My entire youth had been one long rite of passage. Hardened on the domestic battleground from early childhood, I lived by the understanding, Survive this night, and you will have earned the privilege of seeing tomorrow. I also learned that tomorrow could only be trusted to bring with it a new set of even more challenging conditions. A new ring of hell to survive. Long before the time came to leave behind childish things, I had already forgotten what it was to experience sudden, broken moments of childlike abandon. And those were all I had to call my youth.
My friends and schoolmates had very different experiences. After all, we grew up in an era of indulgence and ease. Whereas my family fell out of the cultural expectation to join along in the “good life”, my friends’ parents were clearly dedicated to it. Their kids went to school each day, and when the dismissal bell rang, they were free. The world was theirs. Dinner was a given every night. Safety wasn’t anything they had to think about. They knew their parents would be home every night, and if they were out, they knew where they were and when they would return. By the time we had all grown up, they all still looked like children to me. Children at play. There was no way for them to know when their childhood had ended, and when their adulthood began. No starting gun rang out with the shot that separated them from their cradles. They were still on their knees on Christmas morning, tearing open the paper on their gifts beneath their parents’ trees. Our culture had no rite of passage. Our culture had no culture.
Our parents were first-generation adult infants. Many of them raised their children with the same whimsical mentality, one in which their feelings were important, and they could reach their dreams, if only they believed in themselves. But my parents were amongst the babies of their families, and they didn’t want to give up the cradle for their children. Their pacifiers were drugs and alcohol, and their offspring were cast from the womb to the ground. My brother and I raised our mother in the years that were supposed to be ours. We didn’t gradually expand into ourselves, we strained to become what she needed- a mother and a father that could handle her wild side. And just as her own parents had been unable to serve as a buffer between their daughter and our father, so were we. We were powerless to shield her, or ourselves, from his rage.
Haru was now thirteen years old. No longer a child, but not yet an adult. Haru had been struggling for some time with authority, parental authority, to be precise. A generally good kid, these struggles were more the result of uncertainties. Uncertain of whether or not to trust Mom and Dad, uncertain of the uninvolved state of the biological “father” and his nightmarish circus sideshow of a family, uncertain of whose version of the story was the truth, uncertain of everything. Confused to the point of frustration, frustrated to the point of anger, angry to the point of misery. It was all very painful to Haru, and someone needed to help. So I decided it was up to me. I couldn’t really tell if Haru trusted me, but I was determined to be trustworthy. I felt it was time for a rite of passage. It was the best thing I knew of to help usher a kid into self-reliance. But I also wanted to make sure Haru knew I was there. I didn’t expect a thirteen-year-old to go through this all alone. I had been all alone. I went through horrors no one should ever have to suffer, and few even knew most of it. I would protect this child no matter what happened. I’d put my life to the task.
We packed supplies, clothes, and a tent for shelter, and we got dropped off on the campgrounds. It was the first week of April, and the trees were still bare, so there were no other campers to be found. We were the only ones crazy enough to go camping during such an unpredictable month, let alone on a primitive site. Even the caravaners had more sense than to camp now. It was tornado season. Yet, here we were, pitching a tent in the forest. I had a mobile phone in case of emergency, but I was determined to get by without calling for help for as long as possible. We planned to stay for a full week. Seven days and seven nights under the open sky. Haru would learn self-reliance, survival skills, strength.
We put the tent up together with speed and ease. I gave instructions, and Haru followed. As I took one side, Haru took the other, and it all came together without incident. Then I instructed the kid to build the fire, and I didn’t interfere. Haru had seen this done before, and used those recollections to our advantage. I was genuinely impressed. I opened some canned chili and dumped it into a pot. I put the grate over the fire, the pot atop the grate, and before long, there was dinner. After the cookware was washed and put away, we watched the fire slowly die. We were just getting into the tent when we saw we had company. A man parked nearby, and pulled a folding chair out of his truck. He wandered around near his spot, looking at our site, at the surrounding sites, at the outhouse. We watched him carefully. The most dangerous thing in these woods is a human being. That goes tenfold for a human being you don’t know. We each had our own pocket knife, and we were sure to keep them handy. As we watched him through the tent’s mesh window, I could see a glint in Haru’s eyes of animalistic protectiveness. Hold onto that, I thought. That’s the difference between being ready and being caught off-guard- the difference between survival and peril. The guy eventually sat on his folding chair with his feet up on the bumper of his truck, drinking beer and staring the tailgate. We went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep knowing there was an unquantified variable in our midst. With fingers rested on the handle of my knife, I laid awake and listened to the night. Haru’s breathing had become steady and slow. The hours passed, and I heard the stranger scuffing around. I sat up and watched as he folded his chair, put it back into the bed of his truck, and got inside the cab. I laid back and closed my eyes, and my hearing became even sharper than it had been earlier. I could see everything in the surrounding area in my mind’s eye, with my ears to inform me of any slight change in the environment.
