My Son and I Rough It On the Road

My son and I dropped out of mainstream society for a couple of years back in the 1970s. We started out living in a thatch-­roofed, unelectrified cabin in Florida. The first winter we built a treehouse in the woods behind, and the next year we lived in that. It had a hole in the center of the floor and a pole we could slide down, like a fireman’s pole.

When we got restless, we did some traveling in our VW van and lived in campsites and rest stops along the road. We saw a lot of ocean during those two years, both Gulf and Atlantic side, saw a lot of country, spent a few weeks in Key West, where once he came within a whisker of drowning. But that’s another story.

Had he been in school at the time, he would have been in the second and third grades. I was in my mid-30s. Our cat, Raspberry, who went everywhere with us, was just slightly more than a kitten.

Life is not easy without a rou­tine and the usual round of dis­tractions. We did go to Disney World and Sea World once each, but that was all our budget could afford. For me, once was enough, though Ty would have liked more. We fished a few times without catching anything. A friend had a sailboat on the Gulf, and he gave us several rides, a couple of them all the way out of sight of land.

Meal preparation was a major part of the day, with no running water and but a Coleman stove to cook on. We read aloud each night at bedtime, going through the en­tire “Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis. When we blew out the kerosene lantern and zipped our­selves into our sleeping bags at night, we probably didn’t realize at the time the wealth of the ex­perience we were having together.

Subsequently, however, we both look back on those days with great fondness. He told me once that af­ter he came back to his old school, the one thing he noticed most clearly was that he enjoyed un­structured time so much better than his school chums. He had be­come practiced in drawing on his imagination. To this day he has little interest in TV.

Another benefit of our two years together in such close quart­ers is that now, at ages 49 and 20, we are able to talk comfortably about even delicate subjects. Lately we’ve been talking about his dreams. This summer he told me he was having bad dreams about going prematurely bald. He wears his hair very long, and it has been, since his adolescence, an impor­tant part of his identity.

For example, when he was in the ninth grade the varsity foot­ball players threatened to give him a haircut and locked him in the equipment closet during gym class. When they learned they couldn’t ruffle him with their bul­ly tactics, they eventually be­friended him and tried to buy pot from him. He didn’t sell pot or smoke pot, but since they wanted so much to believe he did (from his long hair), he let them be impressed.

I told him that maybe the dream meant that he was prepar­ing to give up his long hair as such an important part of his identity, that it had now served its purpose. He didn’t agree.

Once earlier this fall, when we were both sitting shirtless on my front porch, he confided to me that he felt a little self-conscious about a missing upper chest mus­cle that he was born without, which leaves a small indentation on one side. “I notice,” he said, “that when I have my shirt off I fidget with my ear so I can cover up my missing pec with my arm. I don’t do it on purpose, but my hand just goes to my ear, auto­matically.”

“That’s good self-observation,” I complimented him. “Because everybody has something they feel bad about. But when they try to cover it up, all they do is draw at­tention to it.”

“It doesn’t look too weird, does it?” he asked me.

“Not at all. Although you might want to cut back on the upper­body weight work,” I suggested, “since what you develop on your good side emphasizes the differ­ence.”

He didn’t want to cut back. I wished I hadn’t said anything.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, remembering roughly to him Abe Lincoln’s favorite prayer: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can’t accept, and the wisdom to know the differ­ence.”

That weekend, we borrowed a friend’s pickup and acquired a few pieces of secondhand furniture for his first apartment in Morgan­town. He tied a bandana around his head, and we listened to some Marshall Tucker and Rolling Stones on the tape deck. Driving along, I reminisced about the time we were driving back from Flori­da after our two years on the road. We had decided that we were exhausted with pioneer life for the time being and were ready to test ourselves in the “real world” again.

On the way north, driving up 1-95, I had taught him multiplica­tion tables and state capitals, and as far as being out of school was concerned, nobody ever knew the difference.

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