"Speak softly, carry a big stick." "Children should be seen and not heard." It is hard to remember since we are now as noisy as birds, but being quiet used to be a sort of goal.
An American, we thought, was strongly silent. Listening and watching, he would cut his trail.
"Do it yourself," he said. Hammer a cabin, farm some land, chop down trees deep in the woods. All out of earshot of any neighbor.
He relied on himself, that American. She made what she needed.
They lived alone.
It is hard to remember, now that we are constantly in touch. I do not know when it happened, but our quietness is gone.
Suddenly we are sociable, even chatty. We are eager to broadcast where we are and what we know at all times. And we have lots to say.
The phone chats, the checking of email, the tap, tap, tap of texts and social media posts. We stay in contact in our homes, these days, at work, and in our cars. We listen and talk on the street, at movies, and at the mall.
Need some information? Someone or some device is at our elbow to look it up. "Use your search engine," we are told when there's a question. And, in fact, there is:
The thing I keep asking Google is the thing it cannot tell me: Am I independent? I punch in, hammering the keys. Am I American? I ask.
Am I alive?
Holing up in a shack somewhere may be my way to find out. But I do not know how to build things. Finding my way in a forest? Not very likely. And I may be afraid when I am alone.
Could I be a pioneer? I think. Could I make a fire and sit there and read Emerson, let's say, and rely on my own five senses and clear mind?
I have my doubts.
I've lost the jackknife I used to whittle with as a kid. I've lost my slingshot, too, the one I carved out of a branch. Years ago, I gave away the Boy Scout handbook that taught me how to make knots.
My friends and I used to be one tough crowd, but we've gone soft. We're fat, full to the brim with gossip, and troubled by the shadows and the squeals of TV.
We used to blaze trails and now we don't even walk. We used to do things and make things, and explore.
And now we talk, talk, talk.
A week in the life of an early settler packed more risk than we face in a lifetime. But we like to say that we live in "dangerous times."
I'm thinking about keeping silent for one day. But my wife would have my neck. I'd probably be bored. And it wouldn't fly at work: People would think I'd gone insane.
Still, I can't help thinking. About quiet.
About Paul Bunyan, Last of the Mohicans, Little House on the Prairie. About my whittled slingshot.
I miss you more than I can say.
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Peter Mandel is an author of picture books for kids, including his read-aloud bestseller: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook), and his newest about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).