When I was a kid, eleven or so, I hung out with some boys who were a bit older.
It was humid Maryland summer. The boys and I decided to catch fish in our neighborhood lake. We’d fished the lake more times than you can count, but this day, we’d decided to camp next to the lake and cook the fish on a campfire.
Our only challenge was the pesky fact that it was a “catch-and-release” lake and the neighborhood had a “no campfires” sign posted. Keeping the fish, camping, and starting a fire in our neighborhood were all expressly prohibited.
Undeterred, I went home and laid out this plan for my parents. I think my Dad was pleased at my outdoorsy enthusiasm but, shared with me the disappointing fact which was, it was an entirely unexecutable plan.
So feeling dejected but, assuming the other boy’s parents gave them the same lecture, I went to the lake. What do you imagine I found but, my good buddies huddled around a campfire, cooking fish we had caught a bit earlier in the afternoon.
In that moment, I met my conscience. Not for the first time, but certainly for the most memorable.
My better angels were otherwise occupied that night and I sat down with the neighborhood boys. Between the five of us, we commenced to cuss and lie about which girls we were dating and carry on in as unrefined and basically ignorant a manner as a middle-class, suburban, pre-teen would know how to muster.
In other words, I was having a helluva good time. And then…
From behind a low-lying tree branch, I heard my father’s unusually deep voice.
He’s called me “son” several hundred million times before and since but, in that moment, it felt like the vacuum that follows a concussive explosion. A cavernous emptiness right in the middle of my chest.
“Let’s get on home. That’s for the rest of you as well. Pack it up for the night. See you boys tomorrow.”
And then he just kind of walked away.
Anyone who knows my father knows he doesn’t say much. Growing up, I was never sure if it was his natural way, or if it was the rest of our “quite expressive” family just not making room.
He walked without saying anything, and then stopped. He looked at me, asked me to look him in the eye, and said:
“I’m not going to raise a son with no backbone.”
And that was that.
Didn’t say another word about it that night…or ever for that matter. In fact, for the rest of my family, reading this post might be the first they’ve ever heard of it. But it needed to be said. Just like that. A “teachable moment” if ever there was one. It’s never once slipped my mind when faced with a similarly tough call.
Now, a couple of decades later, I’m a father. My girls are half Jen which means they have better sense than I do. Or at least better sense than I did. But even still, I’m sure there will come a time when we need to talk about what it means to be brave. To stand up and do the right thing. To speak out against what’s wrong in the world. About how to put your shoulder to the cause; fixing what you can.
The New Innocents logo is a gentle memory aide.
A boot print with some tiny toes inside.
More than a cute gimmick, it’s Jen’s and my reminder that on every hike, every supertramp through our nation’s wilderness, there’s a chance to listen. A chance to parent. A chance to build our girls into honest, self-reliant, loving, and good-humored citizens.
Forces to be reckoned with.
I hope we can give them what my father’s patient affirmation gave me.
Can’t think of a better place to find one than on the trail.