When I was a child, I was expected to know about the woods and swamps surrounding our farm, and Daddy would teach and quiz me about basic survival techniques. He knew that my friends and I spent many days roaming the back side of our farms, sometimes several miles from the nearest field or road, and he wanted to be sure I was safe. In addition to swimming, the use of firearms and the recognition of poisonous plants and reptiles, I had to know how to find my way even under difficult circumstances. I learned that there was never a problem in knowing directions if the topography was varied enough or if the distant sound of a highway or the sight of a heavenly body could indicate direction. He taught me how to look at the moon during either day or night and tell the direction of north, and would ask me at unexpected times to demonstrate this ability. The one difficulty was in the more remote, broad and completely flat swamps, when clouds obscured the sky, when a compass was the only dependable guide. Daddy gave me one the size of a small pocket watch and told me always to carry it with me.
Once when I was fishing with my friend Rembert on Choctahatchee Creek, we found an enormous alligator snapping turtle, the biggest we’d ever seen, pinned down by a tree that had fallen on it. It had begun drizzling rain, and it was time to take in our poles and leave the creek, so we took all our fishing lines, doubled them up, and suspended the monster from a limb to carry it between us and show it to our parents. It was almost sundown when we started walking out of the swamp. This time I had forgotten my compass, and as dark approached we realized we were lost. I began to get nervous, but a half-hour later we were delighted finally to see some human tracks — until we realized that they were our own. I remembered Daddy had told me that it was natural human inclination to walk around in a circle unless we focused on specific landmarks.
About this time, the weather cleared well enough for us to see the sky, so we abandoned the turtle and began trotting westward, in a straight line toward Venus, which was then an evening star. We hurried forward, often forcing ourselves through clinging briars and holding up our arms to prevent the low tree limbs from striking us in our faces. After an hour or so, we reached a road, and I knew enough to follow it to the house of a black family — a long way from where I had expected to come out. I was both relieved and concerned to learn that Daddy had already been there, telling the family to be on the lookout for us. We were too exhausted to walk any farther, so the man hitched up his wagon and we began the journey of about 8 miles to our home.
I feared confronting my father, knowing the anguish we had caused him and Mama, and how annoyed he would be because I had violated all the woodsman’s rules he had taught me. We soon met his pickup and began the long drive back home. Daddy didn’t speak to me until we drove up to our house and stood together in the yard. He looked at me for a few moments and then said, “I thought you knew better than to get lost in the woods.”
I began to cry, and he reached out to me. Just being there enfolded in my father’s arms was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life.
From the August 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine