I was born to southern parents who enjoyed fishing, hiking and picking wild berries. During the summer my father would call home from his office to my mother and remind her to get the fishing poles ready. My job was to search the backyard for worms and night crawlers as my mother mixed her concoction of cornmeal, dough and some other ingredient that fish seemed to be very attracted to. Dinner was prepared after organizing the equipment. My dad was so very organized! He came home, kissed my mom, went upstairs to their room, got out of his suite, took a shower, (as a kid I never understood and still do not understand what the shower had to do with going into the woods to get dirty again. LoL) dressed and ate. All of this took about 40 minutes or less.
My parents very seldom fished at fishing holes that were easily accessible, and they could tell where a fishing hole was simply by looking at the sky. We trudged through the woods for about two to three minutes before arriving at a location that seemed to be untouched by man and we fished until sundown. My mom was enjoyable to watch. She fished with a bamboo pole. Mom always sat in her lawn chair with a huge straw hat. No one would be safe any less than ten feet of her. Mom got so excited when she got a bite that she would whip that pole out of the water very fast!! I’ve gotten hit in the face a few times by a fish at the end of her pole; LOL! My dad was a master; very patient. He would sit on the bank with a grey cap on his head, just gazing into the water; his mind was miles away. Legs half crossed, the reel and rod in his left hand and a cigarette in his mouth. All of a sudden, the silence is broken by the rapid clicking of his reel and out comes the BIGGEST bullhead catfish that I had ever seen in my young life.
At times we would just hike when the fish stopped biting. In the wilderness, my parents seemed to know where they were at all times.
My dad started out as a teacher and a summertime instructor for what was called “Youth in Danger”. He used the outdoors to get the attention of these kids. Few educators were interested in being in the wilderness nor the classroom with kids whom they had to mind unremittingly. My father had a completely different outlook. First of all, he enjoyed the challenge and knew that in the wilderness these kids would be like fish out of water with the need to rely on him to get back to civilization safely.
Dad and a few other educators took a group of these kids on a hike one year, which took six days to complete. I have no recollections as to whether they used the Appalachians trail or not, but I’ll never forget the day that he came home. My eyes were wide open as the whole family sat at the dinner table and listened to his recap of every moment; a group of stereotyped city boys; some of them were street thugs, out in the wilderness; what an adventure! Little did I know that that day would be the beginning of my interest in the outdoors.
Dad was promoted to the title of School Administrator one year, that meant the end of the classroom adventures and the beginning a whole new group of responsibilities, which he handled very well. Little did either of us know that it was at that time that he would begin pouring the enjoyment of teaching the wonders of the outdoors onto me. I have two older siblings. One sister who feels that fishing is the most boring thing that she had ever seen, and a brother who enjoyed fishing but discovered the social advantages of being in his twenties during the late sixties.
I am the youngest. A few years after college, during the eighties, I transferred from the business world into the education sector of the department of corrections. The Education area is one which my family traditionally gravitated toward. I was the renegade and determined to break that tradition. Needless to say; my dad with his Barry White, bass like voice and who very seldom laughed out loud, filled the house with laughter after discovering my transition to the education field.
Starting out working in a residential setting, I eventually moved to an experimental residential/institutional type setting. A correctional institution where the Juveniles were allowed to attend trips within society based on their behavior.
I was introduced to the gentleman who would be responsible for my training; I will refer to him from time to time as “Kevin”. I generally take a strict head to toe observation when meeting a person who may have my future in his or her hands, and later discover that I had read this guy perfectly. Irish Catholic, very knowledgeable, plays by the rules, etc. But as I stared into his eyes I read something else, as well; Tired but not yet defeated, hopeful but uncertain as to where to turn for answers. To provide more information; this teacher was an innovative thinker in a traditional world. The only difference between this gentleman’s approach and my dads was that my dad wasn’t a minority in the school system where he worked. This made it easier for people to understand and trust his strategies.
