Sometimes you have to pick up the reins and take charge. Back around the turn of the millennium, I took my young teenage son Ross on a camping trip to the St. Lawrence River. We’d camped on boat-access-only Grindstone Island the previous summer, but on this trip we met my sister (with her husband and two little kids) and my Mom and Dad; with only a canoe for water transport, we stayed in a car-access campground on Wellesley Island.
It was the middle of July and vacationers swarmed the campground. We arrived on a Saturday and got a “site” (just a picnic table) out on a broad lawn, among scores of other camping families. Idyllic it was not—more like a modernized scene from The Grapes of Wrath—with vehicles and tents and barbeque grills and folding chairs sprawling in all directions to the trees, where lucky early arrivers had secured sites with fire pits and shade. We circled our wagons and set up our tents and had a pleasant evening around the campfire.
Sunday we fished and swam and lazed about, but the sun was very hot. I noted a fair number of people packing up to leave, their vacations drawing to a close. I switched on the radio in my truck and got a weather forecast: clear overnight, with thundershowers tomorrow afternoon. I walked up to the rangers’ station to see if we could change sites, and they said the sites are all first-come-first-served, so if I saw one vacated that I liked better, I could move.
Camping in a summer rain is always a memorable experience, either for the hushed patter of raindrops on the tarp and quiet sounds of the woods, or for the endless battle to keep the tent from blowing away, your sleeping bag dry, and a fire burning hot enough to dry soggy sneakers. Which memory will be yours depends almost entirely on the Boy Scout motto: be prepared. After dinner, while the kids roasted marshmallows, I broke the news to the adults. “Tomorrow it will rain, and I do not want to be out in this pasture with no way to tarp our campsite. In the morning, I think we’d better haul our stuff to one of the vacant sites under the trees to our north.”
At dawn I took a duffle bag and scouted out the vacant sites. I found one on the crest of a knob under massive oaks and walnut trees, and staked my claim leaving the duffle on the picnic table. After teasing my troops out of their slumbers with a breakfast of bacon and eggs, I pointed across the lawn to the trees some hundred yards distant and announced, “That’s where we’re going.”
“Is this trip really necessary?” my sister asked, looking about at all the stuff that had to be moved.
“Yup.” Offering more explanation would only invite discussion. I picked up a cooler and the duffle containing a large tarp and several ropes, and set off to the new site. No one followed.
Up under the trees, I figured out where to pitch the tents and how to hang a tarp that would cover all three, plus a space at one end edging up to the fire pit. I rolled out my 20 by 40 foot tarp the long way. Dad strolled up, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe, and sat on the end of a table while I got the ropes out. I tied a 20 foot shank to each corner of the tarp, and then picked up a 70 foot coil and approached an enormous oak tree at the west end of the site at the top of the ridge. The first limb was at least twenty feet over my head.
Anyone who’s ever tried to throw a rope understands comedy; only in Hollywood does the rope fly up over the branch, arch gracefully to the other side, and drop cleanly through the twigs and limbs grasping out to snare the line. I nonchalantly tossed the coil skyward and tried to mask my surprise when it arched and fell just as I’d intended. I started to tie off a loop when Dad spoke up. “Don’t you want to pull that back and do it again, just to prove it was skill and not luck?”
“Naw,” I replied, “I don’t need that much exercise.”
In half an hour, the big tarp hung over the ridgetop and the troops had tossed all the loose gear into the vehicles and brought them to the site. We carried the tents over without pulling out the tensions rods, and got them staked down. By ten thirty we were settled in and the sun shone gloriously across the meadow we’d abandoned. By noon the temperature was in the upper eighties and the kids went swimming. Those of us still in camp were very glad for the shade.
By suppertime, we were very glad for the tarp between us and the torrents falling from the sky. Small rivers leapt from the edges at several points and rushed off down into the dark, away from our tents. We all had a warm, dry, pleasant night in the rainy forest.
The next morning my sister announced that she and her crew and Mom and Dad were going to take in some of the local attractions—the butterfly house, the nature center, the boardwalk through the marsh. Ross and I were invited to come along. “I want to do something more touristy,” Ross replied. “I want to go Boldt Castle and the fort in Kingston.”
The Viking blood in my veins leads me to fishing at all opportunities. I’ve fished for eight consecutive days on the St. Lawrence and still not wanted to leave. Not going fishing when so close to the water seems unnatural. Rubbing elbows with camera-toting fanny-packing touristas in the summer swelter seems downright perverse. “Well,” I told Ross, “it’s your vacation too. Get your stuff.”
