The block where I grew up, in Abilene, Kansas, had everything a kid needed: a church on the corner reminding us that God was closer than we thought, a grocery store down the block selling Bazooka gum and milk, a basketball hoop attached to the neighbor’s garage for games of h-o-r-s-e, and several abandoned lots we used to make our own forts in safe from the ferocious Doberman pinschers jumping up and down behind the fence of the mechanic’s shop on the back side of our grass alley. Heck, we even had trains whistling on the railroad tracks right behind our house beside the giant concrete towering flour mills that constantly hummed and gave off a distinct smell not as good as you’d expect bread baking to smell like (cuz they weren’t baking bread).
Besides the Sears catalog store and the True Value Hardware across the block on the practical west side that mom or dad drug us to every now and then, it was the east side that was peculiar, now that I think of it. Across from our block’s southeast corner, where my brothers stinky friend Larry lived, was a large family of churchgoers that always looked like they were dressed for Sunday in their good pants and ties. This made Larry and his pudgy little brother look even sloppier. I’d tear through the alleyway with the boys, sometimes cutting through a neighbor’s yard, flower beds or backyards if they didn’t have a fence. My brother got in trouble once for trying to disassemble the Kelly’s water meter. We were explorers, scientists and Olympians.
I faintly recall getting schooled by the white-haired couple who lived on the elevated little white house with a covered metal car port in the back for their old car. Mom said that Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwater didn’t want us kids running through their yard. This caused me to now revere the Fitzwater’s tiny plot of ground which in my mind, now seemed to float atop the two-tiered poured steps to their front door. Fitzwaters! Who were these people? Were they my model for decency, orderliness and respect? I revered them, and didn’t know why. Did I respect them because they demanded righteousness, or was it because they were an enigma to me? It could have been because I liked how their name sounded–bubbly, yet only for old people like that Alka-Seltzer stuff.
Mystery lived right there on my block. The Fitzwaters were close enough for me to throw a football from my backyard into theirs, yet I wouldn’t dare. I came to find out later that they were the parents of Marlin Fitzwater, who would become the White House Press Secretary to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Marlin, was known for wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a smile. He pushed for political conversations that were both decent and civil. Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwater taught him well, and inadvertently, me too. Funny, how Marlin looks like the pastor who lived next door to me for fifteen years–I was surrounded by greatness and good people and was vaguely aware of it. I loved that little town.