To Boldly Go Where No Boy Has Gone Before

MySide_1“I’m in the middle, without any plans,” Alice Cooper sings, “I’m a boy and I’m a man.”

Late summer of 1978, I was 18, still living at home with the Family Project and working nights at Tonka Toys. And I didn’t know what I wanted.

Well, sorta.

You see, I wouldn’t have gotten there without the help of one Samuel Gribley and James T. Kirk—the former a 1960s Canadian preteen, the latter captain of a Federation starship in the 23rd century.

When and where I first saw My Side of the Mountain (produced in 1969), it’s hard to say. It could’ve been in Maryland, shown in class at Farquhar Middle School, or broadcast on network TV. Sam Gribley, all of 12, lives in Toronto with his mother, father and two younger sisters. In the film’s opening scene, Sam peers through a fence at zoo animals, then hurries home to write a note to his family, pack a rucksack, grab his pet raccoon Gus, and take off to live in the wilderness for a year—all on his own, like Thoreau on Walden Pond—relying merely on smarts and willfulness.

MySide_2My lessons from Capt. Kirk began after plopping down in front of the TV to watch Star Trek after school. It drove my brother crazy. But his dismay meant nothing to me—I had first dibs on the remote. How could you not be in thrall to Star Trek, right from the start of Alexander Courage’s opening theme? Episodes that showcased Kirk’s independence, like fighting the Gorn in “Arena” or relentlessly pursuing the Romulans in “Balance of Terror,” really got under my skin. How, I wondered, could I be more like Kirk—smart, tough and independent?

Truth was, I couldn’t.

I was just a boy who stood on the headboard of his bed, staring out the bedroom window, waiting for the day he could escape the clutches of the Family Project, never to return.

In My Side of the Mountain, Sam’s plan, told in voiceover, was to be “certain that I will be completely alone.” When Bando, a wandering musician played by Theodore Bikel, stumbles onto Sam’s camp, Sam is wary: “Do you always go out alone?” Bando says it’s the only way. “I agree,” Sam replies. I was probably nodding along, too.

We closely follow Sam’s lone adventure—with no cuts back to civilization and the neat domesticity of his family’s life. That directorial choice drew me into the sheer sensuality of Sam’s experience: smelling fresh air, tasting his own food, experimenting with algae, laughing at Gus’ antics, swimming in the buff, and fleeing from a dangerous bear. He even keeps a journal, as Thoreau did, and I had been doing since 1973.

Capt. Kirk’s ingenuity and fiery nature carry him only so far, and eventually he has to rely on his crewmates. I was always thrilled to see how far he could take it. Sam Gribley goes the distance, too. For a kid about my age at the time, he really impressed me. But when he befriends Miss Turner, the town librarian, after Bando goes off on his own again, Sam aches for his new friend’s companionship. “Completely alone” apparently has its price.

MySide3You couldn’t sell me that message then. Sometimes I was so embarrassed being in the Family Project I wanted to slink away. What would it take to shoot me out of its orbit—at warp speed—into an adult life full of new faces and strange places I’d never seen before? Germany likely gave me the first taste of change, but negotiating my inner world with the demands of reality complicated things.

Many times I was told, “Why must you do things the hard way?

I don’t know. It’s still my way, for better or worse. I still forget that I can’t do it all by myself. If I reach out to others, maybe it’s a wish to share what I’ve learned from being independent—good and bad—so they can somehow lean more firmly on themselves.

When Sam agrees to end his hermitage and return to his family, Bando acknowledges him: “I bet there’s not another boy in the whole civilized world that’s done anything like it.”

And when you’re only 18, staring out your bedroom window and wondering if the future will come screeching into the driveway to whisk you away, it seems damn-near impossible.

“I’ve gotta get out of this place,” Alice still sings, “I’ll go runnin’ in outer space…”

Oh yeah.

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~ by completelyinthedark on June 28, 2013.

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