Essays on Childhood: “Staying” | by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi.  Her debut novel, At the Mercy of the Queen, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2012. Her second novel, Queen Elizabeth’s Daughter, is forthcoming in 2014. She is working on a third and as-yet-untitled novel, set in West Virginia.

She is also author of At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me, a memoir about growing up in West Virginia in a time before anyone had heard the word ’autism.’ What You Long For is a short story collection published in 2009 that also contains stories set in the mountains.  Books are available from Amazon, www.jkp.comwww.mainstreetrag.com or, if you’d like a signed copy, from the author directly at acbarnhill@yahoo.com. Her first chapbook of poetry, Coal, Babyis available from Finishing Line Press.

Read Anne’s 2011 essay, “Winter Solstice,” and her 2012 essay, “Melungeons and Mystery.”

Anne’s essay is inspired by her early experiences camping in West Virginia. Editor’s note: Anne allowed me to title this essay. My choice reflects my favorite element of this piece, the patient but firm and final voice of a loving father.

Staying | by Anne Clinard Barnhill

When I was seven years old, my father took the family camping for the first time. We had no equipment that I can recall. There’s a snapshot of my mother, my sister and me all looking groggy as we stretch from sleep in the back of a 1960 station wagon. The wagon had been Dad’s idea. Since the back seat folded down, he figured my mother and he could sleep back there, I could sleep at their feet and my two-year-old sister, Becky, could sprawl out on the front seat.

His plan didn’t work quite the way he’d hoped. It took about two minutes for my little sister to crawl back with the rest of us; then, I wormed my way between my parents soon after.  No wonder my mother looks exhausted in the photo — her black hair is all messy and my sister looks like a wild child. I’m not exactly the picture of perfection either.

In spite of that inauspicious start, however, our whole family fell in love with camping. Over time we acquired a camp stove, a lantern, sleeping bags and one of those tents that attached to the back of the open station wagon. That covered area became the ‘bathroom’ for my sister who was in the process of potty training.  It was also my ‘dressing room’, providing more space than the crowded tent.

We bought camping dishes and silverware, pots and pans, a coffee pot (the kind you had to brew over an open fire) and many other outdoor accessories.  My dad built an enormous black box with drawers and shelves in which to store said items. This behemoth, which could have housed my sister and me, rode on top of the station wagon.  My father, standing at 5 feet 6 inches, somehow heaved the black monstrosity onto the car and secured it in its place. He must have been incredibly strong to be able to lift that box.  We never had any problems with it moving or falling off. The black box stayed with us, useful as ever, for at least a decade. It retired to ‘Pop’s Place’, a camp my dad bought at the Middle Fork River where he later put a trailer. The black box took its place on the deck, holding all the supplies needed for a picnic.

I often felt sorry for my dad, the lone male among us three girls. He had to do the hard work mostly by himself. Such things as setting up the tent, hoisting the black box, starting and tending the campfire — these were his chores. He also had to put up with our feminine desires about where to set up camp. Since we usually camped in West Virginia state parks or national forests, there were campgrounds set up with bath houses, playgrounds, picnic tables and sometimes, even a pool. My mother invariably wanted to locate nearest the bathroom.  I, on the other hand, wanted a woodsy view with atmosphere; my sister always desired a place close to the pool.  Around and around the campground we’d drive, looking at each available spot, sometimes lamenting that someone else had beaten us to the absolute best area.  Poor Dad would circle and circle until finally, we came up with a place to please everyone.

When we’d graduated from tent to trailer, this search for the perfect spot finally drove my dad to lose his patience. Dad had planned the trip of a lifetime — two weeks at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, then up to DC where we would see all our nation’s capital had to offer. After that, we’d head to New York City for a couple of days. The pinnacle of the trip would be onward to Montreal, Canada, to the World’s Fair where we would spend a whole week. He’d planned this six-week trip with great precision and care.

