by David Armand
Last week I was looking through a box of old pictures; I was trying to cull some photos of my childhood so I could pass them on to my mother for Mother’s Day since she missed all of those years of my life due to her illness and her inability to take care of me. As I looked through the pictures, I was surprised by how much I had forgotten or simply blocked out from memory: pictures of me and my brother hunting and fishing, riding bikes/horses, climbing trees.
You see, I grew up in Folsom, Louisiana, mostly, which is a small bucolic area in southeastern Louisiana, and I was surprised by how much my activities and lifestyle then really made me fit the bill for being what would now be considered a “hick” or just a plain old country boy. Back then, and in my teens and early twenties especially, I would have scoffed at these labels, rejecting them with all of my being. But now I can appreciate these things, and I am grateful for those rich experiences, particularly because they now show up in almost all of my writing: little did I know then that those events would have such an impact on my subconscious that I would eventually write about them all these years later.
In Harlow, for example, there are several hunting scenes pulled straight from my childhood: the characters hunt ducks, wild boar, and quail. (Here is a picture of me when I was about eight or nine years old with a fistful of quail that I had just shot. Interestingly, the boy in Harlow does the same thing, with a .410 shotgun just like the one I had (and still do) as a boy. )
Seeing all of this and thinking about the boy I was made me long for that time again. Or at least that feeling of innocence and mystery that seems to surround everything we do as children. This sort of nostalgia was literally considered a “sickness for the past” back in the eighteenth century when the term was first coined, and the implication is that to think of the past and long for it so greatly is damn near pathological. I agree that nostalgia can be crippling, but I think it’s important to be in touch with our past, to let it inform, in part, who we are today, right now. If I had rejected all of this (as I did at certain stages of my adolescence), I don’t think I would’ve been able to make the poems, stories, and novels that I have so far.
After I was finished going through the box of photos and pulling out the ones I thought my mother would like, I took my wife and son for a four wheeler ride through the woods in Folsom where I grew up. We rode down steep clay banks and through muddy swales and into the shade of the pine thickets that still surround the patch of land where I was raised, and I could feel my hair blowing back in the wind and my little boy sitting in front of me and my wife’s arms around my waist: we passed horses in great fields where I used to lay as a boy and daydream or read, we passed deer stands in the tall pine trees and we could see the seeded clearings in the woods, we passed brown rabbits who stared at us and the foreign noises the four wheeler made before they bolted off into the copse. We passed my whole life, it seemed, spooling out before us as the past does, moving and moving toward something, but never quite able to achieve what lies at the vanishing point, the end of the road.
Later that evening, I found my old .410 shotgun (pictured above) and I shot it a couple of times at some plastic decoys that were floating around in a pond. It was good to feel the gun kick against my shoulder, and to hear the clap of it firing off and to see the shot hit the decoy and splash up the water around it. But the gun felt so much lighter than it used to when I was a boy. It felt smaller too. And it was almost as if I could feel the weight of everything I’ve ever seen or done thrust upon me then. But it felt good.
Now as the father of two children, and the men in my life who raised me now gone, I feel a certain obligation to remember my past: hunting and fishing, watching the Saints games on Sundays with my father drinking Budweiser beers from cans and yelling at the bad plays (and there were quite a few of them back then), going to Grand Isle and camping on the beach, then gigging fish in the shallows under the moonlight, and the next morning cooking pancakes on a tiny gas cookstove and the sand blowing in the pancake batter and how it crunched in your mouth as you ate the pancakes. If I don’t remember these things for my sake, then I remember them for my children’s sake. I hope my kids will carry that with them as they grow up, like I did, and pass it on to their children, and their children’s children, and so on. Because these are the things that stay in our hearts, and if we’re poets, these are the things that we use to make our stories out of.