Updated: Apr 23, 2018
Inside of every man lives a primitive boy. He laughs when he burps. He goes barefoot with his hair all messed up. He has dirt under his nails and mud on his cheeks and he pees in the bushes and swims naked and howls at the sky because the sky is his friend and he knows the sky likes it. This boy is usually too busy to eat, drawing most of his energy from the sun, but when he does, he prefers hotdogs and root beer and huckleberries. He likes to stay up late to watch for shooting stars. He sleeps too hard to ever dream; his life is his dream. He runs everywhere he goes, from one stop to the next, hunting feathers and bugs and interesting rocks, following a zigzag logic that only makes sense to him, something like the language of a deer or a storm cloud or a hawk.
I call my own primitive boy Nunka.
Summer is over. The great tragedy in this is that my two young sons – Jack and Lee – have to put away their primal selves and go back to school as they prepare to be upright members of society. It’s a process at which they’ll get better over the years, but right now, it’s kind of a rough transition. They’ve been pretty free all summer, chasing their wild whims from one boyish venture to the next. But tonight, instead of sleeping in the backyard in their makeshift tent, they will sleep in their beds in the house. Tomorrow morning, they will rise by the clock instead of by an overwhelming sense of adventure; they will comb the leaves from their tangled hair; they will eat a balanced breakfast; they will put on shoes. And then – Dang it! – they’ll enter unto the land of rules.
Nunka is mad-sad. “No fair,” he mutters.
He knows it’s time for me to put him back in his cage. Without Jack and Lee to spur me to action, the chances of Nunka ever getting out to play are slim, if nonexistent.
“I’ve got things to do,” I tell him. “A living to earn. Bills to pay. Responsibilities to…” I shrug and hold up my palms. I can’t stand what I’m saying. Everything sounds like a cliché – just lame-butt excuses from a no-fun, lame-butt adult. I feel Nunka watching me with disgust, thinking, I sure hope I never get old and stupid like you.
Of course, it’s inevitable. The world demands it. After all, Lee needs to learn how to divide fractions if he’s ever going get that good job someday. Jack needs to learn how to fart surreptitiously in a crowded room, the way civilized people must. These are mandatory skills. We can’t have these young savages running amuck in the streets, uneducated and without social graces. Chaos would ensue. The entire fabric of civilization would unravel.
Still, as I push Nunka into his cage and close the gate, I can’t help but feel that I’ve become part of a great big conspiracy against youthful joy.
There are camps where men can get back in touch with their inner boy. I’ve read about them in magazines. It’s quite an industry, and quite popular with men who spend too much time in suits in an office. Companies send their male employees to these camps for team building, a sort of forced bonding that they hope will ultimately result in a greater gross output for their business. The men are brought together in the mountains or a swamp where instructors teach them how to shed their inhibitions. They go shirtless and hold wrestling matches in mud holes that are designed to offer them a primordial, but safe, experience. (The men wear helmets and padded codpieces to protect their vital organs.) They carve sticks with stone knives they’ve made themselves, and then sit around a bonfire at night and chant or bang drums or yell. At one camp I read about, the men are told to imagine what their primitive boy looks like, and then give him a name. Pasty soft men smeared in mud are sent alone into the woods so they can think on it. They wander around and gaze at trees, touching rocks and ferns, struggling to see themselves as they might have appeared some hundred-thousand years ago. Then, upon completion of this vision quest, they come back to the group with their new names. No one ever has a revelation in which he calls his other self Jim or Dwayne or Tony. It’s always something off the pages of a pulp novel about cave men.
“I’m Trogar,” announces one man.
“I’m Zyfan,” answers another.
And then the whole gang joins together in a group bear hug, growling fiercely before they break into a fit of weeping, as if it’s just so damn good to meet again after all these intervening eons.
