Into the Woods, Cicero!
This story is dedicated to the Singing Sea Turtles Y-Guide tribe. –Jack Lloyd
Reluctance wasn’t the right word—wasn’t a strong enough word—to describe what I felt the afternoon my wife told me that she’d signed me and Margaret, our daughter, up for the Y-Guides program, a program meant to enhance the father–daughter bond by making crafts, working on community service projects, and earning merit badges for such things as hiking, knot tying, and canoeing. It wasn’t as if I minded becoming part of a “tribe” made up of a dozen other fathers and daughters for the purpose of father-daughter bond enhancement; it was only that, as a lover of the Great Indoors, the idea of bond enhancement through hiking and knot tying and canoeing seemed slightly—well, seemed absolutely nonsensical. I knew just enough about canoeing to drown us both.
“What’s wrong with teaching the kid to play chess and read poetry? Now we can’t bond unless we’re rock climbing?”
“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” said my wife.
“You don’t think Margaret and I bond well?”
“You do,” she said. “It’s just . . . I’d always wished my father had done stuff like that with me, and when Mike Kressler mentioned that they needed another pair to make a tribe, I thought you might enjoy something different.”
And the first year certainly was different—I’d never imagined myself sewing anything, let alone pieces of leather with cat gut to make tribe vests—delivering flowers to shut-ins, caroling through the halls of a retirement home, studying the flora and fauna of North Carolina. And yes, we did enjoy it—far more, I confess, than I’d imagined we would, though I doubt I ever gave my wife credit for it.
But at the start of our second year, on a warm, late summer afternoon, as Margaret and I drove north out of Raleigh into the open country, that initial reluctance returned (for which I couldn’t stop giving my wife credit). We were going camping, actual out-of-doors, tent and sleeping bag camping—for a man whose idea of out-of-doors camping was admiring the winter night sky, a decent glass of Burgundy in hand, from the warmth of a ski chalet. Oh, I had no problem with the idea of giving my child as various a range of experiences as practicable, but what were the chances, I thought, watching Margaret in the rearview mirror, that I’d survive the next twenty-four hours without making myself look like a complete jackass in front of my girl—a girl, I might add, still young enough to think I was actually cool? Not good.
She was staring out at the passing fields and distant forest. I cut off the Brahms. (For some reason I’d always thought of Brahms’s Fourth as “outdoorsy,” but it wasn’t helping. Probably should’ve gone with the Wagner.)
“How are you doing back there, Champ?”
“This is going to be so awesome. Into the woods like Pa and Laura.”
“You know it, girl.”
“And we’re really sleeping in a tent?”
The tent—for the love of St. Francis! I’d spent an hour the night before trying to understand the instructions. They might have well been in Greek.
“Hey, Honey—who said ‘It was Greek to me’? Remember we talked about that?”
“Um . . . Oh—Shakespeare.”
“Good girl. You remember where?”
“Julius Caesar. Casca talking about Cicero. You remember Cicero?”
But Margaret wasn’t listening; she was still watching the passing countryside, the incipient excitement of becoming the very reincarnation of Laura Ingalls Wilder stamped deeply into her face.
We pulled into a long dirt drive at the end of which, beneath a massive oak tree, the guys were unpacking SUVs and laying out tents, and the girls were taking turns pushing each other on a large wood swing tied to a branch high in the oak. Just beyond the camp, sunlight sparkled in the far end of a deep-green pond. Nothing but sunlit fields and forest in every direction. Practically Edenic.
Margaret ran off to play with her friends, and I casually went about setting up our tent, joking and chatting with the other men, surreptitiously watching how they attached the tent piping and where they spaced the support spikes.
“Daddy!” called Margaret. “Sarah and Molly are fishing. Can we fish?”
“You know, Sweetie, I totally forgot to bring fishing stuff.”
“She can use Carol’s rod,” said Mike Kressler unhelpfully.
Fishing. Indeed. Something about which I knew only a tad bit less than I knew about knot tying and canoeing. But fishing was done on solid ground, yes, so at least I knew wouldn’t drown the kid.
Standing in the high grass at the edge of the pond, I opened the plastic cup Mike had given me and dug a very large and very reluctant worm out of the cool, dark soil.
