Jean Renoir, the great French film director, is credited with saying, “The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.”
I remember three boys sitting in a row on the roof of a garage, their knees pulled up under their chins, their arms wrapped around their legs. They aren’t supposed to be up there.
I am one of the boys. My best friend, Tom, is another. I’m not sure who the other is. I’m pretty sure it’s not my younger brother, Pete.
The garage is next to the house my parents built a few years earlier. We have ascended to the roof by putting a ladder against a tree next to the garage, climbing the ladder to a notch in the tree, scaling the tree up to a branch that hung out over the garage, then edging out on the branch to attain the roof. It was not as easy as we thought it would be.
We wanted to make a quick scramble to the roof and then jump off before anyone caught us.
But from up here the distance to the ground looks much farther than it did when we were down there. Besides, the landing area is not good. The ground slants downhill, from our right to left, and it is lined with flagstones that make steps down the hill. It is a hard, uneven place to complete a ten-foot leap. We had not properly anticipated that.
The reason I’m pretty sure the third boy was not my little brother is that I would have made him jump off to test the descent. If Pete were injured, the survivors could prudently climb back down. If he landed unhurt, we still had options.
Now, here’s the thing. This happened decades ago. I can’t remember what we did. A guy can’t remember everything, and the rules I set for myself in writing this book don’t allow me to make things up—certainly not events as major as jumping off a garage. So I can’t make up a story for you. We were up there, that’s all.
A characteristic of old memories is that they are episodic; brief flashes of light—clearly illuminated scenes and events—surrounded by darkness. Or a pencil sketch rather than a fully conceived painting. This then is a sketchbook dictated by strong memories and grouped by subject matter, roving backward and forward through a few glorious years in the life of a boy.
This is how we lived then, in a small Iowa town in the middle of the last century.
- From the introduction to Mistaken for a King