You and Me
The spring sun hesitated for what seemed an hour or so, crouching just under the highest ridge of the valley. Everywhere, denuded trees seemed ready to burst an early season feathered green. With the twilight, came cool air that settled down into the draws and creek beds in the great Frost Valley. In the distance, there was movement like a restless breeze as hundreds of The People from every great Indian nation descended onto a gentle slope that fell easily to the edge of a midnight blue lake.
A great fire roared, crackling and swirling devils of smoke that twisted and chased away those who drew too close for warmth. The hillside slowly changed colors from deep green to restless sienna as Princesses and young Guides gathered for the final ceremony of the season. Chippewa, Omaha, Mohegan, Pequot – – the list went on and on. Each chief gave thanks to the Great Spirit and passed the mantle of leadership to another while the braves and princesses looked on in admiration, wonder and anticipation. The Nation was one and gratefully, the land still provided what the Nation needed to survive. Everyone mingled in deep appreciation and slowly retreated to their lodges, long houses and teepees for reflection and revelry.
It was my last trip to Frost Valley and Y guides with my youngest child. For the last ten years ( not withstanding a three year hiatus in London ) , we had been a link in the YMCA Princesses and Guides chain forging precious time together – “just you and me time” as my older son used to say when we would make our trips together. This annual pilgrimage to the hidden valley deep in the Catskill mountains was each boy’s favorite rite of passage – – the long drive, the cabins, the hiking, the recreation, the ghost stories and the entertainment all combining for a deeply etched memory of companionship and caring. It was the Y at its best.
The YMCA of New Canaan is rumored to have the most successful Y Guides program in the entire country. Guides and Princesses begin at kindergarten and create opportunities for time together during those tender years between ages 6 and 9. These are the years where you are still the center of the universe for your child. This is the time preceding a parent’s steady decline from sun, moon and stars to distant planet in the galaxy called “Whatever”. Growing up in Southern California, the YMCA was in many ways the center of my universe for sports, outdoors, summer camp counseling, work and midweek recreation. It was a safe and important oasis.
For a town like ours that is often stereotyped as “type A” and “self absorbed”, the community and commitment demonstrated by its consistently successful YMCA programs contradicts those labels and speaks volumes about our possibilities – – as parents, as teachers and yes, even as tribal chiefs!
Each Y tribe is unique. Some tribes frankly have issues. In California, one of the Indian Princess Dads in our tribe had an affair with another Dad’s squaw. Both men stayed in the tribe. We renamed the one Dad “Steals Another Man’s Horse”. Our New Canaan tribe, The Mohegans, is known for its games of chance, inventions, sarcasm, extremely poor nutrition and speed in which we can break camp on the last day of a sleep over. There are other tribes who are known for things such as gathering nuts, making beads and eating filet mignon. There are some that enjoy little dominion over their own tribe and descend into chaos and Game Boys whenever they gather as a group. There have been rumors of firewater in some longhouses but like so many legends of the Nation, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Some tribes are apathetic, prone to logistical mayhem and always seem to lose their headbands. There are those rare but powerful tribes, guided by strong leaders who insist on a strong identity, loud war cries, animal skins for every season and an ice chest in every teepee. Yes, there is diversity in this Indian Nation. Although by day, the Princesses and Braves appear quite homogeneous, by night they revert to an odd panoply of behaviors stimulated by the fact that there is no squaw within a hundred miles.
As we walk along a path padded with brown pine needles, the boys stomp through dark, brackish puddles of muddy rain water, swinging walking sticks like swords and trading exaggerated stories of what might lie around the next bend of the trail. We traverse a V shaped cable bridge that hangs precipitously above a rushing stream. The trail takes us towards The Devil’s Hole – – a destination shrouded in mystery and hyperbole. Older siblings have already relayed the story of “the counselor who drowned “when he fell into the hole of rushing water. That story has now distorted into the slaughter of an entire family from Michigan. “ Wha-wha-what exactly is in the hole, anyway ?” I overheard one boy ask another. “ I think it’s a deep pool of water and there may be something down inside of it that will grab you if you get too close” said another.“ Nervous laughter and the half hearted swing of a hiking stick. “Whatever it is, if it tries to get me, I will c-c-cut off its head!” declares the bravest of the bunch as he slides back closer to his Dad. The forest is beautiful here with the path paralleling a wide trout stream that cascades down a pitched canyon. Later, we discover The Hole but upon witnessing no blood or bones, the boys lose interest and vote for returning to the campsite to catch newts.
“Look I caught two newts at the same time” screams one of the boys. Unfortunately for these amorous amphibians, it is mating season and their conjugal bliss is constantly being interrupted by nets and squeals of delight as they are lifted from the water, dropped into a plastic containers and then tossed back into the water. More hiking, and then dinner. Our tribe settles down for a dinner of hamburgers, hotdogs, chips and sodas. Later, a medicine man mercifully offers me an antacid. A fellow tribe sharing our longhouse unleashes an intimidating display of BBQs, marinated steaks and civility that makes us feel like pagans. Our boys are oblivious and have once again disappeared into the woods to satisfy some latent genetic need to sharpen sticks, throw rocks and soak their only clean pair of shoes in mud. As silky twilight gives way to night, I rest on the hillside, exhausted but content watching our great nation of people. A small hand slips into mine and a warm, exhausted little boy leans in and lays his head on my lap, “Dad ?”
“Today was my best day, ever.”
“Me, too, pal”
“The best part – – was it was just you and me.”