Last summer I packed up my family (or more precisely gave my wife some useful packing instruction) and moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona. My plan was to spend a year in the mountain wilderness north of the Mexico border, studying the life-style of a kind of tropical raccoon, the coatimundi. To help with the fieldwork, I drafted my teenage son and two of his high school friends.
There is a popular theory that the good life is not to be found these days in a split-level but in a pup tent on the forest floor. This is the woods-is-good syndrome. For months before leaving, I was besieged by friends, neighbors and acquaintances who wanted their sons to be accepted for enrollment in my Boondock U. The boys, as much in favor of the idea as their parents, were somewhat of a type, shaggy youths who thought it would be cool to drop out of Eastern schools and Eastern homes in order to Wild West it about the mountains for a year. The parents included a naval officer, a public accountant, a scientific instrument distributor, a high school principal, two editors and an antique dealer. The parents were both more various and more articulate than the boys. Their presentations were brilliant examples of exhortative discourse and social blackmail, but nearly all boiled down to three points: 1) the parents were concerned about how to keep their sons occupied and out of trouble; 2) they were certain that a year spent in the Arizona wilds by the latter would give the former temporary peace of mind, at least; 3) they hoped that the experience would make men out of their boys, i.e., make them forget about the Grateful Dead, easy riding and unacceptable kinds of dope. Perhaps it would set sons to thinking about naval captaincies, antique dealerships, high school principalships, etc.
There is a belief in the almost magical therapeutic value of exposing young males to the wilderness. Faith in this formula is general and deep-rooted. Anyone who might conceivably be in the market for youthful outdoor labor is thoroughly familiar with the situation.
Each year thousands of high school-and college-age boys appeal, by mail and in person, to state and federal parks agencies and forest and wildlife services, seeking temporary jobs, no matter how menial. More inventive youths with similar ambitions hound biologists, geologists, archaeologists and outfitters. Parents use whatever political, economic and social influence they have in an effort to help sons land such jobs. Often the boys and especially their parents are not concerned with how well, or even if, the jobs pay. A good many of the currently fashionable Outward Bound, survival, tough-it-out schools and camps are kept afloat by well-heeled parents who have been unable to wangle legitimate woods jobs for their kids. Fathers are willing to pay somebody to simulate wilderness trials and tribulations. What they appear to want—the parents openly, and the sons more covertly—is to get the boys enrolled in a sort of super self-improvement course that according to our folk wisdom is offered the year around in rare and righteous corners of the American bush.
None of this is new. In fact, a good bit of the country was explored by young bucks who were packed off from European castles and universities by families to find, if not fame and fortune, at least themselves in the howling wilderness of the Western world. One of the many dispatched for this purpose was Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a half brother of Walter Raleigh. After dropping out of Oxford, he tarried long enough to establish his own line and then shipped out to America. There, in 1583, while attempting to find either the Northwest Passage or the site of Buffalo, N.Y. (the chronicles are unclear), he became confused and disappeared without trace. Nevertheless, we Gilberts are proud of him. The Hump may not have been much of an explorer but he was one of the founders and first victims of an important and lasting institution, Boondock U, which in its time has served many prominent folks and enrolled such diverse students as Horace Greeley, Theodore Roosevelt and the Kennedys.
As the personnel offices of any woods or wildlife agency can testify, the public still rates this institution highly. Unfortunately, it is now considerably more difficult to matriculate at Boondock U than it once was. Getting a bona fide, if temporary, woods job is about as difficult and competitive these days as landing an appointment to one of the service academies once was. The harsh economic fact of the wilderness business, that the agencies have little money to spend on youthful employment, is not the only reason for this. Most woods bosses have a preference for what might delicately be called the more mature hired hand. Perhaps this is an example of generation-gap injustice.
The Bounding Main is not the woods, but for educational purposes it is regarded as much the same thing and almost as good. The publicity Jacques Cousteau has received lately has made the Two-Years-Before-the-Mast Course one of Boondock U's most popular. It is hard nowadays to throw an anchor without hitting some kid (and his old man) wanting to be taken on as an apprentice marine explorer. Recently I have been turning over requests for such appointments to a man who may be called Ivor. One such letter came from an acquaintance who is an advertising executive. It read in part:
"Despite his difficulties with the bomb and narcotic squads which you may have read about (a society that hates its young is in real trouble), we are quite proud of Kevin. He seems to be dealing successfully with his alienation. For the past several months he has had his heart set on exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Dotty and I are very enthusiastic about this, particularly since it is Kev's own idea. We are counting on you to make arrangements for him to join the next group leaving for that area. I am sure Kevin would make a valuable addition to any party. His biology grades are up this quarter, he holds a senior life-saving certificate and is very interested in organic foods. Naturally he would expect to work in as a junior member and would be willing to do any sort of work. Swabbing decks, for that matter. The salary is not important...."
Heartlessly, I suggested Kevin and his father write directly to Ivor. After politely telling them that it was a poor year for Great Barrier Reef expeditions, Ivor wrote to me, sourly but pertinently: "They all want to swab decks. Is that some new sort of a password? As you well know, anyone who has enough money to splurge on a deck swabber wants a professional. Old, dried-out winos are scarce but good. They keep things clean and their mouths shut. The two kids I have been exposed to (both sons of trustees, you dig?) were indifferent swabbers. They were more interested in fighting sharks bare-handed and lecturing us on the Selective Service system."
Men like Ivor are generally looking for mute, menial laborers. Most of the kids, despite their protestations about being willing to do anything, are looking for adventure, moments of truth and sharks of one sort or another with which to duel. At the moment the inland equivalent of shark fighting is scaling difficult mountains and shooting white-water rapids. There is nothing wrong with this; youths are meant to be high-spirited, but there are few people who need to pay kids to do these things for them. A park superintendent who wants a boy for chow-hall KP is not likely to consider the ability to do Eskimo rolls in the pot sink or rappel down the grease trap as necessary, or even desirable, skills.