When you live on a remote two-lane road in Shanghi, Ala., with no other houses in sight, you spend pretty much every day in the woods, unless you have to drive into town for something.
And yet, in the opening days of summer vacation from Colley Elementary School, my number one focus each year was on spending a day in the woods. This was more involved than it might outwardly seem.
There was no Boy Scout troop in Shanghi to learn from, but still I had better sense than to go into the deep woods unprepared. One of my heroes was Batman, and he had put together something called a "utility belt" that seemed to fit the bill quite nicely--with a few Walker County-style modifications from the Gotham City version, of course.
My parents humored me on this and squeezed in a visit to the old Army surplus store in downtown Birmingham. (Nowadays, this kind of gear would routinely be called camping equipment, but back then I didn't know of anybody who camped out unless they got drafted and had no choice.)
The basic Shanghi-woods utility contraption I assembled was a webbed nylon belt, color Olive Drab, with eyelet holes for hanging stuff on: a canteen, a small knife in a scabbard and a roll of twine.
I gave some thought to general emergency preparedness and added a pouch with several more items inside: a snakebite kit, some water purification tablets, a pair of tweezers for splinters and assorted bandages.
And because I considered myself a budding biologist, I added a magnifying glass and some empty pill bottles for housing insect specimens that bore closer examination at home with my microscope. (In a pinch, and given a sunny day, I knew that the magnifying glass could also be used to start a fire so I could roast some sort of very small animal in case I was somehow trapped in a ravine, or if a highway robber relieved me of my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.)
Thus equipped, on the next fair-weather morning I would walk past my grandparents' vegetable garden and keep going westward until the walking trail ended, until I could see no human endeavor in any direction, and no human could see me.
All I lacked at that point was some red and blue face paint, or I could have done my imitation of Mel Gibson in "Braveheart" shouting "FREE-E-E-DOM!" But the intention was there, so all was good.
Once freed, I could devote my full attention to looking at stuff in the woods. And though the term "bio-diversity" was not commonly used in those days, there was no shortage of flora and fauna to check out.
But the clock keeps ticking even in paradise, and I had learned the exact angle of the sun in a ravine known as Bear Waller Holler that meant it was time to start moseying home where the refinements of civilization awaited: hamburger steak, hot cornbread, fresh vegetables, electric fans, and a timely selection of Superman comic books.
I'm fortunate that there were two items in my fake-Batman emergency stash I never had to use: the snakebite kit and the water tablets.
I had planned to purify some water one day just for the heck of it, but the more I looked at birds, frogs, lizards, squirrels and dragonflies conducting their up-close and personal business with the shallow creek, the less thirsty I got and my canteen drinking reserve seemed to exactly fill each day's bill.
They say freedom isn't free, and I'm sure the cash register at the Army surplus place could verify my follies. But at least the occupational hazards of blisters, scrapes and sunburn came at no extra cost.
All in all, even till this day, I'd say it was best bargain going.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program "Music from Home" airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website.