After moving to a new neighborhood, S. Grady Barrett struggled to fit in, so his father took him camping and taught him how to survive.
With a few quick, whipping motions followed by a guided glide to the ground, my father laid out a large blue tarpaulin on the cement floor of the garage. He made sure that it was perfectly flat by smoothing it out with his hands and placed large rocks on each corner, so not even a gust of wind could disturb his progress.
He then took the first piece of the camping equipment that was scattered in the driveway and strategically placed it in the middle of the tarp. Then another and another. After several pieces of equipment were arranged in an organized heap, he stood with his hands on his hips, staring at what he had created, squinting one eye and curling his tongue out over the corner of his mouth. After a few moments, an item—a sleeping bag, perhaps—was deemed to be in the wrong place and was removed from the plastic canvas then set off to the side to wait its turn again.
Finally, when each item was in its perfect place, he folded the corners of the tarpaulin over the gear then fed white rope through the brass-ringed holes at the tarp’s corners and lashed the bundle closed. It was a fine piece of hillbilly engineering.
The school year had ended a few months earlier, and we were in the thick of summer. My days were spent alone pedaling my bicycle around the neighborhood as fast as my legs could muster or skateboarding down the steepest hills I could find. The evenings were spent on the back patio, watching my parents drink wine and listening to my mother and father tell stories about our family in Texas and Arkansas and Oklahoma, while cicadas croaked harmonies from the trees.
During the week, while my father was at work and my mother was finishing her master’s degree, I was expected to do chores. Mostly, the work consisted of doing my own laundry and dishes, and doing some yard work once a week: mow and edge the lawn, trim the hedges, and sweep and wash down the driveway. This was the first summer my father trusted me to take care of the lawn, and the first time he set me to the task, he was sorely disappointed.
“What is this?” he asked. “You just mowed the lawn?”
“That’s what you told me to do,” I responded sheepishly. I was surprised at his tone because I thought I had done a good job.
“Look at that,” he said, pointing to the bushes at the front of our house. “Those need to be trimmed. And you didn’t edge the lawn either, like I showed you.”
“You didn’t tell me to do that,” I said. “You just told me to mow the lawn.”
He looked at me, his face colored a shade of frustration. “Son, you better learn how to think beyond what you’re told to do.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, because at that point in my life, if I wasn’t told to do something, I didn’t know to do it, let alone how. It seemed his message was that I’d have to figure out most things on my own.
Despite the boredom of being home all summer, like every child, I was happy to have the break from school. I was also relieved to be away from the other kids and their snobbish comments about the way I dressed or their utter amazement that I didn’t know certain social graces.
Two years earlier, during the summer before I started fifth grade, my family moved from Lombard, a suburb a little more than 20 miles west of Chicago, to the exclusive suburb of Kenilworth, which was less than 20 miles north of the city, but a raised pinky and an upturned nose away from Lombard. We moved fairly often—once every three or four years, it seemed: from Dallas to St. Louis and back again, then from St. Louis to Lombard, and now, from Lombard to Kenilworth.
I was introduced to Kenilworth’s social norms on my first day of fifth grade. I literally got off on the wrong foot with the other kids by almost getting into a fight with an eighth grader who made fun of the white athletic shoes I wore to school, a pair of shoes that my father had urged me to wear. He was sure the other kids would think the shoes looked “sharp.”
They weren’t football cleats, exactly, but shoes that were made for playing on artificial surfaces, something for which I would never have a need. The shoes had a large, white leather tongue that folded over the laces and black soles with little cleats that looked like tiny rubber nipples. To make matters worse, my father purchased them a size too large, so I could grow into the shoes as the school year progressed.
As I walked across the blacktop playing area where all the kids gathered before school, I heard someone say, “Hey! Nice shoes, kid!”
On every other playground I had ever been, rude comments to unknown people were invitations to a fight. Part of me was horrified and embarrassed. Another part of me, however, saw an opportunity to send a message to those who would bother me: I wasn’t going to take any shit.
In Lombard, I fought frequently. It was a matter of course. The boys fought because of playground disagreements, because someone was frustrated and didn’t know what else to do, or simply to see who was stronger. Even the girls were prone to kneeing a boy in the crotch if they didn’t like the way he behaved, anything from not returning playground affections to correctly answering a question in class.
