The creek skips about jumping rocks and stumps, and turns corners through the woods behind my house. My two younger sons, Nathan and Mason, go there often to play, and to rearrange the lay of the land. Sometimes, they rearrange the lay of the creek as well, and track some of its muddy bottom into the house.
It is creative what they do because while they play with, and act upon tangible things in the forest, most of their work is constructing worlds that do not fare well outside the minds and imaginations of little boys. The child will nurture such thoughts, and maintain them. But in so many cases, a fantastic dream will die of thirst if it waits for a grownup to come along and give it a drink of water.
As I watch these boys, I have a feeling that they don’t intend to let go of dreams easily. With some concern for the importance of dealing with reality, I suspect the carryover of some spark of the adventure of youth into adulthood will for them not be a bad thing.
As they left out that day on their whimsical trek beyond boundaries set by imaginary lines drawn on courthouse maps, I told them to watch out for snakes. Then, I sat down with a newspaper to do the same thing. I think I uncovered more snakes than they did. Besides the usual stories of people cheating and hurting each other, we are in the middle of gubernatorial primaries, and snakes are all over the place.
After a while, Brenda became concerned that they had been gone so long. She thought they would have been back by now, so she suggested I go down there to check on them. I thought briefly of my own childhood. So many times as a boy, I’d be off on some extraordinary adventure in some exotic jungle or far away galaxy, yet just meters from the paved streets of my subdivision. At those times, had my father shown up, those magical places would have just gone “Poof!”, and disappeared.
Looking up from my paper, I smiled at her, and said:
“No. They’re probably fine. More than fine, most likely. I imagine the boys are having the greatest day of their joint and individual lives. We can’t hold their hands all the time anymore. Just to go check on them will not change the reality of whatever mischief they may have gotten into. And Brenda, mischief will have most certainly have happened out there today whether we check on ’em, or not.”
“I guess you’re right,” she said, but went straight to the door to go down to the woods and check on ’em, anyway. She is a mother, you know.
It’s not that she didn’t believe they knew how to be careful, but instead was concerned that their preoccupation with their imaginations might cause some threat or danger to go unnoticed. Well, there could be some truth in that. When I was a boy playing in the woods, a herd of elephants could’ve snuck up on me, because I was too busy to keep an eye out for elephants.
Brenda may not have taken a walk through the tall grass, briers, and brush on her own without the instinctive need to find her babies. She got to a place where she had a clear view of them, and stood there observing, unobserved. You and I would’ve heard her coming as she stumbled and muttered inappropriate expletives about sawgrass and thorns, but the boys were oblivious of any intrusion on their privacy.
Not realizing their mother was watching, they continued damming up a drainage ditch feeding into the creek, and ordering imaginary slave space aliens and trolls to keep the mud and rocks coming. They brandished brilliant and exotic swords of willow and bamboo while creatures from another world, invisible and unseen by the inadequate eyes of grownups, excavated mud from tunnels to build highways to nowhere in particular.
She stood there watching for some time until a frog noticed her. Brenda noticed the frog, and turned slightly towards it. In a panic, the frog made a croaking noise, and dove into the creek, causing Brenda to laugh. She thought it silly for the frog to be afraid of her, but in fairness to the frog, it is reasonable for them to want to keep their distance from human beings.
The boys were just as startled as the frog at the sight of their mother. But things turned out okay for them, as they were not wearing their “good shoes”, which is something anybody with a brain would know you don’t wear to the creek. In this house, “good shoes” mean any shoes you can still wear to school. Brenda did not criticize any of their engineering projects or comment on their muddy clothes. Instead, she smiled at her sons, and before turning away to walk back to the house, she said:
“Just thought I’d let you guys know that supper will be ready soon, and I know you’d want to have time to clean up.”
Brenda assured me the boys were fine, and were just busy practicing being little warriors. I thought of that idea, and how unlikely it would be for those children to see it that same way at all. Some years back when I became a warrior, it did involve moving mud and rocks, but rather than it being some grand adventure, it was more about not getting blown up. I just had no time for that. Getting myself blown up would’ve put me far behind schedule.
