The child is the father of the man, or at least his own best teacher. My own days in a small Oregon town were ominous at the end of a full decade of living. That is, they were filled with omens, portents and symbols. They were tokens as powerful as having a Lone Ranger pistol ring. They were as mysterious as the flouroscope X-ray machine at the shoe store where we watched our toes wiggle while the salesman sought out our Buster Browns.
We believed in 1946 that the dead cat we found in the bushes had died violently. Why else would its mouth have turned into that horrible rictus? It was poisoned – and this was our nexus of fear: To touch it would be death for us too. Our mothers had told us not to touch strange things, hadn’t they?
We were in awe of tramps, like the one who reputedly lived in the willow grove by the Northern Pacific tracks who carried a shotgun loaded with bacon rind. Yes, bacon rind, my older brother explained, so he wouldn’t actually kill you when you were shot for intruding on his hideout. We knew tramps left secret messages on our houses, messages hidden so carefully that only other gypsy tramp initiates could tell whether this house or that one would offer a welcome.
Every event, every glance, every crack in the sidewalk was filled with meaning. Dogma was established by my friends in second grade. “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.” And, there was World War II revisionism, “No, no, if you step on a crack you’ll break Tojo’s back!” And each of us guaranteed a little good luck by stamping on a Lucky Strike pack.
Shredded Wheat’s Straight Arrow cards taught us woodland lore and code. Gene Autry engrained white-hat symbology in our psyches. The house filled with yellowing newspapers where the old lady died taught us fear of the unknown.
But there was room for a cautious faith in the face of fear. For one week in August, we watched smoke from a forest fire billow over the Coast Range to the west. The Tillamook Burn brought ashes to our drinking water. For days, we watched silently as pickup trucks filled with grimy fire suppression crews roared down Pacific Avenue. Our world was threatened by something larger than our parents and teachers, but still there was an enduring faith: Giant blimps, we believed, were going to carry us away if the fire blocked our escape route from town.
There were symbols as real as secret handclasps. There was faith as unshakeable as knowing we would pass into the third grade. And there was fear as indisputable as being dared to climb to the top of the sequoia tree in our yard. The catechism was complete.
I discovered this world again in the I Ching when I was in my late twenties. Casting the coins and consulting this Chinese oracle, I found that I was bound to wise children who lived thousands of years ago. On New Year’s Day, the I Ching told me Po – the Splitting Apart. “There are indications it will not be advantageous to make a movement in any direction whatsoever.” The moon had been full the night before. My wife caught the flu for the first time in years. A dear friend had left New York City for the West Coast.
The signs came together. The signs all showed a need to wait, to collect my psyche. I planned for the time of waiting the I Ching said should come. And, I survived that bleak month because I could read the signs. The child had come of age.
Before I retired. I was sitting in my office looking at a penned note taped to the water fountain outside my door. “Please do not throw coffee grinds in the water fountain because they clog the drain.” Grinds? It should be grounds. The words are an uneven mixture of upper and lower case letters, as though he or she had labored at communicating, had struggled to reach an audience but was forced to use a strange, literate code.
Why hadn’t the writer simply drawn a picture of a coffee pot and then put an X through the picture? Straight Arrow would have understood that at a glance. Any tramp, any child would have comprehended the meaning. But symbols are ignored as we roar through life in the high speed lane.
Hordes of beautiful children are ignoring the signs and being kept prisoner in the grownups I see.