Monday, October 25, 2004

The Legend of Forsythe Hill

I'd like to tell you about one of my favorite places. To the casual observer it's nothing special, just a landmark in the neighborhood where I grew up. But as for me, I feel more at home when I'm at this spot than at any other place. This is the legend of Forsythe Hill.
Forsythe Hill is located behind Forsythe Middle School in northwest Ann Arbor. It's right next to the tennis courts and overlooks the school football field. When I started kindergarten at nearby Wines Elementary School in the fall of 1959 there was no Forsythe yet, so it was just "the hill." There was a path we walked on that ran from Hillridge Street past the hill and all the way to the Wines parking lot. A year or so later, around the time that Forsythe was built, a sidewalk was put over top of the path.
Several years later when I was a big bad 6th grader I got a kick out of hearing the younger kids saying to their friends "I'll meet you at the path." They weren't old enough to remember when it was a path, but they had picked up the nickname from us older kids.
I attended Wines School for 7 years, and Forsythe for 3. During grades 1 thru 6 we went home for lunch, meaning we walked down "the path" 4 times a day. Quickly doing the math, I figure that my friends and I walked by the hill nearly four thousand times just going to and from school. No wonder it feels like home!
I began "hanging out" near the hill a lot when I was in the 2nd grade. Wines School was overcrowded and the new Forsythe building had some extra classrooms, so our class met over at the junior high for that entire school year. A group of us guys designated one of the trees at the base of the hill our "fort" and we would gather there until the bell rang.
I think that one of the attractions of the hill back in those days was that we kids considered it to be ours. Teachers and administrators ran the schools, our parents were in charge at home, but the hill was our territory. During junior high if you heard there was going to be a fight after school, you knew it would take place on the far side of the hill, out of the view of the adults at the school. And if you were lucky enough to convince a girl to go for a walk with you after the Friday night school party, the hill is where you would go to smooch.
Do I have any bad memories associated with the hill? Just one, and it also goes back to my days as a student at Forsythe. Whenever our physical education class would meet outside, we knew what was coming. Once we had finished our main activity of the day, whether it was baseball, track, touch football or tennis, we could count on our coach (Andy Anderson, Don Horning or Dick Dehn) to say "OK, take one lap around the football field, up over the hill and into the showers." We HATED having to run over that hill at the end of gym class!
Everybody needs a refuge, some place where you can go to ponder ideas, think things through, and be inspired. Remember on the TV show Dobie Gillis when the star of the show would go sit by the statue of The Thinker to try and figure out his life? The Forsythe Hill is where I went to do that.
In more recent years I have come to associate the hill with one of my favorite holidays, the 4th of July. When I was a kid we always spent the evening of the 4th on the other side of town to see the annual Buhr Park fireworks display. But later when the show was moved out to the airport and then cancelled altogether, I began going up to Forsythe Hill at dusk on the 4th. Back in the 70s and 80s it was a great spot to sit and watch the Barton Hills fireworks display. By some amazing stroke of luck, there is a break in the row of trees on the other side of the tennis courts that is right in line with the spot where Barton would shoot off their skyrockets. The first time I went to the hill on the 4th I was the only one there, but in subsequent years I was joined by other folks from the neighborhood.
Barton stopped holding their fireworks show about a decade ago, but I kept going to the hill because it was still a great vantage point to see fireworks that people in the neighborhood were shooting off in their own backyards. Then a couple of years ago a family started bringing some big skyrockets that they had purchased out of state to shoot off on the Forsythe football field. This "unofficial fireworks show" has drawn a big group of neighborhood residents to the hill on the 4th lately.
There have been a lot of changes in my old neighborhood over the past half century. Most of the people who built their houses there in the 50s and 60s have either moved or passed away. New houses stand where vacant lots used to be. Trees that used to be nothing more than little twigs now tower over the streets and homes. But I've always been able to take comfort in the fact that the hill is still there, looking exactly the way it did 40 years ago. The next time I come back to visit Ann Arbor, it will be one of the first places I'll go. Then I'll truly be "home" again.

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