In the summer of 2003, one of my close childhood friends and next door neighbor, Jeremiah Hamlett, from Phenix, Virginia, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The night I received word of his diagnosis, I went over to the basketball court across the street from my house and Jeremiah’s and sat in my car with a green notebook pressed against the steering wheel of my car, and began writing. This is the story of our childhood growing up in small town America. This is the story of life and friendship in the face of cancer. This is When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, A Memoir.
THE GHOSTS OF CHILDHOOD
It was 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night as I sat alone in my car at the basketball court. The lights had already gone out at 10:16, like clockwork, as they had for years.
The hummingbird moths had vacated the area over an hour before, no longer dancing atop the wooden guardians that stood along the edge of half court. The crickets crept into my consciousness playing their nighttime lullabies, as the old streetlight next to the stop sign that no one ever stopped at flickered. The light shone bright, then darkened.
The engine of my car was silent, the night air thin as I peered down the hillside leading to the basketball court. A story began to tell itself as I stared at the blacktop’s deep-rooted cracks that had opened up more and more as each year passed.
At that moment, I began to see and hear the ghosts of my childhood. These images were visible as if at hand only yesterday, and they winked one after the other in my mind’s eye like white stars sewn into the black velvet of the summer’s night sky.
“You only get two shots,” a child’s voice called into the night. “Don’t choke. If you miss the second, you have to go . . . all . . . the way . . . BACK . . . to Virginia.”
“I won’t,” another child’s voice said. “There’s some paper and a pen on the top of the microwave in my house if you’d like to take notes.”
The thin, lanky figure stepped to a chink in the gray-black pavement that opened like the veins of a broken waterway, spilling horizontally across the basketball court. He bent his knees. His eyes searched for a direct line to the back of the rusted hoop, and he released a jump shot. The flick of his wrist made a popping sound as his fingers pointed straight ahead. Textbook release.
The basketball found its peak then fell downward from the sky…
He stepped to the next marker.
Each open crack in the blacktop marked a different city, a different state, a different destination we sought to go leaving this small town behind. Only one of us had accomplished the feat of going Around the World in sixteen shots or less without missing consecutive field goals. If anyone would ever escape, it would be him.
“Is the bank open today? Oh, I believe it is.”
And the basketball kissed the side of the backboard.
“You still have time,” the voice said. “Notebook and pen is on top of the microwave.”
I turned my head to the right. A slight crick in my neck forced my body to carry out the rest of the motion. A row of pine trees loomed in the foreground.
Pillars of time.
In the background stood the house where Jeremiah had grown up. Though the colors of his home had fled with dusk, I knew the shades and tints as if it were my own: the siding the color of eggshells, the shutters a shade of maroon. I turned back and once again found my concentration at the base of the hillside, staring at the grayish-black pavement of the basketball court where so many memories of ours had been birthed since childhood. I bore witness to infantile and adolescent infractions long forgotten; or, so I had thought.
The sound of laughter and youthful banter went on endlessly.
Acorns and walnuts swarmed the air like a plague of locusts.
The cogent stature of childhood was intact—be it the memory of my friends and I as barefooted seven-and eight-year-olds pedaling mercilessly with scuffed up and scarred shins and shoeless feet; or, as ten-and eleven-year-olds shooting off the hillside that lay adjacent to the swimming pool on a wooden Radio Flyer sled in January, the metal runners sometimes veering off-course to the right into the rusted barbed wire fence of Bobby Canada’s cow pasture that never seemed to cut a single soul.
Not a memory had escaped me.
And then I began to cry.
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Written by Jeffrey Pillow, author of the coming-of-age memoir in progress When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, which you can read on this blog as it’s being written. When the Lights Go Out at 10:16 is a story of growing up in small town America in the 1980’s in a teeny tiny town known as Phenix, in Charlotte County, Virginia. It is a story of life and friendship in the face of terminal cancer. Want to read more blog posts? Visit the blog archive. You can also subscribe to this blog to receive updates of new posts by email.