Haru sat up and asked me if I was awake. “Yep,” I replied, a little disappointed in this fact. I was tired, but sleep never found me. The hard ground had been a perfectly suitable bed in my younger days, but now it was unforgiving, and my joints all screamed for mercy. Haru then said, “I can’t sleep anymore. I think we went to bed too early last night, and now my sense of time is all screwed up.” We got up and started another fire. I filled the coffee pot, and put it on the grate to percolate. Although it was still the predawn hours, our neighbor started his truck and headed out. Good, I thought. One less thing to worry about. The air was damp and chilly, and it was hard to get the fire burning hot enough to boil the coffee. It was the sort of situation that seemed to ask, “Just how badly do you want this?” But I was determined, so I sat and tended the flames. Haru sat beside me and talked about the guy who had been there, the impressions he gave, what we would have done if he had become a problem. There was a darkness in the kid’s eyes that could have been a fear of what a stranger might be capable of, but also could have been regret that things didn’t come to the worst, and no battle had taken place between the stranger and the two of us- no battle, no glory. But what young Haru had yet to understand was that the battle comes, whether or not we expect it, whether or not we invite it, and it usually doesn’t come dressed as a stranger. There’s a bit of it in every coming day, and true victory is when the battle is someone else’s for a change. While I continued to watch the coffee pot fail to boil, Haru got sleepy, and decided to crawl back into the tent for awhile. In time, I had a hot cup of coffee, and then I joined Haru for a couple hours of hard sleep. I can’t recall what kind of dreams I had, but they were vivid and conflicted.
I got up again, a little after sunrise, and drank another cup of coffee by the fire. Haru eventually got up, and we decided to do some hiking around. We walked to other sites and gathered good-sized pieces of wood to carry back to our own site. We strolled around the grounds where a playground and a shower house stood for the caravaners. We saw a few fawns grazing in the grass, and they watched us as we watched them. I caught a few blurry photographs before they leapt off into the woods. Then we decided to hike down to the lake and wade along the edge of the water. It was warm and breezy, and we wrote in the wet sand with our bare feet. When we returned to camp, a park ranger walked over to our site. “We’re supposed to have some bad weather tomorrow night,” he told us. “Either I’ll be here or another ranger, and you all can head on up to the Ranger Station for shelter if you need to.” We thanked him, and he was on his way. Having gotten a little more sun than we expected, we were both very tired and sore, so we stoked the fire, ate our dinner, cleaned up after it, and watched the fire until the sun was long gone and our eyelids were heavy. When the fire was out, we crawled into the tent, where we listened to the coyotes howl, and then drifted off to sleep.
Once again, morning came, and we got up to greet another day. Another pot of coffee, another campfire meal, and we began to discuss what we might do. We walked around in the woods, and I pointed out different indigenous plants, naming each one, and sharing any facts I knew about them. It began to sprinkle a little, and I showed Haru how to make decent knots in some rope we brought along. We used rope and trash bags to make tarps to keep the wood dry. We used a few long branches to make a rack to keep the firewood off the ground where rainwater might pool. The sprinkling stopped after a short time, but we were prepared in the event that more rain followed. We took a long walk, a couple of miles from our site to the supply shop near the entrance of the campgrounds. After we made it back, we figured it was a good time to hike back down to the lake again. The water was very still, and the surface was as smooth and reflective as a mirror. The day had grown much warmer than we had expected in the early part of April. With my pant legs rolled up, I waded around while Haru explored the sandy banks. Soon, the wind kicked up, and the glassy lake became choppy with little whitecaps. The breeze was quite welcome on my mildly sunburned neck and shoulders. The clouds became heavier and heavier, darkening the sky. The wind slowed to a stop, but the air became chilly very quickly. Everything became very still. Not a leaf stirred. We hiked back up to camp.
