Friday, July 12, 2019

Of Forests and Fathers by Christopher Johnson

Herbie, a kid from Ohio, tells about the innocent wonders of his first camping trip; by Christopher Johnson.

"Will there be bears and wolves?" I asked.

Dad looked at me and narrowed his eyes the way he did when he was irritated with me. "What do you think, Herbie?"

"I... I don't know. When I watch Davy Crockett on TV, there's all kinds of wolves and bears."

"Oh, for God's sake, Herbie, that was one hundred and fifty years ago! And that's TV. And that was in Tennessee. We're in Ohio, and it's today, not one hundred and fifty years ago."

We were driving to pick up Steve Sable and his father and start our journey together on a camping trip, which I was worried about because I'd never ever been on a camping trip in the forest before. We turned into the Sables' driveway, and Dad honked the horn. "Get in back, Herbie, so Mr. Sable can ride in front and we can listen to the Indians."

He turned around to say that to me. Dad, whose real name was Arthur - he had a round face that reminded me of a pie. I'd always noticed that his mom, who was my grandmother, had a round face, too. His eyes were gray like the model destroyer that I'd just finished building, and his hair was cut as flat as a frying pan, and he wore thick, black glasses that made his eyes bulge out like a fish's eyes. Once I'd asked him, "Dad, do you think I'll have to wear glasses when I get older?"

"Time will tell, Herbie," he answered. "Time will tell." When he said that, I had this picture of time like a bunch of doors that you go through in life, and you never know what's going to be behind the next door, and that's the way it was going to be for the rest of your life.

Mr. Sable and Steve were carrying their junk for camping - their sleeping bags and backpacks and some towels and washcloths. We all needed sleeping bags, Dad told me, because we were going to be staying in a lodge in the woods, and we would sleep on cots, but we needed the sleeping bags.

"We're all going to be together sleeping in the same cabin?" I asked.

"Unh-huh," Dad answered, as he was packing all the stuff for our camping trip. "It's more than a cabin. It's a lodge."

"What if someone snores?" I asked.

He looked at me. "Well, you'll just have to get used to it, that's all."

Mr. Sable got into the front seat with Dad, and Steve piled in next to me. Steve was a friend of mine. He wasn't my best friend, but he was one of my friends. He and Mr. Sable were both short. But Steve's hair was long and cut in a bowl like Moe of the Three Stooges, and he was one of these wiry little guys who was amazingly strong when you wrestled him, and he had these brown eyes that were almost black. Mr. Sable looked kind of the same, but he hadn't shaved, and his whiskers were sticking out all black, which made his face look like it was covered with a shadow.

"Hey," I said to Steve.

"Hey," he answered.

I leaned forward to Dad just as he was pulling out of the driveway. "Where are we going again, Dad?"

"Oh, for God's sake, Herbie. Weren't you listening? We're going camping near the Cuyahoga River south of Cleveland, down near Akron."

"Thanks, Dad."

Steve looked at me. "Yeah, Herbie, what the heck's wrong with you? Why weren't you listening? You should know better than that." We both giggled but not so loud that Dad and Mr. Sable could hear us. Meanwhile, Dad and Mr. Sable turned on the Indians game and got all involved with that.

We settled back for the long drive to our campsite. Dad and Mr. Sable - they were listening to the game, and Steve was weirdly quiet for him. I looked out the window. We were zooming along, going real fast, and I could see we were getting away from the city and into the countryside because there were trees, tons of trees, all green and looking like a wall along the side of the road. I kept wondering if there were going to be bears and wolves, which kept making me kind of nervous, but I tried to forget about them. I was just quietly looking out the window, minding my own business, when all of a sudden Steve started tickling me, right in the side of the stomach where I was most ticklish. "Criminy!" I said. "Cut it out! You're gonna make me pee!"

Mr. Sable whipped around and hollered, "Steven, stop it, for God's sake!" He had this fierce look on his face, which was all scrunched up.

"That's right, Herbie!" Dad shouted. "Just quit it!"

"But I didn't do nothing, Dad!"

"Well, you must have done something, Herbie, or Steve wouldn't have started tickling you!"

"But, Dad..."

