Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Art of Boyhood

We made our own fun when I was a boy. The drainage ditch behind our house was the source of several enjoyable pursuits: clay for molding, crawdads for catching with a hunk of dry salt meat, “quicksand” for sinking in and banks for digging caves.
My best friend and I made Native American settlement from clay, sticks, paper and foil down by the ditch under the shade of a sweet gum tree. We used watercolor on the clay figures, giving the braves war paint and providing their pinto ponies with realistic splotches. The foil created the illusion of streams and lakes and intricately decorated paper bags became teepees. We made little boys fishing in the ponds with twigs for poles and their mothers cleaning fish in front of their wigwams. Also, before we tired of the project, we had molded a fairly large herd of buffalo. These were just suggestions of the beasts, without much detail. Once we had given the adults a tour of the exhibit, we became cowboys and had great fun wiping out the village with BB guns and dirt clods. We hung onto a few of the finer figures, but most of them went back to dust from whence they came.
A little later, my friend found a tree in the nearby woods that yielded very good bows and arrows. I’m not sure what kind of tree it was, but I remember big horse apples nearby. It could be that we were making our weapons from Osage orange (bois d’arc), the actual material used by the Caddo and other tribes. We fashioned a lot of these, decorating them and ourselves with berry juice and feathers. We looked more like the Indians of the movies than the actual noble people Hollywood misrepresented. I came upon a very nice way of making arrowheads: driving a finishing nail into the end of the arrow, then beating it flat with a hammer and shaping and sharpening it with a file. Those arrows would stick into anything! I would not have allowed my children to play with such dangerous toys. But, we somehow knew that we should be very careful with our creations and we were.

Much later, when my wife and I were cleaning out the old house I grew up in, I found some clay figures from our long summer days at the ditch. One of them was my own creation, a bust of a very primitive-looking man. He had a heavy forehead, deep-set eyes, small knotty ears and a blank gaze that seemed to say, “I am mysterious and unfathomable.” The only thing that didn’t seem quite right was his rather menacing grin, showing a few misshapen teeth made of pea gravel. The old guy was either grinning at his young creator or sneering at what I had become. Either way, I wish I had included him in the destructive raid of so many years ago. Some works of art are not meant to last.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

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