May 1, 2011

Childhood bravery, 2

I'll get to the bloodier stuff later, but in looking over some old data about the decline in camping out at parks, I was reminded of the first time I slept outside. My parents were popping some popcorn, getting ready to watch Knight Rider and probably make out on the couch a little bit.

That was pretty boring stuff for a 3 or 4 year-old, so I asked if I could camp out in the backyard instead. Now, this was back when grown-ups did not equate letting a kid stay outside with slipping their cold body into the drop-box slot of a foundling hospice. After a little help from my dad in setting up the tent, I brought some food out there and, as I recall anyway, mostly stayed on guard waiting for something to happen -- bad guys coming to get me, the boogeyman blowing the tent over, grizzly bears prowling through our suburban neighborhood, those kinds of things.

My memories from that age aren't super-sharp, so I don't remember how long I stayed out there. Either the whole night or at least from a little after the sun went down to midnight or beyond. My first distinct memories of camping out in the backyard are from when I was 5 or 6, and my brothers 3 or 4.

During those times as well it was minimal cover that we had, just a simple tent, and we only brought as much food as you would pack for your school lunch. I think we brought a flashlight but never really used it -- it would have violated our unspoken oath to make a rite of passage out of the experience. You had to get by on your own, and the flashlight was only there for the most pressing emergency.

Needless to say, we didn't haul any of the other cargo of civilization out there like most campers have in recent decades. I don't recognize even half of the bizarre shit at the REI website that sheltered campers demand nowadays. The very thought of bringing any kind of furniture with us, like a stool or chair or mattress, would have corrupted our souls and made us pussies forever. Certainly if you're going to live a nomadic way of life, then basic furniture is fine: you're going to be living that way for good. But not when camping is more of a ritual designed to bring you low, so that you may be brought higher on return.

In elementary school, most kids did go camping farther out in the wild than just their backyard -- although in the days of kidnappers, devil-worshipers, car-jackers, and drug dealers, that was hardly a safe space either. However, it was mostly state-owned camping grounds, which still had some measure of protection by civilization -- although back when the government looked impotent to halt crime or win a war, that was hardly reassuring.

Me and my friends always felt gipped that in suburbia we never got the chance to camp out in an expanse of woods like in Stand By Me, with wolves or perhaps packs of feral dogs howling around us at night. It was like not being allowed to swim in the deep end. My mother's parents lived way out in the Appalachian hills of eastern Ohio, where we could have easily found a spot to camp in the unprotected woods, where we ventured all over during the daytime and twilight.

But that hillbilly house was spooky enough -- especially the garage and cellar, which (no offense to my ancestors) would have made a great shooting location for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We satisfied our taste for being little badasses just by making it through the night indoors. Mom was only too happy to help us feel courageous by reminding us, in a creepy voice, that Lizzie Borden was hiding out in the storage space above the closet of the room that we would be sleeping in, a tale I'm sure she learned from her own mother, who loved to give us kids a good scare too.

These days for kids, braving it overnight out in the wild means leaving behind the safety of your own bedroom to sleep on the couch in the wide-open living room. Strange as it may sound today, some of us used to sleep outside with no weapons, furniture, or Neosporin, and lived to tell.

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