It was a short drive to Alexandria Bay, where we got the ferry to Heart Island, a study in the pain of a lost love and a miniature proxy for the collapse of the Gilded Age. “I definitely want a castle when I get older,” Ross confided. Back at the pier we got some lunch, and then set off through Customs and over the border to Canada.
Kingston was mobbed, more crowded than Times Square, and our map didn’t exactly specify where the fort was to be found. Creeping along in traffic by a park on the waterfront, Ross spotted a tourist information booth. “I’m sure they have local maps and fliers, but there’s no parking within twenty blocks.”
“I’ll go,” Ross said. “Go around the block and pick me up at the next corner.” He was very matter-of-fact about the maneuver, with no sense of urgency or excitement in his voice. He got out and melted into the crowd.
I’ve been in quite a few nasty situations—a burning barn, lost in the woods in the snow, a car wreck, on a boat in a vicious storm—but I’d never known fear as I knew it that day. My thirteen-year-old son had just vanished into a crowd, in a foreign country, with strangers from all over the world, with no way to contact me or for me to find him, except to stick to our simple plan of meeting on the next corner. In one trip around the block, terrors jostled terrors, all spurring my racing imagination …kidnappers, perverts, lost child posters, police interrogations, explaining to my wife, living without him—No! Get a grip! Just turn this corner and you’re on the last leg…there’s the corner up ahead…where is…?
The door popped open. “Hi,” he said as he climbed in. He unfolded the map and traced out a route as if nothing had happened. I had aged a lifetime. He was doing something touristy. “Two more blocks and make a right. We’re about a mile from the fort.” Ornately uniformed soldiers, costumed historical lecturers, a mortar demonstration with live fire, views from the battlements, the French, the English, the Americans…it all marched past me in the post-traumatic haze of the afternoon.
Around the campfire that evening everyone recounted the high points of their day. Ross made no mention of his reconnaissance mission in Kingston. Mom tugged my shirt sleeve and whispered, “Your Dad was not very pleased having to pack up and move yesterday, but he said this afternoon he was happy you spoke up.”
The trick is knowing when to give the horse his head, and when to lead.
Tale of a Tail’s Tale
by Methuselah Mouse
It was a cold winter night, but deep under the hay behind the grain bin, the Mouse family was snug and warm. “Tell us about the cat!” the Mouslings begged.
Father Mouse smiled, pleased that his children were so eager to know all about the big world outside the nest. “Gather round, then,” he said. When they were all settled, he began his story. “I was a young Mouse, barely more than a pup, when I first laid eyes on Sheba. The farmer called her Queenie, but I’d listened to the other cats and I knew her name was Sheba. I’d crawled out on a beam in the ceiling of the cow stable. I wanted to see what went on in every part of the barn. The farmer spread some hay in the mangers for the cows to eat, and carried out metal pails and milk cans and all sorts of equipment. Then he went over to a switch on the wall and GRRRUUMMMMMMM!!! On came the vacuum pump—the whole barn trembled and the noise was very scary, at first. The cows had heard that racket many, many times before and took no notice at all, but the cats….the cats came running to the stable from every corner of the barn. It was a great time to be a Mouse because every cat in the barn was right here in one spot where I could keep an eye on them.
“The way those cats carried on! I couldn’t believe my eyes, the way they milled around the farmer and rubbed against his legs and let him touch them! He actually touched them, and they arched up their backs and shook their tails to get him to touch them some more….it was unbelievable to me, just a young Mouse, that these fierce creatures could be so…so…cuddly!
“The farmer set about the evening milking. He put the four cups of the milking machine on the four teats of a big old cow, and in a few minutes, he took them off again and carried the milking machine to the strainer in the center aisle. He took the top off the machine and poured the milk through the strainer into a milk can, but he stopped before the pail was empty. He had left a couple of milk can lids upside-down on the floor in the aisle, and now he poured a few cups of warm, frothy milk into each lid. The cats were crowding around as he poured, and some of them got milk on their heads! Then the farmer went back to milking the other cows and the cats all sat around the lids and lapped up the creamy milk. Little pink tongues darting in and out, feet all tucked under, tails curled around each cat. By the time the next cow had filled the milking machine, the lids were all empty, but the farmer put no more milk down for the cats. Sheba sat and cleaned herself after the meal, stretching her paws so she could lick carefully between her long hooked claws. The cats all sat around and licked their paws and whiskers and each other’s heads, if they had milk on them, and then wandered off to their favorite corners of the barn for a nap.
