Where I Grew Up

The town, the grid of streets.

I lived, until I was 12, in the middle of Pennsylvania, in a town called Kenner. The town proper was on a 20-by-20 block grid, with a single exit onto a 2-lane highway, and had never produced anyone of any repute, except for a few doctors, and lawyers who moved to Granger, the county seat. I was one of 1600 residents. If you drew a circle on the map, with Kenner Township at its center and a radius of 3 miles, you would have Greater Kenner, stretching into cornfields, dairy farms, gravel roads, a two-mile-square state park, and the North Haven trailer park. Within that circle lived about 3000 people.

I tell you about the town so that you can imagine my scratched Huffy bike and my slightly shaggy hair, my grandfather's screened-in porch, the streets with countless gravel driveways, the old women in hairnets, the bored teens at the Dairy Queen, the teenage boys, without girls, cultivating moustaches with agrarian care.

In Kenner, within the grid of blocks, before the roads began to amble and curve, you could find the regular half-dozen churches (not the one I attended, which was in a one-room building two miles out), a number of shut-down warehouses, an old umbrella factory, a water tower, and a set of railway tracks which gave no real guide to the local prosperity, whatever side you were on. The North-South streets were named for birds, the West-East streets for trees. I lived at 1393 Walnut Street, between Bluebird and Skylark.

In about an eighth of the homes you could find gardens with living chickens, and in about half you would find gun racks. We had one, but no gun. My mother explained it, when I was 10, like this: “I never wanted to have any guns in the house in the first place. But your father had to have one. You climbed out of your crib, and your father walked out of this house, and once it looked like he was gone I took it down and gave it to his pop.”

My grandfather lived on Wren between Evergreen and Birch. He'd taken the gun and put it in a metal cabinet in the basement. I would visit, he would start to snore in his chair, and I would explore the house, pawing through my grandmother's fake jewelry, examining the ancient photos of my father's mother's side of the family, Scottish farmers come in dour black clothes, all of it boring stuff except that it had something to do with my father. Listening to the snores I would find my way to the basement and touch the gun, run my fingers along its side and put my finger on the trigger - never squeezing, even though I knew it would be unloaded, but scared by the cold life of the gunmetal. In an unarticulated way I saw it as a genie's bottle, a wish-granter.

I told my father about it. “Grandpa's got your gun,” I said. “Gotcha,” he said, nothing else. Every few months he would show up with a present from Woolworth, usually something I already owned, and take me somewhere, shopping for clothes, or to a parking-lot amusement parks where you strip to your socks and jump up and down inside an inflatable room. Once we went fishing on the Chunapaquasset. He found a muddy stretch and said, “the trout are in there.” My memories are of unimportant things, because we never did anything important.

Which was fine; he was still a mythic figure. My grandfather, as permanent as my father was ephemeral, would tell me stories of my father as a boy, information I could get nowhere else. “You remind me so much of your dad at your age,” he'd say, and my gut would riot with pleasure, I'd smile a chubby-cheeked, insipid smile. Much later in my life, when he could barely keep his eyes open, my grandfather would confess how disappointed he was with his son, and how proud of me. But it must have pleased him to reminisce, to talk about one bright-eyed boy to another, and from my smile and pleasure feel relieved of the guilt of his own failed fatherhood.

My mother sent me to my grandfather's often, and I would go on my own accord, walking the half a mile from the age of 5, stopping at every corner to look to the right, then left, then right again, but also wandering through the alleys, using a yard-long tree branch as a walking stick. I don't think anyone would let their 5 year olds wander the streets of Kenner now, but it was nothing then. I had no awareness of today's sexual-suburban monsters with their ovens filled with little boys. I was terrified of more profound dangers: getting lost, night coming and catching me, mean dogs, trucks filled with killer comic-book robots running me over as they spread havoc through the land, or the sudden presence of a deer in the street.

