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  • Ken Gagne

INDEPENDENCE DAY By Ken Gagne

The summer all my seasons changed

Chicopee, Mass.

1980


Click. Click. Click.


The multi-colored LEGO blocks snapped together in rhythm, like a pocket watch ticking off the final seconds of my childhood.


Jimmy, my best friend, sat across from me at an auburn-stained picnic table on his back deck. It was midmorning, but the young New England sun had already set the town on fire, and the lavalike floor planks seared my bare feet. Jimmy’s mom, a cheerful woman with a lemon meringue bouffant, brought out two Hoodsie ice cream cups, vanilla and chocolate swirl. I lapped up my snack so fast that the wooden spoon splintered my tongue. “Hurry up and eat before yours turns into a milkshake,” I said with a slurp.


My pal pushed his cup aside. “I will, gotta find a few more big pieces first.”


AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blared from a boom box in the backyard below, where Jimmy’s older brother Dave played Wiffle ball with his buddy Mike. Pretending to care about my rinky-dink LEGO fortress, I watched those 12th graders pitch and hit. I was praying a ball might sail onto the deck, ready to snag it like gloving a dinger in the Fenway bleachers.


It was a Saturday, tail end of June. School had let out for the summer the day before, releasing us parolees into three months of freedom. I definitely wouldn’t miss the jailhouse taupe hallways of Bellamy Middle School. It was named for Chicopee’s Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward, about a boy who wakes from a dream to find himself in a futuristic utopian society. Oh, and weren’t we living a dream here in our Chicopia?


Jimmy lived a few doors down from me on Langevin Street. We didn’t have a lot in common, but he was agreeable, funny, and benign. One of the only boys my age in the neighborhood, he invited me to his house every day. Aside from his huge plastic bin of LEGO blocks, he had all the latest toys and gadgets: remote control cars, Transformers, Star Wars action figures, and infinite board games. First thing on Christmas mornings, I’d call to ask what gifts he got because I played with his stuff more than my own. The Atari console in his basement was the main attraction, but I never mastered the joystick. It didn’t matter. I preferred real games like baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, and street hockey – anything physical.


Jimmy and I were almost finished building our fortress when my ears perked to the sound of two boys calling my name in front of the house. “Hey Kenny, you back there?” the first voice shouted.

“We need you! Let’s go,” the second one yelled.


When I tilted my head to sharpen my hearing, the kids called again. The beautiful noise lifted me off the bench, and I glanced at Jimmy. “I’ll be right back,” I said.


I hustled down the deck steps, sprinted to the fence and spied the boys on their bikes, coasting in tight circles like vultures. It was Craig and Robbo, my buddies from school, who lived a couple of miles away.


Craig beamed, “Hey KG, a bunch of us are playing Wiffle ball in your church parking lot. We need you to make even teams. Come on.”


“Oh, um, sure.” I tried to keep my cool. “Gimme a sec!” I zipped across the backyard, barely touching the ground. Who else will be playing? Whose bat will we use? Will they want me to pitch? I skipped up the steps and bounded onto the deck, while Jimmy fumbled with two mismatched LEGO pieces and Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” wailed out of the boom box.

“Um, I gotta go,” I said.

“I know.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow. Maybe we can do something.”

“Okay.” Jimmy didn’t look up.


Leaving him flat that day, in the lie of it all, I knew we’d never play together again. In a sad, cruel ending to a sweet, innocent relationship, I abandoned my first real friend. I let him melt away like ice cream in the sun. On that scorching morning, in that eyeblink of time, my little life had changed forever. I needed to move on, grow up, test myself and expand my world beyond the limits of Langevin Street. But pursuing those goals came with the price of leaving everything else behind.


Ken Gagne is an independent author from Maplewood. This article is an excerpt from his memoir, You’re Gonna Miss Me Someday. You can find his work at kengagnebooks.com.

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