His voice got louder. "Herbie, just be quiet and behave yourself and stop making trouble. Can't you guys act your ages back there?"

We looked at each other and started pretending we were crying like babies. Meanwhile, in the front seat, Dad and Mr. Sable just shook their heads back and forth. Steve started to reach over like he was going to tickle me again, but I slapped his hand. "Hey!" he said in a loud whisper. "Jerk!"

"Just leave me alone."

And he did. He sat there, and he started to sulk. That was a word I knew because Mom said that's what I did when I got hollered at. I sulked.

I looked at the front seat, and I saw Mr. Sable light up a cigarette. Smoke started to spread around his head like a halo, and the smoke looked blue in the sunlight. All of a sudden, Dad said, "Hey, Mike, let me have a drag of that."

"Sure, Artie."

Mr. Sable took another drag of the cigarette and then handed it to Dad. Dad took the cigarette between his first two fingers and brought the tip of the cigarette up to his lips. He took a big puff and then let out the smoke, which circled around his head. He handed it back to Mr. Sable. "Thanks, Mike," he said. "Once in a while..."

I was stunned, totally shocked, as I sat there in the back seat. It was like I'd seen someone running naked down the street. I'd never seen Dad - my very own father - smoke a cigarette in my eight years on Earth! I didn't know what to think. I leaned over to Steve and whispered, "Did you see that?"

"See what?"

"My dad smoked! He took a puff from your dad's cigarette!"

"So?"

"What do you mean, so? My dad - he doesn't smoke!"

Steve looked at me. "Listen," he whispered. "There's a lot we don't know about our parents. A lot." He nodded in this knowing kind of way. I felt like the earth had suddenly blown up under my feet. I looked up front at Dad and Mr. Sable. Dad was taking another puff of Mr. Sable's cigarette. Then he said to Mr. Sable, "For Christ's sake, don't tell Judy about this."

Mr. Sable chuckled. "Don't worry. What she doesn't know..."

Dad said, louder and with this icy sternness in his voice, "Herbie, you got that? Mum's the word. Nothing to Mom about the cigarette."

"Yes, sir." I was still shocked. I just hoped that I wouldn't let it slip out accidentally somehow that I'd seen Dad smoking.

I stared at the back of Dad's head. I noticed that the edge of his hair went straight across the bottom of his skull, and not a single hair was out of place. I remember thinking that Dad was perfect and fearful and big and could get mad just like that. His favorite activity was to fix things and have me stand there and hand him tools. He'd be painting a shutter on the second floor, and I had to stand at the bottom of the ladder with my feet against the base to keep the ladder from slipping, and Dad would look down and yell, "Herbie, don't put your hands in your pockets!" - which I was doing because I was bored. I stood there and looked up at him, and there he was, way up, in his paint clothes. He loomed on the ladder way above me, like a raven.

Dad and Steve and Mr. Sable and me finally after what seemed like forever got to the campsite where we were going to stay for the weekend. We drove into the parking lot. I'd never seen so many trees. Millions of them! Trillions! Covering up the sky so we couldn't even see the sun, making everything dark. Those trees - they were so dense and green, like the Amazon jungle that I'd just read about in the Weekly Reader. It was like daylight never came into the forest at all.

Dad and me unloaded the camping junk from our car and hauled it into the lodge, which had a bunch of cots, about 20 or 25 in all. The room was vast. I like that word - vast. Bigger than really big! Dad and me chose cots next to each other, and we had a small table between us to pile stuff on. I'll never forget the smell of that lodge. It was all piney but also damp, like things never quite dried out. But that piney smell, it floated into my nose and crept up into my nostrils and stayed there like it had found a home.

There were eight dads and sons in all, and they were all doing what we were doing - unloading the camping stuff from our cars and carrying it in. Dad had a certain way he wanted me to unload stuff and get our part of the lodge ready. "That's the way we learned to do it in the Army," he said. "Get ourselves organized so we were ready to fight the enemy."

"Did you like the Army, Dad?"

He looked at me. "What kind of a question is that, Herbie? You don't go into the Army because you like it! You go into the Army to defend your country. Hitler and the Japs, they were trying to conquer our country, the United States of America. I went into the Army to fight for our country, to keep it from being conquered. The Army sent me to North Africa to fight Rommel. Liking had nothing to do with it!"

