There is nothing wrong with a barefoot country boy, I tell myself most every day. In the seventies, we all ran wild without shoes. No sunscreen. No bug spray. No worries. It was a different world. Our parents didn’t hover, they hosed us off when we got too muddy, and we went on our way. Being kids. Being carefree. Being us.
My brother used to shoot meadowlarks in the pasture and we’d roast them in the driveway. I was maybe six, my brother eight years old at the time. We hunted together in the fields of the Sierra Nevada foothills and brought our dinner home. My dad taught us to make that first fire in the gravel driveway, after that we were on our own. We’d pluck the little yellow-breasted birds, clean them, and cook them, and then eat them. Pretending we were Little House on the Prairie. Dad was working somewhere on the ranch and Mom was sleeping. She was a night nurse and I remember her sleeping a lot when I was little.
My parents gave my brother and I plenty of room to roam the country where we lived. Everyone returned indoors about bedtime in those days. We were all lean and mean, turn us loose on an uninhabited island, and we’d survive just fine.
I remind myself of this when I’m tempted to hover over our sons. Scott is the opposite. He gives the boys knives and tells them to stop playing video games and go catch or build something. I’m okay with the building, but I don’t like all the catching. Because it leads to cooking. I’ve fried up frog legs, fish from the river, wild turkey and a wilderness of other critters. Wild turkey actually is delicious if you pound it before cooking. Wild turkeys are tough old birds, and hard to hunt, the boys assure me.
Opa is worse than Scott when it comes to raising our boys. When John and Joey were little, he took them turkey hunting. At dawn in the turkey blind, a rock covered with brush in the hills, Opa was calling in turkeys. Instead of turkeys, a pack of coyotes came and rushed the blind. A coyote bit John’s leg and another coyote went after Joey. Opa beat the coyote away from Joey with his shotgun, and killed the coyote that bit John. The other coyotes got away.
“Those coyotes weren’t after your boys,” my dad said when I accused him of endangering my children. “They thought those boys were just turkeys. It’s good for your boys to fight off coyotes. It will make them into men.”
“They’re four and six years old, Dad,” I said in exasperation when I found out about this a week later because I was away at a writing conference when it happened.
“They’ll be strong men someday,” Dad insisted.
I am certain our country boys will survive. I’m just not sure I will. I did survive being raised by Opa, so I have that going for me. I can fish. I can hunt. I can clean and cook any wild game you throw at me. Fishing I enjoy, the rest, I really don’t. I’d rather buy my meat all nice and clean from the store. I’ve been to three hunter safety courses with our sons and have two more to go. The last class I got a 100 percent on my hunter safety test since I always take the test with my sons. “You’re something else,” said the instructor.
Yes, I am.
Safety’s my thing because I’m also a modern mom.
I smear sunscreen on my kids. And I trail them around, begging them to put on life vests along the river. I’ve done my best to teach them not to pee outdoors. “That’s a public safety hazard,” I tell my boys. But every time I turn around, one of them is peeing on something. I’m constantly asking my boys to get their shoes on. “You’ll step on a rattlesnake,” I warn. They don’t care. I really think they’d love to step on a rattlesnake.
Several years ago, I took their pocket knives away because I was afraid they’d cut themselves. But here they came up out of the field one day carrying a headless rattlesnake. “How did you kill it?” I asked.
“With rocks,” the boys proudly told me.
“How did you cut off its head?”
“With your strawberry knife,” John sheepishly admitted, showing me the tiny pink knife with a scooper on the end.
My strawberry knife has a one inch blade. You couldn’t cut yourself with it if you tried. You also would have to hold it very close to a rattlesnake’s head to do the job. That was the day I gave the older boys back their knives. I figured they were safer with knives than without them.
Few kids today even know what a pocket knife is made for. All the boys had pocket knives when I was growing up. The girls didn’t, but I did. I once saved my pony’s life with my pocket knife when she was strangling herself in her lead rope. My dad taught me to use a knife when I was very young and I still carry a pocket knife in my purse today. As a kid, I also ran around barefoot most of the summer. Now my little boys are barefoot whenever I’m not around.
Now that wrestling season is over and football season hasn’t started yet, Scott and the boys are at the river every chance they get. The stripers are running. Fish tacos for dinner.
Weekends bring turkey hunts with Opa. I no longer worry about coyotes getting my boys. I feel sorry for any coyote that comes near them. The bigger my boys get, the more I know how well they can survive in the country.
Do they really need me and my sunscreen?
“Mom, when’s dinner?” I hear this every day. So I guess I’m good for something.