Most things I remember stand out not because of how things were, but of how things felt. New awareness. New perspective. New awakening. Unlike my largely sensual memory of mom hanging laundry in Cameron, my second significant memory is one of these. But it didn’t happened in Cameron. It happened somewhere between Missouri and South Dakota.
The summer after we moved to Trevillian Drive, we took a vacation to Mount Rushmore. Dad rented a pop-up camper and hitched it to the back of the Comet. Our few non-Kansas vacations—and this one was the biggest—always involved a pop-up, with its fresh-split-wood smell clamped to the shiny silver trailer hitch. We slept at roadside camping sites, with kerosene lanterns and a fire and, I imagine, mom reading us books until we fell asleep, protected by canvas walls and parents.
I remember parts of this trip, and I remember the photos of this trip, which makes me wonder if I’m remembering actual events or only photos of events. But the feelings I am surer about. I became small and frightened at the base of the Needle’s Eye, a Badlands rock formation. Mom stayed with me while dad and Marilyn went ahead. I awed at the concrete dinosaurs at Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, and while looking up the black steel and huge wheels and pistons of a steam locomotive on display at a Nebraska park. And I thrilled at digging in the dirt at a campsite to find a metal pull-top from a beer can, or maybe a bottle cap; I held it up proudly for mom, and she praised me. My parents always left me free to explore and to pursue my curiosity about the world around me, even if it meant digging in the dirt. That freedom followed me throughout my life, manifested in various collections and passions: rocks, electronics, stamps, beer cans, astronomy, reading, writing, music. . . .
But something else happened. Marilyn had brought her baby doll, and the doll had a toy bottle. The bottle looked like it had milk in it. When she put the bottle to the doll’s lips and tipped it up, the white liquid inside flowed into the nipple and disappeared. When she took the bottle out and set it upright, the fluid reappeared and flowed back down.
Marilyn loved the doll and its magical bottle, but at one point, as we glided down the road with the hot Nebraska or South Dakota or Wyoming air pouring through the open windows, I realized that I could throw the baby’s bottle out the window. So I did.
Of course, Marilyn fell apart, and dad had to decide—do I risk hitting the brakes to get the bottle, and risk sending the pop-up crashing into us, or do I just keep going? He kept going, of course, with Marilyn crying and me thinking . . . well, what was I thinking?
Several years after our South Dakota trip, when I’d started attending Catholic grade school, mom got me a dozen or so books from Arch Books, a Christian publisher. My favorite was The Boy with the Sling, about David and Goliath, but I also had A Garden and a Promise, the creation story. In rhymed couplets, author Ronald Shlegel told of God creating Adam from “some specks of dust He found/just lying there upon the ground,” and creating Eve “from a rib He’d taken from the man,” and of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—“‘that one’s not for food!’” Shegel has God saying.
You know what happens next. A snake whispers into Eve’s ear, telling her to eat an apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She does, and “it opened their eyes; and soon they began to feel quite bad and very ashamed of the bodies they had.” Discovering their sin of eating the forbidden fruit, God casts them out of the Garden of Eden, and because of that, we are born with the stain of sin.
I didn’t know any of this when I was throwing Marilyn’s baby bottle out the window, but I realize now that I was channeling Eve in that moment. I got her. I was experiencing the revelation that the same hand that could dig beer-can pull tabs and bottle caps out of the dirt could also throw a doll’s bottle out the window. But the snake in my garden was just curiosity, combined with the sudden awareness that I could influence my environment. Wasn’t it the same for Eve?
When I was 18, I wrote this story for an English class. I imagined then that I had been thinking about the doll. “I sometimes suspected that perhaps she paid more attention to it than she did me,” I wrote. “I was aware, as well as a two-year-old can be aware, that the quickest and most devastating reaction from her could be solicited by threatening the thing closest to her physical being, the doll. . . . My sister was very affectionate toward the doll, and I was jealous of it. So, somewhere in the Badlands of South Dakota, I finally grew tired of being replaced by an artificial human. I was real. I bled when I was cut, I cried when I was sad, I smiled, when I was happy. I, too, could wet myself. I personified reality; it personified fantasy.”
Everyone thought this story was funny when I shared it over Christmas break in Kansas, including Marilyn. I laughed, too, but I knew the truth: It wasn’t about the doll. It was about the sky cracking open. It was about me suddenly understanding the power of my will. It was about me realizing that there was a physical thing called “me,” and a physical thing called “the world,” and they were two things, and that the thing called “me” could act independently from the thing called “the world.” It was about knowing that I could be bored, or I could do something. I chose to do something. And that’s the feeling I remember feeling most of all.