I walked over to the kid who made the shoe comment and said, “Nice face, asshole.” Then I cordially asked if he’d like to fight.
The boy was shocked. Children didn’t fight in Kenilworth. This preppy little boy—with the upturned collar of his Polo shirt and his Ray-Ban sunglasses hanging from a thin cord around his neck—didn’t know what to do.
He nervously laughed a little. “Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
He laughed a little more. “I didn’t mean anything, you know. I was just … admiring … your shoes.”
“Yeah. OK. But it sounded like you wanna fight,” I said. “Don’t you wanna fight?”
“No, no!” he said, shaking his head and waving his hands, implying that he wouldn’t ever physically fight with someone about something so trivial.
I believed him but wanted to press him a bit further, to let him know I meant business and to make the situation so uncomfortable that he wouldn’t ever think of fucking with me again. I took a quick step in his direction, but my shoes were so large that I tripped over my own feet. Although I quickly caught my balance, the tide of the confrontation had turned. The other boys who had gathered around began to laugh at me. The moment had passed for fighting.
Feeling a bit befuddled, I walked away, believing that I had been right to stand my ground. After I was a good distance away from him, I heard the boy shout, “Don’t scuff your shoes!” The comment was followed by gales of laughter from the older boys. This time, I continued on my way, hearing for the first time the clomping sound my shoes made on the asphalt as I walked.
The rest of the school year went similarly, with me trying to learn Kenilworth’s rules of social engagement and getting everything wrong each time. Other children weren’t allowed at my house because my parents were rarely home to supervise. I couldn’t go to other children’s houses because my parents didn’t know to make an appointment. I didn’t have the right clothes. I didn’t enunciate words clearly. I wasn’t able to keep up with the class work. I didn’t fit in.
I hoped things would be better in sixth grade, that I would begin to settle into a group. But it was worse. I was relegated to the lowest end of the social order and spent most of my time alone, hoping someone—anyone—would talk to me or invite me to his house after school. Slowly, my self-confidence eroded, and I began to sink into a depression unusual for a kid in sixth grade. My parents had always known me as a happy child, who, despite our migratory habits, was always able to make friends. But now, I was sullen and uncommunicative at home. I was still having trouble in school. There was no other option, it seemed, but to take me to a therapist.
The sessions started simply enough. At the first visit, my parents met with the therapist while I sat outside in the waiting room. Then I was called into the office, and my parents waited outside. Every Thursday after that, my mother or my father dropped me off at the therapist’s office and picked me up an hour later when the session was over.
The therapist was a skinny middle-aged man with a rust-colored beard and glasses. Wood-framed pictures of his wife and children were scattered among the small, neat piles of file folders on his desk. At first, he asked questions about me, who I thought I was and how I generally felt. He asked pointed questions using a gentle tone, frequently hanging on the last word and letting the pitch of his voice rise slowly.
“How are you doing this weeeeek?” he asked.
“Did you do anything with any of the other kiiiiiids?”
“Did you ask anyone to come to your hoooouse, to plaaaay?”
“What did he saaaaaay?”
“How does that make you feeeeeeel?” he asked.
I crumpled my mouth and slightly arched my eyebrows, then shrugged.
He wrote something down on a legal pad of paper that balanced in his lap. When he was finished writing, he rested his elbow on the chair’s arm, put his chin in his hand, and stared at me.
I pretended not to notice his silence and casually looked around the room, at his mahogany desk, then at his diploma in a chestnut-colored frame hanging on the wall. But then I grew tired of the charade and stared right back at him, waiting for him to ask another question.
“Is there anything you want to taaaalk aboooout?” he finally asked.
My lack of communication wasn’t always meant to be evasive. But, at times, I simply could not speak. I knew if any word escaped my mouth, tears would follow, and then there would be the heavy sobs and the stuttering gasps for breath that came in between.
After a few weeks and little progress, the therapist met with my parents again. He told them I wasn’t very forthcoming about anything, but he seemed to understand the issues in a broad sense, so he made a few suggestions for activities that forced socialization, such as taking children from school and me to a baseball game or an amusement park. He suggested that my father spend a little more time with me too.
