Along the way, I’ve had many teachers: “The Odyssey,” “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, and the works of Service, London, and Kipling. They brought me close to the wild heart of life. Under their tutelage I recall that when I was young and restless, I craved the reckless life. A million journeys later I find that much has not changed.
My travels have been filled with difficulty, filled with the prospects of sudden disaster, and the peril of life and limb. The Marine Corps and the war in Vietnam began as a big adventure, but it didn’t end that way. There is nothing like the dangers of the wilderness to breed a free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy. Thus, as a teacher, it was natural that I would teach a similar perspective.
My philosophy is an attitude, a way of laying out the world and planting yourself in it. It’s a way of gaining insight about the self through an understanding of the natural world. One’s personage is defined through experience and challenges…an immersion into life so to speak.
I first began such adventures by taking gang kids from the Bronx into the wilds of the Catskill Mountains. Forty-six years later, I still believe that we were meant to see the other side of the mountain.
During college, I was a street gang worker for the Police Athletic League in the Bronx, and was charged with keeping the thugs from killing each other. I had this lofty idea that adventure and wilderness could tame the restless souls of wayward youth. At an early age, Thoreau had taught me that, “Wilderness is the tonic of life.” I was anxious to try his theories.
I gave the Police Chief a deal he couldn’t refuse. He thought my idea was absolutely crazy. After considerable haggling he gave me the green light to take 10 kids who were tougher than woodpecker lips camping into the Catskill Mountains. One of the kids, Carl Malanta said he’d borrow his uncle’s van. I thought it funny when he showed up driving the van, two years under the legal diving age. After I confiscated b-b guns, knives, and fireworks, we set out from my deli. In those days everything left and returned from Puglia’s Delicatessen. Eventually we arrived in the mountains. All seemed to go well. Humm!
That night, the ranger awakened me. Apparently, two of the kids had set the latrine on fire…with the ranger in it. I guess he couldn’t take a joke. We had minutes to clear out. As we left, the ranger ran our license plates. It wasn’t Carl’s uncle’s van. We were apprehended for grand theft and up the creek without a paddle.
I was undaunted; my lofty ideas had not changed. The following year, I would try again. This time, I brought discipline, some brass knuckles, and Bruce Milbrandt, a former Marine Sergeant. The kids proved that Thoreau was right and years hence; I would learn that the soul I was trying to quell was mine.
I did two more trips with the kids. My idea blossomed and the possibility of reaching gang kids through experiential education spread throughout the Bronx.
One of the kids, Tommy Flynn who came on the first trip became a social worker dedicating his life to the wayward souls of the street. He started an Outward Bound Program for inner city youth. PPS did a documentary on his kids as they climbed the highest point in South America. I like to think I had something to do with that. But it wasn’t me it was the idea.