When I was growing up in northeast Tennessee I never heard the term “forest.” Our term was “the woods.” In the vacant lot near my home, the neighborhood boys and I would play “in the woods.” In Tennessee, there are lots of opportunities to be in the woods.
Across from Ross N. Robinson Junior High School, there were woods too. Back in those days, students, even junior high students, could leave the campus and go to a local restaurant for lunch. Just across the highway was Gary’s Restaurant. Behind Gary’s were the woods.
About a half mile on the other side of the woods was the new McDonald’s. The only two sandwiches offered were hamburgers and cheeseburgers — with fries of course. McDonald’s was much cheaper than Gary’s so those of us who left the campus often went through the woods to McDonald’s.
There was another reason to go through the woods. Romance blossomed at Robinson Junior High. At least it blossomed as much as possible for kids who were barely 14 years old. Chaperones were everywhere at Robinson. Dances, called sock-hops, were well attended by students but equally well attended by teachers and members of the PTA. Slow dances were monitored and getting too close to your date was highly discouraged.
Football games offered opportunity for the expression of young love but not if you were on the football team or in the band. Stolen kisses were possible under the bleachers but adult eyes were prying there as well. Moments at wall lockers ... walking hand in hand down the hallway ... shared lunches in the cafeteria ... chaperones were there too, in the form of teachers and hall monitors.
And then there was The Woods. Couples could head toward McDonald’s and, for a brief period of time, escape adult eyes and interference.
And brief it would be because lunch itself was a time-limited affair. If one stopped in the woods for any length of time, it was impossible to make it to McDonald’s, wolf down one’s food, and be back in time for class. Therefore, quite a number of junior high students would suffer from hunger pangs during the long afternoons.
In many ways, it was an innocent time — before the sexual revolution, before we were aware of the war that raged in Southeast Asia, before the time when parents feared to let their children out of their sight, before junior high pregnancies, before violence in schools.
Nearly every boy carried a pocket knife and no one ever got stabbed or even threatened. “Making out” was a tentative hand touching hand, an arm around the girlfriend, and a stolen kiss in the woods.
Most of those early romances never made it into high school. Still, they became a milestone in a young life and became memories that were carefully tucked away.
There are no woods now across from Ross N. Robinson Junior High. Gary’s Restaurant is gone too. There is still the McDonald’s, many decades later, offering much more now than hamburgers and cheeseburgers, but the woods are gone, replaced by a mall and an asphalt parking lot. Students are no longer allowed to leave the campus for lunch. Too dangerous, I’m told.
Once, some time ago, I drove past the old school and pulled into the mall parking lot where I was to meet my brother and go to a movie. As I locked the car, I looked around and realized that I had been here before.
There used to be a wide spot in the path through the woods where one could see for a short distance both ahead and behind. If no one was in sight, it was a perfect spot for a stolen moment of youthful affection.
Now, it was just a parking space, one among hundreds. That’s “progress” I suppose. Still, the woods, at least those woods, are gone, never to return. I paused a moment, caught a distant memory, allowed a smile, and went to the movies.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the associate endorser for U.S. military chaplains for his denomination. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]