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Tommy lived across the street, and Ronnie lived next door. As an only child growing up with those two boys in such proximity, it was more like having brothers than playmates. I suspect for those brief childhood years, they may have considered me a brother as well, in spite of my pigtails.

Ronnie was a year older and, like me, was also an "only." Tommy was a year younger with a teenage brother, who had as little to do with us as possible, so our gang of three liked to believe we ruled the sidewalks, side streets and all the climbable trees in the neighborhood. Had I not also had a best girlfriend my age, Nora, who lived a few blocks away, I may have missed out on most girl stuff altogether.

My dad, who had always dreamed of having his own newspaper, had bought a partnership in the Mexia (Texas) Daily News, where he was also publisher, editor and one of the reporters. My Texas years, the first through the sixth grades, were my formative years, but it took becoming an adult to comprehend what role those childhood friends played in crossing the chasm between early childhood and my teens. I learned from Tommy and Ronnie that I could ride my bike as fast, climb any tree as high, meet the garage-roof-jump challenge as bravely, and survive cuts and scrapes as equally as any boy my age. And, knowing that has made all the difference. My sense of equality might not have happened if those two guys had not been there to test me on childhood's proving ground.

And Nora, who had two actual brothers, was a strong female as well, smart and capable, in spite of being outnumbered by her male siblings. We enjoyed girlhood by passing notes, giggling about silly stuff, studying together, being in the school band, and as we got older, swapping crushes over one boy or another.

Small towns (Mexia then had a population of 6,500) are different for growing kids than bigger burgs, where parents have to schedule and drive their children to playdates. We were of the 1950's generation that was told to go out and play and not come home until dark, but never realized we had something called freedom.

We built tree houses and forts, raced turtles, played war and football, and decided to dig to China, but got about 3 feet down before that got old. Under cover of high weeds, we explored the butane gas tank storage lot, where we built our finest hideouts out of used construction materials we snitched from piles on the property. Constantly on the lookout for our nemesis, the poor guy who owned the field, we thought he couldn't see our hidden pathways. He finally put up a tall chain link fence to keep us out, but like mice, we just dug under it. And, I ripped a 6-inch slice down my back when escaping under a barbed wire fence from my perceived pursuer.

We smoked grapevine, named our biking escapades the RRR (for "Reckless Riding Racket"), shot BB guns at water moccasins, went to the Saturday movies to see the weekly serials, and watched Ronnie's family TV whenever possible because no one else had one.

One of our toughest lessons was at the slaughterhouse nearby where the grocer/butcher let us watch him kill and cut up animals. Being present at those life-to-death moments deeply moved and educated us to the realities of what humans do for meat before it's packaged and sold.

But, things change. Ronnie moved when he was 13, and we moved to Little Rock when I was 12. Tommy and Nora graduated from Mexia High and went out into the world, but a few years ago, Tommy retired back in the Mexia area.

Never forgetting his old playmates, he found us all, and two weeks ago I arrived from Arkansas, Ronnie flew in from Ohio, Nora came north from San Miguel, Mexico, and we all met up with Tommy in Mexia. We had not seen each other in 63 years. After talking non-stop for more than two days, and seeing our old homes and the town again, we agreed this reunion was one of the best decisions we've ever made.

Before I left for the trip, a friend had wondered what we old playmates would possibly find we had in common. Turns out, we still deeply had with us the most important and cherished thing of all -- our childhoods.

Commentary on 05/14/2019

Print Headline: Going home again

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