Issue: July 2001
Wild At Heart

I am so glad that Time magazine came right out and devoted a cover story a few weeks back to the revolutionary idea that kids should be given time to be kids. I was feeling guilty because my four-year-old isn't scheduled out the wazoo like so many of his peers, minivanning from swim lessons to soccer to T-ball to pre-K. We actually have entire days when we just hang out and see what happens-a cutting-edge parenting concept, according to the Time article. I'm a radical-who knew?

I wonder if my parents realized, 30 years ago, they were avant-garde every time they cast off the painter that attached the dinghy to our boat and said, "Have fun." Any boat-even a little rubber boat-is a wondrous thing when you're a kid. Our Avon inflatable was a well traveled Redcrest we rolled up and stuffed into the lazarette. Whenever we dropped the anchor or the fates stuck us in the marina-whenever the mother ship was stationary, in other words-out came the Avon, and in went the foot pump. After the necessary legwork, we'd throw her over the side like a fat Frisbee. Two paddles, one dog and a life jacket later, I was a free bird.

My dog Brighty and I went everywhere on that no-name little boat. Some days we'd only tootle around the marina, scooting along on a low tide under the docks surprising the barn swallows who nested there and popping out every now and then to do a little dead reckoning. Most days, though, we would row to the nearest open shore (I would row, that is; Brighty would hang off the bow and contemplate a frisky roll in a three-day-old carp, or whatever it is dogs think about). We'd establish a beachhead under the nearest honey locust or oak tree, and then trek along the caramel-colored sand. Eventually we'd work our way into the woods, where we'd always find some kind of treasure-a bleached turtle shell, a thick bed of moss, an iridescent feather from a bluebird's fragile wing. Further inland we'd find prickly sweet raspberry patches, and Brighty would leap through seas of winter wheat, chasing rabbits, or whatever it is dogs chase. After a bit, we'd make our way back to the beach and go for a swim, maybe flop down in the dinghy and rest awhile, listening to the water and watching the sky.

I don't know whether my mom and dad worried about me during these little journeys that sometimes lasted a whole afternoon. I doubt it. Peace at last! they probably rejoiced. They trusted that I had enough sense to look both ways before crossing the creek and to use a solid bowline to tie the dinghy to a tree root or some other shoreside anchor. I suppose I could've stepped on a snake, fallen out of the boat, gotten caught in a squall. Any number of nasty things could've happened. But they didn't.

I'll grant you it's a more dangerous world now. Stephen King has nothing on the daily newspaper. Minivans and soccer fields are comforting in their safe numbers. But my son is already a voyager. He trails his two plastic powerboats behind our sailboat everywhere we go, gives them names and tells stories about their adventures on the high seas. It's only a matter of time before he grows into something bigger, maybe a no-name rubber boat, a pair of oars, two life jackets and a little sister. When he does, I'll do my best to
untie the painter and let his imagination soar.