My Childhood

(18 September - 4 October 1989) after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the middle of Montana, In the peaceful Judith Mountains . . .

Mostly it wasn’t something I’d need to tell about later, not like jumping off Mister Taddewald’s haystack and running through the cattails and chokecherry with the image of Mister Taddewald loping through the field carrying a shotgun. It was like following the fire trail through the pines and having to climb over tree after tree that had fallen in the clinging snow the winter before. It was like standing on a hill among the trees where a porcupine with no name bustled itself away, and before me were shiny strips of aluminum foil that the air force had dropped to test their radar. In the woods I found a miner’s shack with no doors, and rat shit a foot deep on the floor, and in front a hole the miner had dug a couple feet deep and full of rocks. I wouldn’t normally go out if it were raining, and in the winter mother would cajole me, ridiculing me because I’d rather read a book. I didn’t like the pain of snow, the kind that seems to come from the inside, but in the summer heat the woods were cool. I would walk through the trees to discover things, like ants in their mound of pine needles, and the places where squirrels tore apart their cones, a pile of scales rusting beneath a fallen tree, or on a ridge under a bush a flat place where a deer or two had bedded down. I would see these animals sometimes, alert for a moment on the edge of surprise, and if I saw them again I didn’t know them. Alone, I wouldn’t be trying to make an impression. Like many other things, it wasn’t real life. Just something to do with no special meaning, a boredom that stopped another boredom. Mostly I took it for granted, preoccupied. If I were with friends, we would do something special, like hike to Crystal Rock or Scull Cave, or go fishing for suckers below Hill’s Pond, or hike past the mink farm and climb Mount Baldy. Once we threw rocks at the hornets nest beyond the aspen woods, until one of them got me between the eyes, straight from the nest. We would go camping at Beaver pond on the weekend, catch and cut open frogs to see their hearts beat, and then torture them over the campfire. Or we would stuff frogs down the throats of a garter snake to see how many it would hold. I was a Boy scout and had prepared for my survival. I had a pocket knife and in my pocket I had a kit in a little plastic container with a fishhook and line and a bandaid, three waterproof matches, a razor blade, and a length of wire for a rabbit trap. I had never caught a rabbit but I knew to look for a run and tie down a sapling and make a loop for its neck in the run. A fire would serve three purposes—to cook food, to keep me warm, and to tell others where I was. But mostly it wasn’t something I’d tell about later. I think I never learned the language of bragging, just as I never learned the names of trees, and mostly it wasn’t exploits, it was only one remove. One remove from brother, sisters, and parents, one remove from home, duty, and need. I kept to myself whatever I got on my own. I never used the survival kit, but I survived.