Do Tell: The Early Years by Don B. Dale

Chapter V

A Case of Learning

Being Self-sufficient

     Maybe it was being self-sufficient or just plain stubborn, but from the earliest time I could remember I just wanted to be independent. There was the time in the fourth grade when we were playing football during recess, rough and tumble, without pads or helmets, and my head met the dirt and glass and rocks.

     One of the earlier scars on the side of my head. It only took four stitches after they shaved the scalp a bit and administered a local. By the time one of my folks showed up I was on my way back to class. In this day and societal age of litigious existence, I might have bled to death before someone decided to help. One does have to be a little more careful or be subject to unending lawsuits.

     At Star Lake near Dent, Minnesota there was a rhubarb patch outside the cabin door. I seem to recall a small trickle of a stream running along side the rhubarb, and in the late afternoon on the way down to the dock to catch a few perch, I can remember stopping and cutting a few stalks with my pocket knife to munch on before dinner. The independence of the act gave it a special meaning and I've never tasted rhubarb pie since, but that the memory of the sweet and sour taste from a fresh cut Minnesota stalk didn't come to mind.

     At the age of ten Granddad Brack handed me the keys to one of his jeeps from an oil drilling rig and said here, practice driving around the blacktop (that was the quarter acre to the west of the house which had once been covered with blacktop or asphalt). The loading chute for cattle was built there a few years later. Well, I'd never ever started a car before let alone driven one, and I got to feeling pretty self-sufficient. A little dangerous at that age to believe you know how to drive, but at ten to twelve a lot of my friends were driving tractors and trucks around their families' farms, so it wasn't that big a deal.

     Being independent carries some risks, especially if an attitude develops that says "I can do anything." Uncle Tom was a wee baby, Aunt Mary had just learned how to become a nuisance, Sarah was just a glimmer in the old man's eye, and we were in Yellowstone Park. Your Uncle Jed and I must have been five and six years old. That was back when Old Faithful was marked by a small sign you never saw until you were almost in the spray itself. The gross commercialism of today wasn't cluttering up the landscape.

     You could also ask for a cabin and have a good chance of getting one without making reservations six months in advance. We were in one of those cabins, Mother was fixing some trout Dad had caught that day in the Park, the sun had set, and the camp area was settling in for the evening. Thirty feet or so away from the cabins were some trash barrels chained to pine trees.

     Jed and I were really feeling our oats and decided to test our mettle, the quickness of the Park bears, and show the kids in the campsite who was the bravest of them all. When the bear would climb up on the trash barrel, put his head down into the barrel to forage for left-overs, we would run up behind the bear and punch him with our fist in his get-up-and-go, then run like the devil.

     Such bravery, the other kids cheered, the bear growled, and sister Mary told on us. No matter what you may have heard to the contrary, the human ear is a very elastic and does not easily become detached from the head. In fact, at a young age, and adult can almost literally transport a kid by firmly grasping him by the ear and hauling him out of harm's way (into the cabin and quick).

     We weren't really in any danger because when you're faster than a bear, you can always outrun him. Well now, you can scoff all you want, but I believed it at the time. Thinking back on the bear punching event, your Aunt Mary was probably correct, because if I would have had to turn around and go back to help get Jed who didn't have my blinding speed, we both might have become bear meat.

     It was probably that same summer when we stopped enroute to pitch camp outside of Butte, Montana. It's the only time I can remember when we pitched a tent as a family in the great out doors. Might have had something to do with Mother, and the ants, bugs, or whatever and the fact that it was her only time to get away all year and roughing it wasn't quite what she had in mind. I remember wading in the stream where Dad was trying to fly fish, which annoyed him a tad bit. What I recall most vividly was finding a rock of petrified wood in the middle of the stream. The yellow and brown of the wood was still visible and it seemed terribly fascinating at the time. To hold this large rock, to imagine the tree still alive, the dinosaurs living and fighting beneath its branches, these and countless other thoughts about that time long ago passed through my head that summer.

     The rock stayed with me for a long time. It made each move until we left Crow Court (1989) in San Diego where I forgot to pack it. With two kids to round up and move, that petrified piece of wood, which symbolized so much forty-two years earlier, was left on a patio deck to provide a memory for some other young person.

     So when you want to save some scrape of memory that brings to you a recollection of the independent spirit that moved you at a particular age: please put it away somewhere safe, or it may get inadvertently tossed away by parents who have lost some of their patience in dealing with the clutter of their own memories let alone trying to keep track of yours.

     Talk about being independent, when I was about eight or nine and joined boy scouts, it was almost my downfall. The troop number was # 144, at least that's what sticks in my mind. It was by far the best scout troop in the whole area. When brother Jed got involved a few years earlier, I think Dad was involved to some degree, maybe as an assistant scout master.

     Jed worked hard at being a scout, got a mess of merit badges and eventually became an Eagle Scout. When I joined Jed had already done the important things, not that I cared much one way or the other, as I was looking for new opportunities. The older scouts had their Indian costumes, complete head-dresses with feathers and beads. I did help out with the feathers by shooting a few chicken hawks to collect their tail feathers. The eagle feathers had to be purchased ($1.25 ea) because it was illegal to shoot eagles.

     We were the only scout troop that had real tepees instead of tents. The senior scouts even danced authentic Indian war dances and rain dances at the annual Finney County Fair in the summer. If you could have seen your Uncle Jed whooping it up Indian style, war paint all over his face and body, and head-dress with feathers - you would have been real proud (or nearly died of laughter).

     It was my first summer in boy scouts when the scouts came from all over the State and held a five day summer jamboree outside Scott City, Kansas. There was a large park there. Legend was that one of the most fierce Indian tribes to ever live was the Kaw Indian Tribe of Kansas. The Scott park campsite was rumored to be the last hold-out of the Kaw Tribe where they fought to the death in a battle against union soldiers. From time to time someone would find an arrowhead or some pottery.