Somewhere in Canada, we found a rustic campground. As was our custom, we drove all around to find our little niche. We finally located a good site but there was one small problem. Dad had to back the trailer between two large trees to arrive at the designated trailer position. He did so with extreme caution. Once things were settled, Mother and I got out of the car and roamed around. We decided we didn’t like this spot. We told Dad we’d have to move. He mentioned that it had been hard to get in, but we were convinced this would not be a good space. So, he very reluctantly and carefully pulled back out and around the camp we went again. We tried another area but didn’t like it as well as the first.  Dad took the wheel yet again and we returned to our original lot. Those two trees were still there and Dad gingerly maneuvered the trailer back into place. Mother and I were still not satisfied.  We complained and begged and were convinced there was a better location.  After much pleading from the three of us, Dad once again agreed to drive between those trees in search of the perfect lodging. He twisted in his seat to look back, put the car in reverse and gently stepped on the gas.

A terrible crunching sound.  Dad hopped out of the driver’s seat and ran to the trailer.  The doorknob was on the ground.  He didn’t say a word, but backed the trailer into its original space.  He began to repair the door as the other three of us got out of the car.

“We are staying right here,” he said in a low voice.

And we did.

The Alligator (The Dream, The Island, & The End) | by Margaret Ward McClain

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

In the Dream

It’s starting to get dark, and we have to get my grandparents’ belongings from the house. They are gone. No sense of their presence remains. The house is a hollow shell for the objects left. A moving truck is parked out front right down to the brick porch. Several cars are under the spread of the live oak in the yard. My son has gone down by the lake. He’s just out of sight but I know he’s playing on the mossy bank near the spot where the wooden boat rested. I’m standing on the front porch, talking with the movers about how to get the furniture out. Inside the house is full; the front door is small beside towers of beds and tables, books, photographs, a piano. There are two men. They are looking over my shoulder at the curve of the lake beside the house, confused, but not alarmed. One man looks at me and says, “but what are we supposed to do about the alligators, ma’am?’

Turning around to the lake, I see dark forms massing. Not to the bank yet, but getting closer. How many? Close to the bank is thick with them. Eyes and scutes are visible above the water. Beyond the bank are V-shaped trails of ripples in the water where others swim, mostly submerged, and beyond the ripples are bubbles where yet more lurk below the water. Waves upon waves. The sight horrifies me to my bones but is somehow familiar, a fierce and unpredictable storm of a kind I’ve seen before. My answer is matter-of-fact. “We’ll have to hurry. We’ll have to get things out before they get to the yard.” In that moment I am conscious of my son.

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

I move through the house to the sliding glass door. I can see him outside playing at the bank. He is five, maybe six years old, all blonde curls and soft small hands. He is bending the cattails down, pulling open the brown velvet pods and blowing the fluff across the water. He does not see the alligators swimming across the lake, the alligators approaching the bank, the alligators heaving their bulk from the water. I see them, feel their mass. I don’t scream, don’t yell to him, don’t make a sound. If he makes a sound, they will have him. I yank the sliding door open and run, run like I ran to catch up with my grandfather, legs churning. I make it to the holly tree outside the back door, then to the towering camellias, looking for the grass to turn to moss under my feet, then I’ll be almost there when there’s the moss by the bank, and the moss crushes under my feet, and I have him. I pull him to my chest and run, pressing his face into my shoulder so he can’t see them, his damp curls on my neck, his feet dangling past my knees. My arms ache with his weight and I run. The reptiles are black and slick from the water of the lake and gathering like clouds. My path to the door narrows to infinity until suddenly my foot hits the first step and we are inside and banging the glass door closed behind us. There is no breathless relief at our escape, no emotional release after the grip of fear. We are safe; that is all. I set my son down and he looks up at me, nearly expressionless, all large eyes in a pale face. I wrap his hand up in mine. He knows that I have done what had to be done, all one can do when the alligators come, and now it’s time to go.

When we turn around the room is neatly arranged, each book and photograph where it belongs. The house is dark as we walk to the front door. I place my hand on the brass-colored knob, worn from decades of touch by many hands. It is loose in my grasp and I turn it, hear it click and pull the door open. It is night, and the thick LowCountry darkness has settled, obscuring any view beyond the threshold. Outside is a wave of sound of the frogs and cicadas, blackness and the thick humid air wrapping around my face. Staring hard into the dark I try to pick out the outline of a seething black mass, a shape darker than the darkness that will force us back into the house. Nothing reveals itself to me in the dark. We are drawn to leave the house by a force like a magnet. The car is in the yard under the live oak. If we go, we can make it. My child’s hand in mine, I push the screened door open with my palm and we step over the threshold, pushing into the night wave of heat and sound, unseeing.

