There was a big difference between town kids and us. A gaping chasm, in fact, if you asked us. Town kids were afraid to get dirty. Us, we jumped in mud puddles with both bare feet. Town kids were soft, and ate too much candy. We were hard, with leather soles able to run through patches of goathead stickers with abandon. We ate beans and rice. Town kids sat lazy butts in front of the TV all day, while we roamed wild through the desert or forest or on lucky occasions, near the ocean. Town kids needed someone to entertain them, they lacked imagination. While we, when Dad said “Go amuse yourselves,” we had hours and days of complicated games and storylines – we were horses and cowboys, we built entire cities where certain trees and rocks were buildings (the jail, the store, our houses), we had clubs and threw parades and were the heads of armies. In the desert, we built swirling labyrinths delineated by stones and walked through them as if we could not see their outcomes without walls. We had friends in the trees and magical beings all around us.
Yes, I am the oldest, and much of the wild imagination came from the overload of books I’d consumed already. The other kids followed me because they had no other friends, and because my age and the fact I often had to watch them made me default leader. When they were older and off with their own crowds, other boys, I missed them though I might not have realized it at the time. My little sister doesn’t remember most of those wild free times, being the baby and not included in the complicated little hierarchy we had established in those road-days. She was 4 or 5 when we settled in New Mexico. I think she feels like she missed out, in a way, and maybe she did.
When we wanted to insult each other, we might call each other town kids, or maybe dweeb or dork, because those weren’t on the list of forbidden insults that might get a swipe from the belt around Dad’s waist. We came up with some of our own names, like “weed” or filthy little wretch, and those were worst and stung the most. We had fistfights, for a while, until we stopped. We shot each other with BB guns and stabbed each other accidentally with knives, and decided not to rat each other out to the grownups. Rowdy and I ganged up on Reno, and he and Rowdy ganged up on me. Sophie was the baby, the outcast that we didn’t want to have tag along. She turned out to be one of the coolest of us, though, tough and self-assured. She has us and the trickledown meanness of our clan to thank for that.
We didn’t speak about our parents much when we were off alone. It was unspoken that Dad was in charge, and that Mom got picked on the way Sophie did. When they fought, more often in the latter days, we merely made ourselves scarce and kept quiet, not wanting to draw any of the overflowing cauldron of ire our way. We protected each other from outsiders, knowing what it felt like to be broken from the herd and left alone to face strangers, the way antelope are picked by lions from the outskirts of their crowds of brethren.
The road and the way of life left lasting scars and opened minds (it calls me insistently, all the time). I like the person it made me, the inner toughness it left, the appreciation for everything it instilled. I hope my brothers remember it always, and I hope they’ve gained some of what I did from the experience. I thank my dad for that, if nothing else. He gave us a start in this life that most people never dream of.
I still think we’re better than the town kids.