Beyond The Pale

On Childhood: Family Reading and Forts

Last week, an old friend asked me to write to her and tell her what my childhood was like. When I started thinking about what to write, I realized that she was asking me to do something that I can’t do in just one email, so I decided that I’d make my first project on Beyond the Pale (Is that name a keeper?) be a series On Childhood. I hope you enjoy.

Dad read to us every night when I was growing up. I don’t know when it started exactly; I assume it must have started in the nursery, with picture books and Dr. Suess or Psalty the Singing Songbook, but my first real memory of our reading times is at the house on Crottinger, so I must have already been about 10 years old. Part of the Royal Ranger’s curriculum was family devotions. The church gave everyone a daily devotional called Keys for Kids, from Children’s Bible Hour, and if we could say that we had read the devotions as a family for three or five days between Royal Ranger meetings, then we got different amounts of points, which, compounded with attendance, memorization (“Ready, ready for anything, ready to work, play, serve, obey, worship, live, etcetera.”), and advancement points, could add up to some mystical number over the course of the year to make you eligible to receive the coveted Ranger of the Year award. Of course, I wanted to be Ranger of the Year, and Dad was the pastor, which meant we had to show solidarity with what the Commanders were trying to do, so Dad started reading Keys for Kids to us.

One night, after we had finished devotions and prayed, Dad pulled out a new book that he had just bought that afternoon, and he wanted to read to us. It was about a young boy named Scarboy who takes his brother and runs away from the Enchanted City where everything is done backwards, people live in the night and sleep during the day (“morning morning, see you in the night)”. Scarboy runs away because his mother has died, and all orphans belong to the Enchanter, who uses them for slave labor. He flees to a Great Park, where me meets all kinds of people who teach him that humans aren’t supposed to sleep in the day and work in the night and that the enchanter isn’t the rightful ruler of the Enchanted City, that he a usurper, and there is a king who lives in hiding and will come back one day to set the city free of the Enchanter and set all things to right. They teach him that for now the king lives in the forest, rescuing people from the enchanter, but only those who believe will see him. Tales of the Kingdom fascinated me, and it started a love for reading together as a family that would never really end for me. Even now, when Andrea and I live in a place that doesn’t have a dish washer, I will wash the dishes while she sits and reads to me.

Chris, Jaimie and I were all hooked, but especially me, probably because I was a little older, and Dad had a tendency to read books with fantasy elements, which were always my favorites. From Tales of the Kingdom, and Tales of the Resistance, we went to The Chronicles of Narnia, Summer of Little Rain, a book whose title I can’t remember about a boy who escapes from being held captive by Native Americans, My Side of the Mountain, The Little Princess, and many, many more. Often, Dad would try to make what he was reading to us match up with what we were doing at the time. For instance, one summer we were going to visit Mom’s parents in Tyler, Texas, and we stopped by in Branson, Missouri to see the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama. Dad bought a copy of the book that it was based on, and when we got home, that was the next book that he read to us. On another vacation, we went to the grand canyon, and Dad read Marquerite Henry’s Brighty of the Grand Canyon, which was extra exciting since we were camping in a national forest at the time, where there weren’t any actual campsites or bathrooms, but there were plenty of mountain lions making noise and scaring mom.

As we got older, Dad did less and less of the actual reading, and we did more and more of it, but Dad was always my favorite because he was a much smoother reader than any of us were. I can still hear Dad chanting “Ohm phah bah, ohm phah bah, ohm phah bah, din,” when the Naysayers were chasing Scarboy and Little Child on the way to Great Park.

We grew up, and so did the material we read. But there were some places that he just wouldn’t go. When we were reading C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and we finished Perelandra, Dad refused to read That Hideous Strength. He said that it was too scary. I assured him that we wouldn’t get scared, that we wanted to hear the rest of the story. He told me that if I wanted to get the rest of the story, I’d have to read it for myself. He said he wasn’t worried about me getting scared. He was the one that would be too scared.

One of the classics, a book that we would come back to time and again, whether Dad was rereading it , I was reading it to myself, or we were watching one of the several movie versions that we had, was the always-famous, The Secret Garden. The solitude of the characters reminded me of my own solitude, even though when I was alone, it was for different reasons than they were. I loved to be in the woods, especially building various types of fort (I literally always had Poison Ivy), so it didn’t take much effort for Michelle Robinson, the girl who lived in the big blue house behind ours, to convince me to redirect the fort building tendency toward a more aesthetic scheme when she invoked The Secret Garden.

Michelle had found an oak tree that in the woods that was significantly bigger than all the others ones in the forest. If you had asked me then, I might have made up some story about how that tree was probably one of the last survivors from the primeval forest that would have been there before Europeans and their lumber mills came sweeping through. Of course, whatever story I came up with would have been patently false, but from a ten-year-old point of view, it wouldn’t have been that unreasonable. The tree was certainly older than any other tree in the forest and must have been the first to sprout whenever this forest had been allowed to spread itself back over the farmland. It was so big that with our fingertips touching and our arms spread wide, faces pressed flat against the trunk, Michelle and I were nowhere near reaching all the way around it.