Dewees Island

Shit. The hair on the back of my neck stands up and my mouth goes dry. “Breathe, breathe,” I tell myself, “back up slow, no sound.” Eyes locked on the black marbles of the alligator’s eyes visible above the water, I move one foot, then the other. The alligator moves no closer but holds his ground, floating just beneath the surface. Thick and numbed, my fingers let my fishing rod slip down and catch in the mud and I stumble. Catching my weight my foot hits the mud bank behind me with a resounding slap. Movement blurs in the water; instinctively I startle and turn towards the sound. An anhinga rises in improbable flight from under the surface of the water. Slick feathers slip free of the water, breaking the surface tension, pulling air beneath wet wings, making an ungainly flapping commotion. In seconds the bird lifts into the air, transformed from a sleek swimming machine into a sodden parody of flight. Listing on heavy wings it flies above the marsh grass and crashes to roost in a tree. For seconds my gaze has strayed from the alligator. When I look back he is gone, vanished as if he were never there.

My heart is still pounding when I hear the whir of a golf cart coming up the path above the bank and my son shouting. “Hey Mom! Mom! What are you doing down there?” My son and his best friend are tooling around the island. He stops the cart and kicks back behind the wheel. Propping one foot on the dash he looks at me from under his baseball cap with amused condescention, a look that should be patented by 16 y.o. boys. “You catching anything?” he says skeptically. I start picking my way up the bank.

“I’m catching flying fish,” I retort, using our expression for casting a line into a tree.

“Ha!” he laughs, “way to go.” Huffing up the bank I’m closer and see his eyes light up with amusement at my muddy self. He flashes his charming I-want-something smile. “Hurry up! Me and Cam want to go to the marsh dock and see the alligators. Can we? Come with.”

Grabbing my empty bucket and rod I step to the back seat of the cart. “Ok, honey, let’s go,” He steps on the pedal and the cart lurches off, “but remember, we have to stay in the cart, and be respectful of their space.” He responds with a huge eye roll. “I know, Mom, I know. They’re more scared of us than we are of them.”

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

The Alligator (and The Bone Man) | by Margaret Ward McClain

The Alligator

“Let’s go see the alligator!” my grandfather called to me, and I came running. He was already choosing a hat from the hundred crammed on a rack by the sliding glass door. He slid the door open and in a second he’d be gone and I’d better hurry up and put some shoes on and get there fast. When I caught up with him, breathless from churning my stubby legs, he was halfway down the long slope of the yard, headed for the water. The yard was a peninsula, surrounded by the brackish, green-brown water of Clearview Lake. The lake is a man-made inland body of water, far larger than a pond but navigable across its full length in about 20 minutes at the speed of a trolling motor. Ringed by live oaks, pine and brush, the lake was and is today a haven for a multitude of creatures that fly, slither, crawl and swim. King of them all was The Alligator, a big old male who lived down at the end of the lake out of sight of the house, near the dam.

We were headed for a small flat-bottomed wooden boat pulled up onto the mossy bank of the lake. In its glory days the boat was painted dark green, but the paint had chipped and flaked from the hull, exposing wood weathering and in spots as mossy as the bank. A little wider than a canoe, it had two benches, one with a live well, and a squared-off stern to accommodate a small trolling motor. I scrambled across the bow onto the second bench and held still while my grandfather slid the boat into the flat green water and stepped over the side. As we began to float sideways, parallel to the bank, I moved forward, grabbed the long oar from the bottom of the boat and pushed us off. He moved to the stern, cranked the little motor and pointed the bow up the lake towards the dam. He’d brought his rod with the spinning reel and some heels of bread, so I figured he’d let me drive for a bit while he tried for a bass and we’d feed the mallards. But first we’d see The Alligator.