We had an early dinner just to be on the safe side. If a storm was coming, we would be better off building our fire and cooking now, while everything was still dry. Another ranger came, and he told us that the storm was heading our way. He said he’d leave the shower house unlocked for us, and if we needed to take shelter, we could get there pretty quickly. After we had eaten and cleaned up after ourselves, Haru said that we really should put our supplies somewhere for safe keeping. I thought that might be a little overly-cautious, but better safe than sorry. We dragged all of our food and clothing to the privy. All of our bedding was still in the tent. Haru started talking about crawling into a hole down in the ravine nearby. I said that was not a good idea for a couple of reasons, the first being the probability of torrential rains, and the second being the possibility that something lived in that hole. As prepared as we could be, we sat by the fire and warmed our hands and feet. The temperature had dropped significantly. When it started to rain, we got into the tent. Haru was becoming very nervous about the situation. I kept reiterating that nobody makes good decisions when they’re worrying. It rained harder and harder still, and the wind became fierce. This was when it was getting to be too severe to stay in the tent, because the risk of limbs falling on the tent had become very likely. So we took a candle in a jar and set out for the shower house. It was pitch dark, very cold, and I had a whiny kid in tow. I just kept up with the reassuring comments. We reached the shower house, and sat on a hard bench inside. We could hear the wind whipping and lashing the trees around outside. Thunder cracked and rolled again and again. Lightning flashed. It went on for a very long time, as if the storm wasn’t moving, but had just settled right upon us. To pass the time, we sang at the top of our lungs, the acoustics echoing our ringing voices into every corner of the little building. Haru decided to take a shower, even though our clothes, towels, and soap were all still sitting in the privy by the campsite. Whatever brings the kid some peace of mind, I thought, and let it go. The showers were really only supposed to be for the use of people in caravans, but I didn’t figure the ranger would come down there in a ferocious storm to catch us taking unauthorized showers. I stepped just outside the door, under the eaves, and had a cigarette while I watched the sky weep. Thunder and lightning came from every direction, so there was no telling where the storm was coming from or how much longer we had before it would pass over. Haru was afraid, even though we had adequate shelter for the worst weather possible, and even though I was there to oversee things. I was done reassuring. There’s only so much you can say to comfort a person, but eventually, they just have to feel their way through the fear, anger, or sorrow. You can’t take it away from them, and you shouldn’t try. It’s building them into something more.
The downpour had finally tapered off to a moderate rain, and we started on our way back to the campsite. It had to be sometime in the middle of the night by now, and it was time to assess the damage. We got back to the tent to find that it was completely waterlogged. Our bedding was soaked through. Water stood in the bottom of the tent. It was time to accept that we couldn’t stay any longer. With everything wet, no way to dry it, and the temperature hovering just over freezing, hypothermia had become a risk factor. So I called Sam and told him we needed a ride back. He wasn’t happy about it in the least- it was about 2:00 in the morning by now. I told him to meet us at the privy, and that I’d have everything ready to go. Haru and I managed to have the tent torn down and packed in a few minutes. We dragged the last of our things to the privy. We had to slosh back and forth from the site to the privy in ankle-deep mud to get it done, but we did it. Sam’s car pulled up, and Haru’s face lit up. We packed it all in and took off. “You obviously didn’t know this,” Sam said, “but a tornado touched down a couple miles from where you guys were.” I shook my head. “Nope, we sure didn’t,” I replied. “Yeah,” he went on, “and one touched down on 36.” I thought, One always touches down on 36. Every time a tornado is reported, there’s always one on highway 36. On the way home, we could see damaged trees and flooded service roads just off the highway, all the way up until we were heading into Mt.Zion.
We all shuffled in through my back door, only dragging in what we needed right away, and Haru and I could see how thoroughly caked in mud we actually were. We’d had to leave our boots in the landing. “See,” I said to Haru, “I said we’d make it, and here we are.” The kid looked disappointed. “But we didn’t make it. We had to give up and come back to town early.” I shook my head. “Yeah, sometimes things don’t go as you plan. That’s life. It doesn’t mean we failed. We saw what we had to do to survive, and we did it. We did it together.” I took Haru’s hand and dropped into it a necklace I had made from a leather strap and a compass rose charm. “You earned this,” I said. “You made it.”