Here's how 'Upper Oak Hill Road' came to be. I thought about 'Upper Oak Hill Rd' while riding behind my house one day and seeing a new bulldozer track in the woods, signalling a new house, signalling one less place I could ride. I remembered the quiet of 35 years ago and decided on a piece about the problems of trying to ride horses around lots of houses and funny noises and startling occurences--horses are quite skittish and excitable.
I started the piece with the idea of describing that dozer track and what it meant but realized I first needed to set the scene a little. As you can tell, the scene- setting ran away with me and I never got the horse off the road and into the woods. By the time I was ready to do that, I'd run out of words--nearly 900 seemed like a reasonable amount to expect a student to read.
So I shaped what I had into the piece you see.
But 'Upper Oak Hill Road' was not my first choice of topics. It was the default topic, the merely do-able one. There was another problem piece I wanted to write but chickened out on--I was afraid that tone and voice would completely get away from me and that the authorial presence would distract and detract. The closest I could come to writing that piece, the one I wanted to write, was to describe it here, now.
So: There was a boy named Arthur in our neighborhood when I was growing up. His father had served in WW2, in combat, and Arthur loved to play war, to dress in bits of his father's old uniform, and to kill (pardon the racist expression we used unselfconsciously in the fifties) Japs. Arthur was a few years younger than me, more my brother's age, and was not a particular pal of mine, or, so far as I knew, my brother.
Flash ahead to the late sixties. Arthur, now 20 years old or so, is in the service and is killed in Vietnam. His old school names its new auditorium after him, and my brother goes to the dedication ceremony.
I ask him about the ceremony years later and my brother, not a very emotive guy, gets a little choky and refers to Arthur as his childhood "best friend."
Here's where the problem comes and here's where I didn't think I could handle the material. My brother's emotion seemed to me almost completely sentimental and phony, not based on much of anything. Maybe he was choky about the lost days of youth, but I had to doubt he was quite as emotional about Arthur, someone he had not gone to school with and someone he had last played with in 1960 or so.
My brother does have a great talent for friendship and still has several close friends he first met when he was 12 or 13, but Arthur was never part of that group. When my brother and his friends were starting to smoke dope, Arthur was still living his boyish, John Wayne fantasy life.
So, the problem, as I saw it, was that my brother was permitting himself to feel a big phony emotion.
But could I convey that to a reader without sounding like a mean, judgmental, hateful prick, who was only going to allow people to feel the emotions officially approved by John Goldfine? No, I didn't think I could.
That was really what I wanted to write about: my brother, his feelings, my feelings, the past and it uses and abuses.
But as you can see, I went with the easier choice.
After that last sentence, I'm tempted to use an emoticon but whether it should be an emoticon for human tragedy :( or that for the human comedy :) I do not know.