The Family Camping Trip (Or, to hell and back.)

 

Vacation always meant going to my grandparent’s house.

 

When I look back on that, it might have been a financial decision. Like my own parents, I have a large family, so I understand the necessity of economy while vacationing.

 

I must have been successful at it; it is a frequent way in which my children remind me of my cheapness. Of course, they have no idea that I would scrimp all year just to take the trips that we did. They know nothing of the “secret coffee can,” into which I would make a weekly contribution. When they have to go through it, they’ll understand, and not before. It will be just like the electricity thing. Not one of my children mastered the art of light bulb extermination until the electric bill had their own name on it.

 

With the exception of one year, my family vacations were spent in New Jersey, at the home of my father’s parents. I loved each of them.

 

The entire family would go for a week, and there would be several days when we went fishing. The fishing trips would include “us boys,” my father, his father, and sometimes it included the odd uncle or cousin. “Us boys,” or “You boys,” was the collective name for my brothers and me. In my memory, there were always at least three boys, and eventually four of us.

My grandfather was the fishing master, for sure. He led the way, and he alone made the decisions. This is important in my memory; because I watched something unusual occur on these vacations that became a life-lesson.

My Dad, you see, is one of those highly dependable fathers who took responsibility, and therefore control, of his family. He was the man in charge.

Except, that is, when he was around his own father. It was interesting to watch my father give up the power, and become a son. I learned a lot about respect by observing that dynamic.

 

Apparently, fish are early risers. They must be, because the clock usually said four-something when Grandpop would wake up “us boys.” It was never hard to wake us up on fishing mornings. Much easier than getting up for church, I can assure you.

 

He would already have the bacon cooked, and the eggs went into the pan immediately afterwards.

All of the bacon grease would remain in the huge cast iron pan. The eggs slid down your gullet effortlessly.

He poured “us boys” our own cup of coffee. My father would never have allowed this at home, but we weren’t at home. When we would look at him for approval, he gave a look that signaled the O.K.

The only reason that I drank that coffee was because it seemed manly and exotic. It tasted awful. It was the kind of coffee that would put hair on a wooden leg, and it took two hands to stir.

Once, I tried putting milk and sugar in it, because I knew that my parents drank it that way. Grandpop didn’t approve, so it remained black. It has been more than forty years since I have had my grandfather’s coffee. It was just last week when the bitter aftertaste finally left my mouth.

 

The fishing was superb. My grandfather, or my father, would rent a huge motorized rowboat that held eight people with ease. Every morning my Dad would offer to pay for the boat, and the bait. Some mornings his father allowed it, some mornings he didn’t.

The boat also held all of the coolers and the fishing rods, with room to spare.

 

The fishing rods occupied their own special spot in my Grandpop’s barn. It was a locked area.

Sometimes he would invite one of us boys in, to carry the poles out to the car. It was a very cool and manly place, and you knew that you didn’t enter without an invitation. The wood-walled room contained all manner of fishing gear, including an outboard motor, which lived a life submerged in a fifty-five gallon drum filled with water. It said “Evinrude,” on it, and it had a distinct aroma that I can still recall. I believe that it was a mixture of motor oil and salt water.

 

Spending a day in the sun with your brothers, your Dad, and his Dad, might have been an inexpensive vacation day, but it was worth a million bucks to me.

 

The day of fishing often ended when we ran out of room to put the fish. There would be around a hundred fish, mostly weakfish and flounder, and a bushel basket of crabs. These are facts that my brothers will back me up on, and the rare part of a story where I have no need to exaggerate.

 

We would go fishing several times during the week, because my Grandpop and my Dad planned their vacations for the same week. It was the best part of a great week, every year.

Some years, my grandmother, (who was in charge of everything except fishing), would suggest that “us boys” stay for an additional week. The entire decision was based on whether our Dad was able to make the ninety-mile trip on the following weekend, to pick us up. On most weekends, he worked. Still, he often found a way. I’m sure it provided a nice break for my mother and he. It left them with only “you girls,” at home, which was another trio.

 

The second week did not include fishing, as my grandfather would be back at work. I don’t know if my grandmother knew how to drive, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because those were the times when a family had “a car,” and the car took my grandfather to work.

 

Their home was in a tiny village along a river. Even though the village was tiny, it was urban compared to our rural home, in Pennsylvania. So, we walked around the village, and sometimes we would get together with our cousins.