Around a bend in the lake, past a small cove and next to the dam is where we’d look. As we rounded the bend, he cut the motor. I handed him the oar and peered at the bank as he paddled. “We’ve got to be quiet now, let’s see if we can see the old alligator,” he instructed. I gripped the gunwale of the boat and leaned slightly towards the bank, my heart beating a little faster with excitement. Four times out of five, we’d see nothing, but that fifth time . . . “there he is!! you see him?” I whispered as loudly as I could. My grandfather always let me spot him first. The gator looked like a huge gray log lying up on the bank, sunning himself as we glided past. I’d ask to get closer, and we’d turn and paddle by again. The massive presence on the bank fascinated me, and I’d lean close as I dared without tipping the boat. “Not too close now, we don’t want to bother him – you know, he’s more scared of you than you are of him.” I wasn’t scared of him at all. I knew my grandfather respected The Alligator. If the old beast seemed to regard us, it’d be a “we’d better turn around now.” The motor would crank back up, and we’d be gone.

It would be dusk by the time we had finished harassing the wildlife and slid the boat back up on the bank. I’d run to the house, slide the back door open and shout for my grandmother. “We saw The Alligator! We saw The Alligator!” She always acted surprised. “You did?!” When my grandfather followed me through the back door, he’d get a look and her voice would rise sharply in interrogation: “did you let that child get close to that alligator?” “Aww, heavens no, Margaret,” he’d say, and give me a conspiratorial look.

Years later, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources decided The Alligator had outgrown his home at Clearview Lake. Rumor was that the Tucker’s dog went missing and half a dog was found. The DNR enlisted my grandfather to help find the gator and haul him out to the swamp. The mission was accomplished with a tranquilizer gun, yards of rope and duct tape. In the photograph taken before he was loaded onto a truck and carted away, The Alligator is stretched out full length on the bank in the back yard, longer than the wooden boat. His mouth is duct taped closed, and ropes tied behind his front legs extending from his grey body immobilize his massive tail. My grandfather stands balanced on The Alligator’s back.

The Bone Man

Some thirty years after The Alligator, I met the Bone Man. The Bone Man is a classically trained artist, a painter, photographer, and writer. His clapboard house stands under the crooked branches of live oaks on a plantation on the Ashepoo river. He is artist-in-residence there, taking care of the place and tending to the horses. His art in traditional forms includes meticulously drawn portraits, haunting photographic portraits and landscapes, and paintings of striking realism suspended in surrealist dreamscapes. The Bone Man lives inside his art. The house is an installation, every surface covered in artwork, photographs, collected pieces. A New Orleans funeral parasol hangs from the ceiling; walls are all paintings, bones and feathers. Each object is immaculate and carefully placed, each angle and sight line its own new and startling composition. Everything he sees is a picture.

copyright Tim McClain

copyright Tim McClain 2013

The snakeskin of the five-foot rattler on the wall is easy to spot, but less so are the delicate bones. The Bone Man’s less traditional medium is the skeleton. Part engineer, part sculptor, he is expert in cleaning, preserving, and articulating animal bones. It is a dirty, smelly, time-consuming and tedious process. And why? These aren’t dinosaur bones or hunter’s trophies. Still, on a table near his door he has the bones of a rattlesnake killed on the property The triangular white head floats above an arc of winglike ribs diminishing down a seemingly infinite chain of vertebrae that spirals into a coil and emerges, a tail crowned with dry rattles. The perfect architecture of a magnificent animal remains in a few ounces of bleached bone.

Three alligator skulls rest on a table by the window. The Bone Man picks up the largest and places it in my hands. The head itself is easily two feet long and a foot wide, intact with long jaws, heavy eye sockets and ridged poll. The bone looks porous, like it should be light, but it’s heavier than a bowling ball and awkward. For a second I struggle with it, afraid I’ll drop it. “Turn it over,” he says, “this way,” and tilts the base of the skull upwards. In the center of the back of the skull is a small cavity. “Put your thumb in there.” He brushes a finger over the cavity. “Go on, try it.” I shudder to do it. My thumb just fits, barely past the first knuckle. “That’s his brain cavity,” the Bone Man says. “This guy was twelve feet long and weighed more than a thousand pounds and his brain was smaller than your thumb.”

