The following essay is part of a series of reflections I wrote about childhood encounters with nature titled "Where Wonder Was Born." The following is a true story.
Where Wonder Was Born: Danger - Real and Imagined
Faraway places with exotic names tug at our imaginations and our sense of discovery and adventure. Yet, adventures are often accompanied by risk and childhood adventures are no exception.
Among the pack of kids who lived in my neighborhood when I was growing up, there were two destinations spoken of only in hushed, secretive tones: “Cat’s Cave” and “Devil’s Island.” Both places lay just beyond the usual bounds of our territory, too far to venture if you were six, but within striking distance if you were a determined ten year old. Their evocative names sounded as if they were lifted straight from the Hardy Boy books that so many of us grew up with and elevated these places to the status of forbidden territory. Of course, this made them completely irresistible to my over active imagination.
I was a very low ranking member of the gang and my opinions counted for very little, so my nagging requests to accompany the older kids on expeditions initially went nowhere. Eventually, however, when I was about nine or ten years old, I talked my way into an ill-fated trip to Cat’s Cave. I say “ill-fated” because a couple of my friends who didn’t make the trek snitched on me to my mother. My parents may have trusted us to explore the world around our home, but to my mother, “Tom went to Cat’s Cave,” must have sounded perilously close to, “Tom has fallen into a bottomless cavern!” She responded in the only way she knew how and sent my Dad to fetch me.
It was a Saturday afternoon and my Dad, who must have just settled in to watch some college football, was not amused to have his routine interrupted by this nonsense. However, urged on by my mother, he set off to retrieve me. He was guided to the cave by about half of the boys in the neighborhood who knew I was in trouble and were anxious to witness my punishment.
Frankly, I was disappointed even before my Dad arrived, because the “cave” did not live up to its billing. It was really just a series of crawl spaces amid a tumble of boulders in a ravine. No cats (the cave was named for the bobcats who allegedly lurked in its recesses) and, in reality, no cave. Hardly worthy of the Hardy Boys, and certainly not worth the swat to the butt I received when my Dad did catch up with us. I was shocked to see him and the neighborhood posse arrive, but instantly put the whole picture together in my head, “Mom must be really scared.” Of course I was terribly embarrassed by this scene, but my righteous anger at the snitches helped me get over that.
Despite this misadventure, I led several of my own expeditions to Cat’s Cave over the next few years, sometimes with friends, and at least once in the company of my younger brother who had to see this legendary spot for himself. On these occasions, shorn of my initial expectations, I remember being impressed by the beauty of the spot; a small stream flowed though the bottom of the leafy ravine and the passageways between the moss covered stones were fun to explore.
A year or two later, I was invited to go on my first trek to “Devil’s Island” and this time I was not disappointed. Though, I had no clue that this first innocent visit would lead to one of the most frightening and memorable nights of my life.
Devil’s Island was located in a swamp nestled into the low point between several large hills - including the hill my neighborhood was perched on. During the summertime, the swamp was a mucky, impenetrable bog, but in the middle of our northern winters, dense sheets of ice allowed easy access for light footed kids.
Typical of woodland swamps, this was a thickly forested spot with countless trees growing from a dizzying archipelago of islands, many of which were smaller than our kitchen table. There were thousands of these tiny tree-dotted islands, but rising at the back of the swamp, Devil’s Island formed an impressive twenty to thirty foot high mound that towered above its diminutive neighbors. It was crowned by a massive tree and looked almost regal with its rounded snow draped shoulders.
I remember when I first caught a glimpse of it; my heart was already beating fast from the exertion of our trek through the snowy woods, but I felt a genuine thrill seeing the island amid the many little tufts of earth. My imagination ran wild, no doubt fed by the stories recounted by the kids who guided us in. I don’t remember why they called it, “Devil’s Island”, but it certainly looked like the kind of place a swamp-sailing pirate might bury his treasure.
I returned to Devil’s Island with members of the gang on several other occasions, we used to play hockey on a small open pond near the edge of the swamp and would occasionally wander in to go exploring.
One cold January day, I found myself daydreaming about the island while I was in school. I don’t know why I felt compelled to visit the island that day – but I remember talking my little brother into going with me as soon as we got home. My timing could not have been worse. Night comes quickly in a northern winter and it had begun to snow very hard.
My brother, Jeff, was my shadow. I was three years older than him and at this point in our lives he followed me nearly everywhere I went. We were best friends, confidantes, and from time to time – ferocious enemies. If angered, his intensity could be frightening; but there was a powerful bond between us and I tried very hard to be a good big brother. This time, however, I was leading him dangerously astray.
When we arrived at the swamp, a group of kids were skating on the pond, but were about to head home, the snow was falling too thickly to keep the ice clear. Jeff and I said, “Hi,” and proudly informed every one of our plans, and then off we went on our trek to Devil’s Island.
I remember that Jeff was dubious about my ability to find the island amid the labyrinth like swamp. However, I was certain of the direction and tried to calm his fears. We moved quickly feeling some urgency from the darkening sky and falling snow, but I was confident that we were in no danger – after all, we were leaving deep tracks behind us, we’d have no problem retracing our steps and finding our way out.
Onward we pressed, and before too long the familiar outline of Devil’s Island presented itself between the swirl of snowflakes and the black trunks of the trees. This was Jeff’s first trip to the island and for a moment he lost all sense of apprehension and kept pace with me as I plowed forward. I don’t recall if I repeated any of the crazy myths that I had been told on my initial visit, but like me, he seemed very excited by his first impressions of this “haunted” place.
When we finally reached the island, we climbed up the sloping hillside until we stood panting beneath the ancient tree at its top most point. It took us a short while to catch our breaths, but when we did we shared one of the most profound experiences of our young lives.