In the village, there was a general store, owned by a Mr. Hankins.

 

Mr. Hankins hands and head shook all the time, from some sort of awful disease, or palsy, or condition. It was so awful and apparent, this shaking, that I often imitated him for my brothers, who would scream with laughter, and then remind me that I could go to hell for making fun of people that “couldn’t help what was wrong with them.”

 

I hope that isn’t true. I still sometimes go for the laugh, and risk my eternity for it.

 

Anyway, Mr. Hankins had a pinball machine. You will have to take my word for this, but back then, pinball machines were exotic, along the lines of a poolroom. They cost a nickel a game.

Because pinball machines and pool tables were known to induce criminal behavior in a boy, parental approval was required. This may seem like an odd fact, when today, young boys frequently play video games that provide a lifelike ability to “waste cops,” but it was so.

 

“Us boys” thought that we were out of luck when Mr. Hankins told us that we needed permission from our parents to play the pinball machine. When we explained our position, he said that a note from our grandmother would do.

 

Grandmom was happy to give us permission, and even provided a handful of change.

My older brother delivered the permission slip to Mr. Hankins. He laughed so hard as he read it; I thought he would shake parts of his body off.

 

It was a full-page letter, which began by explaining who we were, where we were from, and included a full family history. It was a little embarrassing when he hung it up on the wall for everyone to enjoy, but a boy will put up with a lot to play pinball.

 

Sometimes, in the evenings, we would go by car for soft ice cream, or some other treat. My grandfather would endure the constant criticism of his driving, from my grandmother, but still, he seldom ventured over twenty-two miles per hour.

 

I have many wonderful memories of my boyhood vacations. I looked forward, with great eagerness, to this time with my grandparents.

 

It is possible, however, that the richness of those times is implanted so deeply, because of the year that my parents tried something different for vacation. To say it didn’t go smoothly would be to say too little.

 

If I recall it all correctly, two things happened at about the same time. One was that my father got a raise. This was never discussed openly, but somehow we would get wind of it, probably because my parents would want to treat us in some way, given the improvement in circumstances.

 

The other thing that occurred was that some friends offered to lend us their camping equipment. Therefore, we would have a new and exciting vacation experience that summer.

 

Eventually, my parents would have seven children, counting me. I only bring that up because I am not always included in the count, but this is usually by my own brothers and sisters. At that time, there were six of us. My youngest brother had the good fortune of not being born yet, so he missed all the excitement. He was the lucky one.

 

My Dad selected a place called World’s End State Park, for our camping experience. I recall a brochure, which showed happily camping families, and fathers in plaid shirts and fishing hats sitting alongside their sons, enjoying the idyllic and pastoral setting, as they smoked a pipe. Mothers in Bermuda shorts smiled, as they prepared a meal over a camp stove. I will admit, it looked like fun.

 

We were a little too much family to manage the four-hour car ride, with us, and all of the camping gear. To solve this, my father borrowed my uncle’s car. It was a newfangled thing, called a “station-wagon.” For the youthful reader, who has never seen one of these, they were the precursor to what we now call a “van.”

 

So off we went, the noveau riche, on a new and exciting vacation, in a borrowed car, with borrowed camping equipment.

 

It started well. I only got in trouble a few times on the car ride for bothering my sisters, because there was a fresh supply of comic books to amuse us. Before the advent of in-car video systems, the comic book was the best weapon that parents had for keeping the peace.

 

At the very edge of World’s End State Park, there was a fishing store. We stopped, and my dad engaged the proprietor in a conversation about “what they were biting on,” and other fishing wisdom. He loaded up with the appropriate bait, and we set off for our campsite.

It was a very cool spot in the woods, I will admit. “Us boys” wandered around exploring after the car was unloaded, and my parents’ set-up camp. My Dad said that we would get some fishing in, as soon as things were in order.

 

Before very long, we were off to the river, Dad, and “us boys.” This kind of fishing was new to us, being fresh water and all, and my dad instructed us on how to cast off, as well as a few other intricacies.

When the rain started a half-hour later, we had gotten nary a nibble. By the time we got back to the campsite, my mother and the girls were huddled inside the tent, avoiding the now torrential rain, and attempting to keep warm.

