Back to Little Sandy

Chapter 7, Part 5

In the previous sections I describe several purposeful soul mates of mine. These are the friends, loved ones, and role models with whom I’ve taken my longest journey; the one toward understanding. They’ve taught me that anything is possible if it is also noble.

But they weren’t the first to teach me this vital lesson. The place where I first intuited that anything noble is possible, many decades ago, was called Little Sandy. This wildlife refuge in the Pineywoods of East Texas was where my grandfather went Back to Walden and took me with him when he did. My grandfather was the man who saved my life after my father died, and Little Sandy is where he did it.

East Texas Lake

Each trip filled me with nature’s infinite promise

My grandfather had both a formative and in-formative impact on my life. This big, gruff, loving man played a key role in my upbringing and, by extension, my journey Back to Walden. He had a lasting effect on me as my first and last great influence, the bookend role model of my life and hard times.

My grandfather was one of those early-20th-century, Teddy-Roosevelt-type, conservationist/fishermen; someone who practiced Gaia some 40 years before the term was ever invented by independent research scientist James Lovelock.

In 1898, the Little Sandy Hunting and Fishing Club was founded near Hawkins, Texas, on a 3,802-acre preserve that was eventually included in the National Wildlife Refuge system in 1986.

My grandfather was one of its early members and part of the group that planned the creation of two adjoining lakes by damming the Sabine River in the early 1920s. The management of this magical kingdom became the focus of my grandfather’s life, preserving a nature preserve that was a throwback to Eden and all its inhabitants. This swampy refuge was a place of primeval innocence for me and everything that lived there. Pogo would have been happy to share this land of trembling earth.

Before I was 11 and moved away to the alien planet of New Jersey, my grandfather took me to Little Sandy many times. Each trip filled me with nature’s infinite promise, infinite spiritual energy. All these visits now fuse into one in the overgrown refuge of my memory. Every moment there lasts forever, just as the sad dirges of Little Sandy’s resident mourning doves still echo down through the years.

Below, as I shift from past tense to present, is a verbal collage of those mystical times:

Home again, home again, jiggedy jog. Little Sandy is signaled by the tires of my grandfather’s big old 1952 Buick thundering across a grated steel cattle guard. Rumble, rumble, rumble! Inside this protective grating, life turns simple once again. Thoreau would be beaming.

In the club’s dusty courtyard, three rustic buildings – the Men’s Clubhouse, the Women’s Clubhouse, the Dining Room – wait sluggishly in the dappled Texas shade. Desire paths form a ragged triangle in the crabgrass connecting this trio of rambling buildings.

Out on Little Sandy Lake, a fishing boat parts the water with a wake of pure white fire. Saw-grass islands flinch under the stroking of an unseen hand.

The lingering sound of Little Sandy is still a distant outboard dredging up the murmur of eternity. Someone is scaling fish on a metal drain board. Cicadas shake their tambourines in the trees.

Cattails nodding in noonday sunshine. Gators snoozing in tall lakeside grasses. Gasoline fumes rising through heat waves. The slick from our outboard rainbows the water.

 Our little boat rolls under my grandfather’s heavy buttocks as he shifts his weight. “That’s the stuff, Gus,” he says after I flick a Chugger into the still lake near a waterlogged stump. He always calls me Gus, I never knew why. “You’ll find you a big ol’ sleeping bass over yonder.”

 Never matters if I do. At Little Sandy, maybe is all that counts. A high-pitched trumpet call winnows through the marshes beyond the spillway.

“Know what that is, Gus?” says my grandfather. His reel purrs as he casts his fly, drip-dropping a watery bulls-eye that ripples toward evermore. “That there’s a whooping crane. Not more than 50 left in this whole world. Y’all remember this day, hear? That whooper makes you a special sorta guy.”

And I know for sure he’s right, just because he says so.

In the sultry afternoon, while my grandfather naps, old Horace hitches up a wagon to a headstrong mule named Truman and lets me drive this rig by myself around the levy. All I have to do is sit there on the buckboard as that mule hauls ass along the two-rutted path running halfway round Little Sandy Lake.

Whipping the reigns, I try to flick big horseflies off Truman’s flanks before they draw blood, but a red rivulet runs down his twitching muscles.

Truman gets pokier and pokier the farther from his stable we get. But, when I finally let him turn around, I have to tug the reigns with all my might to hold him back.

Later, at dinner, I tell this story in my high-pitched Texas drawl. “Goll-lee!”

My grandfather chuckles gruffly and growls, “That sorry ol’ mule sure knows the way home, by God.”

Mrs. Greason serves up dinner on big steaming platters. Her Southern fried chicken crisps up golden brown and fragrant. My grandfather teaches me the most important lesson in Texas high cuisine: how to poke a hole with one finger in a steaming biscuit and fill it up with melting butter and clover honey.

I drink my milk in a stemmed goblet, round as a coconut shell and beaded up with dew. The long table, gabby with fishermen telling tales, smells of sweat, bug juice, iced tea, lemon, mashed potatoes, pipe smoke, turnip greens, hot apple pie.