We chose a circle at the base of the tree that was about 15 feet across, made up by a rough circle of smaller tress, and we started working by marking off the walls of our garden with branches. In our thinking, an unbroken ring of sticks marking off our territory was just as good as an eight foot brick wall in terms of moral strength, we knew that we didn’t have to worry about anyone besides our younger siblings crossing that wall, and death threats took care of them for the most part. It was winter, so there wasn’t a lot of green growth on the ground, but what there was, we protected. We carefully excavated all of the twigs and rotting leaves from around the plants, careful to disturb nothing that was living, though I would occasionally try eating a leaf if I thought it looked like something I had seen in a survival handbook. During the course of the clearing, we accidentally uprooted more than a few plants, and we were always terribly upset whenever this happened because we weren’t sure if that was going to be the plant that would have ended up being the cornerstone for our whole aesthetic. Only when we had cleared all of the fallen debris from the circle so that we had a pristine ring of nothing but plants and bare dirt did we deliberately pull any plants.

Before we would remove each plant, we would carefully examine it from different perspectives and in light of everything else that was going on in our little fort, and if we felt that it added to the appeal of the garden, we would keep it and put rocks or sticks around it to indicate pathways and flowerbeds in the garden. There was a fallen tree rotting not too far from our fort, so we would pull out big handfuls of its guts to use for mulch around the particularly aristocratic looking weeds. We found an old log and stood it on end by the base of the big Oak, and we stood three or four little statues on it. We had found them out in the dangerous part of the woods where the person who owned the property before Michelle’s dad had dumped all of his garbage, and we thought that they, along with some strategically positioned bits of broken blue glass, really added to the effect. We literally spent hundreds of hours at the base of that tree during that fall and early winter, and it was heartbreaking when the snow finally came a buried it.

The work of making the space was much more gratifying than inhabiting it, so eventually we would abandon that fort in favor of another one, and we would go through various iterations of the secret garden fort theme throughout the years before Michelle’s parents divorced and she moved away. Each fort got its own name: the war fort, the creek fort, the tree house, the cliff, the briar, the crawlspace, the fort under the stairs (when we abandoned that one, I broke light bulbs in the area you had to crawl into to get there, thus preserving our fort forever from anyone who might want to defile it), but that first one, it was the prototype, the shrine, our secret garden.

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March 2, 2009 - Posted by | Childhood | , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. Why “Beyond the Pale”? It doesn’t make any sense to me, so maybe if you explained it I could weigh in more honestly about whether I think you should keep it. As if it matters that much. 🙂

    Psalty the Singing Songbook! I had forgotten about that!

    I need to read The Secret Garden.

    Comment by xgravity23 | March 2, 2009 | Reply

    • @xgravity23 The expression has to do with going beyond what is socially or morally acceptable, crossing a line. I am always crossing lines, always have someone pissed off in some way, and I expect to start doing the same thing with my blog, so I thought it would be appropriate to name to blog for where it is bound to go.

      P.S. I really liked your blog about twitter the other day, almost enough to check it out (I just don’t need another addiction right now, lol).

      Comment by davidjgross | March 16, 2009 | Reply

  2. This was a great read. It’s funny because there are characteristics that are distinct about you that I recognize in this picture of you in childhood (eating leaves you MIGHT recognize, burning warts off, and jumping out of airplanes are really something of the same thing). I identify with this story. All my childhood I wanted to live near a forest. Instead I got the suburbs, but I invented plenty of worlds. On my street, we had this mulberry bush, and we would climb into it and eat the berries in summer. I remember how purple-stained my fingers would be and the sourness of the lighter unripe berries. I think we could have been friends as kids. My church didn’t start Royal Rangers until I was just becoming too old. I think children require secret gardens. Some of us, like you and me, I think, managed to make our secret gardens and fairy worlds of childhood real forever.

    This post makes me want to steal this idea and write about my own childhood. Sometimes I think I’m forgetting, and maybe it would help me not forget. Maybe if I reforge those stories they’ll regain their solidity.

    Comment by wordorgy | March 4, 2009 | Reply

  3. My mom read to us a lot, but it was usually after we’d finished eating dinner. So we’re all sitting around at the dinner table, and no one is comfortable, and the mood just isn’t right. She did read the Tales of the Kingdom to us, though.

    I love family reading. I love that your dad was that committed to it. What a treasure from childhood. Books are so magical; I’m often dumbfounded when I hear that people don’t read to their children.

    I always wished we lived closer. I would’ve loved building forts with you!

    Seriously, though…next blog please!!

    Comment by It's Just Me | March 20, 2009 | Reply


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