Small travelers in an antique land

(Begun in response to this HN comment.)

When I was small, my father had me along to work one Saturday, because he couldn’t think of where else to put me. Since he worked in a broadcast facility, I had no end of interesting technology with which to occupy myself while he worked, and was still happily so engaged when he finished up and left. Once I’d got around to noticing he had gone, and not yet knowing my home phone number, I asked the receptionist to call and ask him what I should do. His answer, which she relayed verbatim, was “hoof it”. So I did. Not entirely without dismay, seeing as it was a bit rough to have been just straight up ditched like that; I may well have sniffled a bit, but by God, if “hoof it” was the order of the day, then hoof it I most certainly would.

I was most of the way home when he found me; apparently the receptionist had called back in some dismay of her own to report that I had not grasped what apparently was intended to be a joke, and had instead turned on my tiny heel and marched my pint-sized self straight out the exit door. I suppose one must be rather broad in one’s humor when one’s audience is a five-year-old; I do not recall at that age being particularly at home with subtlety. On the other hand, like most of my father’s jokes, this one was not particularly funny, so perhaps I may be excused for having taken it straight.

He was furious when he found me, and I had no idea why – once I’d got over the initial upset and realized that I actually knew very well how to get home from where I was, I had begun to enjoy myself a great deal, in the sense of self-sufficiency and ability to achieve seemingly grown-up things on one’s own that I think all children must cherish – certainly I did! And it was rare, at such a young age, to find an opportunity to experience the world unmediated. I often felt myself to move uncomprehending through a world made for and by giants, full of artifacts as pregnant with wonder as towering in their illegibility. And I often distantly resented the pathetically pared-down and brightly colored offerings which were thought appropriate for one of my age – inchoate as it could only be with but a couple years’ knowledge of the written language, I was angry that my time was so often wasted, and that I had no option to make it otherwise. So to walk among those artifacts alone was a benison beyond price, especially as I was rather sickly then, which made such opportunities rarer than they would have otherwise been. Years later, I would feel I must know something of what Shelley’s traveler must have felt.

But since he got the receptionist’s second call, he’d been driving terrified all over town, presumably expecting to find me being gnawed apart by bears. Adult experience gives me to understand that his real fear was that of being seen to be a poor enough father that he forgot he had a son, but that’s not something one can be expected to intuit at the age of five. And I don’t suppose it must have helped his mood that I’d recognized his car coming and done my best to hide before he got close enough to see me – this in particular left him wounded and uncomprehending, but it made perfect sense to me, and I was rather irked in my own miniature right; having been told to find my own way home, and having then got over the upset this caused me and not only made a credible start of it but seen the task nearly to completion, why should he now forbid that I finish what he had himself bade me start?

In later years, I would learn that this was rather typical of the man, who had never yet learned that the consequences of his actions, however unintended, were as much to his account as the actions themselves had been. But in the time and place where these things occurred, those actions of his were themselves atypical in the extreme. No one, I later learned, understood why he’d been upset at all with my display of ability to get myself home on foot over a distance of a bit less than a mile, or why he’d imagined me to be in some terrible danger posed by the rural and rather sleepy university town in which I then lived. Such self-sufficiency in so young a child was to be prized and fostered at every opportunity, and however things might be in the undoubted sink of New England depravity from which my damnyankee father had come, hadn’t he been here long enough to realize that this was a place where people looked out for one another’s kids, instead of throwing them in a bear pit?

But I get the sense lately that such overblown fears are less the exception any more than the norm, here in the US at least. No doubt kids now being raised under such conditions will turn out by and large just fine, as most kids persistently do despite whatever nonsense happens to characterize the age. But I do feel it’s a shame nonetheless, and a loss, that what in early childhood made me an occasional object of pity – that I wasn’t trusted to do things on my own that other children were trusted to do – should since have so become the norm that now there are things no child, by force of law, may be trusted to do – that all today’s travelers in antique lands must be always chaperoned by giants, until they finally become giants themselves. And wonder? Breath of the Wild will have to do, I suppose, for children who are never allowed to feel it.

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