I was 12 the first time I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It was my first trip alone with my father, who was in the city on business.
I explored that cavernous building all by myself. I loved the big dinosaur that seemed to sway in the semi-darkness around him. His size was more staggering, more magnificently towering than the Empire State Building.
From there, still vertiginous, I wandered through the umbrous halls with their startlingly realistic dioramas. In those huge glass showcases real animals, stuffed but life-like, stood as if caught in still-shot. All the richness of the world in its myriad, far locations were laid out around me.
Childhood adventures probably often include near-death moments that pass the child unnoticed. Mine occurred on a flight from my hometown Detroit to Philadelphia with just my mother who patted her forehead and nose and death-gripped my arm during what seemed to me to be an ordinary landing. Until we didn’t touch down on wheels but scraped and slid on the belly of the plane while fire hoses sprayed the plane on every side and a huge cushion of foam covered the runway. That was my first experience on a plane and seemed quite banal to me. Who knew?
There were the times when a child does something, like execute a crime, that he or she never would disclose to parents or even sibs. Mine was the usual: stealing a handy little pencil-sharpener from the five-and-dime store. My cousin and pal was my look-out and chief instigator. That was far scarier and more heart-thumping-er than that near-fatal plane crash-landing.
Looking back my childhood seemed like a long stretch of missed observations, unfelt emotions, and unknown, unrealized experiences. I can think of all the things I could have done, all the skills I could have learned, all the people I could have known if—big IF—if I had only known what I knew later. If only.
Illness during childhood has its own entertainments and horrors. In my generation, everyone got their tonsils removed at age three. I remember waking up in a bottom bunk bed with ice cream proferred, though only, and disappointedly, vanilla, not chocolate. I cried.
When I was eleven my pediatrician diagnosed my frequent stomach complaints as appendicitis and I was sent to a hospital. Two horrors awaited me there: an enema administered the night before the operation and in full view of the nurse and male orderly. Then there was the ether and the horrendous hallucinatory vision of myself spinning and spinning and being pulled and stretched endlessly into a black universe. It was so terrifying that I awoke screaming and thrashing with five nurses and my distressed mother holding me down. When I recovered I tooled around the nearby wards in a wheelchair chattering and bemusing all the patients I encountered.
“Childhood is a time when we don’t think about our parents as cut from the same cloth as we ourselves…”
There was the time at age seven when I could have been swept out to sea floating on my plastic inner tube. My father clung to a barnacle-encrusted pole and yelled and yelled for help. Two lifeguards swam up and pulled me from the undertow and dropped me on the beach. I, though, thought it was all great fun.
I remember that all through my childhood the seasons never seemed to have an order, that months piled on a calendar that hung on a wall, but that I had no clear perception of time past or time future. Even daytime and night seemed to occur randomly. For much of those years I resisted the bedtime hour as if it were a parental invention, a need of theirs to put me in my bed.
During much of those early years nighttime in my bedroom brought huge shadows of beastly creatures that roamed the walls and forced my eyes to stay open until sleep, like an anesthetic, intervened. And then morning came and the dark fiends were forgotten.
Childhood is a time when we don’t think about our parents as cut from the same cloth as we ourselves—at least I didn’t think so. I had no idea that they had a set of feeling, an inner life, a bank of memories, needs and wishes and regrets as I did.
Childhood is a feral time of existence. Children are the real wild things that dwell here and everywhere.
And not always at home.