After two thoroughly miserable, highly-allergic years in that bastion of open-minded, secular humanism, Texas, we moved to California.
The original plan was to move to Oregon, but our car had other plans, and to my great good fortune, broke down in Santa Cruz, California.
Which happened to be nine miles from where my father had washed up, Ben Lomond, after we dropped him off at the freeway on ramp outside Atlanta about 2 ½ years previously. I remember him walking away from the car, watching his backpack and it’s pink fluorescent flash recede with a great deal of relief and satisfaction.
I do not remember the reasons, but despite my earlier attitude about his parenting style, my brother and I ended up living with our father for about a year in Ben Lomond. I think that was around 1972 or 1973, so I was eight or nine. I know I was in the fourth grade my first year in California. Well, in fourth grade after a fashion.
When we moved in he announced his new, and very welcome, parenting philosophy. He was willing to give advice on any subject, but we were to have free-reign over almost everything in our lives. Pursuant to this philosophy, in which beatings were no longer a feature, he enrolled us in a free school. This was a semi popular form of schooling at that time. The theory being, if I remember it correctly, that children were innately curious, and if allowed to channel their curiosity would learn more, faster, because they would enjoy it more. So, at our school the children made all the decisions about what they learned, and when, and how. With the exception of mathematics. What that says about Math I am not sure, but it was the only lesson each week for which attendance was mandatory.
Since I had been reading the dictionary and encyclopaedias for pleasure since I learned to read age 3 this approach might have made sense, in my case.
Don’t get me wrong, my father still had a temper. We pushed his Triumph TR6 (?, 5 perhaps?) sports car over a cliff north of Santa Cruz after he lost patience constantly fixing it, and then we hitchhiked home. This was after watching him take an axe to it (the highlight inevitably being when he got the axe head stuck in the bonnet and lost it even more trying to get it out). Which of course lead to the quite rational decision to change tools. So he emptied his roommate’s 45 calibre, nickel-plated, semi-automatic pistol into it.
I have photographic proof in my mother’s photo albums, an event like that a boy wants to preserve for posterity.
My mother, like many expatriates, had developed this idealised view of the country she came from, and developed the concomitant prejudice against the destination country, also so often seen in expatriates. So, she regarded the US as a country, relative to the rose-tinted England of her imagined memories, of uncouth, uncultured, ill-educated rubes.
In an attempt to inoculate us against this American “disease” we were taken to see things like Swan Lake with Nureyev and Fonteyn (boring!), the movie, and a variety of foreign, subtitled films. One of which coincided with the start of our living with our father, at least in my memory. I believe it was this movie, more than any other factor, that determined how my brother and I chose to live for the next nine or so months, within the very loose parameters defined by our father. It made a huge impression on me, and I think my brother.
I have looked it up, the title is L’Enfant sauvage (The Child Savage, literally, or Wild Child less literally), by Truffaut. A good movie, you can read about it here. View the trailer here. I have to say even a wild child would never walk on all fours as depicted in the movie. Please.
I loved it, but then I was eight and it resonated with me because of the odd circumstances that would allow me to fashion a living facsimile of the forest life of the child in the film.
So it was that while most children my age were dying of boredom in elementary school I, and I think my brother, experienced the best year of my life. With the possible exception of the one in which I lost my virginity. I had a phobia about dying before I lost it for some reason. So its loss was accompanied by more than the usual relief.
We abandoned shoes, spent most of our time running, and it was running, for miles through the forest. We drank from rivers, streams, lakes and even puddles. We ate wild grapes, still the most delicious grapes I have ever eaten, and watermelons, oranges, etc., out of people’s gardens (wild children do not recognise the concept of property). Most of the time we were in Levi cutoffs, leaving our t-shirts at the forest entrance.
I even developed a belief system that resembles my understanding of what Animism is, now.
Our hair grew, uncut, well below our shoulders and was bleached blond and wavy. We slept in our clothes on a bare mattress, ate without plates or utensils most of the time, with our hands. We bathed about once a month, when we visited with our mother in Santa Cruz for the weekend. A good proportion of the visit was taken up with bathing, two baths, the first of which produced so much silt that the bottom of the tub was obscured by mud, the second to actually get clean, but still with silt in the bottom of the bath.
Bathing was followed by painful hair brushing and combing, with my mother then cutting chunks of matted hair out that were entirely resistant to any other approach. Dreadlocks were clearly not yet in style, since if left alone that would have been what would have developed.
On more than one occasion relatively large insects crawled out of my hair, I remember in particular a large, black beetle, and more disturbingly a medium sized spider, suggesting that their could have been prey for it in there, too. Our feet were so tough we could run barefoot on asphalt and gravel, I could extinguish a cigarette butt with my foot without pain, and walk on brambles without the thorns fully piercing my skin.
I learned to run on the balls of my feet, being permanently barefoot. How to suck just the clear surface water from a puddle avoiding the silt, mostly, just below the surface, when various fruits were ripe, to be able to tell the time from the position of the sun to within fifteen minutes, how to climb trees like greased lightening (my brother was always much better at that than I), and frequently slid down banks of dry earth in clouds of dust so dense that one’s mouth was thickly coated at slope’s bottom.
We were in such good cardiovascular shape that for years after I excelled in England at running. Running up slopes, thighs burning, and loping through the woods for hours, exploring new areas. Trying to find new wonders, new discoveries.
Why does any of this matter?
Because from the age of five, until the age of forty-two, with the exception of the year in the forest and the two or three years that followed, I had severe allergies (seasonal rhinitis), until I acquired hookworm. Allergies that required me to carry at the least paper towels, and preferably a tea towel, to blow my nose on, the mucous flowed so quickly. So bad I had perpetual headaches during allergy season, sinus headaches. So bad my eyes would swell shut if I ran through a field of grass, eyes so swollen they hurt from it. Not mild allergies, allergies that often required so many antihistamines I was accused of using drugs at school (this was later, in England), so sleepy was I from their use. Spring meant many days or afternoons spent lying in the dark with a wet flannel over my face, preferably with ice cubes resting on my eyes. This despite being almost inebriate from antihistamines.
Hence, my childhood experiences were a large part of the reason why I was willing to go to Africa and later Central America to acquire worms. Why, when I first read the hygiene hypothesis/old friends hypothesis, it was like a light bulb coming on. Actually, more like the lights going on at the Boardwalk, in Santa Cruz. Why I advocate activities that I am sure many find repellant. Why I was determined to acquire worms, likely hookworms, after that first hour or two of reading about it at my aunt’s house all those years later, in England, in the summer of 2004.
England, where I moved aged 11.
The age I left home for the first time.
© Jasper Lawrence, 2012