In the Bible, angels often greet people with, “Do not be afraid.” And so it was ironic that in the spring of 2011, the biggest of my many fears was the thought of sending my fourth grade daughter on an overnight field trip to “Angel” Island.
Conventional wisdom says that fear keeps you from trying things, but when it comes to parenting, fear is a great motivator. Did I really want to hike from the dock on the north side of the island to the Civil War barracks on the west side? No. Did I really want to take squirrelly fourth and fifth graders on six one-mile compass hikes? Once again, no. And did I really want to sleep on a wooden bunk, wake up in the middle of the night for a two-hour pretend-soldier guard duty, and take orders from a docent I imagined would be as cruel as the one I’d had when I was a sixth grader on my first overnight field trip? Oh, I can’t tell you how much I did not.
But did I want my daughter to go without me? Did I want her to stay home and miss out?
I bought wool socks. I studied compass navigation. I packed my backpack.
Two other classes from our school took the trip a day before us and got drenched by rain and mud puddles, but when we reached Tiburon and boarded the adorable covered pontoon that floated happily next to the big Angel Island ferry, the pale morning sun seemed to say, “Do not be afraid.” I was excited, in spite of myself.
We crossed the short span to Angel Island and survived the hike to Camp Reynolds on the west side, which is also a short span, unless you’re with thirty kids and their heavy gear. The docent, a kindly gray-haired woman, showed us to our bunks and helped us raise our Union flag. She was nothing like the power-crazed man on my sixth grade trip so many years ago. She might as well have said, “Do not be afraid.”
We slept in the building where the Union soldiers slept. It sits only a few paces from the water. “If there’s a tsunami, we’re toast,” I thought. “Very soggy toast.” Seconds later I was laughing at myself. Below the Golden Gate Bridge, the mouth of the bay whispered, “Do not be afraid.” My absurd fear was sucked out to sea in a tsunami of gratitude. “I live in a place that people spend their life savings to visit.”
The kids rotated from station to station. They learned flag signaling in the great field between the soldiers’ barracks and the officers’ quarters, cooked our dinner and baked in the kitchens, and hiked through the eucalyptus groves with me and my chaperone partner Mark, who, bless him, let me sit out a rotation or two. When my daughter rotated through my hike, she was having a great time despite being the only kid who cut herself in the kitchen and stepped calf deep into a puddle.
After dinner and dishes, it was time to get ready for the optional night hike. I hoped my daughter wouldn’t want to go. Flashlights were not allowed, and I was sure she’d be the one to find a crevasse to the center of the earth. But she wanted to go, so off we went.
We took the paved road to the south side of the island at dusk. As we rounded the bend, I silently begged forgiveness for every gripe, every worry.
A crescent moon, my favorite, danced over San Francisco, a part of the city’s light show. Every office was aglow, as it was March, and nighttime came before the end of the work day. Having lived in the Bay Area for over twenty years, I have seen The City from almost every angle, and this was by far the most magnificent.
“Do not be afraid.” Who said it this time? The moon? The water? A chorus from behind the skyscraper windows? Who?
I didn’t want to leave. We stayed to gawk for a while, but eventually we had to move on.
The other day, my daughter told me that she wants to ride in a plane someday. She wants to see the world. I didn’t tell her that the world is a scary place, I just said, “I hope you get to.” That may not seem brave to some, but I’ve learned to stop comparing my bravery with the bravery of others. Maybe, if she ventures abroad with friends, or (oh help) by herself, I can take my own trip back to Angel Island and wait for it to speak to me again.
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