I’m sure these camps fulfill a certain need in today’s society. The men claim that the experience changes their lives, opens their eyes, makes them better. As a whole, we’re pretty removed from elemental life; it’s all so buried beneath the convoluted crush of air-conditioned, computer-laden schlock. We’re pampered and soft. We all know it. But there’s something pathetic about this new age, step-by-step program for getting back to basics. For Lee and Jack, it comes so naturally. They’re what all these men want to be, want to recapture. And sure, I talk like I’m superior, but I have to lump myself with the Trogars and Zyfans of the world. I’m no better than them. I just have the advantage of having the two best instructors. Jack and Lee are so pure about it. They don’t need to get back to their wild boys. They are wild boys.
It’s evening. We’re sorting school supplies – notebooks, pencils, rulers – getting ready for the big day tomorrow, when Lee walks across the room and picks up a ball of Duct Tape about the size of a grapefruit. He holds it in his palm and bounces it a couple times, looking sideways at me and Jack with a grin. I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking, these are our last hours of freedom and we’re squandering them. He’s thinking, school stuff is boring and dumb. He’s thinking, come on, guys. Let’s play Boy Hunter!
Boy Hunter is a game we started on a housebound winter day when Jack and Lee were small. At first we used a toy foam rocket that whistled when thrown. The boys would hide behind the couch, or in a closet, and I would stalk them, something like hide and seek. When I found them, they would squeal and flush from their hideouts as I chased them down for a good shot with my whistling rocket.
Over the years, as the boys have grown, Boy Hunter has evolved. It has moved out of doors and become more basic and primal. The boys are still my prey, but now, within reason, they get to fight back. They get to mess with me, harassing their pursuer. I win if I make a kill shot to the torso or head. It’s all very incorrect. The Society for a Safe and Well-Coddled generation would frown upon it. No one wears helmets or lifejackets or seat belts during the game. No one wears 1,000 SPF sunscreen or gets vaccinated against some possible virus that might be lurking in the glue used in the Duct Tape. The tape ball itself is heavy and hard enough to actually raise a welt, upping the thrill and the boys’ great desire to escape. (Lee says it’s the most terrifying and fun game he’s ever played.)
I sigh automatically, like a world-weary old guy being asked to do something unreasonable. And then, when I see the disappointment on Jack’s face, I immediately feel ashamed.
“Come on, Lee,” he says, responsibly. “We need to get stuff ready for tomorrow.”
It kills me to hear it. I feel old and stupid. It pains me to imagine Jack someday being an adult and having to go to Primal Rejuvenation Camp.
“You know what?” I say, and take the tape ball from Lee. “ Screw it! You guys have five minutes before I start the hunt.”
I use these five minutes to warm up, although in truth, it’s not quite enough to get my joints oiled for the demands of the game. I do arm swings and stretch. And then I go outside.
There are plenty of places for the boys to hide – under the canoe, in the bushes, behind the shed. They amaze me with their cleverness. They come up with new tactics all the time, so I have to be wary as I hunt them down.
I walk with my tape ball held at the ready, slowly, listening for a twig to snap, or a boy holding his breath. My heart beats in that nervous way it does when I have to speak in front of a crowd, or, I imagine, how it would if I were tracking sabertooth tigers.
The instant I realize I’ve walked into their trap, I know I’m done for.
“Hah!” shouts Lee and, from out of nowhere, he slaps me hard on the ass.
I whirl around, but even as I do, I realize my next mistake. I’ve only put myself in the position where they want me. Jack leaps from behind a shrub with a bucket of water, throwing it in my face.
I splutter and go blind for a second, which is enough time for them to flee.
I chase after with my soggy tape ball, but they’re already out of range. I don’t have a shot, so I have to pursue. With the gait of a lumbering Neanderthal, I run as fast as my legs will go. But these barefoot boys – laughing and joyous – are pulling away.
I try harder. One last-ditch effort. I reach deep inside of myself, struggling to channel my inner Nunka. But it’s no use. My primitive boy sits crouched and dejected in a cage for which I seem to have momentarily misplaced the key.