in which a trip to the apple orchard takes a sinister turn

My current route to campus passes a local elementary school, and last week as I drove by mid-morning I noticed a line of school buses idling on the curb next to a line of third graders idling on the sidewalk. The crumpled brown bag lunches, the parent volunteers herding the rabble, the vibrating energy of the scene: Oh yes, people. It was field trip day.

I love field trip day.

As most do, I suppose. During a recent job interview dinner, the conversation led to a sort of one-upmanship in field tripping stories. Those who had lived in the more exotic corners of the States had, of course, far superior stories. Florida allows a certain degree of contact with gators, apparently. Image

My own stories are of a tamer variety. The wildlife I encountered in my days exploring the suburban landscapes of Cary, Illinois and Franklin, Tennessee offered few opportunities to encounter wildlife outside the common spectrum of squirrels, deer, and roadkill. My most vivid field trip memory, in fact, was a trip to an apple orchard in the early days of elementary school.

After the indignity of being “partnered” with a classmate and forced to hold said classmate’s hand en route to the waiting bus, and after the cruise through the streets of Tennessee — a journey unfailingly punctuated by at least one threat of carsickness — we arrived. We were first ushered into a makeshift movie theater, where we sat on overturned apple crates to watch a film on the varieties of apple featured in the orchard. The film was dated, speckled with lint and scratches and played at a volume that could overpower the clacking of the spinning film reel.

Each apple was given a pair of cartoon eyes and a personality. The red delicious is, apparently, an egoist. He is very proud of his “three bottoms.” A titter drifted across the young audience.

Once we were armed with spare paper grocery bags and released to the trees like the monkeys we were, life was easier and less organized. Weaving between low branches and kicking spotted, brown Macintoshes at one another, we were loose-limbed and increasingly sunburned, stopping every now and then to seize up in that stiff-spined, paralytic posture that overtakes any elementary school student in the presence of a bee.

But while I remember the early moments of the trip — the dark green plastic seats of the bus, the misanthropic basset hound that slept slumped against a storage shed, the difficulty of opening a plastic baggie full of grapes when one’s fingers are sticky — what I remember most is what happened when we returned to the sterile, fluorescent classroom. Sitting at my desk, writing the obligatory “three complete sentences” about my orchard experience — how do you spell “bottoms”? — I watched as a friend got up from her desk, gained permission for a trip to the bathroom, and headed for the door. Which quickly slammed on her fingers.

There was a strange, suspended moment of complete stillness and then: Oh sweet Jesus yes that is one of her fingers on the floor. ON THE FLOOR. Her finger is on the floor.

My teacher, a woman of impressive composure and strong stomach, scooped up the rogue finger, wrapped it in a paper towel, stuck it in a plastic cup full of ice, and handed it to its owner, whom she promptly sent off to the emergency room. I do this all the time, her demeanor suggested. A disembodid finger? Pshaw!

The finger! It was reattached! No lasting harm done.

Except, perhaps, to my delicate psyche. The heavy door, the careless slamming, the total panic: all of these happened post-field trip, at school, but the two events of that day — a trip to the orchard and a lost digit — were indelibly linked and impressed upon my second-grade brain. Now, while I associate field trips with the sweet thrill of leaving behind the routine of spelling lists and math pre-tests, I also know them as the death trap they really are.

Dark things can happen, my friends, when you slough off the warm, protective cocoon of your average school day.

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parachute over me

The elementary school student is plagued by a succession of small but monotonous trials and tribulations. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches soggy from a day spent in a humid cubby. The indignity of being dubbed the weakest runner in a recess game of Red Rover. The questionable cleanliness of the hallway water fountain. And the multiplication tables.

Oh, the multiplication tables.

It’s a typical Wednesday. You’re slogging through a phonics lesson that is trying your third-grader spirit. Your uniform sweater is itching uncomfortably at your neck. Your afternoon promises only a spelling test and a 4:00 pm dentist appointment. You dropped half your chocolate chip cookie on the floor during lunch, and before you could determine if the floor was clean enough to act upon the five-second rule, that kid who always makes fun of your red hair has snatched that cookie off the floor and stuffed it in his mouth. No forethought. No remorse. Jerkface!

And then it happens. You walk into gym class, that unholy hour that requires choosing teams and hitting fellow students with stinging playground balls, and it’s there. Next to the bleachers. Resting in soft folds on the scuffed floor.

Oh yes. It’s the parachute.

Parachute day in elementary school gym class is the great equalizer. Sure, the more athletically inclined might prefer more aggressive activities — the thrown elbows of nine-year-old basketball or the knee burns of volleyball. But I was a gym class pacifist, and I appreciated parachute day. Lined up along the seamed edge of the parachute, your classmates become collaborators and compatriots. The small injustices of elementary arithmetic and the surprisingly cruel civil wars between cliquey girls evaporate as your entire class of thirty lifts mosquito-bitten arms together. The silk mosaic of the parachute balloons toward the fluorescent can lights, filling like a sharp intake of breath, and everyone crowds underneath, capturing that whiff of stale, gym-scented air in a rainbow dome.

You even manage to smile conspiratorially at the cookie-eater, the ill feelings of the lunch room erased by the exuberance of parachute day. (Revenge can wait. Revenge is best served cold, after all, and on Thursdays. Oh yes. Thursday revenge is sweet. Like a stolen chocolate chip cookie.)

I’m approaching the ripe old age of thirty, carrots readers, and I miss parachute day. We need to bring parachute day back. Into our backyards. Our parking lots. Our boardrooms. Let that glorious parachute unfurl over our cubicles, our dinner tables, our dog parks. I don’t want to buy the world a Coke. I want to buy the world a parachute.

Think about the exhilaration of the parachute the next time you are waiting in line at the grocery store only to be delayed by a rude customer digging exact change out of a bottomless purse while gabbing on her cell phone. Or when you are waiting in an endless line at the DMV, behind a gentleman who considers it acceptable to bring his chihuahua when he renews his driver’s license. Or when you are on hold with the cable company, trying to dispute an incorrect charge, growing only angrier as you listen to a Musak rendition of a Michael Bolton power ballad.

These are difficult times, carrots readers. And difficult times call for parachutes. Everyone looks a little friendlier in the many-colored light of a parachute.

Popcorn!