As I look back on 49 years of life, I can see many different roads in my past. Some of those roads were high-speed interstates where the years flew by in a blur of teaching, coaching, raising two boys, soccer games, Boy Scouts and all of the other typical activities involved with raising a family. Other roads echo with the sounds of marching feet and cadences from my years at VMI and in the army. The road I’m currently on takes me all over the country for more than 150 days a year. For the past five years, I’ve literally been “on the road” working for the PGA Tour. It’s unlike any job I’ve ever had and still brings me joy. The excitement of constant travel hasn’t lost its luster…yet. But, the road that has meant more to me than any other in my life was the gravel road in Virginia that I lived on from first through 6th grades called, “Gerti’s Lane.”
When I moved to Gerti’s Lane after my adoption in March of 1980, I had never seen, much less been, on a gravel road. Most of my memories before then were on a paved street with my grandparents in upstate New York or in an apartment complex with my parents. Little did I know that upon my adoption, my life would change dramatically, and that gravel lane through the woods would impact me in so many ways I could never have imagined.
The gravel lane was not state-maintained. So, the school bus that took me to my elementary school would not come up it. Instead, the bus stop was close to a mile from my house (yes, I walked uphill both ways to the bus stop every day). In the winter, I bundled up, headed out the front door and hiked down to the bus stop. Bookbag and lunchbox in hand, I met the neighboring boy who later became my best friend at the corner and together we made our way through the cold mountain air to the warm bus that would meet us. In the afternoon when school was over, we were dropped off on the paved road and hurriedly made our way back home to beat the quickly setting sun. In the warmer months, our walks back up Gerti’s Lane became slower. There were more detours as well. Sometimes it was a contest to see who could hit the metal road sign with a rock first. Other times, it was stopping at a babbling creek and playing around it. As more families built houses in the area, the number of children walking up and down Gerti’s Lane grew. As the years passed, I inevitably learned the things that went along with being around kids who lived in the area – cussing, dipping Skoal bandits and having discussions about love, life and some adult themes. But overall, I stayed fairly innocent in my younger years.
That final walk up Gerti’s Lane in early June ushered in a much-anticipated and loved time – summer break. Once I learned to ride a bike, my freedom became even greater. About two miles from my house was a small lake that was a sort of tourist spot. Shenandoah Acres, which claimed the moniker (America’s Finest Inland Resort) had a variety of water slides, a sandy beach, a building with arcade games and snacks, and, in the middle of the lake, a three-story tower where, as a young boy, I learned how to start conquering my fears.
The first summer that I started riding my bike down Gerti’s Lane to Shenandoah Acres, my adopted mother signed me up for swimming lessons. I barely remember those lessons, but I do recall some high school-age lifeguard teaching me how to swim in a lake that you couldn’t even see the bottom of. Once I mastered swimming, it was time to face the tower. To get to this tower, one had to swim out into water that was well over 20 feet deep. Upon reaching the tower, one would climb the metal ladder to get to the first level. There, you could jump off the side from a five or six foot drop. The second level was reached by climbing a set of stairs. Once there, you were at least 15 feet above the water (when you’re a 9 or 10-year-old skinny lad, 15 feet is a big deal). I know I was hesitant as I approached the edge of the platform. Looking down, I probably considered turning around and walking back down the stairs. But eventually, I summoned up enough courage to make that leap. It felt like I would never hit the water. But I did. And then the rest of the day was spent making that jump over and over and over again. As my bravery grew and the summer went on, I found myself going up to the third level of the tower. There, 30 feet above the water, one would pull a rope that was attached to one of two side-by-side zip lines. The zip lines went out over the lake and took the person holding onto the handles for a 5 to 10 second ride where they would let go and fall into the lake at the end. This by far was the scariest thing I had ever done in my life. But, I knew that I was going to go down that zip line no matter what. The biggest problem that I had to tackle was how to actually reach the handles. Remember, I was a scrawny kid less than four and a half feet tall. The zip line was easily six feet in the air. Even with my arms up, I still couldn’t reach it. Knowing I could easily crank out 15 to 20 pull-ups at school for the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, I knew that hanging onto the handles wouldn’t be an issue. It was getting to them. Fortunately, the lifeguard stationed at the top of the tower had dealt with my situation many times. Holding the rope so the zip line wouldn’t move, the lifeguard allowed me to jump up and grab the two metal handlebars. Hanging there on top of a 30-foot tower, all I needed was for the lifeguard to let go. As the zip line started down the cable I looked down at the water 30 feet below. I looked at the people splashing in other areas of the lake. I looked at sunbathers on the beach. Eight seconds later, I let go and fell into the water. Again, I spent the rest of that day zip lining and having the time of my life.
There are so many other memories that I have of growing up on Gerti’s Lane – riding bikes with friends, fishing in the lake 100 yards from my house, climbing trees, building forts and eating wild blueberries and strawberries. I shall forever cherish those sweet and simple times of my life. The older I get, and the crazier this world becomes, the more I miss the days of my youth and the wonderful memories of that gravel road that helped shape me into who I am today.