THE WAY WE LIVE A Call in the Wilderness

My cellular phone was a link to order and sanity. I thought of using it as a club.

We are ever vigilant, my son and I, for the two-day Dallas window of opportunity for camping, when it occurs in the spring and then again in the fall. One day too far on either side, or it’s already too hot or too cold to camp. We are fussbudgets, I am sure. But I can’t enjoy sleeping outdoors when I am either bathed in sweat or soaked by freezing rain.

We take along all of the conveniences except for a battery-operated television. And we make no apologies. We camp our way. You camp yours.

Why do we camp? What’s in it for us? I went to lunch with a friend earlier in the summer who said he was starting to camp with his very young son, too, and that he wanted to find other people -men, really-to camp with. At first I was enthusiastic, but then he mentioned Robert Bly and loincloths, and I froze. It was that man thing. I am very uncomfortable with it. Especially in an outdoor setting. I really don’t want to go camping with any men of my own generation who are in that frame of mind. I am only comfortable camping with people whom I can reasonably expect not to suffer from acid flashbacks or Post-Vietnam Stress Sydrome.

A year ago, I was delighted when I realized I could take my wife’s new cellular telephone camping. I can’t tell you why. It thrills me to be far from the center of my life and yet linked to it. After my son and I had finished dinner and I had washed the dishes and banked the fire, when we were ready to snuggle down deep in our bags and fall asleep to the whooping of the coyotes. I managed to find an active transmission tower and place a call. In a tin-can voice on the other end, my wife told me that nothing was going on and that she had been in the middle of a shower.

It was hard to be sure, over those many miles, across the reach of the woods and the night stars, through the whistling in the cellular transmission, and, of course, even if it was there, she would be trying hard to mask it, because she knew that her son and husband were alone in the forest surrounded by the cruel glitter of wild eyes-but I thought I could hear just the faintest hint of irritation in her voice. And, how could she not be irritated? Halfway through a shower, alone in the house at night, the phone rings: Is it an emergency? No. It’s your spouse, testing the new cellular telephone.

I was secretly delighted, not because I had done something irritating-I’m not that kind of a person-but because I had managed to be irritating from so far away.

After signing off I looked around, beyond the rim of the campfire light, and saw that we were indeed surrounded by the beady eyes of little critters hungry for our food, thrilled by the sight of our constructions, mesmerized by the unnatural noisiness of our presence.

The cellular phone has made a huge difference in our lives, not just when we’re camping but in real life, too. I gave it to my wife for Christmas, because she has to drive around a lot in the car by herself, often in the evening. Her car broke down in the middle of downtown one afternoon: That’s what gave me the idea. I bought it for her safety. But, once you’ve made the investment, well, then I don’t think it’s especially unmanly to use the thing for your own safety. I mean there it is, the money’s already spent and it’s just sitting around collecting dust.

I took the phone downtown widi me one night, rushing to make the last drop-off deadline at an overnight express shipping service. Even though I was short of time, I poked around a bit before parking. I was trying to find the parking spot in which I was least likely to be murdered.

I know it’s not sporting to say this, but I cannot look at angry, idle, wall-slouching groups of young men in Garth Brooks hats with beer and wine in their hands and not think about being murdered. I found a spot next to an empty lot where a building had been blown up. I like spots like that because they leave a lot of open room for running and screaming. I jumped out of my car with my package in one hand and the telephone in the other-the phone already turned on and queued up to dial 911 at the drop of a hat. The phone was brick-like, solid, hard and heavy in my hand: It gave me a good feeling-a link to order, sanity, the arms of rescue. I thought of using it as a club.

My heart bleeds for downtown. I know that everyone is trying eveything. And so many people want it to be saved. Rescued. Downtown Dallas is rimmed by camps of people-at the West End, around the Crescent, in the State-Thomas or “uptown” area, in Deep Ellum-all of whom want desperately for downtown to survive. They are drawn there by the magic of the lights.

In 43 A.D., when the Romans were putting up a wall around their new settlement of Londinium on the banks of the Thames, 1 bet the British came out of the forest in their loincloths, painted blue and dragging their knuckles, grinning in delight, drawn by the magic of structure, the thrill of human constructions.

It’s magic that makes cities. It is savagery that tears them down. It’s a big mistake to make it more complicated than that. Here is the wall. Here is the city. Here are the savages. More’s the pity.

When I was an adolescent, I told myself camping was a link with the primeval human past. Now I don’t know. Maybe it’s just practice for going downtown. The important thing, in both cases, is the window of opportunity and the telephone. I, too. hope downtown makes it, but I have the increasingly strong feeling that I am standing at me cusp of cataclysm and that what I hope makes darned little difference.

I called my wife up again the next morning on that camping trip, after we had enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the out-of-doors. She told me the company 1 had worked for for 14 years had just gone out of business. I signed off, sucked in the damp misty air coming up off the bog and exhaled robustly. Ah, nature! Ah, cellular phones!


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