“Right,” I started, authoritatively, “So, the first thing we do, hook the worm.” I masked the disgust I felt pushing the stainless steel hook through the guts of this innocent bystander. “Good. Now, you just cast that old wormy out there and we’ll see if we can’t catch us a fish.”
Margaret swung the fishing pole—looked like a great cast to me—but the line didn’t release. The worm merely whirled about in little circles a few times at the end of the rod before falling off into the water at our feet. We tried again; same result.
“Maybe the fishing pole is broken,” said Margaret.
Sure, after a few minutes I figured out that you needed to compress the red button on the reel to make the line release when you cast, and Margaret sent that fourth worm sailing fifteen or so feet out into the pond. And sure enough, it wasn’t long before the line tugged and the rod gently bent, and Margaret and I slowly reeled in her—and my—first fish, a small beige fish with a broad, fan-like dorsal fin. Margaret was literally shaking with excitement as it broke the surface of the water, flipping about on the line.
“Hold the rod tight,” I said, only slightly less excited than she was, stepping into the shallow water, positioning myself to grab the little bugger—our little bugger—a muffled holler blowing across the water from the other side of the pond, where James Fellowes was fishing with his daughter, waving his hands. “From the head down!”
I turned—“What?”—grabbing the fish, its hard-as-nails dorsal spikes puncturing my hand in a half-dozen places.
“Daddy—you dropped it!”
But spiked fin or no, this little son-of-a-bitch wasn’t getting away. I thrashed about in the reeds, trying desperately—and failing—to slide my bleeding hand down the thing’s slimy body. “The bucket, Baby! Get the bucket.”
Marching our the triumphal procession back to camp like Peter before the hunters and strung-up wolf, Margaret pumped the fishing rod in the air like a baton, periodically turning and calling for me to hurry. But she needn’t have called; I wasn’t far behind, carrying the little blue bucket with our prisoner, so elated at having been with my daughter when she caught her first fish that I almost forgot about the bits of broken dorsal fin in my hand. Almost.
At sunset, the men grilled and the girls played tag, filling the country-quiet, charcoal-scented air with joyous shouts and laughter. A lovely scene. Renoir never did better. And I was just settling into the evening, thinking that this camping business was all right, when Kevin Jackson, a software marketing man by trade but, to me, mountain man extraordinaire (mainly because he was the one who had told me about the REI camping store), rumbled up on a mud-splattered ATV. “You want to take Margaret for a ride, Chris?” he asked.
Years of news reports about ATVs flooded my mind: sprained wrists, broken arms, broken legs—paralysis! “Yeah, uh—thanks,” I said, “I think we’re about to eat.”
“You’ve got time.”
Margaret was already running toward me. “Can we, Daddy?”
“You know, Sweetie, uh, I don’t know . . .” This wasn’t sticking a worm on a hook or putting up a tent (which, to my amazement, was still standing).
“Nothing to it, man,” said Kevin. “Change gears with this,” he said, switching back and forth a little black lever on the handlebars. “Twist here to accelerate. And watch the long turn down near the bog—it’s really wet. Make sure you slide right.”
Oh, now this was brilliant. Flip this, switch that, slide right, do a loop-de-freaking-loop! No helmets, no experience, no knowledge of how to make the thing go—or, more important, stop. Still, there she was, my daughter, already up and straddling the Death Machine, her long blonde hair translucent in the late afternoon sun, her face beaming, waiting for her Daddy to take her for a ride.
I climbed on behind her, my stomach in knots—knots I was pretty certain wouldn’t earn us any merit badges—and took hold of the accelerator with my Band-Aid–covered hand.
After a stutter, or seven, we were off, down the dirt path into an open field, wind rushing across our faces. Into the woods, across another field, slowing at the bog turn—though not enough—sliding, though not purposefully, Margaret clenching my forearms with her pink little fingers. Back again across a flat field toward the camp, faster . . . faster . . . her hair whipping up into my eyes and nose, a rush of raw, intoxicating power filling my chest.
“Daddy!” she yelled against the wind, “It says we’re going fast, doesn’t it?”
Yes it did—fifty miles per hour. And it was awesome.
Then hot dogs and hamburgers and collecting fireflies beneath an ever-darkening violet sky, the girls giddily tired, adorned in glowing, rosy-cheeked exhaustion.