     Jed was working hard each day on merit badges as were the other scouts, and I wandered off to catch some Drum in the river that fed the lake. What we called Drum is like a fresh water croaker, looks like a cross between a carp (head and color) and a crappie (shape), but is edible. Had I stuck to fishing things wouldn't have been too bad.

     Around the end of the second day I heard a couple of the freer spirits I was running around with - talk about the caves. Talk about imagination, I dreamed all night about the Indian vase and arrowheads I'd find in the dark recesses of some forgotten cave. After breakfast the next day I set out with a friend to explore. We took our water bottles and headed for the hills as soon as no one was looking. I didn't weigh that much at the time, but was still large for my age, and by mid-afternoon we found a likely cave deep in the side of a hill.

     I left my water bottle and using my boy scout flash light, began to crawl back into the hillside. It wasn't too long and I came to a bend and the cave began to narrow. After another 10 or 20 feet I could hardly squeeze forward, and had decided to start back.

     My "buddy" yelled in to me "look out for rattlesnakes". An adventurous spirit crumbled instantly turning into abject fear. I could hear a rattlesnake in front of me, behind me, and I became claustrophobic in seconds. I couldn't move, my body wouldn't go backwards, and I knew the cave walls were going to crumble in on me, trapping me forever in an ancient Indian burial tomb. So you see, a streak of independence is fine but when you're young, often you need to have some direction from someone, or at least some bench mark to check your progress against to make sure you're on the right track.

     In my case I never should have gone into that cave without a weapon to protect myself against rattlers. You can argue the wisdom of the hunt, to which I would reply, "no harm, no foul", but there was fear.

     Face it I was lucky, and if you ever have the good fortune to choose lucky or to be in the right place at the right time or anything else...choose lucky. Now that night when we got back to camp after dark we had missed roll call; and then the lawn-mower hit the grass. Someone was unhappy, and it was rather difficult explaining how I'd gotten my uniform, my hair, my body so dirty.

     The next day I watched Jed get his fourth merit badge and actually worked toward a badge of my own. And to think my Mother and Father were worried that I was too young to go to a jamboree. My marble collection from grade school, which Regan now protects, has a sock in it with some arrowheads from Scott Park. Might be that one of those flints killed some soldier during the last battle of the Kaw Indians.

     By the time Jed got into high school he went off in the summer to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Tom and I fished and hunted a little but from an age group perspective I had to become more and more self-sufficient. So there was the youth group and sports. The youth group wasn't so all consuming as today's activity seems to be. We met on Sunday nights and in the summer there was a retreat in Colorado for a few days, and the National Methodist Convocation for Youth on the Purdue University campus during the senior year.

     Sports was everyday, all during the school year. There were few other distractions. During the summer the Fellowship of Christian Athletes held one week camps, which along with the other activities helped teach independence of thought and self-sufficiency. So there's no objection to "happenings" and the other youth group functions, unless they impact studies, family, and matters of first priority.

     I think what has happened today with the advent of the nuclear family, the single parent syndrome, and the intensification of groups reacting to these changes; is that different groups (whether Christian or Hare Krishna) have taken it upon themselves to be substitute parents and mentors of youth. There's danger in an all-consuming process or religious/ethnic group trying to supplant what they feel are missing traditional family values.

     They do not have the responsibility nor the authority of the parent, and if the family is still a functioning unit - conflicts develop for control of the youth and this plays on their emotions. With respect to the Christian youth groups, the key is the people running the organizations and activities. Are they parents who understand the demands made in school today? Do they appreciate the abilities and needs of different kids? Or are they empire building and creating some memorable event while everything else in the kid's life suffers? When in doubt, listen to your parents first.

     I've always preached action talks, but with youth experimenting with feelings of independence and trying to become self sufficient, it's necessary to think twice before you act. Like the math problem, read it twice to be sure you understand it: then solve it.

     Learning to drive is something that masquerades under the guise of self-sufficiency. I mentioned getting behind the wheel of a jeep when I was ten. Like all kids I thought I was grown up, but the next several years taught me that the maturity that comes with age takes years of growing into. When I got to Junior High School, Jed and I bought a Crosley. It was around $75.00 and had a floor shift. It was also so small that a collision with a bicycle would have caused severe damage if not a total wipe-out.

     We drove the mile or so to school each day (next to the kindergarten I walked to when I was 5) and felt important until the football team decided to carry the car up the steps of the school and set it down blocking the entrance to the school. It was funny until the repair bill came ($25.00). Whenever the car was moved the transmission would come out of its slot and have to be repaired. The next time it happened, the car was moved below ground. The school had these casement windows where there was a large enclosure for the windows at ground level. Kids used to hide there to smoke cigarettes, and that little car just fit. After the second repair bill we traded it in on a 1948 Nash.

     There's just enough space here to recount an embarrassing moment from the fall of 1957, and relate that moment in my life when I felt the least self-sufficient. The sophomore basketball team had just played Kendall, Kansas, a small town in Western Kansas. After the game we had to change in a locker room and shower across the hall.

     As I was about to dart from the locker room to the shower with a towel wrapped around me, I looked down the long hall and noticed the Kendall cheerleaders at the far end. We had to make a mad dash for the showers; unfortunately (here we go again) one of my "buddies" (David W.) decided to grab my towel as I made my dash to the showers.

     The applause that followed was the most received all night. This night, courtesy of my friends, was the one moment in my life when I felt the least self-sufficient. My sprint from the locker to the shower probably set a record that still stands at Kendall High School.

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