Monday, June 11, 2012



            So the Prime Minister of England, David Cameron, left one of his kids in a pub. Knowing the Brits, half of them are laughing and the other half are calling Cameron an unfit father.
            Call us what you like, but I’ve been guilty of the same crime. Or rather my husband Rob was guilty, because he was driving. As a family, we were on our way to Las Vegas. As we always did on those occasional trips, Rob stopped in Baker, to let us all take a drink-and-potty break. That done, we merrily set off again. As usual, the noise inside our eight-passenger Buick was so intense you’d think we were members of a traveling circus. And that the circus was in full operative mode.
            Rob and I had six kids.  I’ve always said that six was too many for the capacity of my brain, that I couldn’t keep them all on my mental screen at the same time.  I’d know someone was missing, but I was never quite sure which one.  
            On this day we were twenty miles out of Baker when Bobby, our oldest, said, “Where’s Eric?”  It appears Bobby’s mental screen was better than mine.  
            “Eric?” I said. “Why he’s right here, of course.”
            “No he isn’t,” said Bobby.  “He’s not in our row. Is he back there with you, Mom?”
            I didn’t really have to look.  “Oh, my God. I don’t see Eric. Where is he?”
            “Eric?” shouted Rob from the driver’s seat. “Didn’t he get in with the rest of us?”  He was still speeding along. 
“Don’t think he made it,” said our second son, solemnly. “Count ‘em, Mom. He’s not here.” Even back then, Chris never panicked.  
“Stop, Rob!  Stop!” I screamed. “We left Eric!”
“Good God!” said Rob, “I told everyone to get in.”  With his usual great reflexes, Rob spun the car around, right there in the middle of the highway. Within seconds he was speeding in the other direction.
Finally our daughter spoke up. “I saw him going to the men’s room. I never saw him come out.”
“Eric was probably looking at his hair again,” said Chris. “That’s all he ever does. He  must’ve been looking when we left.”    
“Hurry, Rob!” I yelled. “Hurry!”  Poor little boy, he’s only ten. “I can’t believe we left him!”
For twenty miles I could hardly breathe. They were the longest twenty miles of my life.  Poor little boy, I kept thinking. The poor kid. What will he do?
We arrived back at the gas station, nearly crazy with worry. Both Rob and I leaped out of the car, poured into the little mini-mart, desperate to find him.
There sat Eric on a stool. He was calmly licking a popsicle. Strange as it seems, he didn’t seem worried at all. “The man told me you’d be back.”
“Of course we’d be back,” said Rob.  
           “Of course,” I said. “You know we would.” God, I’m so glad to see you. And then, in my relief and gratitude I couldn’t help thinking, He really does have great hair.

            I’m way behind on adding chapters from “A Circus Without Elephants.”  Here’s Chapter 7.




