The Camelot Barrel

It was a crisp fall day, the day after everything changed.  Ten years old, the young girl was playing on “The Incinerator,” as her father’s backyard burn barrel was called.  She was determined to roll the barrel with her feet while standing on it.  It was hard to do.  The balance part wasn’t difficult; balance is a natural phenomenon in nature.  Squirrels, cats, and birds instinctively use their tails for balance.   But not dogs.  Dog tails are outward manifestation of inward emotions.  Humans should have tails.  Tails would be useful, except to poker players and negotiators.  “Must not wag tail.  Must not wag tail.”   In humans, a twitching tail would demonstrate catlike annoyance, a doghappy  tailwag would indicate contentment, but possessing a balancing tail would be most convenient.  She stood on the barrel, hands on hips.   Tail-less, yet balanced. 

The barrel lay on its side on fairly level ground.  She tried to ride the barrel the way she saw seals do it through the Hochild Kohn storefront window of Eastpoint Shopping center.  Or, maybe it was penguins in the storefront window and the barrel walkers were bears, hating life in Druid Hill Park Zoo.   Still, she tried to balance herself on the barrel, breathing in the cool sadness that hung over the backyard.  Indeed, that sadness stretched for miles and miles, more than the girl even knew existed.  It hung like honey from the trees and clouds, thick and almost sweet in its vapor.

 Next-door neighbor Patti ambled over to play, still 9 years old even though they were both in 4th grade. 

“Whatcha doing?” Patti asked.


Patti squinted at her.  “What’s wrong?”

The girl shrugged.  “Kennedy.”

That word hung in the air.  It was heavy.

The girl didn’t know what Patti’s mother was doing next door, but her own mother was glued to the TV set as President Kennedy lay in state somewhere.   Washington, DC was about 40 miles away from her backyard incinerator, but it seemed unreal and far away, like the moon.  It was far.  Yet six years from now, after the girl turned 16 and was bussing whisky sour glasses for minimum wage at an Overlea Hall wedding, somebody walked on that moon.  Who would schedule their wedding the same day as the first moonwalk?   That was foolishness.  Or bad luck. 

Both girls contemplated walking the incinerator, perhaps calculating the likelihood of falling and not getting hurt.  Getting hurt seemed inevitable. 

The girl’s mother wanted to drive to Washington, DC to pay her respects to President Kennedy.  There was some discussion about that at dinnertime.  Her father occasionally watched the TV proceedings while her mother couldn’t be pried away from them.  Except for the time she was doing something, perhaps tending to her 2 year old, or taking a bathroom break;  that was when the girl’s father sat down to watch TV.   And then it happened.  It happened right on the air, decades before reality TV, decades before  24 hour entertainment horror played out in our living rooms;  it was even several years before Viet Nam images invaded our homes in graphic black and white confusion.   “Bern,” he said, “Come here.” And Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in front of our very eyes.  We were transfixed as a nation.  Camelot crumbled.  Quothe the Raven, “Nevermore.”

 Patti was bored with the girl who obviously was not going to be fun today.  She turned to leave.   “See ya.”


Patti sprinted about a dozen steps and then turned back toward the girl.   She said, “You have to walk backwards.  Walk backwards to make it roll forward.”

“Huh?” But Patti already skipped away.  “Oh.” 

Every instinct in the girl’s body cried to walk forward, but that isn’t the way to do it.  You have to walk backwards in order to go forwards.    Sometimes that is the only way.  Like walking a barrel or changing a country.  You have to go backwards in order to advance.  And yes, getting hurt is inevitable.



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