Old Boy Scouts may remember the “The Happy Wanderer” hiking song, an infectiously dopey tune that is meant to make the miles fly by. It works for those comforted by sappiness and repetitive tedium.
If you will recall the lyric, it goes “I love to go a-wandering / along the mountain track / and as I go, I love to sing / my knapsack on my back.” There is a silly chorus to accentuate the rollicking fun: “Val-deri, Val-dera, Val-deri, Val-dera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”
After this flourish, Valderi and her sister Valdera are mentioned again — as is the knapsack.
As it happens, I was a-wandering happily in the Adirondacks in New York state the other day in the spirit of the song, although as a favor to fellow hikers I was not singing. Then it happened.
I fell down the mountain track hard on my butt. My left leg folded up and my ankle twisted. A horrible scrunching sound accompanied my fall.
Well, there goes my left leg, I thought. It took a moment or two to compose myself and reconcile to the prospect of months of looking like Long John Silver on crutches minus the parrot.
But as I untangled myself, I discovered that my leg was not broken. The horrible sound of doom was made by my water bottle scrunching up in my knapsack as I hit the slope. Darn knapsacks.
It could have been worse. If I had sandwiches, they would have been squashed. Absurd as the situation was, it did not invite much ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. I was left with a seriously sprained ankle, I was a long way from our lodging and faced clambering over rugged and slippery terrain to get back. More unnerving yet, my wife and her family were with me.
Sure, they are wonderful, but not exactly famous for their patience. I believe the Almighty gives out patience to baby angels waiting to be born and this group didn’t have the patience to stay in line. I once fractured my wrist playing tennis with them and had to drive myself to the hospital.
So here I was, up the creek without hiking poles, barely able to walk and my only helpers were this family of no-nonsense Spartans. Happily, my fears proved unfounded — they outdid themselves in compassion.
Still, it was good that George and his wife from Canada arrived. George took control. He is a college professor in Toronto, but unfortunately not in medicine. That probably explains the duct tape he used to bandage my ankle.
With George’s guidance, I made it back safely. In a nation of famously nice people, George could win the Nice Guy of the Year award. Thank you, mate.
Thanks also to the New York forest rangers who finally got me out of the woods and the staff of the Elizabethtown Community Hospital, N.Y., who cared for me as if I were special — and not just as another old log fallen in the woods.
Later, back on the porch with my leg iced and elevated and fortified by taking alcohol by mouth for medicinal purposes only, I got to thinking. Of course! You know the old saying, if a journalist falls in the woods and there’s no one around to write about it, did it really happen?
Because it only hurt when I laughed, my somber thought was this. What distinguishes Americans (and Canadians) is the urge to assist those who are hurting. Decent societies will incorporate such high-minded impulses into their statutes.
July has brought historic anniversaries as a reminder. Twenty-five years ago, on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Fifty years ago, on July 30, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law. Next month is the 80th anniversary of Social Security (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Aug. 14, 1935). Freshly if temporarily disabled, all of these were pertinent to my situation, as they are to all of us sooner or later.
Yet some would whittle away these good laws or banish them outright — and the Affordable Care Act as well. Their brand of political nihilism insists that people should help themselves without any help from the government.
True, people should help themselves as much as they are able — but, aye, there’s the rub. The hardest-working folks can fall off the track of life and find themselves disabled by one slip — and then ideological notions of rugged individualism and practical self-reliance are no help.
Individuals still need each other. Those who think otherwise would make unhappy wanderers of us all.
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Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Readers may email him at [email protected]