“The very next day, those claws almost got me. I was creeping along the tunnel between the milkhouse and the toolshed, and as I passed the hole out to the garden, a movement caught my eye. I sat very still and waited to see it again, and there it was! It was a furry little critter, hardly half my size. It sat up and looked around, and then it laid down for a few seconds, and then it sat up and looked a different direction for a few seconds, then down, then up, then down….It was a funny creature, so furry that I couldn’t make out its nose or ears or eyes. It just laid still for a few seconds, then up, then down, then up, then….I was just getting ready to creep out for a better look, when another motion caught my eye. It was about a foot to the side of the little creature, and it lasted about a half of a heartbeat. I was patient and waited to see it again. It was hard not to watch the little critter doing its up and down dance, but I kept watching where I’d seen the second movement, and after a minute or so, there it was again! It was an eyelid, blinking over an eye, an eye with a thin, oval-shaped pupil….it was Sheba, waiting for me to step out where she could get her claws into me and have me for a snack! And that little dancing creature….it was the tip of Sheba’s tail, teasing me to come out of the hole!
“A few days later, I was up in the rafters watching the farmer’s two girls playing on the hay mow floor. It was raining outside, and everyone was trying to stay dry. Sheba walked past the girls. The younger one started to follow her, and the older sister warned her to leave the cat alone, but the little girl didn’t listen. Sheba stopped and arched up her back and let the girl stroke her soft fur for a few seconds. Then Sheba whirled and crouched and hissed and swatted the girl with her paw—those needle-sharp claws dug four red gashes across the girl’s hand and she shrieked. I could feel the pain as if those claws had dug right into me! In a flash, Sheba was gone. The older sister tried to comfort the little girl, and I heard her say, ‘I told you to leave Queenie alone. You can never trust a barncat.’
“So, Mouslings, what is the most dangerous part of a barncat?”
“No, my little mice. By the time the fangs sink into you, the battle is already lost.”
“Well, the claws are like fish hooks and will pull you in, but they only reach out as far as the cat’s arm….the claws are no danger if you stay out of reach….No more guesses? The most dangerous part of a barncat is her tale, because it will tease you and tempt you and get you to do something you really know you shouldn’t. Once you believe that the tail is a friendly little playmate, it’s just a matter of time before the claws hook you in.”
We are a nation of believers. What we have chosen to believe in varies widely, but we all have faith. “Not so!” cry some of you? Look again. We have believers in religion, whose faith rests upon the belief that there is a higher purpose to our existence. We have believers in science, whose faith rests in logic and mathematics and reason and repeatable experiments. We even have many who believe in both religion and science at the same time, a Mobius construct that somehow accommodates both views.
In the political sphere we are also believers. Some believe that governments foster improvements in conditions for all; others hold that governments extort wealth from the prosperous few to support the lazy masses. The former see a social contract; the latter see an unnatural interference with social Darwinism. Unlike the religion/science dichotomy, there is no set of believers who see politics both ways—either you’re with us, or against us.
This is not to say that a great many people would like to hold a middling view on politics, but the system is not set up to accommodate them. We have a two party system—us or them, your only choices. This is very good for the health and welfare of political parties, but not so good for the health and welfare of people. Few things in life are as clear-cut as “us or them,” and our political system’s failure to reflect the realities of life makes finding solutions to our problems nearly impossible. The two party system allows no middle ground, only a no-man’s-land middle view.
A contagion of cynicism stalks among us, exhorting us to hunker down in our trenches on the right and left. We are infested with leaches from both sides—the chronic multigenerational welfare class, and the ear-marking lobbyist-fattened elected elite who game the system for the welfare of their cronies and contributors. We are assaulted by propaganda from both sides—the shouting heads of right and the half-reported politically correct news of the left. We are battered as the right defunds and disables the government bureaucracy, putting industry insiders in charge of regulatory agencies, fulfilling their war-cry, “Government is not the solution, it is the problem.” We are deafened by the left’s demands for solutions to wars and poverty and climate change and the economy and healthcare and justice and intolerance and biodiversity and energy independence and fiscal responsibility and on and on and on…Rome was not built in a day. The middle crouches as right and left blast each other with lies, both sides oblivious to the damage inflicted on the twining roots of democratic ideals and republican government. With both eyes open, the religion of the would-be-middle is despair and cynicism.
