I never saw him wearing anything except a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and the ubiquotus boy’s footwear of the time, black and white Keds tennis shoes. He was a year or so older than I, but pale and smaller, with a shock of floppy blond hair. He lived with parents I never met down the river road a bit closer to the Sangamon than my house. He didn’t go to school either, a wondrous achievement in my nine-year-old estimation, not having to deal with the boredom, peer pressure and politics of grade three.
I first saw him as he came walking up the road past my house, as I was in the yard struggling to realign the handlebars of my Huffy heavyweight, knocked out of shape by a minor crash into the ditch in front of Randy Clinton’s house as I attempted to avoid running over his mother’s yappy little dog. He, the boy, not the dog, stood in the road and watched my labor for a moment. I said, “Hi, Kid,” and he smiled and came closer. I never even knew his name, but I did realize that he was different. Kid was not like the rest of us.
He didn’t talk much, but he smiled a lot. And he hung around, but not like Danny Kobel’s demanding little brother, Mud. Kid was not intrusive. If anything, I found him to be an inducer of contentment. He spent most of the afternoon watching me fix the handlebars and then the fender, asking no questions, saying little, but smiling as if observing the feeble reconstruction of the front end of my Huffy was more than just a way to pass the time, but something both fascinating and uplifting. When I asked him what he did instead of going to school he said, “Sometimes I set, sometimes I mess around. I got a pogo stick.” We parted company near dusk, Kid walking away down River Road into the deepening gloom.
The next day was a school day, and when I arrived home I found him propped up against the big Elm tree on the edge of my front yard. We sat and leaned against it for over an hour, talking a little and enjoying Spring during a time when sitting outside in the grass did not bring worries of ticks, stained clothing, or dangerous passers-by. Upon questioning, he confessed to me that his father worked and his mom “done the dishes.” He had no brothers and sisters and had moved to my hometown from another small metropolis called Farmer City. He was never around on weekends, but for the balance of spring, unless it was raining, when I’d come home from school Kid would be waiting.
During summer, when I wasn’t occupied with the other members of my little group of river rats and small town troublemakers or doing farm work, sometimes Kid would go fishing with me. My grandfather had spent considerable time and effort teaching me the art of bank fishing with cane poles, the necessity of quiet, and the value of patience. I was good at it. On our first venture to the river, Kid confessed he’d never gone fishing. I was astounded. Everybody had gone fishing. Everybody I knew fished. But not Kid. On our walk, I explained the rules. Don’t stomp up and down the bank. No loud talking. Don’t throw anything in the water. Sit still, watch your line or your bobber, shut up, and wait. He blew me away. His patience and ability to not only be still, but to sit absolutely motionless, was amazing. The only giveaway he was even conscious was that smile.
He was not perfect, however. He could never manage to put night crawlers on the hook without sticking his thumb, and he couldn’t see the line well enough to deadline fish for channel cats. But he had the self-control it took to watch a bobber dance sideways against the current and disappear into the muddy depths without panicking and attempting to set the hook too soon. He understood that he could not help carry the cane poles because they were my grandfather’s, and if one got hit against a tree and the tip broken off, it was an eighty-mile round trip to replace the type of cane pole he favored. An eighty-mile trek in a 1949 Plymouth was not a journey to be taken lightly. I did, however, allow him to carry the carefully prepared doughball and the diligently collected worms. The first fish he caught with me, the first one he ever caught for that matter, was about a ten-pound carp, shining golden in the sun on a line suspended from a twelve-foot cane pole…a feat requiring considerable will and strength. He got it done, tackling the carp as it flopped around in the weeds on the bank and, with instruction, even got the limp piece of clothesline I used as a stringer through the gill and mouth of the fish and tied it off on a tree root at the waterline. Had I made such a catch, vocal celebration would have been inevitable, but not Kid. Just that smile.
That autumn, a week or two from Halloween, he was gone. No Kid waiting under the big Elm anymore. I learned later that his family had just moved away. He and I had never cut corn out of beans together, never ridden bikes or played baseball with each other, never fired .22’s, exchanged secrets, ridden horses, smoked stolen cigarettes, or a dozen other things that my brat-pack and I had done. I can’t even say we were really friends, but I missed him. My grandfather, who appreciated children as much as any adult I have ever known, spoke of him once.“Aw, he warn’t quite right, David,” he said. “But I believe he was a fine boy.”
I hadn’t thought of Kid in fifty years, I suppose, until the other day a television show brought him to mind. My granddad was correct. He wasn’t quite right. He was slow, didn’t go to school, and all that, but it strikes me now that education, income, acquisitions, and achievement cannot bring any of us what Kid just naturally had. Peace. I knew it then, even if I didn’t realize it. It was right there in that smile.