Saturday, April 17, 2010

In the heart of a campfire

If I was honest enough to remember the whole truth, I’d probably recall some very uncomfortable or even miserable experiences while dirt-camping as a kid.

But why would I want to do that?

Anybody who intentionally spends hundreds of dollars plus weeks in excited preparation for the opportunity to sleep on the ground, live in a perpetual cloud of dust and mosquitoes, eat food from a milk-sodden, meat-bloodied, melted-ice ice chest, and to pee and occasionally poop into an open, fly-infested pit has no grounds for complaint on any level, least of all personal convenience.

These days, Carolann and I visit the great outdoors in luxurious, indoor comfort. We have an air-conditioned 34-foot motorhome with a queen-size bed, full shower and toilet, complete kitchen, and two TVs. It’s wonderful. It really is.

But camping, it ain’t.

My Dad had a big, unbelievably heavy canvas tent. It was bigger than some honky tonks I’ve been in and smelled almost as bad. He had to prop the thing up with a couple of huge wooden poles I think he bought from a circus fire sale. As far as I can recall, that tent performed no useful service.

If it rained, the canvas would soak through and drip on us long after the rain had ended. Then it mildewed.

If it was eighty degrees outside, it was ninety-five in the tent. If it was sixty outside it was forty-five in the tent.

By the time I started taking my son Jeremy camping in the early ‘80s, the equipment had improved dramatically. Our tent was lightweight nylon. It was the first of those now ubiquitous domed things supported by three long flexible poles. It didn’t have to be lashed to steel stakes in the ground by twelve ropes poised to grab your foot and trip you every time you walked to the outhouse.

The downside of my new nylon igloo was its height, maybe four feet, tops, which was fine for a kid but it forced me to mimic a horizontal pole-dancer, writhing and wriggling on my back just to get out of my sleeping bag, pull on some pants, and exit on hands and knees through the little flap at the front that was secured by three or four maddening zippers.

Like my father before me, I taught my son to build a campfire the old-fashioned way: with paper under kindling, under twigs, under sticks, all in fastidious layers beneath three logs wigwammed in the center. It was a thing of beauty. We would stand back in solemn appreciation of our half-hour handiwork before we lit the match. Me, with a proud fatherly hand on my son’s shoulder; him, scratching madly at dozens of festering bites on his legs and neck.

After Jeremy mastered campfire-building, I introduced him to “fire-starters,” those wonderful, waxy chunks of compressed sawdust that make it possible for any idiot with a Bic to start a campfire. Boy Scouts need not apply. My Dad would have refused to purchase them.

Dad taught me to fish, of course, just as his dad had taught him, in the fast and frigid trout streams of Wyoming. I wasn’t very good at it and, frankly, I hated it. But that’s what fathers and sons do. It’s tradition.

My kid broke the curse. Oh, I taught him and he caught his first fish when he was five or six. But the next time I asked him if he wanted to go fishing, he asked with a gentle degree of pity, “Dad, you know you can buy fish at the store, right?”

That finished the sport for me and I still owe him for it.

But I miss it all….the laughter from nearby families, the smell and woosh of a white gas-powered lantern sputtering to life, the crackle and smoke of a jolly campfire properly built of wood chunks gathered and chopped by hand.

I even miss the dirt.

In evenings such as those by the campfire, with no TVs, no smart phones or WiFi, we had no choice but to talk with each other about our daily personal lives, of fanciful, imagined wonders and deep philosophy, of past events shared and joyously remembered which made us a family, and of mutual hopes and dreams which we would then take with us, yawning and regretful of day’s end, into our sleeping bags.

Gazing at God’s stars through the open flap of our stifling canvas tomb, secure on the ground in mummy bags with our parents at our sides, we inhaled deeply the fresh and gloriously-smoky pine air, smiled to ourselves and closed our eyes to sleep the unburdened sleep of woodsmen.

Except for the mosquito bites, it felt good and wholesome.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

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