As we looked out over the swamp, it appeared as if the sky itself was reaching down to touch the earth. The world seemed to be drained of all color as the tumult of individual snowflakes dissolved into a deep gray mass caught in the web of branches just above our heads. Spreading out before us, the tree trunks formed orderly ranks of black silhouettes set against pristine whiteness. We fell quiet, and there, amidst the growing intensity of the storm, we felt an almost perfect calm. The only sound was the faintly metallic tinkling of the snow falling through ice covered limbs.
I don’t know if it is rare for children to fall silent when their hearts are filled with wonder, but that was our response. Somehow we knew that speaking would break the magical spell cast over our secluded domain. After a short time, we could hear church bells tolling the hours from the nearby village. The solemn peels were dampened by the lowering blanket of the sky and barely slipped in between the trees. Despite being muffled by the snow, the whole forest seemed touched by the bells’ deep poignant tones. We looked at one another and wordlessly acknowledged our reverence for what we were witnessing (even though I know that we wouldn’t have used that word.) But, it was reverence – the sonorous bells, creaking woods and tinkling snow were ringing us. This was, I thought, the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced and I could sense that Jeff was moved too.
The gathering darkness forced us from our reverie and soon we were retracing our steps back through the snow. We were not far from the island when our sense of wonder and calm disappeared and was replaced by a growing sense of alarm: it was snowing so hard that our tracks were being buried. We quickened our pace, but to no avail, within minutes, there was no trace of the path we had followed into the swamp.
At this point, Jeff stopped and confronted me – “We’re lost, and it’s all your fault! We’re going to be late for dinner and get into lots of trouble!”
I was still confident in my sense of direction and urged him onward, I was sure that we would soon emerge from the swamp and be on familiar ground. We moved on, but now with a creeping sense of anxiety dogging our steps. After a few more minutes, that sense of anxiety turned to real dread… we found fresh footprints in the snow. We had walked in a circle.
Jeff panicked and really let me have it. He cursed at me and cried, and I knew that everything he was saying was true, this was, “all my fault.” However, I also knew that I could not panic; I could not let fear overwhelm us. Yes, this was all a terrible mistake, but there was a lot more at-stake than missing dinner. I realized that I really had to be a big brother now and take control of the situation. I took Jeff by the shoulders and looked directly into in his tear-filled eyes saying, “You have to trust me and we have to move. This swamp isn’t that big and we know all of the landmarks around it. We’ve got to move fast and keep moving in one direction until get our bearings. It will be dark in a few minutes - we have to move now!”
I started off and, eventually, he fell in behind me. Just as the sky turned black I spotted a stonewall that I knew ran along the base of one of the adjoining hills. Behind the wall, we could just barely make out the steep hillside rising up into the night.
We made our way over the wall and began to climb the slope. I felt certain that this was the hill that we looked at from our living room window and hoped that we would be able to see the lights of our neighborhood from the summit. Making our way up the hill in the darkness was treacherous; we exhausted ourselves fighting through thickets of icy branches and sinking into drifts that came up to our waists. As we stumbled forward, an internal struggle was also weighing me down. I was very afraid, but I also felt a tremendous sense of guilt – Jeff had always been pretty frail, he was often sick and prone to fear. How could I have done this? I was supposed to take care of him, to be his big brother – how could I have been so stupid? I kept these thoughts to myself, and instead tried to encourage Jeff and lift his spirits. I knew that at any moment he might simply give up and refuse to take another step.
That moment came when we finally reached the top of the hill. I set off in what I believed was the right direction, but Jeff was sure I was going the wrong way. Completely worn out, cold and desperately frightened he broke down and started yelling at me again. I was too tired to defend myself, and was simply letting him “go off” when suddenly, he stopped. Gesturing excitedly, he pointed over my shoulder and simply said, “Look!”
I turned to see a flickering light in the distance and after a moment I realized that it was the porch light of the last house on the street where we lived. We were saved. As we trudged our way back home, relieved but exhausted, I found myself silently repeating the lyrics of a song that was popular at the time, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
As it turned out, my Mom was a little late serving dinner that night and our tardiness was hardly noticed. My folks assumed we were simply hanging out at a friend’s home. Many years passed before I finally told them about our trip to Devils’ Island.
I am sure that sharing these misadventures has done little to relieve the fears of the parents among my readers. However, I believe there are times we need to take ourselves by the shoulders and realistically confront our fears. If our response to the world is too zealous and we try to erect barriers to every real and imagined danger that our children might face, we risk cheating them out of experiencing life itself.
Despite the poor judgment I showed taking Jeff with me to Devil’s Island, I consider our experiences there to be a crucial part of my growing up. I learned what being a “big brother” really meant on that snowy January evening.
Years later, Jeff and I faced another crisis together. He was just shy of his fortieth birthday, but he was in the hospital dying of cancer. He passed away just one month after being diagnosed, and in those last few weeks I spent many hours at his bedside trying once again to lift his spirits and calm his fears. It had been a long time since Jeff had allowed me to be his big brother, but in that moment of crisis, he invited me back into his life.
We talked about many things during those hours in the hospital, and most of those conversations are lost in the blur of the cold white rooms, blinking machines, and terrible emergencies that we endured. I will never forget, however, sharing our favorite stories about growing up together in New York. One day I asked him about his favorite childhood memories and he recounted how proud he was of our clandestine bike trips to the Hudson River which was almost four miles from our home. I recalled a long list of happy events, but as I was finishing, I asked him if he remembered our trip to Devil’s Island.
He smiled and said that he hadn’t thought about that for many years. A long pause followed, and then he asked me, “Do you remember the bells?”
A few days later, as Jeff was taking his last breaths, I leaned over him, told him that I loved him, and urged him to look for that porch light and follow it home.