2012-05-21

Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving

Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving — it doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times.
Come, come again, come.

- Rumi

A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can't get it by breeding for it, and you can't buy it with money. It just happens along.
- E B White

Me and Mr. Bear, ages 7 mos and 5 mos, respectively
Mr. Bear was the family dog. Half German Shepherd and half Saint Bernard, he was large and tawny, strong and beautiful. He was born just two months after me and was soon much bigger.

The "lover of leaving" would be me. I am prone to wander. Family lore has it – I remember nothing of this myself – that when I was two-years-old I wandered out into the street and stopped a bus. We were living in Richmond, Virginia, where Mom and Dad were both graduate students at the University of Richmond. (Mom’s field, as I said, was physical chemistry. Dad’s was English.) One morning it seems Mom was down at the lab. I was home with Dad, who may have been trying to get through Chaucer or Beowulf. In any case, I toddled out the front door without being noticed, made my way across our small patch of front yard and on to the city street. Dad heard the honk-honk-honking of a bus, and came to the front door to see me standing in the middle of the street gazing up in wonder at the enormous and fascinating bus. Mortified, he, of course, dashed down and snatched me up.
From our infancies, Mr. Bear and I were close.
He shared his food with me . . . 
I’ve also stopped a train. More about that later.

Mr. Bear would have also been about two-years-old at that time, and he would have matured much faster than I did. I think that he sensed that something had gone wrong, and being equal parts herder and rescuer (German Shepherd and Saint Bernard), he took me as his assignment from that moment on. It was clear that someone had to.

The great chain of being, as Mr. Bear understood it, was that my Dad was responsible for and took care of Mr. Bear, and Mr. Bear was responsible for and took care of me. He didn't always know how to rescue me, or which way to herd me, but he stuck with me and did what he could.

A few months after the bus incident, Mom and Dad marched together to get their respective Masters’ degrees. The following fall we moved west a couple hours to Charlottesville, where they started Ph.D. pursuits at Mr. Jefferson’s University – also known as the University of Virginia.
. . .  and I shared mine with him.

At the Copeley Hill Nursery School I was hitting the books pretty hard myself. Until a kindly teacher showed me how to open them.

After three years in Charlottesville we moved to Pinetops, North Carolina. The two years in Pinetops, where I attended kindergarten and first grade, were days filled with, as Kalidasa says, “the glory of action” and “the bliss of growth.” It was idyllic, small town Southern life in the mid-1960s.

Pinetops is still the only non-college-town I have ever lived in, and we lived there because it was equidistant between Rocky Mount, where Dad was teaching at North Carolina Wesleyan, and Greenville, where Mom was teaching at East Carolina. Each campus was about 35 minutes’ drive from our home.

The Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum famously wrote that All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. This truly was my world:
Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.
For me, it was the first grade in Pinetops, North Carolina, rather than in kindergarten, that I learned to read out of that big book. I well remember the first word in that poster-sized book, “Look.”

A six-year-old in a small town in the mid-60s, unlike today, could pretty much go where he wanted after school. I had run of the whole town. At age six, I could take off on my own and follow my own whims from one end of town to the other, and on into the outskirts. After school, and on weekends, I’d say I was going out, and I went. No one asked where – just, “Be back by dinner.” My friends and I had run of the entire town. Some of our games were so expansive they covered many city blocks. Other times, I’d strike out on my own and roam around the town – or into the wooded areas on its outskirts.

These were the days before children’s faces began appearing on milk cartons, before the fear of pedophiles lurking behind every bush drove parents to keep their kids inside where the damage now done nationwide by increased obesity and diabetes is much greater than the damage from stranger assault or abduction ever would be.

Which is not to say that there aren’t child sex abusers out there. There are. And Pinetops had at least one. He was a young man – probably late-twenties. On two or three occasions he spotted me out by myself, took me with him to an abandoned house. But then I told my parents. I remember my father going to the phone and his voice speaking firmly, “You leave my son alone or I’ll call the police.” I was never accosted that way again. I was able to speak up. I was heard. I was believed. The adults in my life made it stop. So I have not suffered from trauma or deep shame from those incidents.

In my ramblings about town, I might encounter other kids and play with them. Some had "peach" skin (the crayon color we used for people of European descent), like mine. Some had brown skin. I didn’t think in terms of blacks and whites. To me, we were peach and brown. I noticed that brown people lived with other brown people – in houses together and in neighborhoods together. I didn’t have tools for thinking of this as a good or bad thing; I took it in and wondered. On a few occasions, I’d have picked up a friend for the day, and lunchtime would come, and I was invited in to join the family for sandwiches. On one occasion I was a guest of a brown-skinned playmate whose house had a dirt floor. I thought this a marvelous idea, and proposed to my parents when I got home they we should have our floors taken out to let the ground beneath be our floor. They were at something of a loss.

