In the spring, we somehow got interested in islands. And soon we were talking and reading about Treasure Island and Peter Pan and Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson, Skull Island (where King Kong lived) and St. Helena (the island where they imprisoned Napoleon), Pleasure Island in Pinocchio (the island where foolish children turn into donkeys), and The Island of Doctor Moreau, about a man who makes human-like things out of animals. We didn’t actually read these books, of course. We were too young … well, most of us were. I had read several of them.[i] Mrs. Falkner just talked about them—and showed us pictures—got us excited about the stories.
She also told us about a famous American writer, Herman Melville, who wrote a story about a set of islands, and on every island is a different sort of human community, a community devoted to different beliefs and different customs.[ii]
And then we designed our own private islands. Deciding what—and who!—we would want on them. And what we would do there. And we wondered: Would we get tired of it after a while? Would we want to come back?
Some of the islands were pretty wild. Some of the boys drew large athletic fields. Others had vast refrigerators full of their favorite food. And rooms with giant TV screens. Some of the girls drew islands with places to hide, to imagine.
My own drawing surprised me—a place full of books, a place where my father was always present, where Harriet came to visit every day—I realized I’d created just a version of my own house.
And one day, Mrs. Falkner came in with a surprise announcement.
“Now, children,” she began—
We loved it when she did that—said “Now, children”—because it always meant that something exciting was about to happen—
“You all know that our own Ohio River has islands in it, don’t you?”
Yes, we knew that. When you drive along the river—as Father and I often did on the weekends—you could see them out there.
“Well, children, there are twenty-two islands in the river”—there were sounds of surprise around the room—“and they are all part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.”
We sat silently. Waiting …
“Some of the islands have visitors’ facilities,” she said, “and I’ve arranged for us to go visit one of them.”
There was a brief moment of silence before we all erupted. And our lava flow of questions began. Which one? When are we going? Are we going to stay overnight? What will we eat? Can I take my dog? What do we have to wear? Are we going on a bus? Can I sit next to Billy? Is King Kong there? And on and on. Mrs. Falkner let us go on like this for a while—she liked to see our enthusiasm—before she held up her hand, her signal for silence. We gave it to her.
“The Refuge Headquarters,” she said, “is in Williamstown, West Virginia, right across the river from Marietta—so we’ll go there first and learn what we can. Then we’ll travel to Middle Island, right near St. Mary’s, West Virginia, only about fifteen miles from the Headquarters. We get to the island across a little bridge …”
And on and on she went, telling us about our trip, giving us little handouts and permission slips to take home to our parents. She divided us into groups to come up with questions we could ask the rangers at the Headquarters, to look up information about Middle Island, about the Ohio River, and on and on and on and on.