At some point afterward, my father conceived the idea of a camping trip. He spent weeks researching it, making lists on yellow-lined legal paper, consulting Boy Scout handbooks, then purchasing supplies and storing them in the basement, most of which ended up in the blue tarpaulin bundles he had prepared ever so carefully.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this trip. My father was somewhat authoritarian but not above having fun either. For all I knew, he could have been planning for us to get up at sunrise, hike two hours to a lake and catch our breakfast. If we didn’t catch anything, maybe we wouldn’t eat. Then again, we could be headed toward a cabin with electricity, a television, a refrigerator full of beer, and no telephone. But the thought that most consumed me was how he might bark at me for youthful indiscretions or for the things I didn’t know to do, but he thought I should have done. Out in the woods or in a cabin, I’d have nowhere to hide.
The day we left for the camping trip, my father came home from work early. We loaded the bundles onto the roof of our car and tied them down with a rough and frayed but sturdy rope. We pulled out of the driveway in the late afternoon and headed north to the wilderness near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, the exact location unknown to both of us.
We drove five hours or so, well after nightfall, then stopped at a roadside motel for the evening. It seemed like we chatted the whole way up there about any number of topics that men should talk about from time to time, like girls or sports or what’s wrong with the world. I don’t remember us talking about anything unpleasant or difficult. The time passed by quickly enough, with us arriving at a roadside hotel not too far from the campground. We stayed in the hotel for the night, and the next day, we drove two more hours before we arrived at the campground, somewhere in northern Wisconsin, near a place named Three Lakes.
With a rented canoe in tow, we drove down a white gravel road and found a large parking area where cars were stowed while people camped on the other side of the lake. We took the canoe off its trailer and put it partially in the water, creating small ripples in a lake so smooth and serene its surface looked like a mirror. As we stared across the lake searching for our campsite, we saw the towering evergreen trees stretching into the blue sky from the edge of the opposite shore and birds fluttering up from and disappearing into the forest’s dense foliage. On the opposite shore were campsite markers, brown signs with bright yellow letters in small clearings near the water’s edge.
The ranger had given us a map of the campsites and marked in red ink where ours was on the lake. My father consulted the map quickly, then cupped his hands over his eyes to reduce the glare from the water and muttered to himself, “He said it would be about over there …”
“Ah-ha! I think I got it!” he said, pointing to a place across the water. “That should be it!”
For a moment, we considered how we would get all the gear into the canoe. But then the eagerness of beginning the trip took over, and we both stuffed everything we brought into the small vessel and cast off into the water. The moment the canoe floated in the clear water, we were separated from whatever problems held us at home.
The excitement was short lived, however. As we began to paddle, I looked down at the canoe. We had so much weight in the boat; its edge was no more than a few inches above the waterline. A strong tilt to either side surely would have filled the boat with water and sunk us and all our gear in the process. Making matters worse, we mutually decided that we were too manly to wear life vests. “Those,” proudly declared my dad before we climbed into the boat, “are for sissies.”
Because the canoe was weighed down so heavily, steering was next to impossible. And since neither of us could paddle worth a damn, the canoe went in every direction but the one we needed to go. We found ourselves in the middle of the lake, not sure how to continue but knowing we had to keep trying. When I dragged my paddle in the water to slow the canoe from going off course, my father snapped at me.
“What the hell are you doing?” he barked, his Oklahoma accent becoming thicker as his frustration grew. “I’m trying to paddle back here, and you’re trying to stop the goddamn boat!”
“I’m trying to steer, Dad,” I said.
“Dagummit, it’s not helping, so stop doing it! Keep paddling,” he demanded. “Keep paddling!”
“How the hell else are we going to get to the other side?” I shot back at him. “I’m trying to keep the boat straight!”
It was the first time I had ever stood up to him. He wasn’t a large man, but he was a strong man. His wide shoulders, thick hands, and round sinewy forearms were cast from a youth spent in the Oklahoma oil fields, squatting over shallow wells, pulling galvanized steel tubing from the ground, hand over hand. The oil fields shaped his temper too, which meant he had an aggressive response to conflict. When he grew angry, he was an intensely intimidating person.
But in the middle of the lake, I had nowhere to go, and he could do nothing about my sass mouth. He stared back at me, his paddle hanging motionless above the surface of the water. His face was red and stiff, and his gray-blue eyes were fixed on me as if he wanted to bound the length of the boat and ask me to repeat what I said, but the piles of camping equipment, the blue bundles, and the precarious nature of the canoe kept him from doing anything. Reluctantly, he saw my point.
“All right, then,” he said. “Then steer the damn canoe.”