After dark, bullfrogs burp their tubas on the banks of the brood ponds. The porch swing mews slowly, asking its existential question. Eh? Lightning bugs sprinkle stardust on the night. Time to scratch my chigger bites.

In my Grandfather’s room, his radio picks up Harry Caray from far-away St. Louis. “Holy Cow!”

The overhead fan shushes. I lie next to my grandfather in bed, his slow breath lulling me to sleep as he reads the National Geographic by lamplight.

whooping crane and chick

That whooper makes you a special sorta guy

Life would never again be so simple as Little Sandy. Never so good. But my grandfather’s lasting gift was showing me that living is all possibility. Little Sandy meant I could do whatever I dreamt. But only if I dreamt big enough and noble enough.

His only rule was much the same as the only rule in James Hilton’s Sangri-La: “Be Kind.”

Life, though, is a long day’s journey into night, breeding forgetfulness. Burying promise. After those Little Sandy days, my mother married a deeply troubled Marine, whose vision of child-rearing would break all the Geneva Conventions. My grandfather was crushed to death in a head-on collision on his way home from Little Sandy. I was sidetracked by an Asian war that atomized America’s integrity. I failed at marriage. Wrote seven or eight unpublishable novels. Left anyone who ever meant anything to me.

My purpose got lost while I was busy filling out change-of-address forms. Nothing rang true, and I was true to nothing. Life gobbled me down and spit me out.

But the beauty of mistakes, even after we make them over and over, is that we always seem to get another chance.

And thus have I arrived at this redemptive point in my life, when many years of searching have finally come home to roost. The events described in this book have finally brought me full circle, back to my grandfather, back to Little Sandy. For me, going back to Little Sandy is my own “analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making, mytho-poetic” image for going Back to Walden.

I’m quite sure my Grandfather never had the slightest suspicion either Henry David Thoreau or Walt Whitman ever existed. Yet he instinctively followed Thoreau’s philosophy at Little Sandy in his own Transcendental way. He instinctively followed Whitman’s advice by loving the earth and sun and the animals, giving alms to everyone that asked, standing up for the stupid and crazy, devoting his income and labor to others, having patience and indulgence toward the people, re-examining all he’d ever been told at school or church or in any book, dismissing what insulted his very soul.

We should each have such a role model. My grandfather was a force of nature, his very flesh a poem.

So, in fact, are we all. We’re each a force of nature waiting to be re-enforced. Each a poem waiting to be fleshed out. By using the three tools described in Back to Walden, we can marshal the force of our own nature, follow in Thoreau’s footsteps, and “advance confidently in the direction of our dreams.” We can each build his or her own mythic cabin beside Walden Pond. This, I am convinced, is the meaning of our lives. All that remains is to make it happen.

To Kill a Mockingbird film poster

Perhaps the most beloved character in American literature is Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s Zen lawyer in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. He became the father of my Boomer generation. After devouring this book in high school, we all wished we’d had this gentle man, with his natural-born integrity and quiet courage, reading us to sleep each night.

In one of the many noble lessons Atticus taught his two children, Scout and Jem, he eulogized a cantankerous old woman named Mrs. Dubose, who found her simple but profound purpose in life by kicking a morphine habit, a drug prescribed to ease her pain during her final months on earth. She thereby died the right way: clear-headed, pissy, independent, mindful.

“I wanted you to see something about her,” Atticus told Scout and Jem. “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all 98 pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”

You and I can be Mrs. Dubose. All of us, in the grand scheme of mortality, are licked before we begin, but we can find our purpose “and see it through no matter what.” That, in fact, is the definition of purpose. Purpose is as purpose proposes. We can each kick our addictions, our attachments, and become “the bravest person I ever knew.”

We’re all Mrs. Dubose. All Atticus Finch. We’re all Don Quixote on a noble quest, no matter how loony it seems to everybody else. To dream the impossible dream is in itself an impossible dream come true.

Going Back to Walden, as I hope I’ve shown herein, is one way to chase that dream and find simple well-being. Back to Walden lends you Thoreau’s own toolbox to do it.

I was somehow moved to tears by the last line of To Kill a Mockingbird, after Jem had his elbow socket unhinged by the racist Bob Ewell and was saved by the mysterious and reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley. When Jem’s arm had been set in a cast and he was sedated, Atticus, ever-devoted as always, sat patiently by his bedside to guard against any danger or answer any need.

As Harper Lee described this watch so eloquently and so simply: “[Atticus] would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

Maybe I was moved to tears by this passage because it reminded me of my big, gentle grandfather, who smelled of talcum powder and read the National Geographic in bed. Like Atticus Finch, he still stays with me through each night and is always there when I wake. It is my fondest hope that Back to Walden can offer that same service to you, being there whenever you need it. Being there each time you wake.

I recently had a very revealing exchange with a friend while we were talking about the three simple awareness tools I’m advocating in Back to Walden.

“At this point in my life,” my friend said, “I just don’t have time.”

“At this point in my life,” I responded, “I just don’t have time not to.”

How many of us have time not to? If nothing else, please take away one great truth from this book. See your dream through, no matter what. Remember: You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

Nobody can change the past. But the future is a story yet to be written, one which must begin sometime. Why not now?

— End —