Summer Sneakers

David Martin was the only neighborhood friend I ever had.

There had been Randy Luna, of course, who had lived briefly in the corner house with all the prune trees, the house a block east on 160th Street that my folks almost bought instead of the house at 3750—our house, the home with the sloping, tiered yard and the acres and acres of magical woods behind.

Jeff and Jay Savage often came by to play, too—and Greg Beckel. But they lived all the way up over the hill beyond 42nd, well beyond the intersection where my brother Bob had almost died while delivering papers on his Highline Times route. But you could hardly call Greg and the Savages neighborhood friends, even though they were classmates. Sometimes I could hardly call Jeff and Greg friends at all.

But there was David Martin.

A year younger than I, and two grades behind in school, David lived three doors to the west of us in a bare-bones box of a paint-peeled house: three bedrooms and a semi-finished basement with whitewashed concrete walls. The house was rented to David’s family by the Presbyterian church on the corner, and had probably been the caretaker’s place at one time.

Now it was occupied by a man who hunted for a living—an oddity in suburban McMicken Heights in 1971. About six or seven baying hounds of varieties unknown to me occupied the Martins’ detached and broken-down barn-like garage, no doubt much to the chagrin of Old Man Watters, who lived cattywhompus across the street from the Martins. Kids of all ages in the neighborhood, however, were just fine with Old Man Watters being put out by the howling. He was not much liked, and for good reason.

David had a younger brother and younger sister. I don’t remember their names now, and I also don’t remember what his mom looked like, though I met her often enough. I’m not sure I ever met David’s dad.

But I remember David quite well. He was short for his age, but wiry and muscular. His hair was a reddish brown, quite curly, with arms and face covered by freckles that disappeared when he tanned—a regular Ricky Hollister. He smiled readily, and his demeanor was rather like a King Charles Spaniel. He was oh, so eager to please, and to be liked. If he’d had a tail, it would have wagged incessantly.

In my mind’s eye, it was always summer with David, and he always wore second-hand stained striped t-shirts and Sears Toughskins, with a ragged pair of sneakers on his feet.

I don’t remember where David went to school—though by rights he should have been going to Thorndyke as I did. It’s possible he was homeschooled, what in those days would have been called “keeping your kids out of school.”

I do know that David often accompanied his father on hunting forays. In certain seasons, they would bring home deer. Most often, though, they would be out treeing bears with their hounds. One time I came over to David’s house and he showed me the bobcat—whole—that was in their refrigerator’s freezer.

My own family wasn’t what you would call “well off.” My dad was gainfully employed at Boeing, sure… but it was 1972, not 1992, and the Seattle area was in the grip of a devastating recession. Some laid-off workers were so far underwater that they were literally giving their houses away and leaving the state.

My dad, born to an extremely poor family during the Depression, still had that mentality. When milk went on sale, we’d buy ten or twelve gallons and put most of them in the chest freezer. He’d also experiment with bagged milk and with odd foods like Halvah, and was known to buy dented, label-less tins of food in the bargain bin at the market. Anything to pinch pennies and sock away dough for college tuitions and retirement. A man frugal to a fault.

When we’d take trips to the dump, we’d sometimes bring home almost as much stuff as we’d left behind, scavenging others’ cast-off toys, and gizmos my dad thought might come in handy seven or eight years later. When we’d lived in Missouri, we’d gotten to know the schedule of the local dairy’s visit to the dump and often scored free quarts of past-pull-date ice cream. I remember being very envious about the stuff other people were throwing away.

Though I may have worn hand-me-down boots from my cousin Steve, we still fit in, for the most part, with our neighbors. And I knew for sure we weren’t the poorest family around.

I knew because we still could afford a weekly stop at King’s Diner down in Tukwila on the way home from morning church, relatively feasting on Fish and Chips, French Dips, and Chef’s Salads.

I also knew because David Martin was my friend and daily companion for two summers.

Dinner at David’s house was literally rice and red beans. One day he excitedly told me that he’d gotten to go out to dinner for his birthday. When I asked him where, he breathlessly announced, McDonald’s. His special treat was a 53-cent cheeseburger. I don’t even think he got fries.

Being poor didn’t matter much to a nine-year-old, though, when you had the great outdoors at your disposal. The woods behind our house stretched hundreds of yards all the way down to 158th Street, and as far west as the vacant lot behind the Martins’ place, which sometimes doubled as an overflow parking lot for the Presbyterian Church. In the early summer, it served as home for a small forest of foxglove, which I adored on sunny days with the heavily-laden bumblebees wandering and weaving their way through the purple and white blossoms—and at the edge of the lot, where the Martins’ back yard crumbled to an end in the form of an abrupt embankment, was a shelf of wonderfully dark and pliant topsoil.

I would spend much of every winter waiting for the rains to end so that I could make my first summer trek through the woods to that embankment, bucket of Matchbox cars in tow, ready to craft roadways and tunnels into that midget bluff. It reminded me of the embankments that had lined the back yard of our house in Great Falls, Montana.

Except this wall of prime dirt was private. I didn’t have to share it with Bob and Elane. They didn’t even know it existed! And I didn’t have to play under the watchful eye of my mom. Once I disappeared into the woods, she knew not where I emerged, and that was fine with me.

I imagine that I first encountered David there behind his house, after the Martin family first moved in. It’s equally possible that I first met him in the woods, as one or the other—or both—of us was bounding up one trail or down the other.

