Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story
by Jeffrey Vamos
Dad and I charred some meat that night, a little pot roast I think it was, about the size of a fist, or a heart. I took it out of its bloody Saran wrap and impaled it on a stick and let the fire scorch it. We couldn't figure out how to make it cook all the way through, so Dad would cut slivers off the singed outer part, and we'd eat in little pieces with our dirty fingers, wipe the grease off our mouths in the dark humid air -- that's all we ate that night, charred pieces of red meat.
The meat actually wasn't supposed to be one of the things
you were allowed to bring; it was a back-up. We were supposed to
be on a survival trip. A strict ten-item limit. I had asked Dad
to go with me on a dry run for the Survival Merit Badge. Of course,
for the real thing, you had to go alone.
I'm not exactly sure why I was so into this whole survival business that summer.
Growing up a preacher's kid in small-town Indiana was a test of survival enough,
and I was a nominal Boy Scout, to be sure; blending in with a bunch of guys in
faded green uniforms provided some small measure of protection and belonging.
It was the summer of 1969, when I was thirteen. Just after I had burned down
my father's church.
I think back on it, and I still get this feeling of nausea and excitement in
This one Sunday night, I was bored. We lived in the manse, which
was right next to the church, and I'd go and hide in the basement
once in a while because
knew the secret way of getting into the church through the back window.
Usually, I'd just fly paper airplanes in the dark, wide-open space.
But that night,
I happened by the nativity scene that we used every year, stuck in the
a little alcove: Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds lounging around
in all that straw. It all just looked so flammable;
I couldn't help myself.
It was my first indoor fire, but I never thought it would get so out of control.
I quickly ran back home, and parked myself in front of the TV downstairs and
watched Wild Kingdom with the volume turned up as the fire trucks rolled in.
I never got caught. At first it was hard to act like nothing happened, but after
a while, it came naturally.
And it's not that I hated my dad. The opposite, really. Until that summer, I thought of him as sort of a god, as a sort of perfect person. I'd watch him ascend that pulpit on Sunday mornings in that billowing Geneva gown as if born by black wings, above us all, full of grace and truth. He would preach about civil rights and love and non-violence. I guess it was that time in your life when you think that your parents aren't quite human, but are sort of above everything.
But what clinched it -- my obsession with the whole survival
thing -- was watching this movie, The Deadliest Game, where some
guy who was the best hunter in the world wants the ultimate hunting
challenge. So he brings this ex-marine -- I think it was Chuck
Connors -- to an island and turns the guy loose in the woods in
order to hunt him down, as human prey. After watching that, I had
this idea: that I wanted to train myself for the moment when I
would be out there on my own, when I was an older and larger version
of myself staring eyeball-to-eyeball with the enemy. I'd break
away, and just grunt and crawl and spit my way out of trouble and
in my moment of truth I would have the wherewithal to pull the
trigger. And if I really was a menace to society, maybe I could
channel all that dangerousness into something useful. I wouldn't
have to be good; I could be heroic.
Plus -- it'd be something Dad and I could do. He'd be useful. I figured it was the kind of thing where you could just be together. We wouldn't have to talk. We'd just have to survive. How hard could that be?
You had to choose your own ten items for the trip. We had to
negotiate. In addition to the back-up meat and the knife, I brought
this silver-tarp -- a space-age blanket that the guys on the Apollo
missions supposedly used. The blanket looked like a huge piece
of heavy-duty aluminum foil and was supposed to keep you warmer
than wool. And then there was a flint/steel kit (which we actually
didn't know how to use), fishing line and hook. I can't remember
what else we brought. Except, a Bible. That was Dad's take on what
was necessary for survival.
After failing to catch our dinner from the Tippecanoe River, which ran next
to the campsite, our attempt at using flint and steel for starting a fire was
also a dismal failure. We'd brought waterproof matches just in case, as a back
up, which we used after about an hour of mindlessly pounding that piece of
flint. By then it was starting to get dark and there was no kindling to be
found. Of course, the irony of this was not lost on me; I wondered if it were
the hand of divine justice.
"Duncan -- it's OK. We'll get it going," he said calmly
as the last little bit of kindling we could find disintegrated
in a pile of orange and
gray ash. I have to admit, he was very respectful of the whole idea that he
for the ride, and was letting me succeed or fail on my own.
Dad took a deep breath and scratched one of those long side-burns
that he had. He looked so peaceful and wise, sort of like Abraham
Lincoln. I remember
thinking that if he came face-to-face with the hunter, he probably wouldn't
mad; he'd just try and talk to the guy. He reached into the little gray
bag and pulled out that old black Bible of his. "Dunnie, it's the
Word of God that's holy, not the words on the page."
