Our first meaningful memories are captured by the soles of our feet. Maybe that why babies don’t really remember being babies. They just lay around eating, pooping, and throwing up. And when they’re not hanging out like little awkward potato sacks, they occasionally crawl around on their hands and knees. Though both cute and helpful to new parents, especially when those parents have to check off those all-important milestone placards, crawling does not make the man or the woman. It’s not until you can stand up and feel the earth beneath your feet, without immediately falling down, that you begin to understand who you are.
I don’t remember the red clay dust of my southwest Oklahoma birthplace. I had just begun to rise up off the floor, but my feet were not yet solidly underneath me. If my toddler memories had been more affecting, I’m sure I would be able to describe first hand, the hot, talcum-like dust floating up through my tiny toes, softly separating them. After all, that dirt came from the same red clay ground that bore the steps of the Chickasaw, the Choctaw and the other three tribes of the great removal. I might be able to describe the brittle Bermuda grass poking me like pins, or even the dull-pained push against the ball of my foot while stepping on a rare metal button in the field across the tracks from my grandparent’s house. The same grown-over wheat field that served as a German prisoner of war camp during World War Two. But these memories are attached to a time when memories were not of my own making, and only made sense to me later, as an older boy.
By the time I was four years old, I lived twelve hundred miles east of my native Chickasha, Oklahoma, and had traded the plains and the shadows of oil wells for the Allegheny Mountains and the shadows of coal tipples. Still, at four years old, my memories remained superficial, even if my experiences did not. I walked the hills behind my house and the trails of Cooper’s Rock along the Cheat River Gorge. Dry, fallen magnolia leaves crackled beneath my feet like a campfire. And over the next few steps, I felt a sharp twinge in my insole, from stepping on the maturing stalks of ginseng. I was at least standing upright, so those moments captured my attention, but I was not yet free to form the kind of soul-defining memories that would come a little later.
That crackle and twinge are ghost memories. A ghost memory is a real memory, but one that can’t be validated through anything other than hindsight and stories past down. And through similar ghost memories, rising like vapor from yellow, faded photographs, I remember dangling my feet in the Monongahela river while the older boys pulled bass from its belly. I remember stray chunks of anthracite, streaking black along the sides of my tiny white tennis shoes like a coal-country crayon. It was nineteen seventy-two, and we were living in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia. Wilderness and nature lapped at my soft, pale feet, but had not yet penetrated my soul.
The first time I remember making my own memories, and more importantly, feeling a sense of purpose shoot up through my feet and into my being was when I kicked off my Chuck Taylor’s on the back porch at Starmount. Starmount drive, a rural neighborhood of Tallahassee, Florida was the exploding star that formed me; the lover of wilderness, the fierce individualist, and the boy, now a man, who loves the company of good and brave friends. It formed me; the music lover whose head still reels around at the slightest hint of an acoustic guitar, fingerpicking beneath a lyric that smashes a window or kicks open a door. It formed me; the hard-headed, soft-hearted, southern boy, walking over pine needles and sweet gum balls, and through mud bottom creeks and snake roiling swamp waters. That ground infused me from sole to soul with the person I was supposed to be and, eventually, the man that would try his best to hold onto it all.
In the end, I think the ground beneath our feet gives us our first indication of what exists above our head; the sky, the clouds, the stars, the planets, and maybe, even, a little bit of heaven.