Beyond The Pale

On Childhood, Gravity, Matt Noel

Life as a child in a small community of children is something akin to life in a medieval court. Alliances are constantly formed and dissolved, wars are started based on nothing more than property-rights issues (usually apple-trees or girls—the first being something truly of value, the second being something that we imagine as an investment for whenever our pituitary gland kicks in with the good dope), and various petty lords and ladies hold court with their vassals orbiting them the way that Phobos and Deimos orbit our resident war-god.

I always had a skewed view of the Northwest Assembly of God children’s court because I never saw the larger elements vying for my fellows’ attention throughout the week. Whereas many of the other children lived multivalent poly discursive lives of home, school, recreation, and church, all were one and the same for me. For this reason, and because of my father’s status at the church (Speaking of Dad’s office, Eli Beachy once asked if he could go into God’s office), Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, I was lord of all I surveyed.

But to make that statement is to oversimplify. Within the gravitational equation of a child’s inverse square law, having a clear talent, self-assurance, extra year of growth, or alternate set of plumbing implements ads subjective weight of mass to any revolving body. Thus, though lord of the hallways, I was in thrall to Israel because of the excellent climbing trees at his house and his genius invention of The Boys from Bim Bom Bay, I was in thrall to Rachel because she was painfully pretty and her mother was the meanest woman in the world, I was in thrall to Chris because he owned every video game every to claw its way out of China, and I was in thrall to the Erwins—Matt and Paul—because they owned chickens and knew what disgusting motions the “French Love” actually consisted of.

I had a certain weight of my own, however. I owned a go-cart, had a kicking trampoline and the skills to do flips on it, possessed the second largest Lego collection at NWAG (damn you Jody!), and wasn’t afraid to throw captured frogs off of my treehouse with nothing between them and a much more objective kind of gravity than a Dixie cup and Walmart bag. Into my gravity well sometimes fell the people listed above, though less and less frequently as we got older and the pull of outside influences gave them near terminal velocity away from not only me but from the church (specifically NWAG, not the upper-case-body-of-Christ-Church). There were others, however, who held little or no hold over me, who fell easily into my sphere of influence, Adam Daugherty, Matt Noel, Jason Hibbert.

Of course, I’m over simplifying again, for all massive bodies (those containing any amount of mass, up to and including, I believe 10-37 plank lengths, not huge) interact upon one another, and Jason introduced me to Music, piercings, angst, and I wasted more time in adolescence pining after Adam’s sister than I should have.

But I always felt sorry for Matt Noel. For one thing, I didn’t like going over to his house because his parents were frugal enough to make everyone use the same bathwater, and his little brother always got to go before me, and he farted a lot. So I avoided Matt’s house like the plague. This meant that our gravitas was automatically skewed in my favor. What’s more, I just had this way of getting Matt hurt whenever he came to hang out with me.

My go-cart had a 5.5 Horsepower Smith and Wesson lawnmower engine in it. This was a replacement. I don’t remember what the original engine was, but I blew it up pretty promptly after purchasing the machine. I don’t remember how fast that go-cart would go, but to a ten year old, it seemed pretty fast. After much experimenting, I figured that if I rode it with the petal all the way down about half the way to the railroad tracks at the top of the hill by my house, basically exactly where Robinson’s Honey farm is currently located, and hit the break as hard as I could while cranking the wheel hard to the right, I could perform a very Steve McQueenish sliding about face and carve a black axis on the grey chip and tar that Newton would be proud to include in one of his diagrams.

One gray Sunday afternoon, I got it into my head that Matt needed to experience this volte face in order to really appreciate the NASCAR qualities of my machine, so we set off for the railroad tracks at top speed.

What I failed to take into account was that the laws of gravity, with sufficient force, could be counteracted by the laws of inertia, and the extra weight in the go-cart did not hold us to the asphalt, but rather propelled us away from it. Thus, I have a slight gap in my memory that ends with my lying on the ground, with the go-cart balanced on its side, wheels still spinning, my leg trapped underneath. Matt, well, he starts in the ditch but quickly regains himself and starts limping off down the road toward my house.

“Hey!” I yell. “Come lift this thing off of me.”

He looks back, snot nosed, a nice raspberry on one elbow, shakes his head and keeps walking. Some lying might be in order here.

“Matt,” I yell again. “If this thing falls on me, it will kill me.” Not true. I know it. He knows it.

He keeps walking.

I reach up and hit the kill switch on the engine, then I use my free foot to kick the go-cart back over on its wheels (in retrospect, I’m lucky this didn’t break my ankle), get up, pick some pebbles out of the holes in my legs and arms, push the go-cart to the side of the road, and set about getting the thing running again. By the time I get it running, Matt is half-way to the house, and I pull drive up to get him.

“Want a ride?” He looks at me like I’m an idiot, still crying.

“I’ll walk.”

“Oh, come on. That was awesome. Someday I’ll write a blog about this.” I might be paraphrasing here.

Matt is never riding with me again.

