Monday, June 1, 2009

The Three-Legged Box Turtle and The Magic Rock: Jonesborough 1968

When we moved to Tennessee--all seven of us and a Siamese cat in a black-green 1966 Ford Falcon station wagon driving from Vancouver, Washington down into California and across the southwest/south to northeast Tennessee--we rented a house in Jonesborough for a year before buying a place outside of Johnson City. Jonesborough was a tiny town in the hills south of Johnson City, where Father had a job with the V.A.
The house was on a main road, but was sort of out in the country (it's hard to say what was country and what was city in northeast Tennessee in the 1960's). The house was split-level with wood floors and a den and garage. The backyard sloped downward with a few "switchbacks" (in my childhood mind they were switchbacks and I'd often play on them) then leveled and then rose again into a few acres of woods that came with the house. I recall other homes in the area also had huge small-farm-like yards or fields or woods, and it was all very haphazard and southern. But we--Oldest Brother, Second Oldest Brother, me, Sister and Youngest Brother (and the Siamese cat--Witty)--would go for long hikes into those woods. It was really a lot of fun and a magical place.
This was your typical southern woods full of hickories, sycamores and walnut trees, full of poison oak and stickers and big ropey vines, but also walkable. In the woods were animals, as you might expect. I don't recall deer (though there must have been some) but there were your usual raccoons, possums, the occasional skunk; there were rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins and cottonmouths (where there was water) and non-poisonous snakes; there were frogs, toads and turtles. Box turtles. (I also recall all the ponds--looking out from the school bus at these algae-infested ponds in the spring and you could see great gobs of frog eggs in them, I mean huge visible blobs of them that were both repulsive and fascinating.)
And there was a three-legged box turtle in our woods. Because he (or she) had only three legs, he was easily identifiable each time we found him. The first time we picked him up and played with him and considered taking him home, but let him go. The second time, we were again interested in him, but the many times we discovered him after that, it was just our old pal the three-legged box turtle and we let him be. But--I don't recall if we named him, though am sure we did--I do remember him (or her) to this day.
There were also quite a few rocks in the area. Some rocks were pretty big and jutted out of the soil like small boulders, others were just small or large everyday rocks that were scattered about here and there. But one rock was something in between. It was one of the silvery white rocks like the boulder type, but it was square-shaped, thick and even, like a table or tablet. This became The Magic Rock. And The Magic Rock became the alter for our games that we played in the woods.
It was mainly Oldest Brother who came up with this stuff (as it always was). But we had a clearing in the woods where we would meet like some secret society and The Magic Rock was at the center of this clearing where we would hold court. I think we had a staff--a big walking stick--and you would pound the stick on the rock to bring order and start the court where we'd talk or decide what game to play or whatever it was we did. I know we were all into comic books at that time, mainly Marvel Comics (I was big on the Avengers, the Hulk and Thor; Captain America--oldest brother went for more of the soap opera-ish Fantastic Four and Spiderman, the Sub-Mariner) and this all played into our fantasy world in the woods with The Magic Rock and meetings and sometimes the three-legged box turtle (and our cat, who would follow us around like a dog at times, even taking the big loop walks around Sycamore Circle, a development near our house).
It was all very interesting.
But then we moved. We were glad to move because we didn't really like Jonesborough. (We didn't really like Tennessee--except Father.) But, we kids made it a point to go into the woods, to the clearing, and dig up The Magic Rock and take it with us (we left the turtle behind, thank goodness). And, later, when my father made a patio out of flat stones--most of which we had gathered from stream beds while on picnics in the mountains--he used The Magic Rock for the center of that patio. I think we had mixed feelings about him doing that, but at least it gave The Magic Rock a permanent place among us while we lived in Tennessee . . . And I doubt the subsequent owners of that house ever knew they had a magic rock among them.
And though I say we disliked Tennessee--and we did, overall--there are many things I miss from there. I spent so much time out of doors and in nature there, had great childhood adventures that you can't find in the suburbs. It helped form me and, having gone back once, I found both Johnson City, but especially Jonesborough, to be completely charming. Maybe northeast Tennessee is like the three-legged turtle--strange yet interesting, comforting as you become familiar with it. An old friend . . . Living there in the late 60's helped me to realize, eventually, that it's unfair to judge places and people by simple comparisons, by your own cache of expectations.
Perhaps The Magic Rock was magic after all and it helped spark the transformation of northeast Tennessee--if only in my own mind.

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