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Dragon Park, formally named Fannie Mae Dees park, sits behind a school for mentally handicapped kids, near Vanderbilt University. The familiar name sprouts from the giant mosaic-encrusted dragon undulating throughout the sanded play area. The monster is huge, and utterly beautiful. The tiled scenes upon its massive arches depict animals, fairy-tales, and adventures of long ago.

Story holds the kids of the nearby school created the mosaics, as an art therapy project years ago. The dragon was recently refurbished to repair tiles supposedly dislodged by a hand grenade explosion in the park a while back. It lived behind a giant chain link fence for over a year, but returned to freedom this summer. To climb this concrete beast is an achievement; once at the top, to visualize yourself soaring over the world the on the dragon's back imparts again the ecstatic freedom of childhood.

By day, the park is populated by innocence, children playing, surrounded by color. By night, though, the dragon becomes a hulking demon and the very air hangs with mystery. Its dark corners disguise all kinds of secrets. You'll occasionally stumble upon quiet lovers or the furtive bowl being smoked, or disturb the restless sleep of the homeless.

Dragon used to be home to many a drug deal, but heroin use has been "cleaned up" greatly in Nashville recently. It's not uncommon, though, to wander across a couple of wide-eyed trippers gazing at the dragon in breathless wonder. I'll tell you why:
Sometimes, when the moon is right, you can see it breathing fire.

I remember Dragon Park as a kid, back when I was 8 and considered a "problem child." I've told some people about those days... but mostly I just keep quiet about them and do my best to forget them- they weren't happy days for me nor the rest of my family. Point in fact, I was a problem child. Not the worst, mind you, but definitely not the sociable type.

At that time in my youth I wasn't staying at home with my family. I had been "incarcerated" in a "youth correctional facility." In short, I was stuck in juvie. I gotta tell you, being in a jail, of any sort, at eight years old is just plain fucked up. I hated it. I was living with kids my own age, yes, but not a one of them were any better off than me. Hell, most of them were people that I'd try to avoid even on my worst days. Scrappers, thieves, liars, firestarters... you name it, it was represented... even drug addicts. Pre-teen junkies? In '81? You gotta be kidding, right? Nope. I am dead serious. Cops work around the refuse of society... I lived, literally, amongst it for a year and a half.

Dragon Park was our treat, our get-away time. Each Thursday our Unit Counselor (the place I was at, Cumberland House, was a federally-run institution) would gather the kids in our age-group into a van and shuttle us over to Dragon Park. Not all of us would get to go, mind you; only some of us, dependent upon good behavior (I didn't always get to go... and lemme tell you something, staring at four grey walls for three hours is a pitiful existence, especially when you're 8). We would go to that park and play for hours. It was honestly the only time we could actually feel like "normal" kids. Any other time on the "campus" was like being in college, only we were shorter and the word "party" was a forgotten concept- we weren't kids there, we were young people trying to correct our personality flaws. At Dragon Park, though... oh, boy! Freedom!

I actually remember one time when we went there, one of the kids tried to escape. We had been playing there for about an hour. At the top of every hour we had to report for roll-call ("Seals?" "Here, sir!" "You're dirty, Seals." "Yes, sir. And I plan to get dirtier, sir."). When we all got into the line, names started to be called out and about the fifth person down the line all we heard was silence. Us kids thought it was great- we all smiled at the silence. It meant that the counselors had been outsmarted by one of us and we knew exactly who it was. The counselors knew, too, and they were not happy. Not one bit. One of them barked at us to stop smiling and begin searching for him. To this one of the other counselors snapped, "Are you out ofyour mind? What if one of them skips out, too? No. Everybody back to the van. NOW! Pronto!"

Of course we obeyed... well, mostly... we didn't stop smiling, they might as well have asked the sun to stop shining. We sat in the van, locked in for a good half hour, before the counselors came back with very ugly frowns. They were not pleased, which meant that they hadn't found him. They quietly got into the van one by one and when one of us asked if they'd found him or anything, they told us in no uncertain terms, to shut up and not say another word until we got back to the campus. Yep. Andy got away, all right.

When we got back we were informed that visiting the park was not a privelege we would enjoy for quite a few weeks. Certainly this dismayed us, but we still held out a good deal of amusement that one of our number had slipped the leash, as it were. We felt like Cumberland House might as well have been Alcatraz, it was so inescapable. No one had managed to skip out before then, so we were glad to know that it could be done. Partly we wanted him to stay gone if for no other reason than to infuriate the counselors even more, but we also wanted him to get caught again. Why? Well, so that we could drill him about how he had done it, of course!

Indeed, Dragon Park inspired freedom of all kinds to us.

The last time I was at Dragon Park was when I was on a date- God, what a beautiful night that was! After dinner we'd decided to take a walk and ended up there. I dunno if it was by design or chance that we ended up in that park, but when we got there the feelings of child-like giddiness were exacerbated a hundred-fold. For the precious forty-five minutes we were there I felt like I could do anything again, like anything was possible. All my troubles and worries? All my confinements of society and life? Mere memories in light of the fondness I felt for that place, and the woman I was with at my side.... she definitely helped to make me feel pretty young, too.

So... all in all, Dragon Park holds some pretty good memories for me... different, but good. It's easily one of the few things, to me, that makes Nashville seem... well... magical.

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