Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Ringing in the Fourth

Kyle Davis rang his backyard dinner bell every Fourth of July at noon.  It's not that it couldn't be rung at any other time, but on the Fourth, its hallmark clang reminded everyone in our general area that we had something to be celebrating.

Kyle lived next door and was the renaissance man of our Memphis neighborhood before we actually even knew what that term meant.  Employed by the Tennessee Department of Conservation, he would ride a city bus to work downtown and back every day, and on his short walks to and from the bus stops, Kyle had a unique penchant for picking up curious items that he might find lying along his path.  Sometimes that might amount to a handful of nuts and bolts or some random machine part, but fairly regularly, he would find some object that he couldn't identify.  He would approach me in the afternoon and bring out the item, asking if I knew what it was.  More often than not, I had no idea, but I found his endless curiosity fascinating.

The best find that Kyle ever brought back to his house was a lawnmower chassis from which the engine (and all related parts) had been stripped.  His wife Kitty hounded him relentlessly about putting the mower in the trash, but he couldn't bring himself to do it -- it was as if he'd discovered the mother lode of abandoned junk, and he wanted to preserve it.  Finally, one day, he took the mower remains to the curb, hung a pair of old boxer shorts over the handle, and placed a sign beside the mower, offering it to any taker with the stipulation that it was only to be used for cutting fescue.  It was a trademark Kyle move.

Kyle and Kitty had built a beautiful den as an extension to their original home, and it was here that Kyle displayed some of his more notable treasures.  One that I remember in particular was a mastodon tooth, which he had placed prominently on the fireplace hearth.  Kyle prided in showing off his den to visitors, and I would always tell people in advance about the tooth, so that when Kyle showed it and asked if they knew what it was, they would have an answer at the ready.  This was a joke between us all through the years.

One summer, his son Bob convinced Kyle to replace the old family car with a fire engine red 1966 Pontiac GTO.  Sometimes, if Kyle was driving to work and the weather was nasty, he would offer me a ride.  The looks I would get wheeling up to the school in this car were priceless -- I'd be good for the whole day.  Kyle was meticulous about caring for his home and possessions, and the car was no exception.  I do not ever remember seeing any dirt anywhere on its surface -- it simply gleamed.  We used to enjoy the irony of the oldest couple on the block having the coolest car.

We lived through many experiences together, both good and bad.  On a chilly weekend afternoon in November of 1963, I was watching television as Lee Harvey Oswald was being escorted from the basement of the Dallas police headquarters to a county jail.  Suddenly, from out of the crowd, Jack Ruby appeared and shot Oswald to death.  I ran outside and told Kyle, who was working in his yard.  That weekend, which had begun with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on a stormy Friday, is etched forever in my mind, and in those pre-Internet days, when something big would happen, we would always check with the neighbors to see if they'd heard the news.  I'll never forget that day and Kyle's shocked expression.

But life in the neighborhood was typically tranquil, and Kyle and I had many good times together through the years.  When I would come home from college, he was always one of the first people to check in with me to see how things were going.  In some subtle way, he was an inspiration to me -- I think it had to do with his curiosity about the world outside his own domain and his willingness to talk to anyone and everyone about those interests.  For whatever reason, it made an impression on me, and every year on the Fourth of July, I remember my kind, spirited neighbor, pulling the long white rope to ring his dinner bell.

Happy Fourth to you all.