This storytime is dedicated to my wife, Cassie. If she’d known this story going in, she never would’ve married me.
The great thing is, you think I’m joking.
Warning: I give up. This isn’t a Bearwall, it’s a freaking testament to one bear’s stupidity. But after a while, I just gave up and rolled with it. It’s 5300 words. I’m going to go and drinik a case of Red Dog now, and ponder my utter inability to get to the point.
I’ve written before about the fun of my teen years. If I were to give a name to that era, I could call it the “Overcompensating Age”, for it almost seemed that my father was trying to compress a lifetime of manly training into as short a period as possible.
But that’s not really true. I wasn’t the point; I was the accomplice.
This is the period of my life that brought about such stories as the Gunslingers Tale, The Artiste and the Raccoon Story. Ah, the raccoon story. You know, ife is worth living JUST to have the raccoon story to remember in my old age. I’ll be the hit of the nursing home.
When I say I was merely the accomplice, it’s because the point wasn’t to instill within me any manly skills. The point was for my father to, how best to put this? Ah!
The point was for my father to munchkin his character sheet with survival and combat skills in anticipation of the impending apocalypse.
My father was a police officer for the city of Boca Raton, a former Navy submariner, and an all around macho kind of guy. Yes, he even had the “cop” bushy mustache. Of course.
But this dude was, like, obsessed with developing and mastering new manly skills. Once he had some new thing under his belt, though, he rarely maintained them on a continuing basis. It was always some new shiny beckoning him on. Very much like a teen with three video console systems and a limited budget, now that I think about it. Get a new game, play it through and beat it once, then trade it in for store credit on a new one.
He’d slide into a new ‘manly’ interest about every three months; fishing, reloading, duck hunting or wild boar hunting with a pike, spear fishing, scuba diving, gunsmithing, knife and swordmaking, leatherworking, axe throwing, fabricating pistol silencers, blowguns, handmade crossbows, black powder muzzleloading (making AND shooting), making log cabins from scratch, trapping, just omigod.
He’d get this new interest, he’d blow a ton of money on all the necessary supplies and books and training materials and classes, and then he’d obsess on it for a few months, and then off he’d go onto something else. I have to give him credit, he’d stick with it until he’d mastered whatever it was to some extent, but c’mon, talk about a guy with the staying power of a ferret on a pixie stick.
I thought it was normal at the time. After all, I didn’t know any of this stuff myself, and it all sure sounded cool as hell. I wanted to learn these things myself the second he’d mention his latest obsession, what boy wouldn’t? What, learn how to make your own rockets, add engines, build an electrically fired control panel and then go shoot them off? Then add explosives and stuff to them? And floaty cameras? Sign my butt up!
As far as HOW he went about learning things, I just figured everyone did this intensive cram course craziness when they needed to learn something new. It was just how things got done.
Balance in life is not something I learned at home.
Even now, my tendency when I have a new interest is to want to work on it to the exclusion of all else until I’ve mastered it. I’ve since learned to temper my enthusiasm a little by setting what I think are reasonable goals in stages, and once I hit a goal I’ll force myself to move on to something else for a while. It’s something that Cassie has noticed on more than one occasion, and she likes to say that when I get some new hair up my butt that I’ve got another obsession. I wish she was joking, but it does irritate her.
No, that’s not the thing that would have canceled our wedding if she’d known about it in advance. Well, maybe.
Ah well. I got even with him in the end. I introduced him to computers. A grown man with a problem managing obsessions set on mastering computers… I destroyed his credit rating. That right there is a bottomless well he’ll never fill, but damn has he tried over the years. And I got to play with all the toys he bought! A job well done, thought I.
In the middle of the Overcompensating Age, probably around the time I was fifteen, my dad decided it was time we went on a ‘real’ camping trip.
The summer before, we’d gone canoeing, something which I’d loved. It had involved going to a KOA campground in Florida that provided drop off service. We loaded up some packs, grabbed our canoe, and KOA dropped us off at the head of a river, along with one of my dad’s cop friends from Deerfield Beach. Nice guy, can’t remember his name though.
We spent something like four days canoeing down the river, fishing along the way sometimes, and at night we’d pull off at the side of the river to pitch a tent on the river bank, have a fire and relax.
