Where The Wild Things Are
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind…. and another
His mother called him ‘WILD THING’ and Max said ‘I’LL EAT YOU UP!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything”…..Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are
We called it, “Animals in the Dark”. In retrospect, it was a fitting name for a game that boys invented for the expressed purpose of rough-housing. The rules were uncomplicated so even the least focused among us could instantly participate in the mayhem. The goal was simple: survival. One kid, usually a masochistic younger sibling, would draw the short straw to be blindfolded and turned lose into a pitch black room filled with bad intentions.
The windows would be covered to achieve a perfect blackout. The “animals” strained to adjust their eyes so they might be able to distinguish the defenseless, sightless victim as he wandered the room like Audrey Hepburn in Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark. The animals were armed with make shift black jacks fashioned out of tube socks and pillows filled with underwear and knotted tee shirts. Downstairs, an innocent Norman Rockwell scene unfolded with my Dad reading his newspaper, my mother baking a pie and a dog curled under the dining room table. But, all was not well……
My mother’s philosophy raising four boys was simple. There were no bad kids, only bad choices. She understood the adolescent mind was a twisted topography of firebreaks and unconnected roads that often led to bad neighborhoods. She also knew that adolescence was a protracted illness from which most would recover. She understood boys were physical forces of nature – wild things. Life was a succession of high and low pressure systems, constantly moving in and out of the geography of her boys creating dramatic and spectacular perfect storms of stupidity and achievement. When boys hit adolescence, their bodies started to wreak havoc – stretching, fighting, pulling and tugging. Nothing seemed to properly fit a teenager and nothing could ever be fully articulated. She understood that the body starved the brain, compensating for its exhausting Kafkaesque journey by conserving fuel for physical growth. The brain would just have to catch up. Physiologically, this transformation caused teens to speak in a strange abbreviated dialect of “yups” and “nopes”. Boys became tribal animals learning the call of the wild and the unmistakable hierarchy of their pack. They moved like herd animals in thick knots of baseball caps, shorts, athletic shoes and tunnel vision. Life was whatever happened right in front of them. They had no peripheral vision. They could hit a 20 foot jump shot but not seem to hit a toilet six inches in front of them. They could remember the lyrics of a song or statistics of a third string running back but fail to remember to feed the dog or change their underwear. Understanding the feral mind, my mom had a high tolerance for mischief and urged my father to develop a thicker skin to the slings and arrows of our outrageous behavior. Boys will boys…
Max said ‘ Be Still” and tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all….and made him king of all wild things. ‘And now’ cried Max, ‘ let the wild rumpus start!”
The door creaked ever slightly. A blindfolded silhouette stood hesitating, unable to enter but incapable of resisting the siren’s call of abuse that was waiting motionless like a thousand trap-door spiders. The room was a black hole from which nothing could escape. Slipping in through the narrow crease of light, the shadow stopped again. The door shut and for a moment, no one breathed. Thwack ! A scream and laughter. Thwack! Thwack ! A cry for help and more sadistic laughter. The game quickly disintegrated into a riot at an English football match. The hooligans escalated their blind battle with screams, yelling and then a sudden crash of a glass. The room went still. Someone was moaning on the ground and a shaken voice whispered,
“dude, what was that?” “ I think it was Mom’s lamp” Downstairs, the thumping had aroused the dog who looked up to the ceiling and whimpered. My mother suddenly stopped kneading her pie dough and wiped her floured hands on her apron. Her trouble sonar was already returning with pings of concern.. As she walked to the base of the stairs, she caught a glimpse of my father’s backside as he is roared up the stairs in rapid two step leaps. His shoes pounded on the red tile floor creating the sensation of a brakeless truck barreling down an alleyway. “Dad!” my brother hissed. Even my friends had acquired a healthy fear of my father’s temper as he felt he had every parent’s proxy to discipline their children as his own. At this moment, everyone rapidly sought sanctuary – under a bed, in the adjacent room or under a blanket. The door burst open followed by a machine gun burst of expletives. Even the injured victim with a rapidly closing left eye was crawling for safety. The game was over.
Fast forward. It is Friday night, a particular moment in the week when wild things begin to stir. On this night, I agreed to host thirteen of my son’s friends for a sleepover. The numerical omen of 13 was lost on me as I picked up several padded warriors from football practice. On the way home, we stopped for gas and I agreed to buy them each a soft drink. Five cans of 16 oz. Red Bulls suddenly appeared in my car. It would be a very long night. Within a half hour, the group had swelled to a full pack. The family dog was in heaven as he instantly understood that this would be no ordinary night. The animals loped uninhibited across the darkness of our property playing “manhunt” – the modern day equivalent to Animals in The Dark. They descended on the dinner of pizza like rabid carnivores and proved once again that the toilet remains the most elusive target on earth. The Red Bulls were kicking in about 11:30 as they adjourned to the basement – the basement that rests directly under our master bedroom. For the next several hours the pack was in full motion with thumping, screams, laughter and the occasional angry shout of a wild thing who had ended up on the wrong side of a practical joke. I repeatedly walked down to enforce curfew and each time, was neutered by my own nostalgia at the sight of the boys draped all over one another like pups in a carton – not the least bit self conscious that they were firmly in one another’s personal space.
At 2am, I drew the line. I pounded down the stairs and threw open the basement door. Facing into the darkness, I hissed, “It’s 2am. We can hear everything you guys are saying. SHUT UP and go to bed.” For a moment, there was silence. I stood triumphant the king of the wild things. As I turned to close the door, someone passed wind. A dozen fatigued giggles erupted from the ebony cave. I turned away, utterly defeated but secretly smiling. Whoever had control enough over their body to make that noise at that exact time would be forever memorialized in the pantheon of wild things.
The next morning, as each wild thing was returned to his handler, we began to clean up and reconstruct our day. My son who had slept a grand total of two hours, sat dazed, exhausted and triumphant, head leaning on his cocked arm as he slowly lifted a fork of pancakes to his mouth. I looked at him and saw myself in that wolf suit, making mischief and cavorting on the island that I would one day leave to become an adult. Across all the years and over all the oceans of time, it was still the best to be a wild thing.
“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye. And he sailed back over a year….and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him…
And it was still hot.“