Monday, December 26, 2011


Note: For the next two posts I'll be taking a break from mini-desserts and other edibles, and writing about other things. Hope you enjoy!

With Christmas just past I'm thinking many of you had the holiday experience of watching It's a Wonderful Life. I've sat through this movie so many times I believe I could recite every line in it, but there's one scene that never fails to provoke a twang: it's when George Bailey, his kid brother, and their buddies go sled-riding on a shovel.
Me as a teenager - January 1967
There's a dramatic purpose to this scene, one I won't reveal and spoil the film for first-timers, but it's not this that captures me. It's that what the boys are doing is exactly the sort of thing I did as a boy. 
I don't remember any weather too rugged to prevent me from going out and playing, or the lack of a "correct" toy stopping the fun. In fact, the colder, snowier and more-blustery it was, the more I liked it, and the less perfect the toy, the more I'd have to use my imagination and resources. I've ridden plenty of coal shovels.
Our house sat atop a small hill and the road in front curved down a longer one. Let there be just an inch of snow and I was out in it, rubber snap-top boots and floppy eared cap, raggedy coat, wool pants and hand-me-down flexible flyer with carefully sanded and waxed runners.
There might be traffic on the road or it might be night and 5 below zero, but winter was mine and I loved it. With the neighborhood kids I performed all sorts of devilment and don't recall ever being in trouble, except once. That was the year some of the "Big kids" down the street stole a cement mixing trough and turned it into a 10-kid toboggan. It wasn't the icy hill and 20 mph ride that provoked my parents, but the theft of the trough. We could have probably ridden, flipped and spun that sucker for a dozen winters had it been morally obtained. As it was, we had but a single day. Glorious if ill-obtained.
Other acts passed without prohibition or punishment: ice skating deep in the woods on a swampy pond, thickness checked by no one but 12-year-old me. Patting down the snow of a steep valley into a u-shaped chute, breaking the ice in the creek at the bottom to provide buckets-full to slosh the run, then coming back the next day to have a go in our flying saucer sleds. (My neighbor Chipper fell through the ice and we dragged him home on a sled, his sodden legs wrapped in our coats). Seeing how many of us could stack up on a sled, then running it over a jump. Making a sled out of 2 X 6's and fire-bent reinforcing rods, not bothering to wonder how it might be steered. And, when I was 16 and could drive, going to Mill Creek Park at night to skate the big frozen lakes under the stars.
Television didn't enter our household until I was 11, and right from the start I had no use for it. If I wasn't at school or doing homework I was out-of-doors. Spring and summer there were edible plants to harvest and woods to explore; in the fall I hunted rabbits and pheasants (I owned a shotgun from age 13). Winter remained my favorite season. It had everything and besides it was a challenge - one that even pre-adolescent me could overcome.
Psychologist Alice Miller has pointed out that love of nature often springs from a miserable family life, and that was assuredly so for me. But love of nature also teaches wonderful things - things I watch my urban(e) friends struggle to grasp. The out-of-doors rarely scares me (exception: thunderstorms. Perhaps that's b/c I was struck with lightening when a teen-ager). I'll throw myself onto snow or ice without hesitation. I know most Eastern (USA) trees by their bark and shape, no leaves necessary, which gives my view of the forest personality as well as allows me to scope mushroom-foraging niches in the off season. And, while I find the notion of bug bites, bee stings, snakebites, bears, and panthers discomfiting, I'd never let any of them stop me from a walk or bike ride in the woods.
I feel sorry for children born to helicopter parents or dropped before TV screens and digital devices before they're old enough to think. Ditto those who have every toy, complete with instructions for the one-and-only way to enjoy it. There's no way that anything on a glowing box is as deep, rewarding, or fun as a day outdoors in a snowstorm. And, if you're always being protected and instructed you'll never learn to play, which means you'll grow up creatively stunted, angry, neurotic and sad.
Which is not to say my childhood was perfect, or even good - far, far from it. When Christmas rolls around, though, and I remember those first ice skates or that good, full-sized sled, or, yes, that bb gun - the picture which comes to mind is a snowy, cold, Ohio field with me in the middle, trudging joyfully towards hill or pond. In other words, the boy version of the man I remain today.
Post-script: I wrote these words December 23 at Mohonk Mountain House, a wonderful, historic hotel set amidst thousands of acres of cliffy woodlands in New York State. The next afternoon my wife Leslie and I went for a 2-mile hike on the Mohonk Preserve. It was mid-20’s, dry, sunny and just a bit windy - a perfect winter day (though not quite as wild as I usually prefer - there was no snow.) During that long afternoon we passed only two hikers, both adults. Not one child was out there. What a pity.

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