­ets and can­nons with gos­sip and make-believe in our dai­ly play. We heard our grand­fa­ther, who’d been an under­tak­er long before we were born, say cryp­ti­cal­ly that dur­ing the Depres­sion “peo­ple were too poor to die,” and won­dered what hap­pened to those peo­ple. Every­thing was a mys­tery.

An American ChildhoodIn An Amer­i­can Child­hood, Annie Dil­lard wrote, “We chil­dren lived and breathed our [city’s] his­to­ry … We knew bits of this sto­ry, and we knew none of it.” My cousins and I knew bits of our town’s sto­ry and yet none of it. Geog­ra­phy was a tool to suit our pur­pos­es. We raced around the near­by bat­tle­field, dodg­ing mon­u­ments, our games shaped more by our imag­i­na­tions than what had actu­al­ly hap­pened there.

In the field between the lum­ber yard and my cousin’s house, we turned over stones, hop­ing to find arrow­heads or cement-col­ored minieˊ balls. We chased milk­weed fairies to make mod­est wish­es and, once, mar­veled at a clutch of speck­led killdeer eggs rest­ing in a peb­ble nest. Our sneak­ers pressed into the past, kicked up the red dust of the present, and point­ed toward the future. We walked, as Dil­lard said, “obliv­i­ous through lit­tered lay­ers” of his­to­ry, tres­pass­ing, run­ning across oth­er people’s yards. We owned that town.

Now I live in Fred­er­icks­burg, Vir­ginia, a town even rich­er in his­to­ry. I step across the same cob­ble­stones where Wash­ing­ton and Jef­fer­son once walked. Five major bat­tles ripped through here dur­ing the Civ­il War. I wouldn’t expect kids today to won­der about Jef­fer­son or Chan­cel­lorsville as they dri­ve down Route 3. But I don’t see their sneak­ers touch the ground much, either, except dur­ing soc­cer and soft­ball games.

Where are their mys­ter­ies? Do they weave Wal­mart and Dol­lar Gen­er­al into their free play? Movies and TV bom­bard kids with enough toys, cos­tumes, and spin-offs to fuel “imag­i­na­tive” play into the next mil­len­ni­um. Why would they scrounge for arrow­heads when they have the lat­est Hap­py Meal toy to keep them enter­tained for five sec­onds? Or the thrill of a flashy new app on their screens? What do they own?

Know you what it is to be a child?” Frances Thomp­son wrote in 1909. “It is to turn pump­kins into coach­es, and mice into hors­es, low­ness into lofti­ness, and noth­ing into every­thing.”

Port­ner Manor was turned into a nurs­ing home in the late 60s. After stand­ing 86 years, the “look-out” tow­er was torn down in 1978. The nurs­ing home moved to bet­ter facil­i­ties, and the man­sion fell to neglect. It’s for sale now, pos­si­bly head­ed for the wreck­ing ball.

When I recall that twi­light climb all these years lat­er, I’m not sure if I real­ly saw the creamy wall­pa­per, or made it up in height­ened antic­i­pa­tion, or dreamed it. But I can still see dusty pink cab­bage ros­es in my mind’s eye (though I ques­tion wall­pa­per­ing the inside of a round stone tow­er).

Most­ly I remem­ber the smooth sand­stone steps beneath my sneak­ers, the sun-warmed walls against my palms, the deli­cious floaty feel­ing in my stom­ach, and those lofty sum­mers when we turned noth­ing into every­thing.

One Response to Pumpkins into Coaches

  1. David LaRochelle April 8, 2018 at 1:25 pm #

    What a won­der­ful adven­ture to have as a child…and a won­der­ful mem­o­ry to have as an adult. I hope that some­how today’s chil­dren are hav­ing adven­tures that feel as mys­te­ri­ous and excit­ing to them.

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