I planned to ask for a Swiss Army knife for my ninth birthday. It was all I needed. Our house had several acres of woods behind it, and from the moment school let out that summer I was going to take the knife and live for three months, until the day school started again, in those woods.
I kept the plan secret, assuming my parents would laugh and say, “That’s ridiculous, you’re not doing that.”
I spent my days thinking about all the swim meets, karate lessons, piano recitals, and soccer games all the other kids would have to go to—wake up early, get dressed up, pack into the minivan with a string cheese and a Capri Sun for breakfast, and rush off to this or that obligation with a bunch of other loudmouth kids.
But me, I’d wake when I wanted. Sit on a rock, whittle a stick, strip bark to weave, and stare through the endless trees between trees between trees.
If I saw a neighbor walking their dog on the trail, I’d slip beneath the ferns and wait until the collar’s jingle faded.
A big tree fell in a storm that winter, and the crater beneath its suspended root ball would make a perfect shelter. I’d use my knife to cut pine boughs and make a bed. Maybe a conical roof of boughs secured around the root ball.
Birds and squirrels were plentiful but difficult to catch. I imagined traps I could make from branches, rocks, and pinecones. I’d strip ivy vines from tree trunks for cordage.
I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to build a fire to cook what I caught. There were some burnt pits, but they were behind the high school, littered with empty bottles and crumpled cigarette packs, and the trees around them were spray-painted with penises, so I assumed fires were probably illegal.
In the absence of meat, I knew spots for huckleberries and blackberries.
There was a muddy clearing far back, almost through to the next neighborhood, where a caravan was parked and taking on moss. Next to it was a chickenwire enclosure with a couple of decaying geese. When I discovered them, one goose’s feathers were still mostly white. There was a pitchfork leaning against the cage, and I used it to stab the dead goose until its head separated from its long neck. A waste of good meat, I thought.
The person who lived in the caravan had been so close to living the dream, but never connected the dots. Imagine, keeping geese in a man-made cage when there were plenty of birds all around them! The blackberry ravine was just down the hill. Surely in the caravan they had tools to do all the jobs a Swiss Army knife could do, and they hadn’t had to waste their energy building and maintaining a shelter.
Despite these concessions and cheats, this person had failed. I pitied them.
I didn’t get the Swiss Army knife for my birthday that year.
I mentally prepared myself every spring to receive that multifaceted key to my survivalist dream, but spent every summer without it resigned to my domestic existence.
By the time I got it for my thirteenth birthday, years of rain had filled in the root ball pit. My perfect shelter was ruined.
In one of the places I’d scouted, sitting on a fallen tree, I used my new knife to whittle a stick into a spear. I got it sharp enough to draw a bead of blood from my fingertip.