This fear came from experience: occasionally deer would wander through Kenner out the adjoining state park - it had happened four times I can remember - and root through some old woman's cabbages (often in a Victory Garden which had been kept into the 70s out of patriotic habit). On one of these visits, when I was 5, a deer was chased out of a garden with a broom by Mrs. Beth-Ellen, whose last name I don't remember, and leapt out from Bluebird onto Walnut Street, where it was killed by a pickup truck operated by Mr. Kaverty. Mr. Kaverty was carrying a cord of poached wood from the state park, an action for which he'd already been severely fined, so he was operating under the stress of possible incarceration. His brother-in-law, who hated him, was the town cop.

He got out and the deer was still moving, its legs quivering. He considered the situation and went back into his car and got his chainsaw, let it rip, and slit the deer's throat, slicing easily halfway through the neck. It shuddered and stopped, and, with the bloody chainsaw in one hand, he dragged it by its legs into the gutter between a parked Dodge and Ford. It wasn't a bad idea, just lurid, and more merciful than running the thing over at 2 miles an hour over and over, far more merciful than leaving it to suffer. Then he got back in the truck and drove off quickly.

I was out playing with tiny metal cars on the sidewalk, and remember three or four other playing children walking towards the tawny body in the gutter, having heard the chainsaw and kept away in pure animal fright, peeking over the hoods of cars to see what was happening, now drawn to the scene as if by gravity. Mrs. Binali, who had watched the whole thing from her living room curtains, stood in front of the body and told us, a group of children between 5 and 10, that James Kaverty was in deep shit for this and what the hell was she going to do with a deer? I don't know where the deer went, but it was gone in a half-hour - likely dressed and divided into the freezer of some neighborhood hunter who didn't mind grill-marks on his venison.

I told my mother about the deer that night, and then ever after was terrified of seeing the same thing happen, all that blood pooling in the gutter. I was not so saddened by the death of the thing, because I lacked that sensitivity, and still do, but I was scared by its huge size, its sudden appearance of its deceased and mangled form in familiar surroundings. When I was older, 12 or so, I remembered this story to my grandfather, who was friends with Mrs. Binali, and he filled in all of the details I've told, explained the reasons for Mr. Kaverty fleeing. “Kaverty didn't get called in by the cops, though,” my grandfather said. “Mrs. Binali knew how bad he'd want to stay out of Doug Aley's handcuffs, so called him up and got free chopped firewood for her back-room wood-burning stove. For all winter.” Modest blackmail among the narrow streets.

He told me this as we sat on his screened porch, the television on in the other room so he could hear a ball game, a blue light coming out the front door. I sat on his green metal glider, the arms chipped and rusted steel showing through, and he leaned over a small table, whittling a small head out of a piece of dried birch. I was impressed by his whittling - no one would have called it folk art or even carving, it was whittling - but never had the patience to develop a talent, and while my grandfather's carved heads were all abstract, comic types with the hair as delicate and ridged as a thumbprint, my attempts to carve superheroes or cars were usually indistinguishable from the original lump of wood he'd hand me to start. He never criticized my efforts, though; he'd see my frustration and try to show me some technique, but after watching me mangle my fingertips a dozen times he just let me dig into the wood at my own pace.

When he finished the story of the deer - and somehow it was a relief, an answer to old questions, knowing why the deer had been cut open with a chainsaw and left to die on our block - we sat for a bit in quiet, and then I rambled about nothing, whatever 12-year-olds talk about, the books I was reading and the stories I was writing, the comic book my friend Ed was writing which he was convinced he could sell for thousands of dollars and I, burning and furious with jealousy, because he refused to involve me, knew was horribly stupid and would never succeed, mostly because the superhero-detective my friend had created lacked certain essential superhero-detective qualities which I can no longer remember, but which I am sure I enumerated in exacting detail to my grandfather.

After enough of that, my grandfather cut in and asked, “You gonna stay over tonight?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Then you gotta get up early.”

“How come?”

“To watch T.V.”

“What's on?”


“How early?”

“3 in the morning.”

I'd never been up then. I thought about it. I knew if I prodded him he'd never tell me what he was holding back, that my guesses would only make him laugh. If I went home I'd never know. “Sure,” I said.

“Which means you have to go to bed early. 8:30.”

It seemed a fair exchange for late-night privileges. And there was nothing I wanted to watch, anyway. “Okay.”

“Call your mother,” he said. “Tell her I'll drive you to school tomorrow.”




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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