I sometimes have bizarre dreams. I rarely have nightmares. I usually know when I’m in the middle of a bizarre dream, and I wake up saying “Wow! That was…bizarre!” Somewhere around two minutes later I can’t remember anything about the dream at all. Other than that it was bizarre. I have had one or two that I remember vividly, but that’s a story for another time. This one is about the nightmares.
Actually, it’s about one nightmare. I’ve had it several times since I was about four, and every time I both see and remember it clearly. And it’s not full of monsters or giant bugs or a snake who’s wearing a vest and rolling a doughnut up a hill (okay, I’ve had this one, but once again, it’s a story for another time). This one is about being lost. Alone. Abandoned. It’s extremely scary. Every time I wake up in a cold sweat, my heart racing like a runaway train. It’s a feeling of desperation, of emptiness, of danger. I think the scariest part is that it’s more than just a nightmare. It’s a memory.
This one really happened.
I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I think probably about three or four at the oldest. It was a really nice day. Sunny. Blue skies. A few clouds high in the sky, but not a hint of rain. A nice breeze. A great day for a family to spend at the park. If, like me, you like to ponder how the viewpoints of adults and kids can differ, you’ll know that the word ‘park’ is one of those areas that may mean different things depending on your age. As an adult, I like to go to the park. I love to walk the trails, seeing nature where it hasn’t been spoiled by buildings and houses and commercial development. Just to get away and not worry about anything else, even for a few hours. Hopefully, my cell phone (if I’m dumb enough to even bring it) won’t even get a signal. Throw in a stream, spring, creek, pond, lake, river or heaven forbid an ocean – it’s almost heaven.
But to a kid, ‘park’ means one thing, and one thing only – “PLAYGROUND!” You can have the greatest swing set in the world in your own back yard, but I promise you that it will not even compare. You could hire Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei to collaborate on the design for your background playground. You could then let a team of NASA scientists add their special touch, and finish with some extra input from Willy Wonka. You would think that the result would be a playground that would be the envy of children all over the world, but the truth is, it wouldn’t matter.
Park playgrounds are the stuff dreams are made of. A whole new world of adventure, waiting to be explored and conquered. There’s just something about a park playground. It’s a new place. Unfamiliar territory. Mystery. Suspense. There’s also some risk – I mean, there will most likely be kids there that we don’t even know! We’ll have to prove that we’re braver, stronger and more adventurous than them – but without giving the perception of being a bully. It’s a complex deal, and can make or break a kid’s reputation.
And so we went. I couldn’t tell you today if that park had nature trails, or a stream, or unusual rock formations. I can tell you that it had a playground. Mind you, these were the days before our modern, plastic, static electricity filled playgrounds. These were the good old days of metal playground equipment.
The short metal slide, for those who were still working on their fear of heights, and the BIG metal slide. At least fourteen stories tall, on a good sunny day you could fry eggs on it. You could hear the squeak of sweaty legs, like fingernails on a blackboard, as they slowly eeked their way down its vast expanse. If you were really brave, you went down head first, not worried at all about the face full of sand, dirt or gravel you were sure to get when you landed.
A short distance from the slides were the swings, where at any given time at least one kid was diligently working at being the first to swing so high that he or she went all the way around. Beyond that was the see-saw, a device invented so that older brothers could torture their younger siblings by launching them into the air and then jumping off of their end, watching in glee as they crashed to the ground. The merry-go-round is a favorite, as long as there is someone (preferably a dad with some pent-up energy to get rid of) there to keep it moving.
And every so often, if the stars were aligned exactly right, the playground would have some kind of climbing equipment.
The climbing equipment could take many forms. Sometimes as simple as bars, but often in some configuration that allowed young minds to dream and explore. A spaceship. A pioneer fortress (complete with gun turrets). A castle. Or even, as in our case on this fine day, a fire engine. Maybe not as elaborate as some, but definitely fun enough to keep my brother and me busy for a while. And so we climbed.
At first, I followed his every move. Where he went, I went. I was the younger brother – that was my job. After a while it was time to branch out on my own. Climbing just never seems to get old. When you’ve climbed in one spot for a while, you move. The more you climb, the braver you get. You keep improving on your technique, until you are sure that no one has ever been able to do exactly what you’ve just done. You are the daredevil of all daredevils. Your skill has reached levels that absolutely must have an audience. And so, having acquired so much skill, I yell for my brother. After several unsuccessful attempts to get his attention, I descend from my perch and go in search of him.
He is gone.
Although there are other kids on the fire engine, I am all alone. This is urgent, but I am not completely panicked. After all, he is only level one of my foolproof security system. I quickly walk to the edge and look to the park bench where I know my parents are sitting.
They are gone.
In their place are unknown adults. I am now completely alone. Fear grips my spine. Panic rushes through my brain like a tsunami. I feel the inevitable tears beginning to burst from my face. In desperation, I spin around. It is as though I am invisible. No one notices me. Everything familiar is gone. I am absolutely, unmistakably lost. Hope is gone. Just when things can’t possibly get any worse, I am grabbed from behind. Terror takes complete control.
Suddenly, everything is okay. The strong hands that have grabbed me aren’t some sinister bad guy (or worse). They belong to my dad.
You see, he had never left the park bench. In my panic, I was looking the wrong way. Fortunately, he wasn’t. From the moment he turned me loose to explore, and dream, and challenge myself to reach new levels of daring and intrigue, he was watching me. His eyes were on me the entire time.