Labyrinth 5: Aim

Labyrinth 5: Aim

In my earliest memory, I am sitting on the seat of a firetruck the size of a large dog. It is a fine toy, but I don’t remember feeling the joy of it. Out an open door, I see yellow sand.
The house was a rental near Malibu. My father worked at RAND Corporation while the University of Minnesota was on summer break. He’d spent time in Los Angeles during the war, in boot camp at Fort Ord. The sun and beaches called him back. So did the edgy bars and group sex parties.
It was paradise for my dad but hell for my mom. Though I don’t know when she first became depressed, I believe she must have been sad when I sat in that firetruck. Because despite the exciting toy, that little boy felt dread.
When I was a teenager, my sister told me our mother had been raped during that drunken, hyper-sexed time in Malibu. I suspect the firetruck memory was after the the assault. A sudden, frightening change in my mother would explain its desolated feel.
When we returned to Minneapolis, I dashed through a lawn gone to seed, its grass as high as my thighs! But someone had thrown a rock through the picture window, and I picked up on my parents’ dismay. This was the beginning of a pattern that lasted decades: sparks of ecstasy against a backdrop of gloom. In my forties, psychiatrists gave this pattern a name: Bipolar Disorder.
But early in my life, those moments of high spirits didn’t seem like illness; they sustained me. And they often connected with biology, though I didn’t call it that. Instead, I thought of it as ‘outdoors’, ‘nature’, ‘farming’, ‘the body’, or ‘animals’, all of which excited me.
When I was eight, we settled in Pacific Palisades, a coastal town between UCLA and Malibu. Our house enjoyed a view of the Pacific Ocean, the coastline from Santa Monica to Palos Verdes, the downtown skyscrapers, and—on a clear day—the mountains ringing LA. The beach was an easy bike ride away. I could escape to watch the rolling breakers until I was old enough to swim in them. I spent many afternoons in the sage-scented coastal mountains and their shaded canyons. I often felt high in them, long before I found the relief of pot smoking. Life outdoors was a refuge from the mess at home.
During the summers, I’d live a month with my grandparents on the Indiana farm where they went to retire. Usually, I was the only kid around. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, helping him tend the squash, tomatoes, and melons in his garden, or making repairs. Other times I hung by his side, bored, as he talked shop with the man who planted and harvested the crops. Sometimes I’d go on solo walks in the woods beyond the fields, pestered by clouds of mosquitoes but happy to be outdoors. Or I’d swim in the small pond and sunbathe on its shore, hearing the occasional plop of small fish jumping. For kicks, I’d run naked through rows of corn stalks that rose above two feet my head. The days weren’t exciting, but I felt safe. Sometimes I’d break out laughing for no reason I could name.
At camp, I often signed up for the nature class. We met in a greenhouse that enclosed a whole ecosystem, alive with waxy leaves, black soil, and small pools sparkling with minnows. The earthy aroma intoxicated me. Once we rode a few miles in the back of a truck, then watched a tractor push a dead horse into a ditch and pile dirt on top of it. Our counselor must have thought the bloating, stinking carcass would teach us something. If he wanted to give us a visceral understanding of death and rot, he succeeded. Few of our lessons were that unsettling, but all of them spoke to me. Most days we’d go on walks, for instance by the shores of the camp’s lake, where startled bullfrogs leapt toward the water, long legs trailing. The counselor cautioned us to walk wide circles around the venomous water snakes undulating in the shallows, but I wanted to get close, to see them better.
Once, when I was only five, my grandfather took me to a place that sold chickens. The birds were kept in a pen in a small warehouse, and he asked me to pick one out. A worker carried my selection out of view. I heard a loud thump followed by a manic rustling sound. Then came the roar of machinery. For the first time, I took stock of a long steel box that ran along the back wall. The worker returned and fed the dead chicken—headless and dripping blood—into one end of it. A tubular vent blasted feathers out a window, where they settled atop a pile of down. Soon, a plucked carcass emerged from the far end, on a conveyer belt. Later that day, Grandpa opened the carcass with a gleaming knife. He pulled out multicolored guts and held up a slimy tube for me to examine. At one end was a fully formed egg, but at the other were mere hints of eggs, smaller than peas. Between the two was a succession of ovoid forms, Life coming into being. It was my first formal biology lesson.
