Above The Timberline
By Wayne Mergler
Note: Wayne Mergler is still “on sick leave” in the frozen north, so we are sharing one of his 2010 columns for your delectation till he’s back on board.
ANCHORAGE AK—(Weekly Hubris)—11/4/2013—Anyone who has been to Anchorage, Alaska knows that we’re surrounded by mountain ranges here, most notably the spectacular Chugach Range, which looms over the city like protective godparents.
Several roads wind up into these mountains and the more affluent and adventurous of homeowners have built gorgeous homes with incredible views of the city and the inlet and primeval forests and more mountains: the scenic wonderland goes on forever. We call this part of town the “Hillside,” though that is actually a misnomer: it is much more of a mountainside than a hillside. And the people who are lucky enough to live there are often envied.
This past, glorious, sunny Saturday, I visited my friends who live on the Hillside. I noticed their twelve-year-old son hunched over his hand-held gadget—an iPhone, I think—in the family’s living room. He was texting, playing games, texting some more, playing more games, all at rapid finger speeds; rarely, if ever, looking up. He acknowledged my presence (to which he was profoundly indifferent) with a mumbled grunt after his mother had loudly chided him with, “CAN’T YOU SAY HELLO TO WAYNE?” and went immediately back to the joys and mesmeric mysteries of his gadget’s screen.
Unable to resist, I said to him, “Why aren’t you outside on a day like this?”
I, of course, hated that question when I was kid, engrossed in a book, but now I felt that, somehow, the torch had been passed to me and I needed to do my part as annoying-meddlesome-though-well-meaning-friend-of-father’s.
The kid looked up at me, eyes blinking from his computer screen, shrugged, and said, “There’s nothing to do outside.” He then went immediately back to his screen and finger-punching.
I looked out the picture window of his living room at the panoramic splendor of his back yard—mountains, forests, babbling streams, waterfalls, all rich in wildlife. There is even a glacier nearby. Jeez, I would have killed for such a playground when I was a kid!
When I told him this, he just shrugged again. “It’s just a bunch of boring trees and stuff,” he said.
“And mountains!” I retorted. “And glaciers! And wildlife! You even have a waterfall in your back yard! A friggin’ waterfall?”
He looked at me with heavy-lidded eyes, vaguely, impassively wondering if I might be unhinged. Then he went back to his iPhone.
There was a time—honest!—when kids used to actually do things. (No, I am not sh***ing you: they really did. I’ve seen them. I’ve seen them do things! Though, I must confess, not for a few years, now.) There was a time when kids used to climb trees and build tree houses and forts and pretend they were Robin Hood and Tarzan: they used to fish with a long stick and a piece of string, and joyously dig up the earth for worms; they used to race their Flexible Flyer sleds down snowy hills with names like Devil’s Slope and Dead Man’s Jump; they used to build rafts and sail them on ponds, playing pirates.
My friend David Bergman and I once kidnapped Frank LeMay’s little sister, Bernice, and tied her to a tree in the woods and then fought Frank to the death when he came to rescue her. Of course, Frank’s enthusiasm for fighting to the death to rescue his sister was not as great as it could have been, but he gave it a valiant effort. But our wooden swords clattered together and rang out in the woods, those very same woods (actually, just a clump of trees in the LeMay yard) where we imagined packs of slavering wolves and stalking grizzly bears coming to menace us at any moment. (My friend’s kid on the Hillside wouldn’t even have to imagine the wolves and bears. They are actually there in his back yard.)
My visit to the Hillside reminded me of another troubling time, the last time I visited my aunt and uncle at their wonderful farm in the Virginia Piedmont. I spent a great deal of time as a child on this thousand-acre family farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That place was more thrilling to me than Disneyland could ever be. My cousins (boys) and I used to roam those thousand acres like war-painted savages. We skinny-dipped in the Roanoke River, chased cows and sheep just for the fun of it, ran around stark naked most of the time, until we were shockingly old for such antics.
Looking down the dusty red-clay road that led (eventually) to civilization, we could see by the billowing red clouds of dust if a car was coming. If so, it could only be coming to visit our house, the only house for miles around. At times like that, my aunt would call out from the front porch, “Somebody’s comin’ up the road! You boys come in now and put your pants on!” Even now, 50 years later, that farm still holds the same sort of enchantment for me, despite the encroaching civilization starting to nudge its way through our own special wilderness.
But the last time I was there, some visiting children were sitting inside in the now air-conditioned rooms (unheard of in my day), glued to their computer games and texting machines or whatever. I don’t even remember whose kids they were. They could have been my aunt’s grandchildren or the children or grandchildren of visiting friends. The fact that I don’t remember is testimony to the fact that they never emerged as individual people to me, just a gaggle of texting, keyboarding, computing kids. But I remember asking them the same inane question: “Why are you inside? It’s glorious out there! Why aren’t you running with the bulls? Galloping on horseback? Fighting with staffs and swords in the barn? Swimming in the river? Tumbling on the baled hay?”
They looked at me with thinly disguised discomfort. Clearly, I had just made my mad escape from Happy Acres and they weren’t sure how to handle me. So they did what all good children of the 21st Century do: they ignored me and went immediately back to their hand-held screens.
