There Are Monsters In The Woods
Changes in your life come at odd times. Often they are unexpected. Epiphanies that paint everything that comes after in a different light.
I don't recall the first one I had. But I recall one of the earliest.
I was living in Southern California in the late 1960s. We used to call it life in the fishbowl. My brother and I grew up on military bases. There wasn't any crime, political unrest, or domestic violence on a military base. Everything was orderly and neat. So we all got to stare out at the rest of the world as though we were in a fishbowl. The Vietnam War protests, the summer of love, Woodstock, Martin Luther King Jr., none of these things really had an affect on us back then. We were living in the last bastion of the 1950s. It was a place of cookies in the afternoon, sleepovers and playing hide and seek until long after dark.
When I turned 12 my parents decided to send me to a week long summer camp. I realize now that this was just an excuse for getting me and my brother out of the house so my parents could have some quality alone time. But for me it was a big step. I had never been away from family for that length of time. I was scared but at the same time I was also excited.
As it turned out, I really liked the whole camping thing. You got to stay up late and sleep in a tent. The camp counselors gave us all sorts of things to do to keep us busy. We were outside in the warm southern California weather, where the smell of the dirt and grass mixed with the coastal breeze and made a subtle perfume that I can still smell in my dreams.
There were about 30 of us. We were all young boys between the ages of 8 and 12. We didn't know each other, but we bonded pretty quickly like most kids do. We were living for the moment with a short attention span and lots of sugar and carbohydrates to keep us going. It was all a dreamy blur.
On the last night of the camping weekend there was a big jamboree. It was held near the center of the camping area and our tribe put on a skit that is so traditional when boys camp out in the wild. We had no television or radio, so we had to make our own entertainment. Lord, I would love see that skit on video tape (if it had been invented back then). When it was all over, the counselors told us that the first ones back to our campsites got to light the campfires and start cooking the smores. Smores are those chocolate, graham cracker, marshmallow confections that every camping trip ends with. So we all scattered like rabbits and ran through the night back toward our tents.
I suppose that this was the height of childhood. Running like a pack of wolves through the cool evening air, heavily breathing in the summer night, flying through the darkness, not wanting to be the last one back to camp. As I ran through the trees and the tall grass I heard something. A faint scream. I slowed and turned my head and I heard it again. Even as a young boy I knew the sound or terror. It was a fearful scream and then sobbing. I stopped and started to walk back toward the jamboree area. My mind wrestled with the thought that I was going to be the last one back to camp, but I had to find something out. I was half curious, half afraid.
None of my other companions had stopped. Perhaps they hadn't heard the scream, maybe they were scared, maybe they didn't care. As I walked back a boy came stumbling out of the darkness, he was crying. When he saw me, he screamed and ran to me like a child lost in the woods. Which is what he was. He wasn't hurt, he was just scared. He had never been away from home. He was just a kid frightened of the dark. When everyone scattered toward their tents, he hadn't known the way and was left behind in his indecision.
To him, there were monsters in the woods. The Grimm's Fairy tales were still real. Some of us had learned to suppress our fear with bravado and logic. He wasn't able to do that yet. I put my arm around him and told him it would by OK. I knew what he felt like. Only a few months before I might have been him.
He tried to put on a brave face and not act scared while I walked with him back to camp, but the tears drying on his cheeks sort of ruined that charade. We were the last ones to arrive and the fire was already raging. The others were getting ready to toast their marshmallows. The frightened kid sat at the campfire and eventually joined in the comradery and laughter. We didn't speak of coming back last. He hadn't grown up as fast as the rest of us but he would catch up soon enough. He just wasn't going to catch up that night.
During that lazy California summer I realized there were more important things than running with the pack. That was a big step for a 12 year old boy. I think I understood compassion for the first time in the darkness under that starry night sky. It was the first time I started to become an individual and think for myself. After that week in the woods, I saw the world a little differently. I still do.