The Bone Man has articulated many alligators, including one for a local nature center. He also accompanies the hunters who take them. The skull in my hands, its companions, and the buckets of bony scutes on the back porch came from alligators killed on the plantation. Landowners are permitted to control alligator populations on their property and each year are issued a certain number of “tags,” or permits to kill. The Bone Man has been on many alligator hunts, but the one that produced the skull I’m holding he remembers. “That guy was was bigger than the boat. They shot it and it refused to die. They had ropes around it and it was trying to roll. I stay out of the way, but they called me over to help them get it up out of the water – they had four guys and it wasn’t going anywhere. I know more about alligator anatomy than anybody, and I was telling them where to shoot it to kill it quickly, right at a place where the skull joins the spine. They shot it with a rifle right there and it still didn’t die. After a couple of hours we finally got it tied. It was still alive when we loaded it up on the truck. It was still alive when we cleaned it. We didn’t kill that alligator – we tortured it to death. I wasn’t going to let him die for nothing.” He articulated the beautiful bones.

(Tomorrow: Margaret concludes “The Alligator.” Don’t miss it!)

Essays on Childhood: Wild Things | “The Alligator” Begins

Editor’s note: A skilled writer knows how set a scene, how to craft mood through tone and story pacing; my friend Margaret Ward McClain is such a writer. If you follow this blog, you will remember her gorgeous and heart-breaking essay The Simons House from 2011.

This week the Essays on Childhood project features her chill-bump-inducing remembrance of encounters, real and imagined, with alligators. Margaret returns to South Carolina and takes us into a place where danger is always just under the surface.

To get your mind right, read her short introductory reflection today and her full essay in installations throughout the week.

Photo credit: McClain

Copyright Tim McClain 2013

The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), sometimes referred to colloquially as a gator, is a reptile endemic to the Southeastern United States. It is one of the two living species of alligator, in the genus Alligator, within the family Alligatoridae.

The American alligator inhabits freshwater wetlands, such as marshes and cypress swamps, from Texas to North Carolina.

- Wikipedia

Dewees Island, South Carolina.

From my fishing spot on higher ground I snagged my line in the brush below. I made my way around a rice trunk and down a bank to free a fishing lure. It was a good one, hung up in the brush and no amount of cursing and yanking would pull it loose. Pluff mud sucked at my ankles as I tried to avoid a swim in the brackish creek. Stretching on tiptoe from the edge of the bank to the wax myrtle branch that snared the lure, I gave a few teetering yanks and pulled it free. Now, absently reeling in the line and grouching about the thick black mud on my shoes, I turn to head back up the bank. Just at the edge of vision I register twin knobs above the water and a thick, creviced plate between.

Not a stick.

In the flat brackish water at the edge of the impoundment, only the eyes are showing. Not a ripple gives him away. The surface of the water is a still mirror, reflecting marsh grass at the edge of a muddy bank and a flat grey sky. Here I stand, unmoving, instantly alert, hyper-aware. I feel the pulse in my neck as my heart beats faster. He hovers some 20 feet from the bank, about 180 feet too close for both of us. Only his eyes are visible. Safe in stealth and near-complete concealment, he has been watching me. Both now exposed and face-to-face we regard each other: he driven by primitive instinct to know if I am food; me frozen between rapt fascination and primal fear.

I was not raised to fear alligators. This is remarkable, considering the facts. Adult male alligators average about 11 feet long and can weigh 800 pounds, although some whoppers of 1,000 – 2,000 pounds have been reported. They are ingeniously designed predators. Alligators’ heavy, low bodies are armored with thick, ridged skin layered over bony scutes protruding like spikes. Venomous moccasins and rattlesnakes have trouble penetrating the hide with a bite. Swimming alligators are startlingly fast, propelled by an enormous tail that serves as defense on land. Champion sprinters, on land they can run nearly 30 miles an hour for short distances. Five claws on each front foot and four in back enable them to climb. They can scale short fences. Claws, tail, armor and speed are useful accessories for the alligator.

The bite is the apex of their predation. An alligator’s elongated snout is filled with teeth in a thick, bony skull with a hinged jaw angled so precisely that its bite exerts more force than ever measured in a land animal. Mobile garbage cans, they eat anything that registers as the right size, usually crabs, fish, birds, and smaller mammals too close to the water. Dogs and deer are fair game. Generally, they do not regard humans as prey. Generally may not apply to small children, swimmers, and anglers in the wrong place. Generally isn’t enough for me, my children, dogs, or extremities. My attitude towards alligators has changed. Respect and awe of their feral, prehistoric beauty has not diminished, but in time childhood excitement gave way to uneasiness and discomfort, grown up now into hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck fear.