Most of the trails in the woods had been made by my brother Bob and I, sometimes aided by the Savages or Bob’s friend Tim VanHee. When we first moved in, the only trail into the woods petered out after fifty yards or so. The Seeley boys had been a bit older than us, and had apparently had little interest in the woods beyond a solitary and tiny treehouse platform that had long ago succumbed to deep-woods Pacific Northwest moss and ferns. The rest of the woods were dominated by thickets of blackberry brush that thrived in the deciduous belt of the forest.

Bob and I discovered that you could forge trails through blackberry with the aid of dried-out lengths of the bamboo that grew in a thicket behind the Pedersen’s place. The bamboo worked better than a machete because it did not just cut the blackberry canes—it pulverized them. And as long as you ran through the hacked-out trails once or twice a week, the blackberries stayed defeated. Our network of trails was extensive and permanent.

Together, David and I haunted those woods, and others down beyond 158th Street, for those two summers.

Inspired by the impending 1972 Summer Olympics, David and I decided to get a jump on things an entire year early by completing the obstacle course in the woods that Bob and I had long dreamed about. We apparently thought we were going into training.

The course started just a few yards from the treehouse that my dad had built for Bob and I at the edge of our yard. The first challenge, after dropping to the ground through the hatch in the middle of the treehouse floor, was a hand-over-hand rope obstacle covering thirty feet or so. The rules were precise, of course. You had to climb the short tree-trunk ladder and start out onto the rope with your hands; your feet would have to follow on the rope as well, for the whole length, or you had to start over. Once you reached the Seeley treehouse support, you could drop to the ground, or use that treehouse ladder to descend.

From there you veered west and dashed 80 yards or so, leaping a few small pits along the way, to the climbing wall. Up and over that, you descended into the Big Pit and scrambled up the other side.

Another 60 yards westward brought you to the grand finale: the 20-foot barbed-wire crawl. You finished by emerging from the woods into the foxglove field behind David’s house. And David and I built it all, by ourselves. We were so proud of our work.

That summer of ’71, as we refined, reworked, and re-ran that course countless times, I can’t tell you how often David exclaimed, “I ran like a deer! Did you see me? I ran like a deer, didn’t I?”

And I can’t tell you how tired I grew of hearing David say that.

I do remember that we kept timings of our performance on the course—but I couldn’t tell you now what the course record was, or who won more often. But I’m fairly certain David did, most of the time. And that he owned the record. But I don’t think I ever did grant him the courtesy of acknowledging that, yes, he did run a like a deer.

I was never very athletic, and certainly not when it came to clinging to ropes or running pell mell. I did know the lay of the land in the woods awfully well, and that helped a lot—but David was the better boy those two summers. I’m sure of it. I always was.

By the time the Olympics actually arrived the next summer, David’s brother and sister started playing with us more often, and we used the obstacle course less and less. Sometime later that year, David’s family moved away to Idaho. I swore I’d send letters, and he swore he would, too—but neither of us ever did. As I entered junior high, the only kid my age on our long, long block was Randy Bergquist, the Presbyterian pastor’s son, but for some reason we never talked. Probably because he was Presbyterian, not quite “Christian” enough for folks of my anti-denominational Anabaptist heritage. And he didn’t hang out in the woods.

I missed David.

Out of the blue a couple years after I graduated from college, David Martin stopped by my folks’ house and asked about me. He’d just moved back to the Puget Sound, a young husband and father on assignment as a radar technician with the Navy.

I was a bachelor and living like it, making a tidy salary as a software engineer at Boeing and blowing on it trips to Mazatlan, dining out five nights a week, an excess of imported Dry Blackthorne cider, and Seahawks season tickets. When David called, I suggested dinner out—what else?—and a Mariners game at the Kingdome… on me, naturally.

I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I felt. Aside from those two summers we’d shared on the obstacle course in the woods, we had nothing in common. I felt over-educated, condescending, and snobbish. He struck me as ignorant and still obsequious, still craving my approval even though I was snobbishly condescending, and used words like “obsequious.” Once more he asked, “I ran like a deer, didn’t I?” I smiled sickly through clenched teeth, so very glad we had not spent the evening somewhere in the woods.

Not surprisingly, I never saw David Martin again. We had already gone our separate ways in 1972, and we continued to diverge. I have no idea what he’s doing today.

But on a recent lazy winter afternoon I re-read some old Ray Bradbury stories, and ran across one about a boy who buys his new summer sneakers.

By the end of the summer, every year, you always found out, you always knew, you couldn’t really jump over rivers and trees and houses in last year’s sneakers, and they were dead. But this was a new year, and he felt that this time, with this new pair of shoes, he could do anything, anything at all.

Mr. Sanderson leaned forward. “How do they feel?”

The boy looked down at his feet deep in the rivers, in the fields of wheat, in the wind that already was rushing him out of the town. He looked up at the old man, his eyes burning, his mouth moving, but no sound came out.

“Antelopes?” said the old man, looking form the boy’s face to his shoes. “Gazelles?”

Yes, antelopes. Gazelles. Like deer, fleet through the forest.

Today, this aging man wishes he could go back to 1972 and give David Martin a new pair of Converse All-Stars, to run free once more with him through the woods to the field of foxglove.

And to tell his friend, finally, “Yes, David—yes. You did run like a deer.”

About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. Unlike my scholarly and journalistic work from the "old days" at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog, the writing here is of a more overtly personal and spiritual nature. I hope it provokes you as much as it provokes me.
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