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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Camping in the 70's, Part 2

When my older son was in the 4th grade at an excellent, but enormous, public elementary school, his class went on a three-night  camping trip to the beach. You would have thought, from the preparations,  that he was going on a mission to Mars, or, perhaps, to colonize the outer asteroid belt, with high risk of alien attacks and plague.  The paperwork took six months.  There were doctors appointments. Checklists. Waivers.  Meetings. There were trips to buy thermal underwear, rain pants, thigh high rubber boots, and non-cotton hiking socks, all of which were required, and without which, your child would not be permitted on the bus (for a trip to the beach. In June.) Some parents just threw in the towel and said their kids weren't going.

Finally, after months of preparations, there was the all-grade parent orientation. (This was kind of like the meeting for the nature walk, on steroids.)  Hundreds of parents filed into the junior high auditorium for  a Power Point presentation on how each day at the camp would run, down to bathroom breaks, deodorant use, beverages, mosquito population, and approximate time of sunset. Then came the parent question and answer session, which as we all know, is the best part of any school meeting, and during which  I never, ever wish I was doing something else, like washing out garbage cans, pulling ticks off the dog, or getting a Pap smear.

The first parent who raised her hand asked if the girls could bring hairdryers. She was very concerned that her daughter's head would get cold walking from the cabin to the dining hall, and that her daughter would get pneumonia.  (In June! At the beach!) The next parent insisted that her son be permitted to bring his cell phone so he could call his parents at any time, and so she could reach him at any time--in case, I don't know, smallpox broke out and the whole family was on the verge of death during the three day trip to the beach.  The next parent to raise his hand was a dad, who demanded that he see the OSHA records from the camp kitchen, as he was very concerned about ecoli in the salad bar (as if the camp had bins of bean sprouts and cauliflower sitting around all winter.)   By the time we got into sodium levels in the food, ambient lights in the cabins, and emergency plans in case of sharknado,  pirate attack, or gluten overload, I felt like screaming,  Does ANYONE in this room understand the point of  camping???

(I also, at this point,  had intense sympathy for our poor public schools, which are pretty much hamstrung by all the insane, litigation-happy parents they have to deal with--it is a miracle the kids are still allowed to take any trips whatsoever!)

My family understood camping.  My grandmother could pack for two weeks in the woods in two small bags. My father could live for weeks on saltines and  peanut butter (and cigars). My sister and I --from about the age of 5-- packed our own bags for the trip.   If we ended up with one pair of underwear and no flashlight--tough--we would only make that mistake once! When we got to camp-- after the mortifying, dog-saturated,  7-hour Okie-inspired road trip which had started at 5 am--we were responsible for unloading our own stuff out of the canoes, hauling it  all to the tent site, putting up our tent and rain tarp, and setting up our stuff inside the tent.  We also had to haul our  aluminum cots down from the attic of the cabin, which we hated, because sometimes we found stuff like mouse nests full of disgusting hairless newborn mice (which my dad tossed into the woods, saying, "Don't worry girls, they'll love their new home!") The cots always had mouse dirt on them, despite the fact that we hung them on clotheslines. (Mom said, "Brush it off. You'll be fine.")  

While Mantha and I set up our tent, located our flashlights so we find the tent in the dark after dinner, and changed into jeans to discourage the bugs, my parents set up their tent,  opened the cabin, stocked the outdoor kitchen and fired up the Coleman stove. Usually my uncles and cousins came over to help with the heavy lifting, but by dark, we were all completely exhausted.  After dinner we still had to haul water from the lake up to the fire and boil it to wash the dishes. Then we went back down to the beach to brush our teeth in the lake. Finally, Mantha and I would thread our way up the path to our tent, zip ourselves in and fall blissfully asleep in our Off-smelling, never-washed sleeping bags and our mousy cots.

One year, Manth and I woke up in the middle of a thunderstorm to the nasty sensation of water dripping on us. I looked over at Mantha and saw an enormous bulge hanging over her head: the wind had torn away the tarp (probably because we could not tie knots very well, or reach very high on the tree trunks,) and the canvas roof was filling with water. As soon as Manth sat up, her head brushed the bulge of water, and it began to  run onto her  sleeping bag.  Then I realized my side had a smaller bulge, also dripping. My sleeping bag was already damp. I reached down and touched the floor--it was also wet, along with most of our clothes. We wordlessly found our flashlights, climbed out of the tent, and headed for mom and dad's tent.

This turned out to not be such a good decision. Mom and Dad, who had just gotten back to sleep after the thunderstorm,  did not have a lot to say to us.

Dad said, "Go sleep in the cabin, girls!"
Mom said, "You'll be fine!"

Manth and I looked at each other in the beam of our flashlights and shrugged. Barefoot, we  picked our way back down the path in the soggy pine duff, zipped open our tent, grabbed our sleeping bags, and ran up to the cabin. Then, silently weighing the prospects of going up in the creepy attic for new cots against getting our own cots from the tent, we  headed back to the tent. We managed to get the cots out without completely flooding the tent, zipped the door back up, and made our third trip up the  wet, rocky path in the dark.

In the cabin, we triumphantly set up our cots next to the wood stove, which was still smoldering,  got in our sleeping bags, and went back to bed, relieved to have a real roof over our heads, even if it skittered with tiny mouse paws all night long.

We were four years old that summer.

Our parents felt pretty bad when they woke up and saw our tent completely collapsed.  (For one panicked moment my mom, suddenly remembering that her last words to us were "You'll be fine,"  was afraid we were still in there, under a hundred pounds of saturated canvas!)  But when they found us sound asleep and relatively snug and dry in the cabin, my dad said, "I'm really proud of you girls!" We were pretty proud of ourselves, navigating this disaster in the middle of the night.

And that, in my book,  is the point of camping.


  1. Beautifully written, touching and inspiring... Jess, I love this!

  2. I seem to recall being really, really pissed that they wouldn't even open their tent to find out what was actually wrong! I just remember their growls and rumbles, instructions to hit the road, and I am quite certain Jesseca kept a cool head as I commenced some serious whining and crying. But, in the end, sleeping in the cabin was a cozy treat!