I encountered racism in an overt way that even my six-year-old self couldn’t miss when a kid on the school bus, a big third-grader, asked me if I liked President Johnson. I shrugged. What did I know about President Johnson? I had learned to read “LOOK,” but hadn’t learned to see injustice. Then the kid said, “I don’t like him ’cause he lets” – and here he used the N word – “go to our school.” I took in this, too, and wondered.

On all my wanderings and wonderings, Mr. Bear was usually there. He couldn’t come to school with me, and he wasn’t allowed in the house, but there were a lot of nonschool hours when I was outside, and then he was always there. He couldn’t protect me from abuse, or racism – neither of us understood how wrong those were – though he did protect me from a pig farmer once.

Early on, before I’d gotten thoroughly familiar with the town, I got lost. At least, the policeman who stopped to ask me if I was lost thought that I was. I couldn’t tell him my address or which way to go to take me home. The officer, though, figured my dog knew the way home. So I climbed in the squad car and we just sat for a minute, not making eye contact with Mr. Bear. After a few minutes, Mr. Bear started trotting back toward home, and the police car followed him home. That’s how I got home that day.


I wandered often beyond the city limits into the wooded and wild areas outside town. On one such expedition, I came through the woods and arrived at the back of a pig farm. I continued forward until getting stuck in some mud. This was not the sort of industrial affair that pork, ham, and bacon comes from these days. This was a couple acres where an aging widow was managing to get a bit of livelihood for herself raising hogs. Through her back window she saw me stuck in her yard. I had actually stepped over the electrified line and was inside a space with four or five pigs. I had touched the electric line with my knee and felt the tingle – but only a little tingle, you see, because the knees of my pants had, of course, multiple layers of iron-on patch on top of iron-on patch. Mr. Bear, without so much protection, brushed the line, gave a yelp and retreated some ways. When the woman emerged to assist me, however, Mr. Bear circled around, got between us and wouldn’t let her get near me. So, I’m up to my iron-on patches in mud, my faithful companion is preventing my rescue, the pigs are eyeing me, and Mr. Bear won’t be protecting me from the pigs. He loves me, but he’s not going near that wire that I stepped over. Somehow I did manage to extricate myself, but it was looking dicey there for a minute.

Did I mention I’ve stopped a train? More about that later -- in part 6.

When I was 7, we moved to Auburn, Alabama. Too large a city to walk from end to end of, but by now I was bicycling. In Auburn, Mr. Bear got a liver infection and died. I would have been glad of his company for many years more. Nevertheless, I was a big second-grader now, so I wandered on without him.

When I was 9, we moved to just outside Carrollton, Georgia, where there were a lot of woods around our house, and back in those woods, if you went far enough, the Little Tallapoosa River. I went often into those woods, sometimes by myself, sometimes with my friends from next door. Sometimes I, or we, got lost back there – and that was scary. Forced to our own resources to find a way, we found one, and got back home eventually, on our own, filled with the excitement of relief.

There were a few cases of child abduction in the 60s, and some kids had accidents or got hit by cars or drowned in rivers or had search parties called out. Parents worried about these things, and they gave us lectures and instructions on safety. Then they let us go. Parental fears hadn’t reached the heights that they would. The evening news with Walter Cronkite had rather more to do with events meaningfully connected to the direction of the world and rather less to do with sensationalistic stories primarily designed to trigger fear about the world “out there.”

General social levels of fear have been climbing since I was a kid. Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, detailed how participation in groups (the PTA, civic clubs, political parties, churches, bowling leagues, etc.) has been dropping since the 60s, and we are becoming a more isolated – and alienated – people. Part of that picture is our fear. We stay home, and keep the doors locked. And we watch TV, which tells us stories to make us still more afraid of the world “out there.”

I mourn the effect that all this has on our kids, who absorb our fears and adjust to our constraints and constant watching. I used to suspect myself of sentimental nostalgia. Maybe so, with the part about roving through town. But the part about wandering in the woods isn’t just about my hazy fond recollection of childhood. It’s about the prospects for survival of the planet – about which my own emotions are more sadness than fear.

Our children suffer not just from high obesity rates from being kept indoors under watchful eye, but from something Richard Louv calls “Nature Deficit Disorder” – a condition that results in less interest in environmental protections as well as attention disorders and depression. Getting out in the woods helps us feel better, and develops habits of attention.

Without unsupervised nature experiences, our children won’t learn the attitudes about the environment that will be necessary if we’re going to continue to have one. A study by researchers at Cornell University finds that:
Children who play unsupervised in the wild before the age of 11 develop strong environmental ethics. Children exposed only to structured hierarchical play in the wild – through, for example, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, or by hunting or fishing alongside supervising adults – do not. To interact humbly with nature we need to be free and undomesticated in it. Otherwise, we succumb to hubris in maturity. (Julia Whitty, "The Thirteenth Tipping Point," 2006)
Play unsupervised in the wild before the age 11. What are the chances today’s parents will, in large numbers, let go of their fears enough to let that happen?

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Next: "Odyssey, part 4: Paragon of Loquacious Discourse"
Previous: "Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples"
"Odyssey, part 1: 1959"