Sunday, December 27, 2015
My father was a tool and dye maker. He learned the trade after he left the navy following WWII where he served as a Machinist's Mate. He was a country boy from Ohio, and like so many of his generation, the war was the first time he had really travelled. I'll never know if it was the war or the travel that changed him most as he has long been dead and I was not bright enough to ask him. My guess, however, is that both were transformative, but seeing the world was the positive thing and so he focussed on that.
As a tool and dye maker, he was able to get work anywhere, so when he made up his mind to travel, he was not afraid to leave his job. When I was young, he did it twice, and we set off for six week trips around the country. It is true. I have miles of 8mm film to prove it.
There were no interstate highways then, and America was a country made up of varied provinces smaller than states. Traveling down two lane highways you experienced more than just a change of scenery. The food, the accents, the way people looked and dressed--it was a different America then.
My father bought a crazy little one wheeled trailer and a bunch of army surplus camping gear--a big, heavy canvas tent that had to be staked out with thick ropes attached to big stakes that were hammered into the ground, giant canvas sleeping bags that were supplemented with blow up air mattresses, a Coleman stove on which all our meals were prepared, and a matching lantern that illuminated our nights.
We drove thousands of miles over American highways, through mountains and across deserts and to the Pacific shore. I slept most of the time, I am sure, but my parents would wake me when there was something that I should see, and we stopped often to stretch our legs and to talk to folks. My father was a talker. Along the way, I got souvenirs that I still remember as vividly as I remember anything. And when we returned home, people would gather round in the dark to watch the films my father had taken and to listen to his stories about where we went and what we saw. I watched those movies a hundred times and registered the wonder of the audiences. My father was a hero.
I guess that is where I got what I call "itchy feet," for as I grew, I too wanted to travel. More to the point, I now realize, I wanted to be a hero.
So after college, upon a forced graduation (the Dean of Arts and Sciences called me to his office to "encourage" me to take my final credits I needed to graduate rather than continuing to take elective courses that were fun), I bought a heavy pair of hiking boots, the best I could get, for I was reading Colin Fletcher's "The Man Who Walked Through Time," and "The Hiker's Bible." I learned that comfortable boots were the most important thing. That and good, clean socks. I went to the best outdoor store in my little college town to get them. The store was owned by Tom Allen from t.v.'s "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" with Marlin Perkins (link). He had grown up an outdoorsman and naturalist working around his father, herpetologist Ross Allen, and his famous Reptile Institute. I was certainly in good hands. And what I ended up buying was a pair of Raichle leather boots that must have weighed four pounds each. And as instructed, I broke them in walking on carpet around and around the hallways of my girlfriends dorm. I must have looked like a fool, but I felt like an adventurer.
My father, who was always preparing to go on some big camping trip, had bought the newest things from Sears. And crazy as it seems, he was far ahead of his time. I got his lightweight aluminum frame backpack, a stumble down sleeping bag in breathable lightweight fabric, and one of the first external from pop up tents that required no guide ropes at all. Everything was orange, I guess so that a hiker would be easier to spot if he was lost in the wilderness. But I would not be lost, surely, for I was studying the books more closely than I had studied for my Organic Chemistry exam. I felt that I had already walked the world with Colin Fletcher and the rest. My boots, by then, were well broken in and covered in Snow Seal to keep them dry.
I skipped graduation. My roommate and I had finished our lease. I had a backpack and a Greyhound bus ticket and was ready to go. All there was to do now was go. It was time for a solo adventure.