The Secret Garden

When I was still in the earliest stage of my cycling career, about age seven, I enjoyed a very solid off-season each summer for two weeks at my grandparents’ house in Daingerfield. My grandparents were extraordinarily wealthy. I knew this because my grandfather always gave us each a quarter when we arrived, and the following day granny would give us each a dollar.

At the Ben Franklin Five-and-Dime, that was serious money. And unlike home, where we were constantly advised about the value of money and how little of it there was, my grandparents were veritable slot machines, never saying a word.

Those were the days when grandparents were old and admitted it. They weren’t called “Nanna” or “G-pa” or some other silly abbreviation to make the old person think she wasn’t old, they were called “Grandpa” and “Grandma.” To distinguish my mom’s parents from my dad’s we called my maternal grandmother “Granny.” She didn’t mind it a whit.

Granny and Grandpa Jim lived in a mansion at 203 Ridgeway Drive. We knew it was a mansion because they were rich, and because it had a huge garage with a safe in it and two refrigerators. The garage was built on a concrete slab that was always moist and cool even in the hundred-degree, high humidity summers of northeast Texas. The garage was also vast and cluttered; we could explore its recesses and fiddle with old fishing poles, cans of gasoline, and boat anchors made by pouring concrete into large coffee cans.

Our millionaire grandparents loved us unconditionally. That we knew.

But the core part of our off-season training was our daily hikes in the woods. Half a block south you could turn right on Redland, walk another block and a half to Pineland, and the road would take you to the edge of a pine forest. That was our jumping off point. We’d climb underneath the barbed wire and bushwhack due west until we hit the creek. The creek ran all the way up to the mountain, at the base of the iron ore strip mine run by Lone Star Steel.

The dirt and creekbed were deep red from the iron in the soil, and the creek was always teeming with crawdads. The forest itself was several miles wide at least; we’d never been able to hike to the farthest western end. Northwards, towards the mountain, we would hike all day until the creek petered out and the woods thinned at the edge of the strip mine. When you got to the mountain you knew you’d put in a full day’s work.

It was there that we’d unpack our tuna fish sandwiches and uncap our steel Cub Scout canteens wrapped in canvas, drink the lukewarm water that felt so refreshing and cool and tasted like canteen, and begin the arduous trek back to granny’s. By the time we’d get home, around 3:00 or 4:00, we’d been out since early morning, and the adventures we’d had were legion. We would often hike in our cowboy outfits, pistols holstered at our sides and for good measure a quiver of toy arrows and a bow strung along our backs.

We never imagined not sweating profusely or considered for a moment a short-sleeved shirt when we could wear our gaudy cowboy outfits with fringed shirts and pants.

We fought battles and wars, we fished, we caught crawdads, we played in poison oak and poison ivy, we lit firecrackers, and most of all we returned home exhausted and covered in ticks. Granny would strip us naked and go over us patiently, inch by inch with cotton swabs and a glass of gasoline. She’d find a tick, rub its insertion point with gasoline, and wait for the tick to back out. Then she’d put it on her fingernail and squish it in half.

We loved watching the guts squirt out, and if the tick had been there all day its abdomen would be bloated with blood. It was always a contest to see whose tick explosions had the biggest gusher of gore. Afterwards, the dozen or so spots would be swabbed with Mercurochrome, which did nothing at all but which looked very professional and medicinal and gave you your daily dose of mercury, a well-known health supplement.

Granny never asked where we’d been or what we’d done, although we often told her. She never told us when to come home or went out looking for us in that vast wilderness, the endless pine-scape in which two small kids could disappear forever and maybe even get eaten by a bear, or get snakebit, or be taken hostage by Comanches.

We grew old and stopped cowboying in the woods, granny and Grandpa Jim got old and died, and many years later, in my early 40’s, I was driving on a job from the Panhandle to Houston and decided to detour through Daingerfield; a rather long detour.

I found 203 Ridgeway with no need at all for a map; the house was there as it had always been except for this: It had shrunken to a fraction of its former size. What had once been a giant mansion was now a tiny clapboard 2-bedroom house, at the very last ladder rung below which you slip from the lowest middle class onto the highest rung of poverty. I knocked on the door and a tired woman answered.

“Hi,” I said. “My grandparents used to live here.”

She brightened. “Oh, you’re Miz Turner’s grandson? How lovely!”

My grandmother had taught 3rd Grade in Daingerfield for almost forty years. “Would you like to come in?” she asked.

“If it’s okay? I’m taking a walk down memory lane.”

She smiled. “Well, it’s not much.”

I walked in. The house was tiny. The bedrooms were as I remembered, but barely big enough for two adults to stand in at the same time. The massive garage had been converted into a third tiny bedroom. I thought about each of those quarters and dollar bills that my grandparents had given us and it struck me for the first time how brutally hard they’d worked for those pennies, yet how lovingly and gladly they’d given them to my brother and me. I thought about how they must have saved for our visits so that they could take us to the luxury dining of Sonic or Catfish King, never breathing so much as a word about it.

I thanked the nice lady and left. Then I drove over to the woods, which were still there. I easily stepped over the barbed wire and walked a few paces. There was the creek that I’d remembered as having to hike forever to reach. I kept going west, wondering how broad the forest was, really? A few paces later it ended. The whole thing was less than a hundred yards wide. I walked north along the creek and within minutes could see the end of the clearing, where the mine began. A smaller universe you couldn’t have made had you tried, but within it? Battles, wars, wildlife, excitement, and the most intensely lived life of any little boy ever.

I went back to my truck and headed towards Houston. I didn’t cry. Much.


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22 thoughts on “The Secret Garden”

  1. Dean Patterson

    Seth, buddy, I posted this to Facebook…the royalty check is in the mail….

  2. This was beautifully written, Seth. My adventures like this were in Northern VA but they were no less adventurous. Thanks for the mid-day trip!

  3. David Shulman

    I just read this out loud to my 10 year-old and didn’t cry… much.

  4. Seems like memorable off-season training, and I’m glad you wrote about it, Seth.

  5. When approached, the current resident of my childhood home merely asked, “Did anyone ever die in the house?”

    Oh, how I wish I was prepared with an answer that woulda perked up his neck hairs.

  6. I am glad you included some pictures. The Google satellite view doesn’t do the area the justice those pictures do.

    A very touching story. More so when you get relate to your own life.

    When I was growing up in Cedar Grove, I had a friend, Brian, who live on the other side of the woods from me. 100 yards if that, but it felt like an adventure getting there. Out the door, up the backyard hill, through the stockade fence, and then the path was pretty well worn. We have a picture of when we went to see Bozo the Clown, so the image of what Brian looked like then, is well re-enforced in my mind.

    1. The photos were fake, unfortunately. I took them on a hike near my apartment and discovered this little trail with a creek and it reminded me of my summers in Daingerfield. If you street view 203 Ridgeway you can see the house. It hasn’t changed at all except for the garage which is now a bedroom.

  7. You write it real again …. We had a creek behind the house …. made forts …. had tunnels …. kids from the whole neighborhood came over to use our rope swing over the creek.

    The indians must have like it there too …. we found lots of obsidian arrow heads.

    You know how to tug our heart strings ….

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