To be sure, he avoided the New Testament at first; he started, I believe, with Leviticus, with all its arcane purity laws and communal restrictions, like eating shellfish and so on; he carefully put the pages between his fingers and ripped. Then, the other Books of Moses. The Minor Prophets. We wadded the pages up into little kindling balls, and I thought it was kind of miraculous, how quickly they made that fire start.
After charring the meat that we ate for dinner, we made our bed
-- the space-tarp folded over. For a while we just lay there, looking
up at the stars, ensconced in tinfoil. Sweating. It was one of
those muggy Indiana dog-day nights, and I felt like a pig-in-a-blanket.
I was too hot to talk, and Dad knew better than to try to have
some meaningful and poignant conversation under the stars. I watched
the fire cast an orange glow that was reflected on the shiny aluminum
surface of the blanket, listening to the mosquitoes buzz, trying
not to think about anything.
We tried to sleep. But every time one of us moved, the blanket seemed to crackle
like Rice Krispies and wake the other one up. After what seemed like an eternity
lying there, hot and bug-eyed, I looked up into the moon above the trees, and
then I turned onto my side so that I looked into the back of my dad's head.
I think he had finally fallen asleep.
I slowly started to touch a shock of his black hair sticking up -- I don't know why, just for the heck of it -- as if I could get something from him by touching it. Then, he moved. He turned over to face me and I found myself staring at him, into his dark blue eyes, just for a second. I had this feeling that I'd be all right if he would wake up, and if I could just not look away. But, he closed his eyes and went back to sleep. Then, I stared at the fire and felt like the non-heroic jerk I really was.
It was the moon that called to me. I was so tired, and so hot;
it was one of those moments where you didn't want to be wearing
your own skin.
I slithered out from under the space blanket and stood up straight. I looked
at the fire for a moment, and then stared at Dad for good while, to make sure
he was asleep.
Then, for some reason I just started walking down the path next to the river,
which was sort of shallow where we were. I kept walking away, and I was sort
of worried what would happen if Dad woke up. Then I found what I was looking
for: some still water, where there was no current, something deeper that you
could immerse yourself in. I took off all my clothes (I didn't want to have
to explain the wet underwear to Dad) and I got in.
It was so clean -- just rocks with no moss on the bottom; I practiced holding
my breath and sinking downward, curling up like a baby in someone's womb. Then,
I would just rise up and float there, in that perfect, cool water, and close
my eyes. It felt wonderful -- like being dead, as if that water had the power
to make you forget who you've been, under the surface and listening to that
river go by.
Thank God for that rock, which made this great wet hollow sound as it hit the
I opened my eyes and saw Dad standing there on the shore. He looked worried
more than anything else. I splashed out of the river and put my hands over
my crotch as he handed me my underwear.
"I couldn't sleep," I said.
"I didn't know where you were. What were you doing?"
I stayed silent as I put on my shorts. "Nothing."
Dad sat down, crouched on a rock, his knees sticking out. I struggled
into my T-shirt. "Do you want to talk?" he asked.
I slowly crouched down into the same position, on a slightly bigger rock opposite
him. I looked down between my legs. There was a long pause as I collected my
"I can't do it, Dad."
"You can't do what?"
"Be like you."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't be good, like you -- as good as you."
Dad was looking at me with this look of great curiosity, like I was a member
of some primitive tribe that had just been discovered.
"Be like me?" He looked down at the ground for a second, thinking. "God,
Duncan, please don't be like me." I think it was the
first time I'd ever heard him take the Lord's name in vain.
As I looked at him talking there on that rock, sitting up straight as a statue,
I felt this strange mixture of love and hate -- for how lucky I was to be his
son, and how I might never live up to it.
"Dad, I've done some really bad things," I said as I
slowly looked up at him.
It was the first and only time that I ever saw on my dad's
face a look you could probably classify as shame -- it
I believed he'd done something I might have done, something
uncharacteristically not heroic.
He stared down at a rock for a minute.
And it's hard to describe, but there was a new kind of closeness in our silence, our not talking about what it was that we each did. And even though I wondered about it all the time, I knew I could not ask my dad; and he never asked me. It was our secret, our bond.
That conversation was like keeping your eyes open without blinking; it basically ended there. Dad stood and cupped his hand into the back of my neck, and we and went back to our camp and sat by the stream, watching the moon and talking about the Cincinnati Reds. At the first light we had already packed what was left of our items, and headed down the dirt road to that old wood panel station wagon. We stopped at a breakfast place about a mile down the road; it was made out of a couple of old freight cars. And it was as we ate bacon, eggs and toast that I knew I'd never get the Merit Badge. I arrived at the calm realization that I'd make a lousy survival hero.
This story promises a world of relationships -- a boy and his
father, a boy and his religion, a boy and his world. The writing
is strong, vivid and infused with intelligence. Duncan has a big
story to tell and the writer has the skill to tell it.