I am intentionally not mentioning things like mosquitoes or humidity levels.
We went down that river until we arrived at the KOA campground, where our vehicle was parked. That’s it, trip over, time to drive home.
I thought, in my misguided way, that this was a camping trip with a value added canoeing on top. With sprinkles.
Um, no. I was informed that what we did was not actually ‘camping’. He seemed faintly shocked at the very idea!
No, we had not gone ‘camping’. Was I crazy? camping? How could I think that was camping?
This lack of fundamental understanding seemed to weigh on him, for the next Fall he announced it was by God time for me to really learn what ‘camping’ was all about.
He announced this in the Fall, because while I may give him crap about it, he is not a stupid man. During the Fall season in Florida, the mosquitoes mostly land at the airport so they can remove weapons and ammo, refuel and get winterized in preparation for the next season’s campaign of war on our fragile blood vessels.
Finally, I would learn more about what my father thought of as ‘going camping’!
I had some vague ideas from movies and Scouting handbooks of what camping was… or so I thought.
Maybe a tent is involved? Fires? Marshmallows on pointy wood things? Weenies, perhaps? I’m sure I heard something about roasting weenies. Or was that chestnuts? Wait, what kind of chestnuts? Horse chestnuts? Those things look disgusting!
Will there be singalongs by the fire? Will the a song with the word “Koombaiya” enter into the picture at some point? If it does, will I be expected to know the words to the song? I don’t know the words! Are there words?
Mental images intruded of Hobbits wearing packs hiking across the frozen mountains on the way to the lonely door, but I knew I wouldn’t be that lucky.
I was pretty sure that, whatever the reality may be, hidden tentacles in murky pools would probably not be involved in real camping. Nor would Balrogs or riddle quests, darnit. I spend all my time studying for the wrong tests!
Dad sat me down and laid it all out. He set me straight.
‘Camping’, I learned, consists of driving a long, long way away so that the comforts of home are unavailable to you. The more remote the destination, the better. This most especially means no bathrooms. Going potty in a flush or chemical toilet automatically invalidates the entire camping experience, relegating it to ‘tourist crap for pansies’.
Apparently, in the proper camping experience, it is important to be as far from civilization as you can get. It is also to be hoped that, along the way, a party member will get mauled by a bear, bitten by a snake of a breed with less than immediately lethal levels of toxicity, or perhaps have a rotten tree fall on you. Mauled, poisoned, crushed, but not killed.
See, this gives the more manly member of the camping trip the opportunity to kill the bear, axe the snake or hoist the tree, thus saving a life, and then result in a desperate fight for survival against all odds as you work to bring the wounded man safely back to the world and easy reach of hospitals. It doesn’t count as true camping unless a Reader’s Digest article about your heroism is a definite possibility when things go horribly wrong.
Me, I consider that, well, crazy as a shithouse rat might be a pretty good way of putting it. Let me be blunt; if you know a guy that might think like this, DO NOT GO INTO THE WOODS WITH THIS MAN! If you do, don’t pull a Blair Witch. For God’s sake, YOU keep the map, compass, and a big f’ing gun on you at all times.
No, do not let him have the compass. Just, no. Not unless you want to wake up one morning with stick figures and moss wrapped with string hanging around your tent. Uh, no. Oh, and I’ve heard witches can be killed with cold iron. I don’t normally carry cold forged iron weapons, but I’m willing to bet if you fill them with hot lead, that might also serve as an efficacious cure. One way or another, I’d be willing to test that hypothesis. Preferrably with a Barrett M82A1 at 5,200 feet.
To continue, you get a pack that you wear, and everything that you’re going to need on the camping trip must be able to fit in this pack. Hey, protip? Bring extra water containers. And in some of them, carry some actual water.
Then, you must have guns, for there might be bears. I refer you to aforementioned story about potentially saving team from bear.
And there must be small arms, for there WILL be snakes. We’re talking about South Florida, after all. That’s MY rule. Snakes? Shotshells. Or a machete, but why bring a knife to a gunfight? And they’re snakes… I don’t WANT to be on a mano a mano basis with snakes. Mano a reptilio? I’ve watched the Discovery Channel, some of them fuckers can coil themselves and fly through the air. And lizards, too!