So what now? Carried to its historical conclusion, the metaphor says the slaughter will continue and an entire generation will be lost in the trenches. Politicians safely in the rear will send millions into harm’s way and discuss “acceptable losses” over whiskey and cigars. The sacrificed will hang on the barbed wire until the next barrage scatters them to be forgotten on the winds of time. In the end, a breakthrough, a revolution or a totalitarian juggernaut, will rattle and screech across no-man’s-land and drive the right or the left into total defeat. Only then, when the guns fall silent and rejoicing fills the air, will the middle creep out of their cynicism and dare to pursue a brighter tomorrow.
Do you have it yet? If government is the problem, who will put out a hand to save you? The insurance executive canceling your coverage? The Wall Street banker foreclosing your mortgage? If you don’t have a few million salted away in your offshore account, your only hope is a strong, vibrant government. The social Darwinists, cold and calculating as crocodiles, will eat you just like all the rest; labels like friend or foe are of no consequence in the battle for survival. Is this the solution you want? If not, you’d best work to make sure government is the solution.
Propaganda for Kids
An enduring question of the twentieth century is how the Germans came to think it proper to exterminate six million fellow humans. The Nazis’ rise to power, through political and violent means, is well documented. Their grip on the German populace, through intimidation and a vast network of snitches, is a study in mass terror: being less than blindly loyal opened the way to betrayal and the camps. This level of control was not created over night or at a few mass rallies; it was cultured and coddled for more than a decade by an insipid infection of the Germans’ everyday lives, the propaganda created in the Party offices and disseminated through the media.
The appeal was to the laborers, the unemployed and the disgruntled. The educated and the social elite dismissed Nazi propaganda as just a lot of hot air spewed out by fringe politicians and wannabes; that such rants could actually influence the broad public was grossly underestimated. This error resulted from a simple oversight: the effect of repetition, not of the “news” of the day, which must be fresh to be appealing, but of the underlying assumptions that framed the news. “These are bad people! They’re Communists! They want to destroy your way of life! They’re coming for your family! You deserve better! They deserve to die! Be on the winning side!” (Today you can substitute, “They’re Socialists! They’ll raise taxes! They’re destroying America! The left-wing media conspiracy!”)
Crafted “news reports” provided daily repetition of these themes on radio and in newspapers. Dr. Goebbels’ office sent out daily talking points and story suggestions to the local media. People heard the same stories with the same slants, day after day, everywhere they went. The tactic was effective in converting German adults into dedicated fascists.
But the deeper and more permanent influence was on the young who grew up in households where exposure to such media was a byproduct of the adults’ “infotainment.” The children’s indoctrination was, from the parents’ viewpoint, inadvertent; from the propagandists’ perspective, it was intentional. Youngsters growing up in households where they were exposed to nothing but the Party line became adult disciples of Adolph Hitler. Allied soldiers probing Berlin in 1945 reported that the most fanatical defenses were thrown up by the teenagers of the Hitler Youth, fighters born just as the Nazi propaganda machine was solidifying its grip on German media. They were the first generation of a brave new world, a master race. In their entire lives, they’d never heard otherwise. They marched behind one drummer to the destruction of their nation, and their deaths.
To see how this happened, follow the money. The Nazis’ political appeal was populist, promising to save common workers from the domination of Communists and Jewish financiers. But the money that funded the Nazis came from German industrialists, the barons of the steel, coal and chemical industries, who made their fortunes on the backs of the German workers. The deal was simple: the big money funded Nazi politics, and the Nazis kept the workforce under control. The big money in America today—the oil and coal companies, the defense industries, the sick-care system, the Wall Street investment bankers—have the same sort of arrangement, pumping millions into politicians who can keep labor costs down and convince the population that someone else is responsible for all their troubles. The talking points keep everyone on message.
Parents of America, please heed this simple appeal: You know some things are bad for you and very addictive, so you don’t share booze and cigarettes with your kids. Likewise, if the kids can hear, please change the station or turn off the set when Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly or their ilk start up. Defend your children’s innocence. Let them grow up without the Sirens wailing in their ears. Don’t send another generation off to march behind the drummers.