The importance of 'danger' in boyhood

Curiosity and self-reliance are essential to challenge the nanny state in which children are growing up today.

In 1958, when my pal Glenn and I were 13, our fathers dropped us off at Limekiln Lake near Detroit and left us there with a pile of food, camping gear, fishing poles, and a rowboat. For the next four days, Glenn and I were Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn floating down the Mississippi.

We had a great time swimming, catching and cooking fish, and telling each other lies. At night we sat by our campfire while I played my harmonica, which I was lousy at. It drove Glenn crazy, but I thought that was what folks were supposed to do around a campfire. Being city kids, we lost a little sleep listening nervously to the sounds of the night, but we never considered walking to the pay phone a mile down the road and having our parents come and get us.

Limekiln Lake came to mind again the other day when I bought a copy of Conn and Hal Iggulden's bestseller, "The Dangerous Book for Boys."

"Dangerous" is a challenge to the nanny state in which children are growing up today. Something has gone terribly wrong in a society in which you rarely see kids at a park or a soccer field unless their parents are there too, serving as umpires or coaches or just cheering wildly whenever their kid kicks a goal. When are kids supposed to learn a little self-reliance?

Perhaps the experience Glenn and I had at Limekiln Lake was a little unusual for 13-year-olds even in 1958. But at least our fathers had no fear that someone might charge them with child neglect. For the two of us, it was a memorable step on our road to adulthood.

"Dangerous" is similar in many ways to the "Handbook for Boys," the old Boy Scout guide that went out of print in 1959. It taught us how to build a campfire; follow a compass; and above all to be brave, clean, and reverent. I don't know that my friends or I necessarily held those three qualities to any greater extent than do kids today, but we sure were more independent. So, I bought "Dangerous" to save until a favorite nephew turns old enough.

The book can be read in fragments, in no particular order, and it covers a remarkable range of topics. Predictably, that includes such subjects as detailed instructions on how to hunt, kill, gut, and cook a rabbit; learning to juggle; building a tree fort; a variety of short adventure tales; and advice on getting along with girls.

Less predictably, it also includes chapters on history, science, poetry, writing, and grammar. My favorite is a piece of instruction showing how modern translations of the Bible lack the grandeur and power of the King James Version. It is no hardship to "walk through a dark valley," the authors point out. "The valley of the shadow of death" is a different matter.

Will any kid take a second look at such stuff when he does not have to? Well, when I was in ninth or 10th grade, my Uncle Bob gave me a copy of what is arguably the best guide to grammar and writing ever written, Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." From it, I learned that trying to write without knowing the rules is like trying to build a house without knowing anything about laying a foundation. My uncle's gift was one of the seeds from which grew my 40 years as a newspaper writer.

That is what is "dangerous" about this book: the possibility that a boy just leafing through it may happen upon some nugget that will one day prompt him to fly.

The authors are right: Over the past few decades, we have focused on the dark side of masculinity: aggression, the tendency to take dumb risks, false machismo. Perhaps that is one reason boys are falling behind girls on any number of social and academic measures. Their book points to a brighter side: self-discipline, wry humor, quiet determination, and curiosity about everything. Let's send the pendulum swinging back in that direction.

Dan Hall is a freelance writer in Canandaigua, N.Y.

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