A Valentine to Rocky Roads

  • David Hoffman In the early sixties, my parents allowed me to walk to school each day on a stretch of bumpy, rocky road. The mile-long, white gravel road meandered through a forested residential area and ended at a series of one-room houses where I attended school until third grade.

    It was on that rocky road where I recited my mantra of addition facts to any robin, cardinal or blue jay that cared to listen.

    It was on that rocky road that I tried to tame my fear of garter snakes as they slithered across the heated rocks in cursive letter formation.

    It was on that rocky road that my dad carried me to kindergarten on his broad shoulders the day after a blizzard buried the frozen ground under a foot of snow.

    It was on that rocky road that I discovered, once or twice, that I had inadvertently put my school clothes on over my pajamas.

    It was on that rocky road that Steve Rife and I pretended to be track legends Jim Thorpe and Jim Ryan as we sprinted to school believing we could shatter the four minute mile.

    It was on that rocky road that my friends and I became book critics as we dissected the great literature of our time—Stuart Little, Old Mother West Wind, and Fun with Dick and Jane.

    It was on that rocky road that my week-long kindergarten crush on Ellen Freeman ended in a crab apple battle.

    It was on that rocky road that my friends and I linked arms like Dorothy and her yellow brick companions and skipped to school singing the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine.

    It was on that rocky road that I passed James Peck’s house. My classmate had a bad habit of eating pencil erasers and drinking pen ink. His tongue was forever Bic blue. 

    It was on that rocky road that I practiced duck and cover maneuvers as a monthly air raid siren reminded me of Omaha’s close proximity to the nation’s Strategic Air Force Command Center.

    It was on that rocky road that I witnessed my first fistfight that ended with my friend negotiating an uncle truce in exchange for a bloody nose and black eye. I ran to school to tell my teacher, but I couldn’t find the voice or vocabulary to describe the violence.

    It was on that rocky road that I deconstructed and rationalized my parents’ infrequent arguments, worked out school problems, and schemed and dreamed about the future. 

    Billy Pestal’s house stood at the end of that rocky road. When I was in second grade, his older brother passed away from leukemia.  Thereafter, I walked past his house quickly and avoided stepping foot in the yard.

    At the end of each day, I emptied my Hush Puppies of small pebbles from the road. Their presence was both discomforting and reassuring.  

    When I was in third grade, the city covered the rocky road with smooth asphalt. Trees were cleared for a new housing development. Parents successfully petitioned the city council to budget money for a pedestrian bridge. Adult crossing guards were added for extra protection. While it was a softer and safer walk to school, something else had been paved over.

    Some time later, I received a rock polisher for my birthday. It was reassuring to observe how a rough stone, when subjected to a bit of natural agitation, becomes a polished gem.


    David Hoffman