Kids journey back to the colonial era in Va., leaving smartphones and soda behind

Columnist

I’m pretty sure I made it into some CIA security log during my son’s school trip this week.

What guard wouldn’t put out an alert about a bedraggled woman in colonial garb walking up to a federal facility’s security gate, asking about a “secret port-a-potty”?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Let me explain.

I just spent three days living in the woods, reenacting a 1640 colonial encampment with my son’s fourth-grade class.

This was the culmination of months of study in the third and fourth grades where the kids were assigned profiles about life during that period to include a colonial profession and family, maybe a case of scurvy.

We arrived Monday on foot at the campsite, a group of parents and kids in full skirts, aprons, mob caps and knickers. Right away, we had to get the fire going, dig a latrine, set up canvas tents with giant timber supports and heft witch’s brew kettles onto wicked-looking chains hanging over the flames.

The agreement was that we would bring no modern items. At the last minute, the teacher allowed flashlights and tarps, given the forecast for thunderstorms.

I was one of the kitchen managers. We baked pies in heavy, cast-iron dutch ovens filled with hot coals, churned butter and worked with the fire gods to keep the coals perfectly stoked to cook each meal.

The children — these coddled, pygmy overlords who travel in air-conditioned luxury, are fed organic snacks and enjoy an intravenous supply of electronic entertainment in between piano, karate and Mandarin lessons — had a blast.

Within hours, they were filthy and fully enthralled in colonial games. They made candles, corn husk dolls and tin lanterns and wove baskets. They played marbles, hoops and cup-and-ball. No one once said, “I’m bored.”

And we all knew that this is what has been missing for years in American society. The big, open space of a free-range childhood with a bunch of kids and no lessons or rules or schedules.

The year 2014 began to feel far away.

At one point, as our intrepid teacher was organizing another activity, she asked for the time. All the adults looked at one another. No one was wearing a watch. We’re all on iTime.

One by one, illegal iPhones and Galaxies were pulled out of apron and knicker pockets.

“Ye Olde Smartphone,” one dad said, while powering his up.

Other contraband was revealed: Sonicare toothbrushes, Starbucks instant coffee, mascara, cameras, self-inflating air mattresses, polarized sunglasses and Spanx.

But there was nothing to help us through the storms of the first night. Our canvas tent flooded. As the ground around us got soft and muddy, one of the stakes that kept the lumber supports in place — and therefore the canvas up — gave out, so the entire structure teetered over. I lost the tiny flashlight in the mud.

I cried. My son cried. He asked whether we could walk to a hotel.

We woke up with wet feet, leafy, wet hair and soaked clothes. A salamander crawled out of my drenched sleeping sack at dawn.

Those colonists were tough. We were a rugged nation. That freedom was muddy, stinky, exhausting and hard-fought. It was no wonder our democracy was held so dearly when the memories of the nation’s early beginnings were so new.

And it makes me gag at the way too many of our leaders trash that democracy with petty, lurid scandals, with campaign sexting, revolving-door career bargaining and partisan posturing that is such an affront to the kind of nation we set out to be.

I think that three days in a colonial encampment should be a requirement for freshman congressional orientation. Before they start trying to hook up with interns or finding their drug connection or securing the power tables at the best restaurants, each member of Congress should spend a few days tasting the humble beginnings of our democracy — the fires, the mud, the tents, the latrines.

The latrine.

It is basically a trench, surrounded by three hanging canvas tarps for privacy. Imagine using this toilet with 17 children running around in the woods. Privacy?

And this is how we get to the CIA.

There was a whisper among the parents about a secret port-a-potty up the road. After a few slippery, muddy tries at the latrine, I was ready to break character.

And so I told everyone I was going for a walk.

And I walked and walked.

The painful irony, of course, is that the 1640 site was wedged between Langley High School and the CIA. Our camp was 10 minutes from the McMansions of McLean. Struggling for hours to churn butter and boil water for coffee, we were about 12 minutes from a 7-Eleven.

After some wandering down service roads, I came upon a security gate, and it didn’t seem unreasonable to ask the guard about this rumored port-a-potty. The wide eyes and the “let me call my supervisor” put in perspective how I must have appeared, from a Homeland Security/Unhinged Militia perspective. I said “never mind” and headed back into the woods.

When the port-a-potty was finally located, with the help of another rebel colonist, I never imagined the chemical-fumey hotbox would feel so awesome.

By the time we packed up camp on Wednesday, we were anxious for showers, toilets and mattresses. But we knew we were leaving behind a precious time out of time.

We adults got a glimpse of what we are capable of. If we ever have the kind of zombie apocalypse we watch on our flatscreens, lolling on our sectionals, we just might be able to take them on.

And our kids got to run through the woods, play tag, wash their own dishes, stack firewood and churn butter. Maybe the Xbox won’t be so awesome when we get back home. At least not for a couple of days.

Twitter: @petulad

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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