My dad, the professor, provided more conventional lessons. He bought me science-themed toys, like the ‘Visible Woman’ model of human anatomy, complete with a pregnant uterus that could be swapped in and out at will. His compassion for animals colored my curiosity about Life. Once, during a visit soon after the divorce, he told me to redirect a spray of water from a hose. My little self was pointing it toward an ant colony, and he didn’t want me to hurt the tiny creatures.
In LA, my elementary school had a ‘gifted’ program that taught us about nature. One day the teacher cracked an egg in a shallow bowl. Floating on the surface of the yolk was a fan of blood vessels. At its center drifted a comma-shaped embryo with a tiny beating heart. Most of my memories of elementary school are vague, but that chick embryo is vivid in recollection.
Some years later, at camp on the frontier of puberty, I watched wide-eyed as a stallion mounted a mare. When it pulled back, I gawked at its eighteen-inch erection, from which a ribbon of semen dripped. I felt a mix of adolescent fascination and scientific wonder.
With such experiences, I grew infatuated with the facts of living, with nature in all its death, rot, predation, copulation, and growth. Somehow, despite the chaos in my upbringing, events gave me the gift of an interest that—eventually—lent stability and direction to my life.
So I loved the outdoors, and thanks to the Boy Scouts, I knew how to camp in it. My father liked to trundle his jeep over rough fire roads above the coastline, and he liked walking through tide pools. I learned a lot from his scientific explanations of what surrounded us, but he only camped in Mexico, on trips he did with Della, not me. My grandfather taught me about farming, about cultivating growing things. Our times together are some of my fondest memories, but he’d given up camping when he quit hunting after retirement, so I never got to learn wilderness skills from him. No, it was the Boy Scouts of America that taught me to camp. My ejection from it notwithstanding, I harbor fondness for the organization. It pointed me toward a past time I’ve enjoyed my entire life.
Because I entered so much younger than the boys around me, my early years scouting might have led me to dislike camping. For the first couple of trips, I felt excluded at best and bullied at worst. Then luck rescued me.
Our troop was camped on an avocado ranch owned by a fellow scout’s family, in the desert east of LA. Aside from the lush, irrigated orchard, the land looked bleak, the vegetation scraggly and sparse. While other kids ran up and down the straight rows of trees, I hung back. I felt too small, ignored, and shy to join them. Some of the boys took turns driving a tractor. I watched from a distance.
Then the gun appeared. The landowner stuck empty bottles into dry silt on the far bank of a wide wash. He handed a .22 rifle to the older kids and showed them how to chamber a round, sight, and shoot. Sitting off to the side, I watched them raise puffs of dust at random spots, missing nearly every time. These boys were surfers, not hunters.
Shyly, I asked to shoot the thing. The others looked skeptical. Maybe I should wait a couple of years before handling a gun. But the rancher let me try.
I’d been shooting rifles at camp for years. I’d even won awards for marksmanship. Sitting on the bank opposite the targets, I steadied the bolt-action .22 with my elbow against my knee. I lined the bead up with a point a little above an airplane-style vodka bottle, hoping to compensate for distance. I shattered it on my first try. The boys whooped wildly, proud that one of us had scored a great shot. At last, I was part of the tribe.
My marksmanship was good enough, but I was unfamiliar with the rifle, and the bottle was both small and distant. My hitting it surprised me. The fact I did feels like grace. It made my early times with the Scouts much more fun, so our monthly camping trips became highlights of my school year.
A lucky pull of the trigger helped me enjoy camping, which set me up for my John Muir Trail trek. And without that, I might never have gone to college, much less found the spirituality that lives in biology.