The Tea-Table is a giant rock on top of the hill which looms over my Great-Grandfather’s West Virginia farm. The Table is the size of a small barn, and the bottom is smaller than the top – like a table. It looks like a giant child has stacked flat rocks, large on small, in a balancing game, and now we’re all watching to see if it will topple. It’s not toppled for about a million years. The flat room on top is as high above the farm as you could have imagined yourself in 1910, when Wade and Ethel were young marrieds.
From the farm near the creek the hillside leading up to the Tea-Table is steep. The fat, lumbering cows could never have walked straight up or down, so they terraced their diagonal paths deep into the slope when they would toil up at dawn and scuff down every dusk. Our hike up is along their graveled and efficient steps.
The hike is steep, so the quest has two parts: conquer the hill and conquer the rock. The hillclimb alone stops casual attempts, because by the time you see the rock, you are sucking air and you are invested. You wouldn’t turn back 20 feet from the summit of Everest. You must sit on the top of the Tea-Table.
You must also leave your initials carved atop the rock.
I say this, and instantly know it was only true until about 1967. Boys who carried pocket knives and shot squirrels were capable of sitting for hours and gripping some tool hard and chipping entire phrases into quartzite. After the Summer of Love they all grew their hair long and lost their calluses and no longer vandalize wild things. The newest names on the flat of the Tea-Table are names of grandfathers, and the letters are calligraphic moss.
Your father would take you for the first time. He would take you right when you had grown big enough to climb the hill on your own legs (nobody gets carried up the hill), but not before you could climb the rock alone. He would need to show you the footholds on the one possible path up the rock. He would need to say “Now grab right here, it’s ok”. “Don’t look down, just listen to my voice.” “See there? Now stay away from the edge. Look at these names over here.” Your father took you, you’d take your little ones. I say “boys” – I was one – but the girls would go up the hill as well and climb to the table top just as fast. But she’d sit and admire as a boy chipped her name in the rock. She could do it herself, but that was before she was taught to need to.
From that day on, you could go to the Tea-Table without him. You could go alone, you could go in groups, you could fight battles on that 20 foot high rock. None of the adults worried about you, and nobody fell off the Tea-Table.
There’s that moment when you realize the climb is too hard for your old legs, and the shock of admitting you’ll never sit on the Tea-Table again. You’ve taken your seat among the old ones.
I have to admit I don’t know if boys still climb to the Tea-Table. The farm was sold after my Great-Grandfather died. The new owner didn’t actually farm, of course. And the one lane gravel road to the farm is not dotted with outside children like it once was. It’s not just that boys now are fighting digital orcs on digital table rocks; I’m not sure they’re even growing up in the country now.
While I’m in my old person voice, nostalgic over a childhood place, allow me this one serious observation that I think is not nostalgia: I don’t see children outdoors. I live now in a beige suburb of a large city. I walk at dusk, when the porch lights are just coming on. I stopped the other night, a summer night, in the street lined on both sides by large houses, within earshot of a hundred homes. I stood still for minutes, listening. I could not hear a single human voice. Nobody on porches, no sound of children playing outdoors.
I look across the landscape as I drive and my boyhood eyes still will catch on woods and fields where I would have trekked among a gang. There is no-one there. No kids in the streets, no kids in the fields, no one to sit on the top of the Tea-Table and look down on the backs of sweating cows.