Essays on Childhood: Wild Things

Over the past year, I’ve become fascinated with stories about childhood encounters with animals. It started with Julian Martin’s description of his grandmother clubbing, skinning, and cooking a groundhog; since then, it seems everywhere I turn I hear great stories about courage, life and death, love and affection, loyalty and hearbreak connected to children and animals.

What’s your story?

I hope you’ll consider being a writer this year for the Essays on Childhood project. (Click the link to see deadlines.) I am working on an essay right now that I plan to share via EOC, and I leave you with a little portion of the story to, hopefully, inspire you to jump in!

Some months after Peter’s death, a black snake took up residence around the brick patio in our back yard. It was the perfect situation for him. The bricks heated up to a glorious baking warmth under the summer sun, and he could bask all forty inches of himself for hours undisturbed. My mother knew black snake in the garden was a good thing. Black snakes, or “rat snakes,” have no venom and are not aggressive toward humans. Shy and retiring, all they really want are three things. They want to lie on a rock in the sun. They want to be left alone. They want to eat small mammals.

This snake was doing well for himself on our property, and he no doubt was benefitting us as he ingested pests like mice, moles, and shrews that otherwise might have overrun our shared environment. Every now and then we would find one of his shed skins, long and lacy, lying on the patio. My mother named him “Oscar,” and she took a special pride in allowing him to co-exist with us.  When other neighborhood mothers would shudder and say, “Betty, I just don’t know why you haven’t killed that snake. It’s hideous. Aren’t you scared he’ll bite the children?” she would laugh and present a lecture on the nature of black snakes and the long list of good things they bring to any house fortunate enough to attract them. My mother was loyal to Oscar, and he was constant and true to his nature, as we all expected he would be.

Then came the day when the nature of a black snake challenged mom’s allegiance.

In a Man’s Voice: Outside by Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia.  He tried to leave the mountains twice, but always found himself back in the heart of Appalachia.  At the age of 7 he was sent to play outdoors, and he never fully came back inside.  “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir

Editor’s note: Brent is a long-time friend of mine. From junior high through high school, and years of Presbyterian youth experience, we share many childhood commonalities. It was not until I attended his mother’s memorial service that I had the slightest clue what a powerful influence she had on his love of nature. Brent is many things. He is my old friend, he is a poetry student, he is a husband and a writer and a son and a brother. He is a lover of the natural world, and he is a gift to that place and all of us in it. I hope you enjoy this dipping and swirling ride into the mind of a child who is discovering frogs, and fireflies, and the greatness of trees.

Outside | by Brent Aikman

I was six years old when we moved away from the neighborhood I had known as “mine.”

 Away from my best friend who lived next-door.

Away from the familiarity of the dead-end street full of kids, families, people, that at the ripe age of six, I could say “I know them.”

Away from the world as I had come to know it: Friendly people, the nice Valley Bell Dairy milkman who delivered milk to the house, “Shane” the ancient boxer dog that lived across the street, “Big Rock” down in the woods (It was really big, and it was truly a rock), and more.

Away from everything that a normal neighborhood, on a dead-end street, had to offer. We were ‘that family’ that moved away. We only moved about 4 miles, not far at all in adult understanding.

But to a six year old…

Ours was the third house to be built in the ‘new’ neighborhood. A subdivision of homes was being built in the woods. THE WOODS. We moved into the house in the fall, and I played in the woods around the house beginning then and through the winter. When I turned seven in April my mother sent me outside to play.

“No really, you have to go outside… and play…  Go…”

So I went. Outside. Into THE WOODS.

The writer in 1976.

My father was a chemical engineer. My genetics yielded neither the comprehension of mathematics nor science. Those numbers, those scientific thoughts, did not make it too far into my brain. I believe two conditions exacerbated this natural fact. First, if there was a window in the classroom, my eyes were drawn to it, especially when math came around. I just didn’t understand, nor did I really care about, multiplication tables and sums (I think they call this Attention Deficit Disorder these days). Second, I certainly was much more interested in being outside.

Outside, in the woods.

Late spring in West Virginia has a true magic about it. The world is a vibrant green that  startles the eyes. Everything is in bloom. Nature is finally awake after long months of winter. You can see it in the trees as they reach for every drop of sunshine they can grasp. The wind is soft and moist with warmth suggesting that summer is coming. Every wild living creature is either giving birth or going through the mating rituals that will lead to bearing offspring and moving the species ahead a generation.