Once in a place where things blew up often, it was always my highest priority to not become the object of the explosions. I did not get blown up, but came close to it a few times. It was not a time of glory, and I learned fairly early that for me to get blown up was a risk others were willing for me to take. War is often unkind to soldiers and sailors, and particularly difficult for civilians in the wake of it. I never cared much for the idea that I might just be fodder to feed the cannons, and I didn’t have much enthusiasm for cannons in general, no matter how profitable they might be to others. I guess I was just being selfish, but I make no apology.
Supper was not quite ready, so I went to feed the dawgs. They seemed glad to have the attention, and had they been able to talk, would’ve complained about being left behind when the boys went down to the woods earlier. They love to go back there. The woods are full of smells, which are wonderful things to a dawg. Petting the puppies, I noticed a raw place on Ashley Cooper’s lip. It looked like someone had shaved off half of her moustache, and took the top layer of skin with it. I fed them, but knew I’d need to have her checked out at the vet in the morning.
Brenda went with me to the veterinary clinic. We took both dawgs, figuring if something contagious was going around, both of my canine companions might have it. The test indicated it likely to be the mange. Red mange is caused by some very small mites that puppies get from infected mothers while nursing. Since the symtoms usually manifest themselves by the time a pup is a year to a year and a half old, and Ashley being well beyond that, the vet thought it unusual. So just in case, he’d double check by re-testing her. I understood, because two tests are more profitable to an establishment like his than just one.
He pulled Ashley’s chart to confirm she’d not had it before, and she had not. She’d had everything else except rabies, but never a hint of red mite, or any other kind of mange. Topper’s chart was clean, too, but since he’d been exposed, the vet said it wise to treat them both. There are several optional treatments, but since the vet could see Brenda was holding a checkbook, he decided on the most expensive one that his license would allow him to prescribe.
The procedure was to bathe the dawgs, both of them several times, in a toxic goop with E. P. A. warning labels all over the package. Compared to this stuff, Agent Orange was a bubble bath. Cosmo Topper does not like baths. I felt sorry for him. This was not his fault. He had not brought this trouble upon himself. Instead, trouble was brought to him by association with a female. So that you not think there was any gender prejudice in that remark, I will say that it could have been the other way around, but it wasn’t.
The stuff we had to bathe them in stinks. Cosmo Topper thought he was going to suffocate and die. I thought Topper was going to suffocate and die, too. As a matter of fact, I thought I was going to suffocate and die. Ashley Cooper loved the stuff, and wanted to drink it. When I daubed it on her face, she’d lick her lips. In spite of warnings, and wearing rubber gloves, I think I got more of it on me than I did the dawgs. I’m sure not a single charitable thought crossed my mind throughout the whole ordeal, not even the prospects of saving the life of this mongrel. In fact at the moment, I’d quit caring about that altogether.
After putting the hounds back inside the fence, I went upstairs to take a shower so that all of the chemicals spilled on me during the dawg treatment would be spread evenly over my entire body. According to the warning label on that bottle of ecological disaster the vet had sold to us, there won’t be enough showers available in a month and a half of Sundays to dilute the malevolent concoction to a safe number of parts per million. I think it etched foul and demonic symbols into the linoleum around the tub.
The dawgs will probably stay in the fence, at least for a while. But that is not the same thing you can always expect when your children have been put to bed. To the question: “Do you know where your children are?”, I can tell you that you will often think you do. But as you deal with it, remember that there are some important values to consider:
1. The value of trust;
2. The value of not getting caught.
Be careful not to over emphasize the second one while thinking you are making a point of the first. If you have a teenage child or children, or have ever been one yourself, I need to offer no further explanation. For some people, the elusive treasure that can be found in one will be lost to a lifetime of attention given to the other. Getting caught can have a damaging effect on trust, but a lack of value placed on trust can turn the idea of not getting caught into the only moral you have. And, if you’re good at it, run for office.
A holiday came to give us a breather because most offices that I’d normally call on to ask for money would be closed on the 4th of July. So, by prior arrangement, we went to a home of some cousins. They had a place more out in the country than we live, so their livestock consisted of more than our impoverished inventory of a cat and two mangy mutts.
