Not long ago, I was watching a boy playing with his toy truck. He was down at eye level, face against the carpet, eyes slatted, moving the realistic-looking model vehicle back and forth while making growling engine noises. Tiny electric headlamps illuminated an imaginary roadway.
The idea suddenly occurred to me that this could be the same as having an imaginary friend. And then it all came back to me. I had an imaginary friend, a memory that I had suppressed long ago and far away, as they say.
I lived in a neighborhood filled mostly with retirement-age college professors. There weren’t many new families because a lot of the younger men had not yet had time to settle after they returned from overseas. It was a time of transition. My job was to mold the white vegetable grease and a button of dye into a yellow mess in a cellophane bag that was called margarine. Sugar was returning to the grocery shelves, and ration books were being stored away in old cigar boxes as keepsakes to be brought out in future times. Mostly I played alone.
I dug holes, as boys often do, and dreamed of China beneath my feet. I built imaginary campfires and sat around with my imaginary friend, telling stories and listening to blue jays fussing and titmice squeaking.
How did this come about?
I was probably lying on the cool, polished pine floor pushing back and forth a wooden block cut out to look like a truck. There were windows, doors, and headlights drawn on wood to make it look more real—real enough, that is, for my imagination to expand this toy to fill my mental space. Inside the cab, a driver bravely drove through the Italian Alps carrying his precious cargo of food and ammunition to where it was needed at the front. A German Messerschmitt flew low overhead and dropped its stick of bombs, narrowly missing the shaky bridge that crossed the deep ravine.
At some point, that truck driver got out, stretched his weary body, and came to sit at the campfire with me. I don’t remember his name, but he looked a lot like the picture of my mother’s brother when I think back on it. This seems strange because my uncle was killed aboard a battleship in the South Pacific and I never knew him. However, there was a picture of him in his uniform on my mother’s bedside table.
In any case, my friend told me stories about the people around me and about the deep and silent woods at my back. He became my spirit guide in all things for one summer. He asked me to keep his secrets, and I did for all the sixty five years between then and now.
I wonder which one of us was me. Which one of us grew up?