I looked down at the floor and felt stupid for even asking.

By now we'd carried all our things into the cabin. "Here," Dad said. "It's about time you learned the right way to organize things. Unroll your sleeping bag and make sure it's smooth. Take your toothpaste and other equipment out of the duffel bag and organize it on the table."

Dad took out the soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, and his Old Spice deodorant from the duffel bag. "This is how you do it in the Army," he said. He arranged all his stuff on the top of the table. It was like this geographic puzzle. Then I did the same thing with my stuff. I had everything he had except deodorant, because I didn't have hair in my armpits yet. I got it all organized on the table.

"When you use the soap," he said, "put it back right where you found it! The same way with the other things. Keep them all organized. The right way. The Army way."

Outside the lodge was this monstrous stone fireplace that looked like it was built back in the Dark Ages. That's where the fathers were going to cook our meals. All the dads started gathering wood and straightening up the area in front of the lodge, which had twigs and leaves scattered all over the place. They hauled out coolers and took out cans of Carling Beer and sat down at the picnic tables and started to drink. They crushed the cans and talked and laughed. They told us to go play in the forest.

We did. We turned into a herd of animals in those woods! We picked up sticks, clobbered them against trees, threw rocks, shouted, giggled, lost ourselves in hide-and-seek, played tag, and ran through the forest like mad. We were quicksilver with energy, full of the universe's beating heart. It was like we felt the power of nature - like it had somehow gotten inside of us! We were a pack of wild creatures, racing around those enormous black trees. We hid behind trees with trunks so thick that they made us invisible.

We wandered farther into the forest. I kept close to Steve because I was as shy as a butterfly and was afraid of the other boys. I didn't know them, but I knew Steve. He was safe because I knew him. As we wandered, we came to a ridge that sloped down steeply. We crept down the ridge through a dense clot of trees. The trees ended suddenly in a burst of blue sky... and there was a cliff. We walked toward the edge. Way, way below was land - a valley that was checkered blue and gray from grass and rocks and a road that wove through the valley. The drop from the cliff was sheer and steep. It fluttered my heart and churned my belly.

Next to where we stood, a small stream flowed down the ridge and trickled water over the cliff and into the valley below. This kid named Davy - suddenly he stepped into the stream, which was only a few inches deep. He stepped in with his sneakers on and everything. He had hair like black ink, cut real short, like he was a Marine sergeant or something. After he stepped into the stream, he shouted, "It's cold!" But it's neat!"

Others stepped into the stream. Al, who had an amazingly long neck. Dennis, who had a billion freckles. Zoomer, who took forever to get anywhere. They stood only a few feet from the edge of the cliff.

I had to follow them! I just had to do this, too! With my PF Flyers, I stepped into the stream. The water was numbingly cold as it slithered through the canvas of my tennis shoes and against my skin.

But the streambed was covered with moss. I slipped on the moss. I was in the middle of the small stream, and gravity started to pull me slowly toward the edge of the cliff. I tried to step out of the stream, but I couldn't get any traction. I was sliding slowly toward the wall of blue. I panicked, churning my feet faster and faster, but still I couldn't get any traction. I looked down, and the ground slid past me like in a slow-motion movie. I was slipping toward that empty cobalt-blue sky at the edge of the land. It was a simple thing, this sliding toward the sky, such a simple and natural thing to be happening.

Then I felt a hand around my arm, tight. "Hereford, get the hell out of there!" It was this kid Alex, standing on the dry land to the side of the stream. I'll never ever forget Alex's moon-shaped face and his hair flying all over the place, like it was frozen in time. He grasped me tight and yanked me onto dry land. We were a foot from the edge of the cliff and the beautiful blue air beyond the trees.

A voice cried out from above us - loud, angry. "Get the hell away from there!" We all looked at the top of the ridge, where the voice had come from. It was one of the fathers. There they all were. Standing like the trees themselves. They ran down the ridge. Another father yelled, "Get away from that goddam cliff!"