They had several Guinea fowls, and two white roosters kept “just to hear ’em crow”, half a dozen cats with ringworm, and two rabbits that were incompatible with each other, if you can imagine such a thing. In spite of what you might think reasonable, the rabbits lived in a converted chicken coop, and the roosters lived in the garage. They had three dawgs, and one of them was “pure bred” which indicates a maintenance regimen comparable in cost to the other two combined.
After enjoying a most pleasant visit that included a sumptuous banquet, I thought it time to gather our things, and head home. But it was announced that we “just couldn’t leave” until after the special fireworks display. Not only would we get to watch it, we would also be involved with launching it. The boys were ecstatic, and their enthusiasm was not to be minimized by any simple measure. Brenda said she thought that would be fun, so I was outvoted. Any obsession with firecrackers and rockets that I may have had as a child was reduced to an attitude that could be considered harmful to the fireworks industry by the time I got home from Southeast Asia. Though I never wanted to see or hear stuff like that again, I gave in.
That fireworks were illegal in the state where this was all about to take place, and that everything around was tinderbox dry as it had not rained there since Noah, had no effect to dampen the excitement. But some care was taken: buckets of water were placed in strategic locations, and lookouts were posted to watch out for the police. A taxi road by and gave us a scare, but all in all, the crimes went undetected as best we could tell.
As darkness came over the yard, and the explosive ordinance positioned, the reenactment of D-Day began. Fuses to rockets, bombs, roman candles, and other effects were lit. Fireballs fell to the ground all around us, bounced off trees, off the roof of the house, and into our hair. With each swoosh, flash, whiz, boom, kaboom, kablam, and pow, I worked hard to suppress unpleasant thoughts. I ceased feeling sorry for myself when I saw that pandemonium had broken out amongst the dawgs and cats. Even the rabbits were hollering a bit, but I think it was hardest on the chickens. They didn’t understand at all, and you just can’t explain anything to a chicken.
Some of the children were sent to stomp burning grass spots to stop a brush fire, and others were quickly mustered to hose duty to extinguish a few stubborn flames on the roof. Some pine needles near the top of a tree caught fire, and was out of the range of the hose. My cousin’s husband remained calm, and with almost a giggle and a smile, said:
“Well, if it burns, it burns.”
His wife heard him, and thought he was talking about the house. Her reaction included words reminiscent of what you might expect to be the closing remarks at a tent revival, and with no emotion held back. That he’d meant the tree was of little or no consolation to her. Knowing how much fun a book of matches can be to small boys, I urged him not to say that loud enough for my sons to hear it.
Pretty soon, all flames were out, and the tree was evidently too green to burn. We managed all of this before the water pressure from the well got too low. All hands contributed to picking up trash, rolling up hoses, and returning buckets, shovels, a wheel barrow, and a ladder to the shed.
It had been a fun and exciting day. My wonderful cousins had gone to considerable expense of both time and money to entertain us, and all of us appreciated it. I’m glad we got together. I’m glad the boys had fun. I’m glad the pyrotechnics display did not involve a trip to the emergency room, and that the fire department didn’t have to come out.
I’m also glad we didn’t bring our dawgs. Red mite mange outbreaks are often triggered by stress, so Ashley Cooper needed none of this. Cosmo Topper feels about the same way I do about rockets and firecrackers, and would’ve been most uncomfortable. As we loaded up and headed home, I thought for a moment about their chickens. They probably won’t have eggs for a week, and it will be at least that long before the morning sun will again be greeted by either of those two frightened roosters. One had tried unsuccessfully to outrun a bottle rocket, but he fared better than the other one who tried to eat the fuse off a cherry bomb.
Driving out, I noticed the sign in their yard that had greet us upon arrival. It said:
“Those who enter this friendly gate,
Never come too early, or stay too late.”
I couldn’t help wondering as we made the turn and was out of site, if they ran out there and took down that sign. Nah, they are too nice a bunch of folks to do that, but I’d have to be willing to risk a wager that they at least thought about it.