That spring the woods almost seemed in a frenzy. Birds flying, chasing, singing. Squirrels darting, playing, chattering. Chipmunks, annoying chipmunks. The cry of the red tailed hawk that sent those chipmunks running for their lives. Blue tailed skinks sunning on the rocks. The green snake, brown garden snake, black snake in the bush eating baby birds out of the nest. I did not need math or science in school. I came to an understanding in the woods. There is a lifecycle. Mating, birth, living. If the black snake eats one of three baby birds, it is not only the death part of the lifecycle, it is mathematics. There are now only two baby birds.

I understood science and math, just not in the classroom.

I would lie in the cool leaves on the forest floor, looking up into the fresh canopy of leaves. I could stay there for hours, watching, looking, and listening. Engulfed in the enormity of the woods, but yet not feeling as though I were lost, or small. I felt like I belonged. Unlike my time in school, here I understood what was being revealed to me in the math and science of nature.

Math: Trees grow one ring every year. Birds lay eggs, maybe one, maybe more. The hummingbirds that we see in our woods flap their wings about sixty times a second. Black snakes can grow really big. That one was over four feet long!  A frog lays hundreds of eggs.

Once, I discovered an incredible secret outside. I found it, it was my secret, and I shared it with no one.

I had been watching the puddle for about a week. I finally gathered the courage to dip my hand in. I dipped, the egg mass oozed around my fingers. I held the gelatinous mass in my hand and looked at the single black spec floating in each little bubble. There really is nothing like holding a mass of frog eggs, freshly scooped from the standing puddle by the road. I put the eggs back after complete examination. I would come back to look at them again. Maybe I would not hold them again, I thought, but I would but definitely look. And soon, there would be frogs!

Science:  When it rains, the toads come out onto the road so they won’t drown, to get warm, and they get squished by cars. Hummingbirds can fly backwards. Bumblebees, according to the man-made laws of aerodynamics, should not be able to fly.

I love Bumblebees.

Outside was where I wanted to be, but If I had to be inside, I would be in the kitchen. The kitchen of the new house had a window that was almost six feet wide. The sill was less than two feet off the floor, so I could sit on the floor and look out. I looked out at a bird feeder that was four feet long and 14 inches deep. A BIG bird feeder. No. It was a bird feeding platform. My mother would tell me what each bird was, if we would see it again, or if it was just passing through. I could sit and see birds that others may never see; Scarlet Tanager, Grosbeaks, Cowbirds, Nuthatches, Warblers, Juncos, American Redstart, the Common Grackle with its blazing yellow eyes, and Finches of purple and gold that would sing the rise of the sun.

There were wonderful surprises including the Wood Thrush, the most elegant Cedar Waxwing, Indigo Bunting, Solitary Vireo, Northern Oriole, and many birds that were the gift of “passing through.”  There were Woodpeckers of all sorts and sizes; Downey, Red-bellied, Common Flicker, Hairy, and if we were lucky, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Then HE came.

Young Brent, OUTSIDE.

There was a great thump, and it seemed everything stopped. It was the Pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America. If I was lucky, I would be sitting by the window and get to look into his yellow ringed black eyes. I would hear him ask me if I was coming back outside. And I would run for the door…

In this time of the spring, in the dusk of the early evening, it starts. The fireflies rise. My grandparents lived on the west side of Charleston and had a very large side yard with a Magnolia tree that I could climb. I spent a lot of time at their house. And while there, I spent a lot of time in the Magnolia tree. I would climb to my spot and sit and watch the fireflies come out of the grass and off the branches of the tree and flicker around my head as they searched for their mates. The world was alight.

My grandparents’ yard helped meet my incessant need to be outside. There was an area of rose bushes on which to feast my eyes and nose; grape vines growing over the patio that brought in birds; a small vegetable garden planted in spring that produced tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, and squash.