Another time, while visiting old friends in their Norman Rockwell-ish small town in Indiana, I noticed, as they gave us a tour of the charming old-fashioned place, that I hadn’t seen a single child on the street, biking on the sidewalk, or playing on the spacious green lawns.
“Don’t you have any kids in this town?” I asked my friends. I grew up on such a street in Cleveland and remember that there were always swarms of kids everywhere, playing kick-the-can, playing baseball, roller skating on the sidewalks. “Where have all the children gone?”
“They are here,” my friends said, “but they don’t come outside anymore.”
I’m not sure why all this bothers me so much. I mean, nobody is holding a gun to my head and making me text. What do I care what they do? But somehow I do care. It seems like such a tragic waste of American childhood. What riches are they missing as they strain their eyes before the computer screen? And what stories are they going to have to tell their grandchildren? (“Wow! Once, when I was about your age, I sent a text message with more than 80 characters!”?) It seems to me that kids now have no lives of their own. None at all.
Yes, I know how I sound. I’ve become one of those old farts appalled by “these kids today.” Actually, I think most kids today are quite charming and nice. I just wish they knew that they could actually insist on living a life, on actually doing things, if they just knew that things could be done.
I guess it’s not their fault. In addition to all the technology which helps them, even encourages them, to have no lives of their own, they have parents who so pamper and protect them that they are never exposed to any of the adventures life may have to offer. I mean, something might happen to them if they tried to have an experience. They might hurt themselves; they might experience discomfort or pain or danger or fear.
They might experience being alive!
My younger daughter is a wonderful mom, but her three boys are so overly protected that I sometimes despair for them. They have a cool uncle, who owns a great bike shop in Colorado, who sends them state-of-the art bicycles for Christmas and birthdays. Cool, right? And they live in a city (Anchorage) which is proud of its fantastic and intricate web of city bike trails that plunge through greenbelts and over bridges and under highways and alongside parks and woods and beaches. But they are not allowed to ride their bikes except back and forth in front of their house. It’s too dangerous, otherwise. Something might happen to them.
“The world is different now, Dad,” my daughter tells me. “It’s not the same world it was when you were a kid. Or even when I was a kid.”
Well, she may be right. Certainly, we all have Nancy Grace now terrifying the hell out of us every night on CNN, reminding us of all the kids who went missing or were molested or murdered in just the last few hours. I certainly don’t mean to make light of these horrors but, Jeez, Nancy, you’re making even ME afraid to leave my house just to get the mail.
I was a ten, eleven, twelve-year-old kid in inner-city Cleveland. In the summers, I remember that I would leave my house right after breakfast, shouting, “Bye, Mom!” as I slammed the screen door, then jumped on my bike and was gone. My parents never saw or heard from me again until supper time. Now, I’m not saying that that was responsible parenting, but I was always given to believe that I was trusted to take care of myself and to handle anything that might come my way. Nowadays, kids all have cell phones. I guess they could keep in touch with Mom that way. (“I’m now at the corner of Elm and 7th Avenue, Mom!” “I’m now crossing Main Street at the crosswalk, Mom!” “I’m now sharing a joint with the nice homeless man in the park!”) OK: maybe not such a good idea.
I dunno. I have no answers. Just questions and reactions. What good am I?
I do turn then to that which always seems to work for me: I turn to literature. For those who do want their kids to have lives or at least to know that kids used to have lives, there are several books on the joys of childhood. There is a whole genre of (largely unread) literature out there that reflects nostalgically on memories of childhood. Besides Mark Twain’s classics of boyhood, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, there are some wonderful lesser known works about the simple joys of being a kid.
Bevis, an English novel by Richard Jeffries, follows the adventures of two boys through a summer as they build a boat, sail on a reservoir, discover an island and camp out, all the while enhancing the fun with the liveliness of their imaginations. This book inspired author Arthur Ransome to write his series of Swallows and Amazons books, all about the real and imagined adventures of six children (boys and girls) playing pirates in a cove during their summer holiday.
Better yet is Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages, about two boys who spend their summer outdoors, pretending to be Indians. They build a teepee in the woods, hunt and fish and prepare their food, build a dam, blaze trails, read the stars, make moccasins, arrows, bows and drums.
Perhaps the most enjoyable and informative books about lost childhood are The American Boy’s Handy Book, by D.C. Beard, and The American Girl’s Handy Book, by Lina and Adelia Beard. Written in the 1880s by siblings, these two books—divided by seasonal activities—are a wealth of information and sheer fun about the joys of being a kid. The Beards tell us how to make kites, fishing poles and fishing tackle, how to make and keep a freshwater aquarium, how to make knots, hitches, water telescopes and boats, how to find birds’ nests, how to rear wild birds, how to trap, how to build snow houses, whirligigs, puppets. These books are great fun to read. Parents will enjoy them as nostalgic looks into the past. Kids need to read them to see what they’re missing.
And just maybe, 30 years from now, one or two of them will have some memories of childhood other than the TV shows they used to watch and the text messages they used to send their friends.
Note: The image used to illustrate this column derives from http://www.freehdwall.net/2012/08/girls-children-iphone-tablet-hi-tech.html.