Then a campfire, ghost stories—but not before a trip to the “potty,” a paint-flaking hunters’ outhouse on the far side of camp that I’d been sizing up all afternoon, knowing that at some point Margaret would need to go. It stood now in twilight mocking me, as if somehow it knew that, for a guy with a touch of—how shall I say?—germaphobia, hooking worms and driving Death Machines were child’s play compared to the idea of my child entering this coffin of disease.
“I’ll be right back, Daddy.”
“Whoa, Baby—whatcha got there?”
“My pajamas and toothbrush.”
“Uh, no, Sweetie. That place is just for going potty. Let Daddy come with you.”
But her embarrassment lasted only until I pulled back the rusted, spring-hinged door. She froze before the dark, stench-filled box, the nauseating fumes overwhelming us both.
“Oh, Daddy!” She gagged.
I switched on my flashlight, lighting the myriad spider webs and the clichéd hole-in-a-wood-plank “toilet,” generously sprinkled with urine. There weren’t enough Clorox wipes in North Carolina.
“I’m going to hold you up, okay, Baby. You’re just going to pee right in the hole.”
“It smells so bad, Daddy.”
Flashlight tucked under my chin, I awkwardly held my daughter and braced myself, bare elbows against the moist, rotted wood walls. Was it possible that the walls themselves were urine soaked? The seat, the walls—is everything fair game in an outhouse?
She gagged again.
“Just—just—just let Daddy get set, okay?”
“I have to go!”
“Just—wait . . .” But my elbow slipped and I lost my balance, dropping the flashlight, which, upon striking the floor, promptly cut off and Margaret—apparently thinking she was falling—dug her nails into my neck and shoulder and let out a high-pitched, sustained scream as she peed all over the seat and the floor and my legs.
Yes, I thought, running with Margaret in my arms to the car for hand sanitizer, apparently everything is fair game in an outhouse.
The large campfire crackled life into the surrounding darkness, lighting the undersides of the pale-green oak leaves. The dozen tired girls in sweatpants and tee shirts reclined beside their fathers listening to ghost stories.
“Okay, girls—time for bed,” said one of the fathers.
“No, no,” protested the girls. “One more story!”
“Come on, girls. You’re so tired.”
“One more . . .”
“Chris, you got a ghost story, man?”
Finally. Finally something I could do. The years of reading aloud to the girls Shakespeare and Kipling and Nesbitt, telling the children their bedtime stories—if I couldn’t pull off an impromptu ghost story, what was the point?
Intently looking in turn at each of the fire-lighted dozing faces, I told them about a troop of Girl Scouts—just their age—happily flying over the Rockies toward an annual scout meeting. A crash landing. Walking for days in the snow, weak, hungry, thirsty, losing hope. But then they see it: a ski resort. Why it was so dark, they didn’t know or care—they were saved! But, pushing open the old, creaky front door—“Creaking, girls, just like the outhouse door, and just as dark inside”—the scouts discovered it wasn’t a ski resort after all. It was some type of . . . abandoned hospital. No, it was an old, long-forgotten insane asylum—“and, girls, it wasn’t abandoned.”
But I got only as far the preliminary assault by the zombie-looking cannibalistic crazies before the whimpering began and two girls ran for their tents.
“I thought it was great,” said Margaret, as I zipped her into her sleeping bag.
“Thanks,” I said, kissing her forehead.
Sometime after midnight, I woke and found that Margaret had pulled her sleeping bag next to mine. Her head was resting on my chest the way it had those nights I rocked her to sleep when she was an infant, when she was bald, not yet sporting this long hair that made her look, to me anyway, terrifyingly seventeen. I gently brushed her hair off her face and tucked it behind her ear, the way I’d seen her do it a thousand times.
Sometime later, she woke me with a poke. “Daddy—I have to go potty.”
“I gotta go.”
“Okay. Okay,” I said, hunting for my sweatshirt on the tent floor. “Can we just—can we go in the field on the other side of the car?”
Thank you, St. Francis!
I followed Margaret out of the tent into the cool night, where she stood motionless, staring at the sky. The stars seemed to have come closer to Earth—millions of them, astonishingly bright, coruscating, hovering just beyond the trees, as if the universe—Creation itself—were one vibrating, living and breathing presence. Breathtaking. Magnificent. And yet, not half as magnificent as that living presence slipping her hand just then into mine, this child who had once again—as she had so many times before—forced me out of myself.
“Wow,” she whispered.