Dad found me. He grasped me tight by the arm. "That was dangerous, Herbie! Use your head! You should have known better! That was so goddam stupid!" He grasped my arm tight with his hand, like a vise. He shook me until my teeth rattled. God, he was hurting my arm! I looked up at him, and he loomed like a gigantic and ferocious tree. Tears burned my cheeks. Dad let go of my arm.

The fathers and sons walked back to the campsite. Silence hung in the air like a shroud. We boys were as grim as acolytes. The fathers started to make dinner. We all sat silently and watched them. The fathers put on the hot dogs and beans. We sat around the campfire, and it threw out sparks like a locomotive going around a bend, and the fire lit up the night.

Slowly, we crawled out from beneath the shock of what had almost happened at the cliff. Darkness fell, like a comforting blanket. I sat next to Dad on a log. We ate our hot dogs and beans, and we roasted marshmallows. The fathers started to talk. Dad drank his beer and laughed with the other dads. They were all laughing. The fire - it danced in their eyes. They laughed, but I didn't feel like laughing. The fire danced orange and white and cast shadows on everyone's faces, and the fire danced in Dad's eyes as he listened and talked and laughed with the other fathers.

I rubbed my arm where Dad had squeezed it. I was sitting next to Dad, but I didn't want to talk to him. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I clenched my teeth. He'd hurt me! And in a small place deep inside me, I felt something black, churning my stomach - something black against Dad. I didn't look at him. I didn't want to touch him. I didn't want him to touch me. The feeling swept over me, like a black curtain smothering me. Smothering me! Dad - he kept laughing with the other dads. It was like I wasn't even there. I tightened my fists, clenched my teeth. Tears crept back into my eyes.

Then, tiny blasts of light in the darkness beyond the reach of the campfire. Fireflies! We had to chase them! We had to catch them! Could we? Could we, please? Yes, the fathers said, but be careful. Don't go near any cliffs! We boys - we raced into the darkness but not so far that we couldn't see the blazing fire where the dads were. The night air felt like velvet - smooth against my arms and legs. I saw a speck of light in the blackness. It bounced lazily up and down. I raced after it and cupped it. "Caught it!" I screamed.

I cradled the firefly in my hands. It was so easy to catch. I opened my hand to look at it. It was still alive, and the body lit up again, and then the light went off. The insect flitted its tiny wings and tickled my palms. Where did the light come from? Such a mystery! The firefly took off from my hand and fluttered into the night. The other boys continued to chase fireflies, and I joined them. When I ran through the darkness, I felt like I was running through a fairy tale. I had never felt so free in my life.

Time for bed. We boys lined up at the outhouse to pee, brush our teeth, wash our faces. I dingled my little thing over the latrine, which was deep and dark, and I felt like it could easily swallow me whole. I backed away from the edge, slipped my thing back into my underpants, raced to the log cabin.

Dad was already in his cot next to mine. "Did you say your prayers, Herbie?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," I said. It was a lie, but I didn't care. Not saying your prayers was a venial sin. In the glare of the small light on the table between us, I could see Dad. He looked like he was going to say something to me. He opened his mouth. But then he closed it. He turned off the light. I heard him breathing, in the darkness.

That black feeling against Dad - it came back. It came back fierce. I turned over in the cot so I was no longer facing him. I heard Dad breathing in the night. I couldn't sleep. I was all closed up in myself. What had I done to make him so mad? What had I done? Once again, I felt the tickle of wet against my cheek. Then I don't remember a thing.

My eyes opened, and the sunlight splashed through the window of the log cabin, and the sky glared blue the color of diamonds, and the air cut with a hard edge. We boys did our morning stuff. We peed and washed our faces and brushed our teeth and combed our hair. The fathers put on the coffee and made bacon and eggs, and the odor drifted into the forest.

As the fathers cooked, we boys once again formed a herd. We rambled into the surrounding woods, but not very far. We skipped and prattled and pushed one another, full of energy and frisky as tomcats. This kid, Brad - he picked up a long stick. The stick looked like a frozen snake. I was standing about 20 feet away. "Hey, look what I can do!" Brad shouted. "I'm at bat! The bases are loaded!" His cry echoed in the forest.

