After eating a bacon cheeseburger (complete with fries and an A&W root beer) I sat across from my friend Henry while he told me that as a kid he liked to frequent the dank and musty basement of his best friend’s house. There, amidst the sawdust covered, flood-prone floors, he sat at a rickety makeshift table made of plywood, wielding Dungeons & Dragons rule books that weighed heavy in his skinny arms. He didn’t give me all the details - age, attire, seating arrangements - so I took it upon myself to fill in some blanks. I imagined him aged around eleven, layered in a greying sweater to battle the Portland weather, and sitting atop one of those metal foldout chairs, the Dungeon Guide propped open in front of him, his head peeking out one side, a sly sixth-grade smile on his face. And there he would sit into the early morning, deliberating his next course of action as the fate of some imagined creature depended on it. He told me he loved it down there despite it being sparsely furnished and poorly insulated, and that he could spend hours contained within its walls, hardly noticing the biting cold or the flood water streaming beneath his legs. The door to this particular basement was a portal to fantasy, the door to a dungeon in which childhood dreams came true, and where absolute and utter happiness could be obtained through a serendipitous roll of a twenty-sided dice.
Similarly, while discussing memories in a seminar a few days prior, my professor described such a place from his days as a young boy. The neighborhood parents had decided that all of town was acceptable play-area save for the dangerously large drainage pipes down by the bay; so naturally the neighborhood kids ran there at full speed on weekends, spellbound by the Midwestern sewage system, captivated by the purported danger. In the wake of many rainstorms, young Mitch B. would stand at the edge of the deep pools that collected at the pipe openings and look longingly to the town he was separated from across the water. The houses were better there, he was convinced of it, and the water that spilled from these gargantuan cylinders created an abyss that kept him from setting foot on greener pastures.
Apart from the obvious differences in these anecdotes, my professor differed further from Henry in that he returned to this place as an adult, intrigued I’m sure, by the notion of being able to see through the eyes of his seven-year-old-self again, for one moment to be overwhelmed by two stone cylinders protruding from a mountainous hillside. But to no surprise, what he saw upon his arrival there were two not-so-giant circles protruding from a mound of dirt, and only mere puddles that had gathered near their orifices, his childhood memories now forever tarnished by reality.
At dinner, Henry warned me of this. If I had any such places in my own past, he advised I shouldn’t return to them, as the charm lies in the memory of the places, not the places themselves.
Thinking of my professor and his disappointment with the drainage pipes, I couldn’t help but feel a little sympathy for those big cylinders. They remained, throughout the years, just the way they had always been. They put up with the rain, and the mud, and the shit, and years ago they were glorified for it, but now stood only to disenchant grown men out of fond memories of their youth. They’re accused of not living up to what they used to be, but it wasn’t them that changed, it was the man.
I crawled into bed much later that night feeling nostalgic. As I spent most of my childhood living in Hawaii, I have no immediate hope of returning to my old hideouts, so instead I tried to form an image of what memory lane looks like. It’s different for everyone, that I know, but what exactly is it comprised of? As I stroll down what I imagine to be an autumn-tree lined road, would I see my six-year-old-self collecting sticks and rocks to bring back to what was left of a dilapidated wooden house? Or seven-year-old-me squatting on the beach behind my uncle’s house, sifting through sand in hopes of finding some lost treasure? Eight-year-old-me swinging across a creek on a rope swing? And would I think to myself god, sticks and sand and rope, really? If I were to return to that place, what was essentially beams of rotting wood, leaned and shaped and balanced into something that resembled the shape of a house, I’m sure disillusion would ensue. And if I’m being honest with myself, nostalgia may not be anything but a combination of reminiscent dreams and faulty memory. But I can’t dispel the feeling, buried way under my thoughts, that the disenchantment I’d feel upon seeing the rotting wood beams for what they really are wouldn’t be analogous to me gaining a certain wisdom or getting some sense knocked into me, but instead an indication that I’ve perhaps lost something— an ability. What that ability is or was I’m not sure of, but child me had it and adult me does not.