On the other hand, this gentleman who was to be my guide was Irish American in a setting of predominantly African American professionals who saw no need to expose inner-city kids to an environment (the outdoors) which they would never see again. Although this theory may seem narrow-minded, it had some validly. The African American teachers, as well as some others, were more interested in training these kids to operate within the environment from which they came, in order to keep as many of them as possible from falling back into the system.
At lunchtime all the younger teachers, both African American and Caucasian played basketball in the gym, which was where I was sitting at the time. I looked up to see Kevin walking toward the pool with a kayak on his shoulder. This took me back to 1966 when my dad was watching the football game on TV with his eyes closed, (sleeping but always woke up when I turned the channel), “The Wide World of Sports” came on during halftime. I saw a man in what I called a white boat. He was in rough water when his boat rolled. I woke my father up and told him what had happened. Dad said “oh yeah, that’s called a kayak” and went back to sleep. More than twenty-eight years later, here comes my chance, and I jumped at it. Kevin’s eyes grew to the size of silver dollars (I was one of, if not the first African American in NJ to take up whitewater kayaking as a hobby) as he explained that he and the superintendent kayaked on the Delaware River every Saturday at 7am and I was welcome to join them if I wanted to learn the sport; I was there at 6 am and waiting.
After a summer of many river trips, Kevin finally developed the heart to discuss what had been on his mind ever since he discovered that my parents had exposed me to a good portion of the outdoor life at a very young age. Kevin turned red in the face and explained that he takes the kids into the woods and on river trips because it gives them a different perspective on life. They get to see what a lot of them have never seen before. He hired another outdoors person (I will refer to him as Andy) who taught and took the kids mountain climbing as well as hiking. Kevin explained that it would really be helpful if these kids and staff were to see an African American taking part in the program. I knew where he was taking the conversation and could see how unnerving it was to him, choosing his words carefully (when crossing cultural lines, it can be very hard to understand were respect ends and disrespect begins; at least during those times, anyway). Therefore I put him out of his misery by accepting before he had chance to formally ask. There was a GREAT relief in his eyes as he explained that he did not want me to feel that he was using me. I laughed and said “USE ME!! Anything to get out of that classroom” (being trapped in a classroom has always been very hard for me, ever since first grade).
I was quick to explain that this was not going to change the staff’s outlook on his program, but I welcomed the challenge. He listened with open ears as I enlightened him on our culture. First of all I said, “You must understand that although many truths come out in a joke, there is a group of us African Americans who just love it when we ridicule a person and they come back with a humorous but strong and factual response. That is how you begin to gain your respect”.
Needless to say, as I helped Kevin loosen up a little and think as well as play outside of the rulebook, I received great opposition from not all, but a great deal of my African American colleagues.
One day a friend (teacher) asked me why I wanted to be involved in THAT type of sport. I knew exactly what he was getting at and stopped his question with a question. I asked him if he thought that we should only play basketball. Then I explained that even basketball was once THAT type of sport. That one statement caused his intellectual wheels to work in a direction where they had never gone before. The statement also put a complete end to any opposition to the outdoor education program. That program was where I learned to make maple syrup, rock climb, kayak, improve my canoeing skills and many other skills that I was later able to teach.
Eventually, I retired and was hired to provide my skills for inner-city kids; one of the best summers in my adult life. The staff that I worked with was amazing; it was as if we could read each other’s minds. The following summer was a disaster. One that cannot be blamed on any one person, however, I take responsibility. Unlike the first summer where I was given the van keys, a group of kids and told to do what I do best. There was a different staff and different rules. I was operating on the previous summer’s rules. Needless to say, I was not rehired by that company the next summer.
However, I was hired by a private outfit with more organization, more money, as well as cut and dry rules that did not change. I had my specialty (canoeing & Fishing), two really good assistants and a supervisor who understood me very well and whom I understood very well. The whole camp was amazing; I had never seen so many positive people in one area. However… I am now servicing a more affluent area of youth, but as long as I am providing for the youth, my time on this planet will not be wasted. They are our future.
This is my story and explanation for the love of the outdoors and the people who enjoy the outdoors.