Then there were the oak trees. There were four (I counted them using my math skills) HUGE oak trees, each one at least four feet thick if not more. At seven years old, I was small. These trees were huge. Spring allowed me to lie on my back in the yard and watch, and look, and listen. Spring brought a sense of urgency to the oak trees with lots of birds flying, squirrels scrambling, and the chipmunks – always, the annoying chipmunks. The giant trees provided life and a home to many creatures. Me, I stretched out underneath the huge trunk and spreading limbs and took it all in. I watched the birds and the squirrels and would wait for dusk, for the lights to start twinkling in the trees. It was magical. While it was not in The Woods, my grandparents’ yard was held in high esteem. And to this day, I long to sit high in that Magnolia tree and watch, and look, and listen as the fireflies rise into the spring evening.

As a child, I found solace outside, in the woods. I had to move away from my friends, start attending a new school, learn new streets and meet new people. My world turned upside down. My own mother had said “go play outside,” and then Mother Nature wiped away my fears and helped me understand that no matter where I was, I could look to her, and suddenly all would be right with my world.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 5)

V.

Many missionaries deal with culture shock by pining for the golden land of the mother country, dreaming of a place that no longer exists. It is a potent mix of nostalgia and present discontent. Back home everyone’s always on time. The lights never go out.  The water’s always potable and cold, straight from the faucet. The roads. The police. The cellophaned meats. Back home it’s not rice and beans every meal. Everything’s better and all the food you ever loved as a child is there.

True and real civilization.

When we lived in Nicaragua one of my Dad’s best friends was a salesman. I don’t remember if he sold meat before the ‘79 Revolution or if “the government” decided that his product would be meat. Because he refused to pledge allegiance to anything but Christ, he got poorer and poorer product. We hated his hot dogs. They tasted like rancid fat and sand. Dad, though, would buy them. We would spit them out.

He took us once for supper to The Purple Cow, a diner with coke floats and hot dogs. We were certain it wouldn’t have those nasty red sticks Omar peddled. This was a fancy place. We drank our floats and fidgeted about the booth, talking of nothing but hot dogs. They came. We sniffed. We whined, “Omar.” Eventually, Omar was given only bones to sell. Soon after we left Nicaragua, he found his way to Mexico, crossed the border into the U.S., and worked to bring his family north. Sometime in the mid “80s he was granted amnesty and residency.

Parental memories form so much of a missionary child’s sense of home. This inheritance of myth and nostalgia mixed with growing up in another country explains the dislocation of so many missionary children.

If Dad longed for anything, though, it was Italy. He didn’t share much with us, however. His mother died of cancer while he was in college. Childhood memories were hard. And, though his dad remarried, his mother wasn’t there to pass-on family history, to tell us stories of his childhood. When the family gathered, however, siblings would reminisce. Most had to do with “the family mission,” like how he, his siblings, and his cousins torched a roadside shrine in some northern Italian village, thinking they were advancing the cause of Christ.

Mom hardly ever spoke of her childhood. In part, I suspect this is because she too grew up out of place. Her mother, a Puerto Rican war bride, desperately tried and quite succeeded in raising her two children as anything but Puerto Rican. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, and black-haired in Texas, she was terrified they might be taken as Mexican. Mom did tell us, though, that her own father had her trained to come on a whistle. And, once my wife and I had kids, she told me she was quite headstrong until three, when her father finally “beat it out of her.” At times I’ve wondered if this is why she doesn’t speak of her childhood. Then again, I’ve never asked.

As children we were not fed a diet of Halcyon days in the U.S.A. Our parents spoke of college in Texas and California and those first years of marriage in Italy. We, too, worked hard to keep our scraps of memory: prancing about a Milan apartment with underwear in our butt-cracks pretending we were Sumo wrestlers while Dad studied, the time it snowed and he made a sled out of cardboard and plastic trash bags and pulled us all the way home from preschool, walking down a street in Milan with Mom on a winter day looking for a lost car that had fallen through a hole in her coat pocket, a woolen rust and brown and beige plaid coat.

Furthermore, Mom had learned to cook in Italy. Home food was always homemade Italian. Also, she dutifully learned a repertoire of national dishes wherever we went. Thus, in Nicaragua our fare was Italian and Nicaraguan; in Costa Rica, Italian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican; in the Dominican Republic. Neither our food memories nor our deep family memories ever linked back to the U.S., unless it was a family reunion.

In which case, we were singing about heaven.

I’m around two and we are visiting London, it seems. I’ve always thought this was in Italy. But, the sign on the tower says, Bloody Tower.