Fortunately, however, the creek is flooded, and we don’t need the go-cart to keep us busy because we have something thousands of times better—doors. I go ask dad if he cares if we destroy the doors that he took out of the barn at the church in Marysville that closed down recently. He says that they aren’t any good anyway, so go we can go ahead. I toss the first one, the oak one, into the creek and it is immediately caught by the current and jerked out of my grasp. It is simply too heavy to manage. We have better luck with the other one though because it is one of the hollow-cored jobs that run about sixty bucks at lowes. I get a running start, Matt throws the door onto the surface of the raging creek (probably a good ten feet across, up from its normal ten inches), and I dive onto it, slide off the other side, and face-plant into the weeds. I maintain my composure, however, and grab a passing branch with one hand, and shove my arm through the knob-hole in the door with the other. Matt dives in after me.

It took probably about two hours for the door to get so waterlogged that it wouldn’t float any longer. During that time, we took three or four trips down the creek, ruined all our clothes (which I did all the time anyway), and used the door and the rope hanging from my tree house—which was right over the creek—to make the door into a kind of surfboard.

I got in trouble for letting the doors float into and dam up the neighbor’s portion of the creek.

Matt got pneumonia.

As we grew older, the various forces in the aether pulled us until the inverse square laws of life turned friends into old-friends into acquaintances until one day in college, I found Matt  sitting across from me in my dorm room. He looked tired.

“Last month.” He told me. “I was driving down West Broad in Columbus when a drunk ran across the street in front of me. There was another car in the lane to my right, blocking my vision. That car hit the brakes and missed the guy. I never even saw him. Tore him in half.”

He rubbed the bridge of his nose. Suddenly I understood why he looked tired, why he looked like he couldn’t stand to close his eyes at night.

“That does something to you, you know?”

I haven’t seen Matt since that night.

I got Matt hurt a lot when we were kids. Life hurt him more in a single, random moment than he could have imagined or expected. We really aren’t like planets. We’re more like comets. For a while, maybe, our orbits appear to really revolve around each other, but the gravity pulling us away from each other is stronger than the bonds holding us together, and the forces of all the other people pulling at us pull away little parts, chips of iron and ice, flesh and soul. Those pieces of flesh that we lose, they grow back. The pieces of soul, well, I can only hope pain makes our hearts grow deep. Sometimes, we leave those pieces with each other cherished too closely, sometimes our encounters are too intense, too violent, and those pieces of are torn away to go flying off into the void, leaving us nothing but sleepless nights and memories of the times when our deepest wounds were in our flesh, or maybe in our lungs, but never quite reached to our deepest parts.


August 10, 2009 - Posted by | Childhood, Church


  1. As iron sharpeneth iron, so does one friend sharpen another.

    Comment by Arvallian | August 10, 2009 | Reply

  2. I can tell you’ve been reading Stephenson. He affects my writing too, though not quite in the same way.

    These posts make me curious to know you as a kid, though I’m sure I will know a version of the same. On the other hand, I think you may have been the type of boy that would have driven me crazy.

    Comment by Andrea | August 11, 2009 | Reply

    • I assume that where you mean that Stephenson affects your prose, he affects me topically, and I guess that you are right, though you have to take into account that the last three books I’ve read were Warped Passages, Art & Physics, and Quicksilver, all of which dealt heavily in Gravity.

      I find it strange to remember that neither you nor Jonathan knew me as a child, seeing as you are the ones who I care the most about knowing me at all. It just seems that you should have known me in all the stages of my existance. After all, you’ve seen me at my best–so far–and at my worst–ever–so why wouldn’t you have seen me at my most rambunctious?

      I guess that’s life.

      Can’t wait to give you a screenshot of my childhood with a face that looks somewhat like yours.

      Comment by davidjgross | August 12, 2009 | Reply

  3. Interesting.

    I love seeing events through your eyes. Some of your writing is so vivid for me, and some is so hard for me to understand. Especially when put in mathematical terms 😉

    Especially intrigued by the “medieval court” analogy.

    As for comets and planets and all the strange alignments thereof: I think our circumstances are more like comets than the actual substance of our lives. And agree that we do mistake a planet for a comet.

    However it is, you continue to light up the dark night sky with your revealed thought. I appreciate the view.

    Comment by Ilona | August 14, 2009 | Reply

  4. I want to type exuberant laughter into this comment field, but I don’t want to clutter up the austere design of your office. But you should know, though, that joyful laughter from me is in order. It’s lurking about the cusp; its bright face is pressed up against your door.

    I agree. Whenever I read stories about your childhood, it feels strange and surreal that I didn’t know you in childhood. It feels like I should; it feels like I’m just this side of having known you, which is weird. I like your stories from back then because they remind me of childhood accounts of a patent genius, which they are. I might be reading anecdotes about Mozart or Tchaikovsky. Sometimes When I’m reading your new posts here, I have a hard time settling down to focus because I’m giddy with excitement. It’s like a hyper-real experience. I imagine that’s what it feels like to go to work when you’re a physicist studying string theory.

    Comment by wordorgy | August 27, 2009 | Reply

  5. Oh, and when it comes to our friendship, we’re not comets; we are, in fact, orbiting bodies.

    Comment by wordorgy | August 27, 2009 | Reply

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