Let the game begin. The setting is Helen Thompson’s woodsy side yard beyond the swing. A picnic table the color of driftwood becomes our steam boat. We chug down a brown river as crocodiles crawl from reedy banks into muddy water. The captain yells the boiler is about to blow, and we all jump off the boat/picnic table and pretend swim to the pretend beach by the fire ring where Helen and her family toast marshmallows for s’mores. Immediately, we spot ferocious natives in their bird nest skirts, throwing lethal spears our way. None of us are hit before we run beneath the honeysuckle bush next to the next door neighbor nobody knows because they don’t have any kids our age. We crouch below the greenery in the dappled sunlight. Helen is sent out as scout to see where the natives have regrouped. Linda and I are sent to the hedge to gather red berries for stew. When Linda and I return, we smush the berries against the flat rock that stays under the bush as our hearth. Laura gathers sticks to throw as spears when the natives return.
Although this action takes much of the afternoon, the heart of the game starts way before we step onto the boat/picnic table. It starts the minute we choose our character. The name is important, but more so the age and the sex. If Linda says her name is Dan and she’s sixteen, then Laura says she’s Mike aged seventeen. If Helen says she’s Joe aged eighteen, Laura says, she forgot, Mike already turned nineteen. The thing is to be the oldest boy because that’s who is captain of the ship and gets to tell the crew what to do. Ironically we always have the same roles. Helen is always the scout, the one sent out of the fort with really nothing to do. Everyone knows Laura will be captain no matter what we say, and Linda and I like to smush berries even though it’s woman’s work, and nobody wants to be a girl because then you can’t fight and throw sticks. The one who is the oldest boy also gets to lead the ultimate attack once we have enough spears dipped in poison mud.
Doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as it was when I was a kid. But this was pre-Woodstock America, a world of bridge clubs and golf where little girls wore white gloves and black patent leather shoes to steepled churches. Maybe the thrill was discovering a place so primitive there were no holds barred, a place where your enemies were clearly your enemies, horrifically fierce, blatantly hostile. If you didn’t kill them, they would kill you. You didn’t have to say thank you and you’re welcome. You didn’t have to be nice to people who didn’t play fair. You could literally eat your enemy and never have to ask to be excused from the table. As a child how did I know that justice demands blood for blood? Was my own fascination with evil, proof that men love darkness rather than light?
And yet, I didn’t want to live in a world where the baddest was the best. I was drawn to the pristine splendor of an island set apart. I felt safer among savages than in suburbia. Why did I need a common enemy to be squarely on the same side as my friends? Below the mantle of my pre-teen sphere, the status quo burned.
How big a social earthquake would it take to reveal the faultline between a real friend and a frenemy?
How far did one have to travel to be free from the tangle of men? Even farther than New Guinea?