NONE OF US WANTED it, but Bobby would be leaving soon.   
With our son’s departure imminent, Rob and I scrambled to soften the pain that we knew was coming. Maybe if he had a last, great weekend, we thought . . . which is how we happened to take the four oldest boys to the High Sierras, a kind of final-hurrah for a departing son. 
Determined to hike efficiently, Rob had studied catalogues and ordered the latest marvels in deep-woods engineering, two Mountain Master back-packs touted as offering perfect weight-distribution over the hiker’s body.  “These may be expensive,” he said, holding up one of the khaki green contraptions and fingering the aluminum frame, “but if they’re half as good as the Mountain Master people claim, they’ll be worth it.”
“Money’s not important when it comes to our backs,” I echoed.  Then somehow I got the message confused.  In an odd twist of logic, perfect weight distribution began to mean the extra weight disappears.  Suddenly additional ounces meant nothing.            
Feeling smug at being so wonderfully organized, I filled our packs with everything we could possibly need:  canned pork-and-beans, frozen meat, canned soups, dried eggs, pancake mix, jars of coffee, sugar, and syrup, extra jackets, a flashlight, and various toilet articles and drugs.  This in addition to raisins and candy bars, sacks of nuts, cooking pots and a frying pan.  At the time it all seemed quite reasonable.  We would, after all, be out of touch with civilization for most of two days.   
At the start of a rustic trail in Sequoia National Park, Rob and I squirmed into our Mountain Masters and helped Bobby and Chris with their bundles--all the sleeping bags rolled into two fat sausages.  Chris was now eleven-and-a-half and almost as tall as Bobby, who was nearly thirteen.  Eric, ten, and Kenny, seven, carried tiny knapsacks on their tiny shoulders. 
Rob had someone snap our picture, which shows the six of us strapped into our loads, smiling, fresh, and eager. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” Rob said, “if all our trips got off to this kind of easy start?” 
Our destination was Bearpaw Meadow, eleven miles along the High Sierra Trail.  As I looked toward the forest, the air seemed to shimmer with its very cleanness, and sunlight produced shadows as sharp as etchings.  The woods smelled good, like damp leaves and sap.  In the sun it was warm, in the deeper forest briskly cool. 
“Let’s go,” I said, eager to test our equipment.  So Rob led off, his plump Mountain Master giving him the proportions of a hump-backed grizzly.  Strung out on the trail behind him, the boys and I trudged along at just the right intervals to breathe each other’s dust. 
As we started up the first small incline, I could tell that our backpacks were indeed well-designed, for I could feel the weight in several unexpected places--not just in my shoulders, but also in my arms, calves, and lower spine. 
Then the trail grew steeper, and I began to wonder if I hadn’t overdone the packing a tiny bit . . . Did we really need four tins of pork-and-beans?   
We’d been walking silently for maybe twenty minutes when I thought I heard a groan up ahead.  “You okay, Rob?” I called out. 
He didn’t answer, nor did he slow the pace.  But minutes later he stopped and sagged against a tree. 
Catching up, I saw rivulets of sweat making their way down the sides of his face, and he was bent low, massaging his legs.  “Sonofabitch!” he said.  “My knees!” 
Momentarily overtaken by the guilt which I keep handy for such occasions, I started to apologize.  Then stopped.  He knew what I’d been packing and he hadn’t said anything   . . . and anyway, I was carrying my share.
But not very well.  I found my own tree to lean against and felt a dull ache recede from my muscles.  It appeared the Mountain Master people had certainly kept their promise; whatever sensations you got, you got them everywhere.
For several minutes Rob and I rested in disgruntled silence, dismayed that we were so much weaker than we’d imagined.  Neither of us felt like talking.  
The boys, on the other hand, seemed annoyingly fresh.  Bobby’s thin face was alert, brighter than normal, and Chris beamed at us out of chipmunk cheeks, his usual good-natured self.  The two carried their packs as casually as pocket handkerchiefs. 
“This is neat,” said Eric, “isn’t it neat, Kenny?” and Kenny nodded, and with much squealing the two dashed off after a ground squirrel. 
After awhile we set off again. 
But the respite hadn’t helped.  If anything, my load was heavier, in fact inexplicably weighty, as though something big had crawled inside.   
I wasn’t watching Rob anymore or the Redwoods or the carpet of ferns.  I was watching the ground, staring at dust, staring at the trail.  The minutes passed, and it no longer mattered how the weight was distributed.  The whole blasted load could have hung from my neck, for all the help I was getting from that perfect engineering.  I felt like I was hauling a Steinway.   
Bearpaw Meadow was no longer attainable.  Eleven miles or one mile, what was the difference, I was never going to get there.
Suddenly I couldn’t walk another step.  With a last surge of will I gasped my way to a big rock and sagged out from under the crushing load.       
Rob stopped too, and in one swift motion he jerked the pack off his body and dropped it on the ground.  “My knees are through,” he declared.  “Finished.” 
In our separate foul moods, we stood there panting.  The boys watched in surprise as Rob roused enough to drag his Mountain Master off the trail, growling that he didn’t care whether he ever saw the damned thing again.  “For two cents I’d leave it right here.” 
“What if somebody steals it?” Eric asked.  He was cute and blue-eyed, just outgrowing his baby softness. 
Rob laughed without mirth.  “I’d like to see the thief who’s strong enough to haul it away!” 
So this was it, I thought, Rob and I finally felled by our possessions, with too much to carry in either direction.
Six of us milled on the trail while we tried to decide what to do.  After several irresolute minutes, Bobby offered casually, “I’ll carry your pack, Dad.”  
Rob and I stared at him and shook our heads in unison.  “You can’t,” Rob said.  “If I can’t, you can’t.”
“Sure I can,” said Bobby, and he hoisted Rob’s pack onto his scrawny shoulders.  “See?”
Rob smiled.  “Bobby, you haven’t tried walking yet.”
“I can walk,” Bobby said, and started off. 
With that Chris picked up my pack.  “You take my stuff, Mom.  It’s light.” 
He was right, it was.  So I carried Chris’s load and Rob took Bobby’s, and the six of us moved off down the trail again with our oldest boys in front, where anyone that strong deserved to be.  
            From time to time Rob and I exchanged incredulous glances, amazed at this turning point, that our roles had been reversed with two pre-teens.  But the bigger boys never said a word.  Not a complaint, not a murmur. 
They carried those Mountain Masters all the way to Bearpaw Meadow, they slept on the ground that night, and Sunday morning they hauled their loads five miles up and down a precipitous, winding trail to Hamilton Lake and out again, then back the eleven miles to our parked car.  Thirty-two miles in thirty-four hours. 
The only time they complained was at Sunday morning’s breakfast.  They didn’t like the scrambled eggs, which I’d made from a dried packet and a cup of stream water and which cooked up into a dark, gray-green viscous blob, a mess that only Dr. Seuss could love.  “I’ve never seen green eggs!” Bobby said, screwing up his long face.
“I’m sorry, Mom, it looks like a big, squashed slug,” said Chris. 
“Pancakes, then?” I asked, tossing the green eggs into the campfire because nobody else wanted them either.   
Kenny watched the eggs as they sizzled.  “Good you burned ‘em, Mom.  They coulda made some bear sick.”    
But the pancakes, too, turned a strange color in addition to being dense and hard.  I was finally glad we’d hauled in the heavy, canned baked beans. 
Sunday night we ran out of everything except food (of which we had enough to take us through the winter), out of time, daylight, and energy.  We’d tried to go too far, lingered to catch a few fish too many.  But we had to get back to Orange County that night because our flight to Denver left the next morning.   
As the light faded and the miles didn’t, Rob said, “Boys, we’ve got to keep going,” and Bobby nodded and led us down the murky trail as though he always went hiking in inky darkness.  He still hadn’t mentioned the piano on his shoulders, nor had Chris.
Behind Bobby came Rob with a wavering flashlight, then Chris and Eric, both resolutely quiet, and finally Kenny, who began asking, “What if we see a bear?”
From the rear I told him we probably wouldn’t see any bears, we were making too much noise, and Kenny said in a nervous, pipey voice, “How do you know?  Are you sure?”
“Yes, I said, and yearned to have this over with, not because of the bears or the darkness but because I felt like I’d already walked a thousand miles.   
About ten-thirty Rob’s flashlight gave out and we all disappeared.  Such an irony, I thought.  All those canned goods and only one flashlight.  An eerie tension crept over us, not helped when little Kenny, thin and skitterish as a bird, began to whimper.  “I’m scared.  There MIGHT be a bear.”
“There’s no bear, Kenny,” I promised.  
“I think I hear a mountain lion.” 
“It’s just Bobby stepping on a twig.”
“What if a cougar jumps out?”   
“Cougars won’t bother us,” I said.  “They’re afraid of people.”     
“But you don’t know, Mom.  You don’t know.” 
With increasing anguish he named all the wild predators one by one, the spiders, the snakes, the wolves, while up front somewhere Bobby searched out the trail. 
For the next two hours Kenny clung to my hand and sobbed into the night.
Periodically Bobby called out the distances.  “Mile five,” he sang out, because he’d somehow managed to spot the wooden marker nailed to a tree.  And later, “Mile four.”  When he missed mile three, the tension became so thick even Rob sounded edgy. 
By then Kenny was crying hard enough for all of us.   

