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Every kid deserves a safe patch of grass and a friend to venture off with

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From left, Sidney and Richard James, Mark Rutledge, Jeffery and Johnny Stevens played baseball in 1967 on a safe patch of grass beside Mill Street in Albemarle, N.C.

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By Mark Rutledge

Saturday, July 7, 2018

A sidewalk and a patch of lawn between West Albemarle (North Carolina) Baptist Church and its parsonage is where I spent most of my earliest outdoor time. Up to about age four is one of the few stretches of my life that I wouldn’t change even if I could.

Well, maybe I would omit the time when several neighborhood playmates called me “stinkpot” and ran away for obvious reasons. And if I hadn’t spit on that older kid, he would not have held me down in the grass and returned the favor with such furious precision.

But I would otherwise relive those formative years with no editing.

I would throw my first baseball with the James and Stevens boys.

Sid James would teach me how to ride a bike all over again. I’d glance behind to realize he was 20 feet behind me and no longer holding on to the seat. And I would again grab the low-hanging magnolia limb and watch the bike roll on without me.

I would use a hammer to crack open pecans from the tree in our yard.

I would use the same tool to explode entire rolls of cap-gun ammunition.

Our beagles, Buddy and Lady, would play with me in the grass. Buddy was taken out by a car on Mill Street, but my parents allowed me to believe he must have run away for good. I’m not sure that was for the best. But I wouldn’t change it.

On certain summer Sunday afternoons, my grassy playground was occupied by long tables laden with heaping bowls of home-cooked savory dishes and desserts.

Dinners on the grounds are important to the longevity of a church. Disagreements over doctrine are difficult to articulate with a mouthful of fried chicken.

My mother could monitor most all of my churchyard playground from her kitchen window. But it wasn’t long before I ventured into a new chapter with my same-age neighbor friend and “blood brother,” Jeffery Stevens.

Other than my family, Jeff might be the only person I don’t recall entering my world. He was already there when the bell of awareness sounded, grinning and leading the way to marvelous boyhood mischief.

From walking to the Red & White on our own to riding bikes all the way to the train tracks at the mill and smoking an entire pack of Winstons in one afternoon, Jeff and I routinely exceeded our mothers’ boundaries. We explored forbidden territories with a reckless abandon that I would not have otherwise experienced.

I wouldn't change that part for the world.

The last meaningful conversation we had was back in that foundational patch of grass during another dinner on the grounds. My family had moved away, and we were in town for a church homecoming.

Jeff and I had kept in touch with letters and visits. He wondered if I would ever live in Albemarle again, and I declared that I would.

That was somewhere between 7, when we moved to Tennessee, and 10, when Jeff moved to heaven. The story of our friendship has remained exactly the same since. I would absolutely change that, but it’s a beautiful story still.

I’m not sure what I was aiming for with this column. Maybe just to say that I’m forever thankful for having had a safe patch of grass to start out on, and a bold friend who taught me early on never to fear leaving it.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com or like him on Facebook at Mark Rutledge Columns.

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