In that time, which lasted through the years when I was a kid, a guy could tie his rifle or gun to the handlebars of his bike, pedal all the way through town, and go hunt squirrels or rabbits or quail, pot starlings or whatever was in season. Nowadays a kid with such innocent yearnings couldn’t get three blocks without being surrounded by police, sheriff’s deputies, highway patrol, FBI and a patrol of soccer moms. And we think we’ve created a better culture. –Michael McIntosh
We have become a society based on fear. We fear everything. We’ve been defined by fear, had it injected into the marrow of our bones, by Charlie Manson and Ted Bundy, by Columbine and the Texas tower sniper, by cheap horror flicks and cheaper tabloid journalism.
I’m guilty of it. I lock all my doors. I startle awake at the slightest sound. I keep guns in the house. They used to be for quail and duck. Now they seek to stave off fear.
Worse, we’ve made our children afraid. BTK killers, Son of Sam and pervs with basement dungeons. Nintendo didn’t create a generation of thumb-strained videophiles, it merely catered to them: We kept our children too close to the breast, equipped them with cell phones and told them to flee white vans and strangers. Even that wasn’t enough. The Tylenol killer reached into our medicine cabinets, tainted food into our dinner plates, asbestos into our air.
They’re all little Tom Sawyers, you know. Every boy a Huck Finn, every girl a Scout Finch or a Nancy Drew. By not being brave, not exploring and getting into messes, they never learn discretion and caution except through words…and fear.
A boy wakes up new every morning, Havilah Babcock said. Fresh and vibrant, a literal sponge, an empty bowl, a blank slate, a siphon ready to take in all the marvel and wonder of this vast world. Except that he and his female counterparts are shielded from candy-bearing miscreants, ne’er-do-well loiterers, and thus never experience the wonder that is living. So they’ve focused their insatiable curiosity and drive on the Glass Teat. That monster has channeled them a ceaseless stream of violence and terror of a world that lay just beyond the front door and, sometimes, comes inside.
We came out of World War II and into a nuclear world. We feared that Sputnik was above us, and what would the Russians do with it? The atomic age not only caused a flurry of shelter-building and disaster drills, it vested insanity with power, and, in short, we met the enemy and not only is he us, he wears our face, our clothes and lives next door.
Vietnam proved the Commies were everywhere and even if they weren’t, there were very real Norman Bates in the world that we couldn’t really hide in our bomb shelters from. We drew our children close and with the finest of intentions, paved their road to hell.
As modern agriculture changed the face of farming, more people flocked to the cities, creating urban crowding, despair and blight. Wendell Berry proposed that the slow transformation of true agriculture to monoculture, and then the inevitable outsourcing of even that to foreign entities, has dealt a more serious blow to rural families and way of life than all other harms. A community economy is not an economy in which well-placed persons can make a ‘killing’, Berry wrote. It is an economy whose aim is generosity and a well-distributed and safeguarded abundance.
Country life is the last bastion of safety, the last true playground for our children: Wide open spaces, rivers, fields and mountains, not concrete parcels surrounded by chain-link and razor wire fences and planted with plastic grass, nestled between towering brown apartment buildings. My God, if that were all I had to look forward to out of doors, I might well have become a videophile myself.
But my father gave me my grandfather’s .410 dogleg shotgun when I was 12, and a wooden bateau when I was 15, and I was free to ride horses through the cane fields, along the headlands and the only requirement was to come back before dark. Little did I know then that I was riding through what W.D. Wetherell would call "the soon-to-be-gone.’
It’s not the police’s fault. It’s the fact that we’ve created a society where the innocent suffer mightily for the bad. There are kids with guns in schools, so no kid can ever taste again that palatable pride of trust placed in him to be coached and cautioned and released to roam the wilds with a good bird dog as his sole companion. A parent can’t discipline anymore because some devil without a soul brutalized a child, so all manner of social services eyes peek into your home and your lives and your duties as a child-rearer. Children hold the spectre of social services over their parents’ heads. Some parents won’t discipline, succumbing to all life’s pains and heartaches, letting go. Uncaring. At worst, callused and indifferent, selfish and lazy. Courage cannot be learnt where it does not exist.
Kids get arrested for truancy, and hauled to the slammer for smoking cigarettes, for Pete’s sake. Certainly there are parents who ignore such behavior, but the law no longer makes a distinction between good parents and bad. All parents and children these days are presumed guilty until proven innocent. My mom is going to fuss when she reads this, but my grandfather would now and then send me into the house to get him a pack of Salems from his carton. I stuck a pack in my pants on one of those trips, and went to the bayouside with a pack of matches. I got so sick I thought I was going to die. If anybody had seen me, they’d have reported the infraction to my father immediately, and my behind would have been sore for a good week, without fear of reprisal from some government agency. And don’t ever get in trouble with the teacher or principal, because no matter what they were always right.
And I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.
Nor would I have missed the behind-whupping I got when for some reason I still don’t remember clearly I poured gasoline in my father’s fishing worm beds. Or the time I got mad at my Shetland pony, Nancy, because she wouldn’t be still enough to let me on her back, so I slapped her butt in rage and she kicked me right square in the teeth. My upper incisors are still crooked to this day, and no, I didn’t need nor did my parents feel it imperative that I get braces for it. I wouldn’t trade the time I took my .410 out in the back yard and shot a bright red cardinal, because the look of sadness and disappointment in my father’s eyes assured I’d never do something so heartless and stupid again. Or the time I started a little grass fire behind my grandparents’ house that nearly got out of hand and devoured their barn, complete with the tongue-lashing and white-hot spew of fury my grandpa let loose on me. I never played with matches again.
What do we want to raise, a next generation of flawless, unimaginative and undaring automatons? Afraid of their own shadows, showing their only bravery to a pixelate villain on a plasma screen?
My flaws have defined me, my missteps taught me, every bit as much as law and lesson and safety. Perhaps more.
I watch the streets and the people bustle back and forth. They don’t even put their hands in their pockets anymore, it impedes their speed. They move and mutter niceties to each other, but there’s clocks to be watched and schedules to be kept, and sometimes, they’re dragging kids along with them. Kids who never knew a creek. Never touched a really disgusting worm. Never climbed a tree. Never gone barefoot beyond the front door.
The soon-to-be-gone. It’s a dark descent into a future filled with fear. There’s no more room in the world for Huck Finn or Scout Finch. We’d snatch such beloved youngsters up and put them in foster homes, file charges against them for skipping school, and break their spirit to wrest down the true evil out there, in the end making them the perfect victims.