He swung the stick hard against the trunk of a tree. The bottom half of the stick broke off. It sailed through the air. The stick flew through the air in slow motion. I watched the stick turn slowly like a spaceship, once, twice, as it flipped through the air. It was beautiful, so beautiful, how it floated through the air, like it was going on a long journey.

Then the bottom half of the stick hit me. It hit me hard. Right above my lip. Right in the part of my face that was below my nose and above my lips. It made my head jerk back. But I didn't feel a thing. It didn't even hurt

Nothing. Nothing. Then it came. Blood.

"Crap!" I heard one boy holler.

"Jesus Christ!" I heard another boy yell.

I looked down, and a river of blood flowed down my shirt and reached the top of my shorts. A fountain of blood. Blood dripping like raindrops to the ground and darkening the leaves at my feet. "Oh, God!" I screamed. "Oh, God!" I began to cry. Tears dug gullies into my cheeks. I trembled as if every muscle in my body came alive at exactly the same moment.

The boys ran away and soon came back with the fathers. Dad raced to me and said, "Oh, Christ!" He looked at me. Fear in his eyes. He ripped his shirt off. "Hold this up to your lip, Herbie!" He picked me up in his arms, cradled me, carried me to the car. He placed me carefully into the passenger seat. I lay there, holding Dad's shirt, which was slowly turning crimson, and I cried in terror. Dad got into the driver's seat. "You'll be all right," he said. "You'll be fine." His voice was gentle, and he put his hand on my shoulder as he started to drive.

I was sure that I would die, that I would bleed to death in Dad's car and ruin the front seat of the car with all my blood. The blood was soaking Dad's shirt. I trembled almost beyond control. I knew vaguely that Dad was driving very fast. I wondered what would happen if a policeman stopped us. Would he be able to stop me from bleeding to death?

We reached the hospital. Dad picked me up and folded me into his arms. "You're going to be OK, Herbie," he said, his voice cool and soothing. Blood flowed into my mouth, and I swallowed it. I felt faint and sick to my stomach, like I'd swallowed acid.

Dad said, "You'll be all right now. We're at the hospital." I didn't care what he said. I was still going to die. I wondered if I'd go to heaven or hell. I wished I'd said my prayers the night before. I looked up into Dad's face, and he was so determined, and I felt frightened and comforted at the same time. Dad wanted to save me from dying! Dad's eyes were open and clear. He looked down at me, and I felt like I belonged to him. I stopped crying. Dad said, "Herbie, you've got such thick, rich-looking blood!" He smiled at me and gently squeezed my arm, and I felt like maybe I wasn't going to die.

Nurses placed me onto this rolling bed. They treated me like I was a leaf. They wheeled me into an operating room and carried me to the operating table. Above me, a light like a dozen suns blinded me. After that, I don't remember a thing.

I woke up in a hospital room. I felt my lip, and bandages covered the wound and the stitches. Dad was in a chair by the bed. When he saw I was awake, he stood up. He touched me on the shoulder. "Two close calls in two days!" he said. "But you're all right now." With my tongue, I felt the bandages. "You'd better not touch them," Dad said, but he didn't say it like an order. I had lived! I hadn't died! I felt as if I'd cheated death. Dad went and came back with Mom, and she cried and hugged me when she saw me.

They left me alone in the hospital that night. But it was OK because the nurses were real nice. That night, I dreamed of fireflies. I ran through the forest, chasing after the fireflies, and they were so beautiful, and I grabbed them with my hands, and they tickled my palms when I held them. Then, suddenly, I was bleeding on the fireflies. I was bleeding from my nose and my mouth, bleeding all over the beautiful fireflies. Rivers of blood, all over those wonderful fireflies. I woke up, panicked, stuck my tongue out, felt the bandages over my lip. The bandages - they were OK. I wasn't bleeding. I wasn't bleeding at all. I pulled my blanket up over my shoulders. I pulled it up like a cocoon, and soon I fell back to sleep.

2 comments:

  1. Very nostalgic. Does a good job of capturing the complicated thoughts and turbulent emotions of childhood.

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  2. I like this story about a boy and his dad, from a child's perspective. The style is simple and clear, and shows fully a complex relationship. The firefly aspect is symbolic and poignant

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