SOMETIME AFTER MIDNIGHT WE emerged from the forest and staggered up to our station wagon. 
As Rob lifted the pack from Bobby’s narrow shoulders, he clapped his hand on Bobby’s arm.  “You guys were terrific.”
Bobby smiled and nodded, a private, satisfied smile.  The moment was vintage Bobby, the start of the quiet triumphs we would one day see so vividly.  I thought it odd that he didn’t seem weary at all.  
The boys all climbed into the back of our large station wagon and immediately fell asleep. 
Rob said he’d take us down the mountain and I could drive the rest of the way home. 
Back on level roads once more, we stopped to switch drivers.  When I stepped out of the car on my side, a surprise was waiting.  With no warning whatever--before I’d taken a single step--my legs gave way and I sank to the ground like a collapsing card table. 
I sat there, startled; my legs had never behaved like that before.   
From the pavement, wanting to tell him what had happened, I looked through the open car door toward Rob.  I expected to see him standing there, waiting.  But he wasn’t.  He was sitting in a heap on the ground.  Like me, he’d stepped out and buckled and gone down.       
As I drove the rest of the way home to Orange County, I wondered if there wasn’t a better plan than taking Bobby to Denver.  For a whole weekend he hadn’t wheezed once.  No coughing, no fighting for breath.   
Perhaps instead of the Home for Asthmatic Children, we ought to send him off to the High Sierras with a thirty-pound pack on his back. 


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  2. Prime Minister gets blasted for leaving behind his kid. This story reminds us that he not the first adult to misplace a child or pet. Glad the kid was ok, and as Nietzsche said, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger" and all is well that ends well.

  3. We left our son, Rob at a bait/gas station/ liquor store in Oklahoma when he was seven. We didn't notice. (camper) Cops brought him to us. Embarrassing. He is now in his 40's and loves to tell the story!