 

There was no cooking done on a campfire that night. It was too wet. We had bologna sandwiches, and sat around. I remember being cold. That raw kind of cold that you sometimes feel in the summertime, during a windy storm. At long last, it was bedtime.

My Dad inflated some mattresses, and sleeping bags were unrolled.

 

This was when we discovered that the tent did not exactly sleep eight, comfortably. We did try; it just wouldn’t work. The only person that seemed to find comfort was my father, who fell asleep quickly, as he always did, and snored thunderously. They often said that my Dad could sleep on a hook in a busy subway.

 

After a while, my mother had to wake him, as there simply was no way that we could all find comfort.

The solution finally unveiled itself. My brothers and I waited in the tent, while my dad set up the back of the station wagon, where “us boys,” would now sleep.

It was roomy enough, plus it gave my older brother and I the opportunity to continually tell our younger brother that we were pretty sure that one of the many man-eating bears was on the roof of the car. There were snakes too. Large ones, that could swallow a picnic table in one gulp.

When we finally got tired enough, and things became quiet, all you could hear was the rain thundering on the roof of the car. It sounded as though it would hurt if you stood in it.

 

That was Saturday. Sunday was a little better, as the rain held off until about two in the afternoon.

It gave us a chance to take a walk, and climb some rocks. There are a few pictures of this walk floating around the family somewhere. It was the only dry time of the entire vacation. We are smiling in the picture, although I’m not sure why.

 

Again, there was no fire-grilled supper, as the weather didn’t allow it. So, my mom had to make an endless supply of sandwiches, with the rain pounding on the canvas, in the cold. The top of a little cooler provided the only flat surface for her to work on. I don’t know how she managed.

 

After supper, my parents stood by an open tent flap, having their after-dinner smoke. They reminded each other to be careful not to burn the borrowed equipment. My sisters complained about the cold. I think my Dad tried to organize a sing-along, to distract us from our cooped-up misery. It didn’t work. I had begun to wonder what the good part was about a camping vacation.

My parents had stopped asking us if we were having fun.

 

That night, in our Ford Fairlane Hotel room, my older brother and I ramped up the scare tactics, as we swore to each other that we could hear the roar of a lion, and it was getting closer. When my little brother ran from the car to the tent, we laughed together in victory. That is, until my father brought him back out, and told us to take it easy on him. It was one of his shorter lectures. He spoke to us, with the car door open, as rain came off the brim of his hat in long sheets. He was shivering also.

You just don’t think to pack winter clothes for summer vacation, even though you should. Plus, before long, everything you own is saturated.

 

Figuring that he wouldn’t come back out, we turned up the torture until it ended in a long three-way rumble, where we all ended up hurt. I have a distinct memory of having a car door handle stuck in my ear. It took twenty minutes to untangle the sleeping bags.

I can recall hearing my mom hollering at the girls to “settle down,” as I tried to pee out of the open car window, to avoid going out in the rain. It didn’t work perfectly. I kept this fact a secret from my uncle.

 

The next morning, we awoke to…rain.

 

My mother did her best to feed us, and we had some of those cool little cereal boxes that you poured the milk right into, and ate from them as if they were a bowl. That was modern technology in 1960, and I loved it, even though my carton leaked.

 

One of the big problems with camping is the absence of toilets and showers. At my age, I didn’t care about the showering much, but I will admit to missing the toilet. For my sisters, there was a potty seat.

I recall this, mostly because they insisted on privacy for it, and so the boys had to go to the car while they used it.

 

On that third day, sometime in the early afternoon, the rain slowed to a drizzle.

 

We all loaded into the car, and went to a building that resembled an army barracks. It was wooden, and it had a long row of toilets, and showers. There was a boy’s side, and a girl’s side.

My Dad took a shower, while “us boys” relieved ourselves of the bologna that we had managed to store up for a few days.

 

It was while I was seated there, that I heard my mother yelling. First, she was hollering my sister’s name, and then she was calling for my father. He tried having a conversation with her, hollering through the wall, with a towel around his middle. All that was really audible was that there was some kind of emergency, and he was dressing as quickly as he could.

 

It seemed as though my sister had somehow managed to flush the keys to my uncle’s station wagon down the toilet.

 

Now, my Dad is a handy guy. That meant all the difference. Even though he was unsuccessful in retrieving the keys from the toilet, using a straightened coat hanger, he was able to hot wire the car. I have to tell you that I admired him for that. I thought you had to be a criminal to have such knowledge.

