As books go, the one I had in my little blue AWOL bag as I boarded an aging Air National Guard passenger aircraft one morning at Travis AFB in California was a great find. It was as though someone had said, “Hey! Let’s write a book that’s just what Tom Garrett is looking for.”
I climbed aboard the aircraft, found a seat, and belted myself in, smiling as the pilot began the startup sequence for his four large, gas-guzzling recip engines. We were headed for Hickam AFB, Hawaii, 2,800 miles away. Our nine-and-a-half-hour flight plan left me with nothing to do but sit back, relax, and learn things I really wanted to know. On top of that, having already glanced through the book, I knew that I would even be able to use some of the stuff in it before we even touched down at Hickam.
Even though I was headed away from my wife Lolly and our 9-month-old son, David, I was reasonably happy. If I had to spend two weeks on temporary duty on Guam, finding that book and being able to learn more about the outdoors made it less unpleasant.
I have always been thankful I was born loving the outdoors. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve been happiest when the only thing between me and the sky was the air. Even as a toddler, Mom seemed to sense that. She always let me go out back and run my toy cars atop a low retaining wall at the bottom of our back yard, which sloped up to a large terrace I couldn’t see from down below.
I enjoyed running my cars along the smooth concrete surface of that retaining wall, but I soon knew every rock, bush, blade of grass, and spider’s web, and my eyes were always on that invisible terrace up above. So about the time I was 18 months old, I got on my hands and knees and crawled up to it.
I don’t remember that. I know it because Mom never tired of telling people how her dumb kid scared her out of her wits by disappearing. She went running down the alleyway between our house and next door, thinking I had somehow managed to unlatch the gate at its end and gotten out onto the street, where I was trying to become a nice new greasy spot.
I hadn’t though. Oh I’d been down to the end of the alley and looked out that gate many times, but there was nothing out there but street, which didn’t interest me. What did interest me was all the stuff I imagined was up there on the terrace. Turned out to be just more grass though. But what the hey? You never know.
As life went on, poor Mom suffered a lot from my incurable wanderlust, so I learned to lie like a trooper about where I had been. If I had told her some of the places I had actually been she would have locked me in a cage and nailed my feet to the floor.
About the time I was 11 and we moved out of New York City to Connecticut, though, she quit yelling at me about it. Maybe she accepted her fate — mother of a nut case who was determined to inspect every blade of grass for 40 miles around. Or maybe she just figured I’d get lost and she could quit worrying. Either way, every day I could manage it, I’d take off after breakfast with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my hip pocket. Then, around suppertime, I’d come strolling back dirty, happy and hungry.
How I loved being out of doors! Scratch that. How I love being out of doors! Haven’t grown out of it yet. Never will.
I guess it goes without saying that it would be pretty silly to love the outdoors if you spent most of your time wondering how the hey you were going to get back home. So somehow or other, don’t ask me how because I don’t remember, I learned to find my way around in the woods, and swamps, and hills, and wherever.
I think perhaps it was just being observant. I loved being out there, so my eyes inhaled everything in sight, with the result that I never once in my life got lost, even when I wandered off in places like Iceland, or Pakistan, or — worst of all — Boston.
Who builds a city where the streets run in circles?
It also helped that I almost always went alone. When you’re alone there’s no one to distract you and cause you to miss that little odd-shaped bush that marks the way back, or the smell of wet that filters through the trees when you’re near a lake, or swamp, or stream, or the faint buzz of flies and acrid scent of death that tells you some animal is now forage instead of forager.
Every once in a while I took a friend with me, but never more than one at a time. Too much talking. Talking drove me nuts.
It was fun showing friends the wild grapes hanging plump and juicy just a few yards off the beaten path. Or the apple, or pear, or cherry trees that marked a long abandoned orchard. Or — best of all — the faint traces of what were once farm gardens, where you could still find carrots, and onions, and pea or bean plants doing their best to look like weeds.
I got asked a lot of questions when I took a friend with me. Quite often, after a long outbound hike, it was, “Are we lost?”
That was the same question I asked when my watch told me we had used up 10-and-a-half hours of our nine-and-a-half-hour flight plan to Hawaii. I’d been looking down at the ocean for the past hour waiting to see the backwaves from the Hawaiian islands, which was something my little paperback had told me about.
My book, you see, was about natural ways of navigating, and one thing it told about was how the Polynesians settled islands right across the immense Pacific by knowing about things like backwaves which return from an island when the waves strike it.
None of which good stuff could I see down below!
I mentioned my concern to a second lieutenant sitting next to me. Looking more worried than I was, he got up and asked our Air National Guard navigator if he knew where Hawaii was.
You’ll never believe the answer: “I thought I did.”
Well we made it in with nothing but fumes in the tanks, which would have been OK except that the very next day I had to get on the same %$#@! Air National Guard aircraft and fly all the way to Guam, which is a whole lot smaller than the Hawaiian islands.
You know something? There are times when it ain’t good to know too much.