Saturday, October 27, 2012


Back in the '80s you had to cross over the Little Spokane River to get into my neighborhood.  The little river bordered our neighborhood on two sides.  A golf course and a rocky wilderness bordered the other two sides. 

In that way, the neighborhood felt like a fortress and that “we’re finally home feeling” would hit you as soon as you heard the car tires humming on the bridge – well before you actually pulled into the driveway of your house. 

A modern view of my old neighborhood.

Living in a fortress also made it feel like your neighbors were in it with you.  “In” what, exactly, I don’t know.  It was just a feeling that told me we all had something in common, that we believed in something together, that living there meant the same thing to everyone.

Looking back, I see how romantic and naïve I was.  But you’ll have to forgive me because I did have some evidence that supported my feelings.  After Mt. St. Helens erupted, for instance, all the men in the neighborhood tied bandanas around their faces and shoveled ash into enormous piles together while every curious kid pressed their noses to the windows and watched in awe. 

Photo Courtesy of the Spokesman Review, May, 1980.  More pictures of the clean up can be seen here.

We organized ice cream socials and all the kids in the neighborhood wore costumes as if it were Halloween and paraded through the streets.  Everyone participated. 

We dropped our bikes in the front lawn when we went to a friend’s house and no one messed with them.  

Every boy belonged to the same Cub Scout Troop and every girl was in the same batch of Brownies.  We walked to the bus stops together.  We got in trouble together.

And in the fall, when the raking was underway, we’d all stand around enormous piles of pine needles in the street and we’d light them on fire.  Dads would stand watch with a rake or a shovel.  Maybe a hose nearby if there was some wind.  And the kids would bring more needles, bags of pine cones, and dead branches and if we were well-behaved we might get to throw some of that onto the fire. 

No, this is not an Instagram picture - just a really old Polaroid
 of me and my dad picking up pine cones in the backyard.

And everywhere was the smell.  It was the smell of smoke, sure.  But it was also the smell of fall.  The smell of taking-care-of-business.  The smell of 11:00 a.m. on any October Saturday.  The smell of hypnotic fire. The smell of a fortress clearing out what it no longer needed.  The smell of being 9-years-old and still having a dad to stand beside.  And if you could take your eyes off the flames you could see down the street that your best friend was kicking pine cones into his fire.  You could see the girl you thought was cute roller skating in wide arcs around her daddy’s fire.  You could see, if you were perceptive enough, that we all had homes and warmth and a family and that was enough.  And even if you couldn’t see that, you felt it. 

It's been nearly 30 years since I stood beside one of those fires.  When I enter my neighborhood now, I cross a mass transit rail.  My neighborhood is bordered by stop lights and sound walls.  The fortress feeling comes only from locks on the gates and deadbolts in the front door.  We press our nose to the windows only to watch suspicious characters.  Our community events are just gatherings of strangers.  If you leave a bike in the lawn, you’re donating it.   

We do treat ourselves to backyard S'mores once in a while.

And I'm pretty sure it is illegal to set things on fire in the road.  Which is just as well.  That smoke is bad for the air and I prefer to compost my leaves.  But you’ll have to forgive me again when I say that I miss the smell of burning pine needles.  And everything it meant. 


  1. Chad, you have a gift for writing; plain and simple.

    I miss the same sense of camaraderie you speak of, too, though our neighborhood hasn't changed as much as yours has---yet. We're sort of stuck in a time warp here on the farm, though I don't know how much longer we'll be blessed with solitude.

    Thank you for sharing the bittersweet memories. The next time we're having a campfire, we'll think of you. Pass the marshmallows.

    1. Thank you for the kind compliment, Karen.

  2. I too remember times past that are nothing like what happens today. Those simple pleasures have been replaced by things far more complicated. Relationships are far more complicated today too.

  3. My childhood neighborhood was marked in summer by folks talking to one another from their decks and patios--usually asking who had ice, or bourbon, or mixer, but that was the early 1970's for you. At our last home, we'd all sort of sweep or rake our way into the middle of the street for big conflabs, there was much tool-loaning, the kids would play the weekends away from house to house and yard to yard, and we all had keys to one another's homes to care for pets and collect mail when folks were away. Those things are still out there, but though the world is made smaller by technology, there is seemingly more 'distance' between people.

    Some of my neighbors now sort of want to eat me, but there are several that I would eat if I had the opportunity, so I guess it's OK. At least no one is leaving their garbage cans out to roll around the street for days on end.