Essay Lost In The Forest

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In Lithuania, going astray while picking mushrooms is a common experience, with its own word.

The same word is used to describe veering from the plot of a story—like my father did when he talked about his time in Vietnam.

So the urgent banging on the door one September afternoon was especially startling.

My family and I were sitting down to a lunch of beet soup and boiled potatoes when we heard it.

We apply Dan’s principles to imaginary scenarios: often slapstick, sometimes apocalyptic. Only once, when I was in my twenties, did I ask him a direct question: “What was the worst thing about the war? I imagined him hunkered in the wet heat of noon, amid sharp blades of towering grass in a foreign land, his head baking in his helmet, the rot crawling up his legs. He had intended to pick his way back home, but the mushrooms led him astray.

But when we talk about my father, we inevitably cross into the dark terrain of his service in Vietnam, the defining event of his biography. My son, ten years old at the time, translated from the backseat.I’m neither a vandal nor a thief, but a scavenger—that was my justification. He’d been foraging with his sister when they were separated on the way back to their car.I planned to play dumb, pretend I didn’t know the law. There stood an old man, breathless, gripping a ten-gallon bucket half-full of assorted mushrooms. In Lithuania, to get lost while picking mushrooms is a common enough occurrence to have its own word: nugrybauti.Like Simona, Oskar is fluent in both languages, while my Lithuanian is limited to asking for basic directions and the price of cabbage.We dropped the man off on the side of the highway near a bus station, thus concluding his odyssey of being lost in the middle of the Lithuanian forest and being rescued by an American. You don’t need to be drunk.” “Yeah, but he smelled like beer.” “True.” “What would Do-or-Die Dan do if he couldn’t find his way out of the woods?Your sense of direction scampers off, and you trudge around aimlessly over moss, under branches, and around the skirts of spruces, lost—until, much later, you are back on a familiar path, though not where you thought you’d be. But Do-or-Die Dan took place in the immediate post-war years (around the time Dad was driving home from the overnight shift and killed a reckless biker in a head-on collision, opening the deep well of guilt he’d been sitting on), so there was still a risk he’d get into the war. Not all paths led to Vietnam, but all paths crossed it. My father always wanted me to know how funny life could be, which was why he’d told me about the time he’d been hiding in elephant grass for the good part of a hellish day at war, when the soldier he was ducking the Vietcong with lost patience, jumping up so his head popped over the tips of the green blades, and said, “We’re over here, motherfuckers! I never thought to ask what happened next, how they dealt with the continuation of that situation. After his tour in Vietnam, my father started a career as a cockpit mechanic on Grumman’s F-14 Tomcat in Calverton, Long Island. A bunch of the guys on the night shift, like the man he’d learn to call Do-or-Die Dan, were also veterans. Friday nights, when all the good times started, were especially torturous.More commonly, though, nugrybauti describes when someone has lost the thread of a conversation or veered from the plot of a story—gone on a tangent. With all these stories, rather than arriving at a point, my father’s voice would drift off and he’d get the ten-mile stare, the smoke gathering around the still blades of the ceiling fan. So Dan got in the habit of working a four-day week.“I guess eventually he’d build his home in there,” I said.“He’d do whatever it took to survive.” Joel Mowdy is the author of the story collection Floyd Harbor (Catapult, May 2019).And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.This week 8 students from Paul’s Intermediate Class wrote short stories about a time they got lost…


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