In the 1990s, William Bennett put together collections of poems and stories to help guide us upon life’s journey. The opening section of his second major work is entitled “Home and Hearth” and reminded me of a journey that I once undertook in my youth.
It was the summer of 1957. And I was a precocious 11-year-old who decided to respond to my little brother’s challenge to explore the nearby woods around our uncle’s wilderness resort. Having left him behind, I hadn’t traveled far into the Wisconsin tree country when I became dreadfully certain that my parents would never find my body!
The trails all looked the same, and my basic Cub Scout training was sadly inadequate. I tried to figure out which way was north by checking the position of the sun, but it was an overcast day. Nor could I remember which side of the tree that moss was supposed to grow on. In the end, I decided to explore further in the hope I would discover a landmark that would lead me home. That landmark never came.
As I sat down on a deserted rock beach overlooking a stretch of water that I had never seen before, my thoughts turned ominous. I knew that, if the water moccasins didn’t get me, the bears would. I began to question the wisdom of going out on my own, and how much safer it would have been to have stayed at home and play with my brother.
I tried to be brave and think of what President Ike would do. Then, after a few minutes of self-doubt, I decided to journey on. I trudged over the uneven shoreline and, as I emerged around an outcrop of rock, I spotted my uncle’s boat tied up at the wharf. He and his Indian guide were preparing to go fishing down by the dam.
At first I ran towards them, but, as I grew closer, I slowed down to a normal walk and tried to catch my breath. My relief must have shown, as my uncle asked me where I’d been for the last hour. At first I told him that I was out exploring, but then, under his steady gaze, I reluctantly admitted that I had gotten lost.
He studied me for a long moment, then told me that it was good to get out on my own … to discover things around me and that this in turn would help me discover things about myself. I didn’t quite understand what he was saying. But, with a knowing chuckle in his voice, he assured me that I eventually would.
He then reached into his tackle box and took out a small Cracker Jack-sized compass. Handing it to me, he cautioned me about how easy it was to get lost in the woods. He said that I would need a compass whenever I thought it was time to journey out on my own. And, with a casual smile on his lips and pat on my head, he got into the boat with his guide and motored round the outcrop and across the lake.
I didn’t go back in the woods that day or any other time during that summer vacation, but next year I did. I simply knew that it was time. I felt secure because no matter how far I journeyed from home my uncle’s compass would take me back.
Sometimes we all get lost. We travel into unknown territory or are detoured from the path that we originally laid out for ourselves. Not to worry … not if you have a good compass that points true north. It enables you to make corrections and find your way. I’m not saying that all journeys are easy ones, for some of us travel more difficult roads than others. But, in the end, they become easier if you have a good guide or landmark to rely upon.
I think of William Bennett from time to time and am thankful to those who recommended his writings, The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass. I am grateful for the partial enlightenment that managed to sink in. But most of all, I am grateful to a Wisconsin insurance salesman, my Uncle Joe, who permanently embedded one of life’s lessons upon my memory. And in today’s troubling world, when I feel trepidation creeping upon me, I just clutch a little tighter to the compass in my pocket.