Saturday, June 6, 2009

An Exotic Trip

One day, the older brother I worshipped suggested I go outside and dig a hole to China. So I gave it my best shot.

I believed him. I always believed him. So I got a shovel, dragged it to the lower lot next to our house and started to dig. I wanted it to be true. To go somewhere, especially an exotic place, one with cute outfits if my paperdolls from around the world were accurate representations. To be anywhere but that farming village in the deep South where I grew up.

My brother came out of the house, which had only recently stood in the middle of cotton fields. He watched me dig. He was straight-faced, confirming again that yes, I could dig my way to China if I continued to spade shovels of dirt long enough. It kept me out of his hair, gave him a reprieve from my incessant tattling, which I had started in retaliation because he had ditched me for friends of his own age and gender.

I remember being thrilled, working feverishly, yelling to anyone who happened by on the dirt and gravel road out front, "Hey, I'm digging my way to China! My brother told me all about it!"

Some of his friends eventually rolled up on bicycles, languidly twirling long green stems of grass from their teeth and lips, practicing for the cigarettes they would soon be trying out if not already. They smirked while giving me tips, then chipped in with digging help.

Eventually, my father came out, drawn by the growing commotion on his land. I remember informing him of my mission, that M. had divulged the secret to me. The hole was fairly deep at that point, only my shoulders and head were above ground. I can see him starting to laugh, his hands resting on his squared hips, legs wide, the confident stance of a man who had been an athlete and a soldier.

But he didn't dash the dream, squelch the effort, the fire in my eyes, arms and belly.

Instead, he enjoyed himself. He stood and chatted as the audience slowly grew for this peculiar mission -- a little girl of no more than nine, propelled by an older brother's mischief.

He supervised the site for safety, guarding against impromptu cave-ins and my younger sister's attempts to charge the hole. As the soft night stole over us, fireflies glowed against the ever darkening woods nearby. And still I kept on with my trance-like digging. My father's deep voice boomed, giving meandering lectures on the history of China and its leaders, communism, his dislike of all Chinese food (not that he'd ever tasted any).

Eventually, I gave up for the night, exhausted, covered head to toe in north Alabama's tenacious red clay, adding to my impossible laundry load carried by my mother, who understood my impulses. After all, she was still a tomboy too. And I went back to the hole the next day.

I don't remember how long I kept it up. But the digging went on for some time, definitely over a week. And then the rain started. It rained, poured, storms pounded the earth. I remember standing at the kitchen window, in despair, watching my China route fill with water. I couldn't see, but I knew. With that kind of biblical deluge, everything was filling up.

My brother, the heartless one who had started it all, joked that I would need to save my allowance for a submarine to make it to China.

The rain finally ended. I trudged through the mud to the hole. My father had built a wooden cover for it by then, to save animals and small children from falling in.

I pulled off the hatch. The hole was filled with muddy brown water. Literally full.

I was distraught.

The next thing I knew, a fake Indian war cry tore through the air, along with the metallic shriek of bicycle brakes. Jackie Ray! The neighborhood hoodlum boy, a bit younger than me, but a hurricane force of a boy. He had been desperate to get involved with the dig and I had absolutely refused. The dig was far too serious for the likes of Jackie Ray. He would have ruined the whole thing.

As I stood, frozen, Jackie Ray threw down his bike, tore off his shirt and jumped feet first with a huge splash and another war whoop into the hole to China. Which at that point was a big mud hole. Full of muddy brown water.

Filled with righteous fury, I yelled, demanded, "YOU GET YOURSELF OUT OF THAT HOLE RIGHT NOW JACKIE RAY!" He was completely oblivious. Jackie Ray, who was pretty much an abandoned little boy living with reluctant elderly relatives down in the woods, was having the time of his life. I stormed off. And met my father coming toward the hole to China. With a camera.

He was laughing so hard he could barely take the picture. But he managed. And that is what remains today of the hole to China, decades later. A faded photograph of a beaming stocky boy with a crewcut, in a mudhole. Smiling ear to ear. Laughing, full of joy.

As was the man behind the camera taking the picture.

Soon, I forgot about the whole thing. Eventually my father pushed the pile of dirt back in and we used it for a while as a barbecue pitt. But we abandoned that too. The China staging ground was later taken over by my father's excellent strawberry patch.

In time, I grew up, left home and traveled plenty. But my lifelong secret is this: I'm not sure, frankly, that my touring excitement ever quite matched the night I set out on my China dig.

All that's left of my great adventure is the picture of Jackie Ray swimming around in the hole. My mother won't let me have it, the photograph is too precious to her, to me, to all of us.

It was a silly thing, of course. But we were all there that night, fully present, vibrantly alive, engaged and happy. For a short time, we had the best of all worlds -- swept up in a child's excitement about traveling to an unknown, exotic land, while safely, thrillingly nestled in the unmatched glory of a southern summer night.


  1. my brother also told me i could dig to china. it took me years before i realised that Australia wasn't even opposite China!

    you told that story so vividly i could see every part, it sounded like a great time.

  2. It was a great time, and almost as fun to write about, Amplified. Thank you for the encouragement.

    I have this theory about brothers: They prepare us for the years ahead. I mean, I had already spent a lifetime being hoodwinked by the time I stepped out on my first date. No fools, us! HA!