Dear Dylan (and Eva),
Recent news is replete with children succumbing to dangers both natural and man-made. In the case of the Disney alligator snatching and the gorilla in the zoo a watchful parent or two were nearby, but unable to save them from peril. The online mobs predictably fractured over whether to blame parents, who they say weren’t being watchful enough, or institutions like zoos or Disney, who are expected to take every conceivable precaution to safeguard our children, or the state, who should enact more laws to govern children, parents and institutions for our own good.
Today is Father’s day and we just took a stroll on the ¼ mile nature trail we built for you with its tree houses and bridges, bogs and streams with all of their attending peril. While walking I pondered more deeply the level of surveillance and guidance we provide you and your sister. How much is enough? And is there such a thing as too much padding and sentinel-like hovering? Should we deprive you of these forest walks? AmberWood Nature Trail
I inevitably found myself comparing my childhood to yours at this age. In 1970 we moved from San Antonio, Texas to Austin, where my Dad, your Grandfather, had just been assigned to Bergstrom Air Force Base after his last tour in Viet Nam. It was a different time. We didn’t wear helmets or seat belts. There were no child seats. Our neighborhood, especially, was very matriarchal and laissez faire when it came to child supervision. We would leave after school or in the morning in the Summer, and not return until sun down. The Dads were mostly at the base or deployed fighting in Viet Nam on TV. The Mothers mostly smoked Pall Malls, got their hair piled up into bee hive hairdos and sat around playing bridge while drinking gin. (These are the remaining impressions of my fading memories and the disappearing wounds from that time)
I remember two men who were around frequently. One was a sergeant with the Austin police. He had two boys and taught us to shoot and throw a baseball and how to say “yes Ma’am” and “no Ma’am”. The other was an old man from Viet Nam, whose daughter had married a man assigned to the base. He wore one of those sampan hats and would take a long cane pole, bucket and his lunch down to the stream at the edge of the neighborhood and fish. We would sometimes follow him and watch from a distance as he ate the strange food from the bag and sat still and silent, chewing and watching the line in the water. He always caught a lot of fish.
The neighborhood was called the Bluffs, for the steep ridge that lined the back yards across the street from us. It was brand new and teeming with kids between the ages of 5 and 12. We would climb the bluff almost every day and built a little fort at the top behind the Kirby house from scrap lumber we pillaged from one of the new home construction sites. We would sit at the top of the bluff and bomb tarantulas below with rocks we dropped from the great height. The tarantulas were huge, and rarely died from one hit. Scorpions scurried everywhere. Mom had to shake the paper each day to dislodge them and crush them with a spare shoe before settling in to do the crossword.
Occasionally we fell from the bluff, tumbling down through the briers and live oak and cactus to land on the hard baked earth among the tarantula corpses. If any of us got hurt, there was an unspoken rule that we wouldn’t go home and tell what happened, lest Parents finally take notice and seek to close down the Lord of the Flies, Peter Pan world we had built.
We had dirt clod fights. The rule was no rocks. Dirt clods hurt enough and they made a satisfying powder explosion when they struck. We divided up into teams and ranged across the scrub fields and live oak forests and the neighborhood streets of the Bluffs, pummeling each other until we were tired and sweaty and sore. Often it ended when someone got angry and picked up a real rock and hit one of us, drawing blood. We would have to dissolve back to our homes and pretend it didn’t happen.
When I turned eight I became armed. I had a black handled buck knife in a sheath and a .177 caliber BB and pellet gun that grew in power the more you pumped it. Once one of us was armed, the rest of us had to be as well, like any group of competing entities seeking balance. Our arsenal escalated, and soon the Buffs became killing fields. There was a deep live oak forest around the stream where we found birds, armadillos, possums, jack rabbits, Bobcats, squirrels, rattle snakes and cotton mouths. We ranged out across this expanse and the hard scrabble fields below the bluffs and exterminated everything we found. Nothing was safe. We even tried to shoot the long thin gar fish that hung in the clear stream where the old Vietnamese man fished.
It was only a matter of time before we turned on each other. We had 8 on 8 wars across our domain. We only had two rules: no shooting above the waist, and if you have a pump action weapon, no more than two pumps. Oh, and no pellets, only BBs. I don’t remember ever wearing eye protection. We did improvise armor after the first skirmish of injuries. We would wrap newspapers and magazines (my preference) around our legs inside our Sears toughskin jeans and duct tape them at the bottom to keep the armor from sliding out in the heat of battle. At first, I would wrap the Vogue and Redbook magazines with the spines facing forward on my thighs, angling for aerodynamics, but we all soon learned to point the spines towards the back, as the buttocks and backs of the thighs were revealed as the prime targets in an ambush. I don’t remember anyone ever getting hit in the face, although it was commonplace to have to pry projectiles from our hands and arms when we were shot too close, or, we suspected, someone had violated the two-pump-only rule. At two pumps you could watch the BB leave the rifle and arc lazily through the air towards your target. It seemed safe enough.
I am really not proud of this last dangerous confession. During the school year we walked to school at John B Winn Elementary. It was about a mile away and the shortest route was through a pasture that cut the time easily in half. In that pasture lived an ill-tempered mule and some horses. The pasture began where a road in our neighborhood ended as if unfinished, like the rancher there had held out and wouldn’t sell to the developer, but the developer still expected him to someday, so left the street unfinished and open. (From Google Earth it still looks like the rancher is holding out.) Instead of going safely around, we would all gather at the end of that street and dare each other until someone jumped the fence and struck out across the pasture. The mule would give chase. I think every one of us was bitten at least once by that beast.
One day in the Summer we found ourselves armed and within range of the mule. Like I said, I am not proud of what we obviously did next, armed and unsupervised and full of righteous indignation as we were at the assaults we had suffered. We began lobbing BBs across to the far corner where the mule and the horses stood in the shade, hitting the mule who was braying and kicking in protest. The horses suffered too, I am afraid.
We should have known this would draw attention, but we obviously didn’t think any of this dare-fueled mob action through. We heard a boom. One of us yelled “run” and we all panicked and turned to run back up the street. Boom! The second shot was not a warning. Several of us felt white hot heat tearing into our un-armored backs and thighs, but none of us stopped running. We ran all the way to the fort behind the Kirby house and assessed our wounds and situation. The wounds were from rock salt. Most of us felt the strikes but were protected by our tough skin jeans. I had holes in the back of my lesser armored non toughskin pants and blood seeped through. I also had wounds in my lower back. Now, this hurt a lot, but we were far more worried about the belt whipping or worse we would all surely get when the rancher found his way to our parents. We waited it out for a while, then one by one, parted and went home, promising that we wouldn’t tell on each other. I remember going home and getting into the tub. Hiding my ripped clothes under the bed and waiting for the doorbell to ring with the Rancher and the police there to take me away. The doorbell never rang. It occurs to me now that the rancher, or whoever it was, probably hid in their house waiting for that doorbell ring that never came too.
Today I wonder what Nancy Grace would have to say about this? Would she side with us, the poor children? The rancher? Or the Parents? Or would she condemn us all for not putting the proper oversight and guard rails, the helmets, eye protection and knee and elbow pads, the surveillance required today to protect all of us from our reckless selves?
I will continue to do everything i my power to protect you from the slings and arrows, the tarantulas and scorpions and projectiles of youth. But I want you to continue to hunger for the limits of things and push the envelope where you can.
Live long and prosper.