As Wallace Stegner observed: "...there is a time somewhere between the ages of five and twelve which corresponds to the phase ethologists have isolated in the development of birds, when an impression lasting only a few seconds may be imprinted on the young bird for life. This is the way a bird emerging from the darkness of the egg knows itself, the mechanism of its relating to the world. Expose a just hatched duckling to an alarm clock, or a wooden decoy on rollers, or a man, or any other object that moves and makes a noise, and it will react for life as if that object were its mother. Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies."
It is with grave concern that I announce to the world wide web that our 11 year old is just days away from becoming 12. I shudder as I see the window into his subconscious closing. His sponge of a mind is nearly saturated with experiences. Brain cells are developing at an alarming rate, creating a rational and logical tween where an awe struck lad once stood. The magic will soon be gone and he’ll spend the better part of his remaining years trying to rekindle the memories he’s made already.
As a parent and an outdoorsman, I feel like I’ve failed to pack as much of the outdoors into his head as I could have during the short handful of formative years we had together.
Statistics show that those who were not exposed to outdoor sports such as fishing and hunting as kids have around a 3% chance of partaking in those activities as adults. The number of outdoors-people is dwindling with no end in site. And I tried, as best I knew how, to instill into each of our kids the enjoyment and responsibilities of recreating outdoors. Now, as the youngest of our children bikes, swims, paddles or steps his hunting boots across that line in the sand. He’ll have more neurons connecting than ever, sending pulses of ambition to establish himself as a teen, then adult, and prove his worth to the world.
I pray that he will be reminded of:
Riding on the Billy Wolff Trail behind Hobby Lobby when he smells lilacs.
What a target perfectly lined up in his sites looks like when his fingertip touches cold steel.
How no worldly invention can be as therapeutic as warm loup river sand eroding from under bare feet.
That a puffed out chest and ear to ear smile just don’t seem right without a fish in your hand and dad pointing a camera at you.
Every weedeater or chainsaw exhaust smell beckons him back to the scent of his childhood 2-stroke ATV.
How grown-up the punishing kick of his new rifle’s first shot made him feel.
Cricket chirps and frog croaks heard from a campfire are possibly as close as you can get to heaven on earth.
How a crushed limestone trail sounds under bike tires and how the vibrations feel through the pedals and handlebars.
The smell of every fall from now on, takes him back to a riverside tree stand in 2008.
The deep-seated need to ‘do it again’ after the nauseating feel of your stomach in your throat and sting in your buns from a fast sleigh ride.
Propane will always smell like a warm duck blind breakfast on a clear and still, cold morning.
The tackiness of sunscreen and bug spray on your skin means good times are soon to be had.
Test riding an immaculate showroom bike necessitates a run through a virgin mud hole, regardless of the expression on the salesman’s face.
Root Beer and cheap chips tastes best from the front of a canoe.
With coveralls on and a shotgun in the back seat, city lights never looked better than in a pick-up mirror.
Of course I’ll continue to nurture (forcibly or otherwise) my interpretation of his love of the outdoors. But I know every outing will have less of an impact as he takes in less of the experience and worries more about whether we’ll get back in time for him to hangout with friends or for a date. The thought of girls, a job, his checkbook, and all the other responsibilities that lie across that line, will distance him from his boyhood outings I was lucky to be a part of. That disgusts me.
He had trouble coming up with what to say when I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. I said, “well, since you can’t think of a good gift anyway… I tell you what… it’s been a fun year, right?” “Yes” he says with a smile. “I thought so, ok, how about this, I’ll go down to the courthouse and have them change your birth-certificate so it’ll say you were born in 98 instead of 97, you can be 11 one more year, and we’ll even spend twice as much on your gift next year since we aren’t buying you one now. You can just skip this birthday.”
Can’t say I’m surprised. But if it were up to me, I’d sure appreciate one more year of outdoor fun.
So now, as I trudge up to the courtesy desk of parenting, to exchange my hero’s cape for a has-been’s cane, I can’t help but feel a little sentimental about this ragged old cape.
Sure it looks ruff, with fish slime child-sized hand prints around the collar, it’s tattered and torn by bike wrecks, bloody from successful days in the field. You can shake river sand out of its seams and it smells like bug spray, sunscreen, bike sweat, fall hunts, root beer, campfire smoke, river water, and the love of three children and an adoring wife.
I’ll begrudgingly hand it to the clerk, and take that dang cane. The one that’ll make my kids turn away, when their out with friends, and I come around the corner. Their friends won’t see the cane. But my kids will. They’ll see me as I really am, an embarrassing, bumbling old fart who’s served his purpose and now should be put to pasture. But, mark my word, I’ll be back. Oh yes I will. I’ll stomp right up to that courtesy desk with this dang old cane and demand my cape back! You’ll know it’s me by the awe struck grandchild I’ll have in tow.