2006-08-24 / Sam Bari

You can't beat a system you can't understand

The second coming of Huckleberry Finn
By Sam Bari

The last days of summer often bring back memories of the dread of going back to school when I was a kid. At the beginning of the vacation season, family trips and obligations took precedent, but somewhere around the last few weeks of summer, I suppose most parents grew weary of entertaining their children and left them to their own devices. Such was the case in the year that comes to mind.

My friend Brian and I were at that awkward age when boys aren't exactly children, but not full-fledged teenagers either, but we were allowed to spread our wings a little and take off on our bicycles to go fishing and camping. Leaving the nest unsupervised at that age would be unheard of in today's society, and I fear that youngsters lose a lot by not having the opportunity to figure out some things about life on their own.

We had pup tents and mess gear purchased for next to nothing at the local army surplus store, and collapsible rods and reels that we attached to the crossbars of our bicycles. Our knapsacks contained a change of clothes, fishing tackle, and a few essentials. We had each saved $20 to last the rest of the summer. Mostly, we had more energy than we had sense.

My family lived in Missouri at the time, not far from the area that made Mark Twain famous. We rode our bikes to the shores of the Big Muddy and stood in awe as we watched the riverboats go by just like Twain did when he was a boy. We fished in the countless lagoons, streams and tributaries that fed the legendary mighty Mississippi.

We used worms and dough balls to catch catfish as long as our legs and seemingly twice as heavy. Sometimes we'd put a big one in a gunnysack and haul it to a farmer's house to trade for fresh picked corn, tomatoes, and peaches. Then we'd go back to our campsite and eat until our bellies ached. We bathed in icy, unpolluted springs, and swam until our fingers wrinkled. I was Huckleberry Finn, and life was good.

We'd often stay at one campsite for a couple of days and then get up early to ride 30 miles to an unexplored river or stream. It wasn't long before we were over a hundred miles from home. We did what we wanted, when we wanted, and nobody was around to tell us we had to do otherwise. The independence was euphoric. I could have lived like that the rest of my life.

One day we caught a stringer full of fish and decided to visit a farmer and see if we could do some bartering. The farmer's wife answered the door and said she'd gladly make a trade if we were willing to clean the fish. We were more than happy to do so. While we were out back carving and skinning, she asked if we'd like some lunch. We certainly weren't going to turn down a homecooked meal of fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, corn-onthe cob, lemonade and cherry pie. This was heaven. Home was nothing but a distant memory of school, chores, and rules.

The farmer came in from the fields and joined us on the back porch. He was friendly enough, but it wasn't long before he started asking questions. We told him where we were from and that we hadn't run away, and that we had our parents' permission to go fishing. Then he went inside and I do believe he listened to our conversation. I told Brian that not going home wasn't such a bad idea. I suggested that we just keep riding south before it got cold. We could live in our tents in Florida, catch fish, and see the country. We'd never have to do anything else.

The farmer came out and asked if we'd like to make $5 apiece for showing up in the morning to help him with a few chores that he hadn't had time to tend to. We readily agreed.

The next morning we weeded a truck garden that must have been a quarter acre square. After lunch, we cleaned out a tool shed. Before the day was over, we unloaded a wagon full of feed sacks and carried them up to a loft in the barn. By the time we finished, we barely had the strength to mount our bicycles.

"If you boys want to come back tomorrow, I'd be more than happy to give you another $5," the farmer offered.

Our aching muscles begged for mercy and we declined, but we thanked him anyway.

"Well, you may as well get used to the work, cause that's what it's gonna be like when you finish school," he said grinning.

The thought of a warm bed with clean sheets and a comfortable desk at school was suddenly attractive. The work that farmer offered was the kindest way of enlightening two boys with overactive imaginations about the realities of life in a system we didn't know we'd never understand.

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