It’s 4 am. I awoke in some half-dream stupor remembering a bike trip I took when I was 10 or 11 years old. This was at the far end of a 1950’s childhood when parenting meant getting the food on the table, drawing a bath and shooing me out of the house to play with my friends. Sometimes leaving a peanut butter sandwich in the outdoor milk box if my parents weren’t home at the end of the school day. I walked one block to my piano lesson, my Mom drove me to the Elizabeth Turners gymnastic classes and that was the end of her extra-curricular duties. I roamed freely in the nearby 200-acre park and all sports—football, basketball, baseball — were organized by us kids, no adult coach or corporate sponsors named on our T-shirts. Compared to the tamed, domesticated and helicoptered childrearing of today, it was a feral life and delightfully so.
On this particular day, Bing and Bruce Crookston and Ricky Harmon and I decided to set off on our one-speed Schwinn bicycles on our most daring exploit yet— riding from our New Jersey town of Roselle over the Goethals Bridge to Staten Island. No helmets. No map. No GPS. No phone to call home in case of emergency. We just took off.
What do I remember? Mostly, the sensation of speeding downhill on the narrow pedestrian walkway as we came over the hump of the bridge, cars speeding by 10 feet away, the world at our feet. Stopping at the top on the way back to see if we could spot the Reichhold Chemicals plant where my Dad worked tucked away somewhere in the industrial wasteland below. The general sensation of being on some grand adventure— the feeling of daring, of independence, of delicious freedom that opened the doorway to further explorations as we inched toward teenage-hood.
I don’t remember if I told my parents about it, but if I did, I likewise don’t remember any great shock. Perhaps they said, “Well, I hope you were careful” and then asked me to pass the potatoes. But today, if my 11-year-old granddaughter Zadie asked me if she could do a ride like that, I would most definitely say, “Are you crazy?!!!” Perhaps suggest that instead she could try riding to the ocean and back in Golden Gate Park, fully helmeted, Apple watch-phone on her wrist, with strict instructions to stay on the car-less roads and bike paths. And I might have secretly followed her from a distance.
But I’m so glad I had the childhood I did. I just Googled the distance from my town to the Goethals Bridge and it was under 5 miles, so not quite as epic a journey as I remembered it. But I am amazed we just figured out how to get there. (I had driven over it many times with my parents on our way to the Staten Island ferry to visit my grandparents, but can’t remember paying much attention to the details of the route.) We never did that particular bike trip again, but I remember forming some sort of bike club and deciding on a few more less dramatic destinations.
That feeling of venturing forth into the unknown stayed with me as a college student hitch-hiking around the country (again, my parents causal warning “Well, be careful.”) and as a young adult traveling around the world with no hotel reservations, itineraries or restaurant suggestions beyond a dog-eared guidebook, a few destinations in mind and a faith that things would work out.
And they always did. From the bike to the thumb to the bus with the chickens, none if it was wildly reckless, but neither was it tamely cautious. I believe that made a great difference in the life that followed.
Especially in my teaching. That comfort with the unknown, that delight in the next possibility, that habit of trusting my intuition, found its way into my classes. Me as the tour guide, but not telling the kids the day’s plan ahead of time ,with every sight and stop detailed in advance. Often sending them off into the corners of the room to make up their own things in the spirit of riding their bikes over the Goethals Bridge. Like feral cats, but with some food set out and occasional grooming when they get too wildly scruffy.
I knew my school was in trouble when they formed the Risk Committee— and it didn’t mean considering which delightful risks to take. Fear, caution, red lights, helmets on—all adult responsibilities that have their place— began to prevail. Yet everything that was memorable about the school—camping with 60 kids in the mountains for five days, for example— was memorable precisely because of the risk and mild danger. The stories we all tell about those trips are not about everything happening exactly as we planned, but about the bear who wandered into the camp, the rattlesnake we encountered on the trail, the helicopter overhead and news of a nearby escaped convict, the snow falling on the bagels as we warmed them on the Coleman stoves. You get the idea.
Feral cats may be scuffy and scrappy, but they are also resilient, independent, tough. They are survivors.
As miraculously, am I.