 

In the midst of all of this excitement, we failed to notice that the rain had stopped, completely.

 

Back at camp, my Dad started a fire. They hooked up some sorting of cooking gizmo that had a fuel tank attached to it, and before the supper was started, they made coffee. I now understand how difficult it must have been for them to be coffee-less for those last days.

 

My mom and dad sat sipping coffee and chatting, while we played around the campsite. It was an entirely enjoyable forty-five minutes.

 

My mother had burgers cooking when the thunder started. When the lightning began, we all ran to our assigned stations. “Us boys,” to the car, the rest of them to the tent. I watched the rain douse the fire, and fill the frying pan with water. It was a terrible thing to have to watch, being as hungry as I was, and sick of bologna.

 

After a little while, “us boys” decided to join them in the tent. That was the start of the final unraveling.

 

It was just too crowded, we were too young, we had all been cooped up too long, and the coffee was outside getting drenched.

 

When my sister announced that she needed to use the potty chair, “us boys” refused to leave, and go out into the thunderstorm. My parents acquiesced, but insisted that we turn our backs. We did so.

 

Shortly after we were given permission to turn around, another sister announced her need for the potty chair. She was given the go ahead.

 

For some reason, she did not like the idea of her pee co-mingling with the pee in the pot, so she dumped it out onto the floor of the tent. There was a family chorus of “ewwwww,” and my mother tried to stop the pot mid-pour. In all of the excitement, the fire was knocked from her cigarette, and my father announced that it was now burning a hole in the floor of the tent. A rather large one, at that.

 

My parents didn’t argue much. But I suppose that it just became the breaking point, and they were exchanging heated words about “burning borrowed tents,” “losing keys,” and “dumb ideas.”

 

It was tense, I can assure you. The rain was coming down so hard that it was collecting on the roof of the tent to such an amount that it looked like it might just collapse at any moment.

 

My mother looked at my father. He looked at her. I saw the expression change slightly on his face, as you could see that he was hatching an idea.

 

“Let’s vote, kids,” he said. “Who wants to go home?” Although we all stuck our hands up instantly, my mother beat us by a mile. He was smiling when he raised his hand also.

 

“Okay everybody, get in the car,” he said. His voice had a lilt of merriment to it.

 

We sat in that car, while my father packed up camp and loaded the car. It could not have been raining harder. He didn’t seem to mind though.

 

In some moments when, as a father, I have had to do awful things, only for the good of the family, I recall that moment from my childhood, watching him go about his duties. Sometimes being the dad just sucks. Deal with it.

 

When it was finally done, the car wouldn’t start. Apparently, in the process of all of us going in and out of the car, someone had kicked the wires that now dangled under the dashboard. He didn’t complain, he just fixed it.

 

I’ll never know why I didn’t sleep at all on the ride home. All of the other kids did. It was only me that was awake, plus my dad, who was driving, and my mother, who made sure that he didn’t doze off, as he sometimes was inclined to do.

 

I can recall them talking on the way home, and even laughing a little, although I have no idea why.

 

It was ten minutes after four when we walked into the house. I remember that distinctly, because I had never before been awake at that hour.

 

My parents carried the girls to bed, and rousted my brothers.

 

I slept until noon.

 

It was a hot and sunny day when I awoke, back at home. My dad had set up the tent on the lawn and was cleaning it out with a hose. He repaired the hole admirably with a bicycle patch.

 

All of the packing of the borrowed camping gear was done with great precision. He left, in the hot-wired car, to return the goods.

 

I was in the kitchen with my mother, when he returned.

 

“How did it go?” she asked.

 

“Just fine,” he said. “I told them about the damage, and they didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they said that we were welcome to borrow it again.”

 

They just stared at each other for a moment, each with a half smile. Then they began to laugh at the thought of it. I got the joke too. Our camping career was over, that was for certain.

 

That night we all went to my uncle’s house, to return his car, and to retrieve ours.

 

When my aunt asked why we were back so soon, they told them, in detail. Much laughter followed.

 

There was still a half of a week left to my Dad’s vacation. He suggested, and we all agreed, that we go to my grandparent’s.

 

And so we did. And that was where we spent every other vacation in my memory.

 

I have never been camping since.

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