Jaded with the mechanized sports of TV and the automated slaves of daily life, I sought refuge the other day in a neighbor's patio garden and there watched, with eyes that grew wide with remembered delight, a superb performance of that bubble-gum decathlon, follow-the-leader. A whole row of little boys, six of them, I think, entered the house sedately through the back door, walking in step. Their purpose was at once apparent in their intense preoccupation. In turn, each smacked open the refrigerator door, slammed it shut and jumped over the dog's feeding dish. The leader extracted a banana from the newly delivered grocery box. Five other bananas went the same way. Hunched in Marine stalking style, the leader approached the living room, turned a 'rocking chair upside down and crept over it. He darted through a hall to the bedrooms while I darted frantically from window to window outside, keeping the troop in sight.
Through each bedroom, with that insane look from outer space that children wear when in the throes of a completely satisfying activity, each in turn in his tattered basketball shoes jumped up on each bedspread and down the other side. They swung through a bath, spit on the shower floor, turned on the shower water and emerged onto a cantilevered porch. There each approached the railing and piddled solemnly into the garden below. (You can do anything when you're following the leader.) The leader then jumped lightly down into a bed of petunias and set off in a wild leaping dash across the garden, low-hurdling assorted shrubs. At the far end of the garden the whole troop broad-jumped into the woods, and still without a word, still in step, still transported into a kind of seventh heaven of purposeful activity, crashed off into the underbrush.
I felt privileged, like somebody who has accidentally observed the drumming of grouse. There, if ever I've seen it, went inspired leadership. The trouble with adults is that they carry over with them into maturity no understanding of the sport of children. Most adults regard children's games as junior adult sport, rather on the order of small-size clothing copied in adult style.
Of course, they are not. I know because I'm something of an expert on that broad school of children's sport, the mayhem school. I was brought up in a family of eight, in the second and final foursome of our parents' brood, and we—John, Frank, Jeanne and I—grew up in southern California in times and in an atmosphere that were wild and free.
I have, for example, a cherished souvenir that is admired to this day. I'll open the door to a timid knock and find a whole row of strange little boys, some from as far away as Happy Valley, standing tongue-tied, staring at me in fascination. As soon as I make certain that they're not selling Boy Scout soap or inquiring into any recent cat accouchements, I start rolling up my right sleeve. I'm not going to hit them. I know that all they want is to feel my BB.
I have a lot of prestige with young males on the south side of Belling-ham, Washington, where the hard blue lump in the fleshy part of my right upper arm has won for both me and my son Joel a certain status. Not all mothers have bullets in them that you can both see and feel.
When each of my admirers has run a dirty forefinger wonderingly over the blue lump, one will gather sufficient courage to request full detail. That's all I'm waiting for. I give with relish. There isn't anybody under 12 years of age who doesn't understand, and thrill to, this epic account of childhood sport. I got my BB fair and square hiding in the large cardboard carton that formed the walls and roof of the tree house in the upper reaches of the big pepper tree in the backyard of our country home in California.
It must have been a remarkably sterile BB, for beyond initial reddening and swelling of the area, it settled down to trouble-free permanence, isolated and bound just under the skin—a thing of pride.
My brother Frank didn't shoot me because he was mad at me. He shot me because 1) he had a BB gun, and 2) it was the natural way to keep people out of his tree house. It's things like this that adults do not understand. Just the other day a neighborhood mother came mourning into the house, shaken by the horror of a battle raging over her children's tree house located in a trio of firs in the woods. "I just can't understand it," she wept. "I thought they'd use the house as a kind of club, and sit up there and watch the birds or feed squirrels or something. But all they do is fight, fight, fight!"
Just beat them up