Flying snakes. I’ve seen the video, don’t even argue with me about this.
Indonesia, Amazon rainforest, Florida Everglades, I don’t care where the hell they supposedly live, I hear New York’s got alligators in the sewers. Fuck that, where’s my gun? Don’t give a sucker an even break, or a chance to fang you. If you get bit on the butt by a rattlesnake, don’t go crying to ME to suck the venom out. You tell me someone’s got to suck the venom out or you’re gonna die, I’m gonna look you square in the eye and say, “I’m gonna miss you on poker night, man.”
And there must be knives and axes, for we are manly men, and manly men apparently need the comfort that being festooned with edged weapons provides.
And there must be a tent, and a sleeping bag, but no sisy pads or air mattresses. Those are strictly for candy asses. This is starting to sound less like fun, and suspiciously like something designed to, [shudder], “build character”.
I build characters all the time, I got GURPS, D&D, WoW, tell me what kind you want me to build, I’m your guy. You don’t have to con me into a forest, ‘kay?
But most of all, you have to hike your ass out to some remote place to do the camping, so you’re “getting away from it all”, looking for that unspoiled expanse of raw nature.
Hold on, I have to stifle the giggles. This is America, there ain’t a square foot of land that ain’t been crossed by somebody in the last year. You just won’t find some hidden expanse of untouched wilderness out there, hiding the fountain of youth or the secret gold of Blackbeard the Pirate.
That scene, where Clint Eastwood climbed that insane chimney stack while training in The Eiger Sanction?
I bet when he got up there, he found the cans from an empty six pack of beer, a dead campfire, and a used condom. Oh, and somebody will have tagged the side of the chimney stack with spray paint in the shape of a giant wang.
Untouched wilderness? Yeah, right. But we can dream.
That was what camping meant for my father.
Before you even begin to think that bears any relation to reality, let me disabuse you of that notion.
I’ve come to learn in the years since that, when I mention camping to other folks, that definition ain’t the norm.
Cassie is a prime example.
When we started dating, I mentioned to Cassie that I really liked camping, even after having been in the Marines and having some damn SENSE pounded into me.
She told me that she had gone camping with her family many times when growing up, she’d spent lots of time camping. She kinda liked it.
Then I mentioned tents and wet sleeping bags, and things kinda fell apart.
See, even after years of the Marines, what I was thinking when I said “camping” was hiking up a trail wearing a pack, setting up a tent in the back of beyond, having a fire and listening to the coyote howl out his one lonesome song as the stars rise to illuminate the face of the sky.
What Cassie meant by camping was having the family get into the car, drive up to the campground where the trailer was kept parked year around, and then hang out at the campground for the weekend. With chemical toilets in the campground, but nobody used those because they were icky. You used the nice clean bathroom in your trailer.
Who has the right of it? Which version is more closely accurate?
Well, let me put it this way. Campgrounds are called campgrounds for a reason.
Now, part of why it’s hard for me to shake my mental image of camping is that I was actually raised in South Florida. If you’ve never really lived there, it’s hard to imagine, but I don’t think of living in a trailer as camping.
In South Florida, for a whole LOT of folks, another word for trailer is your HOUSE. Y’know, that place you live and where you keep all your stuff, at least what you don’t have rusting in the sugar sand and weeds you call a front lawn on cinder blocks, or hide under a tarp in the back.
You don’t go camping in your HOUSE. I mean, it’s your house! You might go camping in a tent behind your house, but you don’t camp in your house! It’s the house!
And anyway, if people didn’t live in trailers in Florida, what would we use for sacrifices to appease the hurricane gods each year? Hey, the Hawaiians can toss people in volcanoes, we didn’t have hot lava to worry about. We had 100 mph winds that can drive a straw through a tree or throw a cow into orbit. We put our dumb shits in trailers for the hurricanes to eat each year, and that cuts down on the severity of the storms each season by approximately 34.7 % annually.
It’s a fact! Check the data, that’s all I’m saying.
If too many rednecks leave the trailer park, it’s gonna be a BAD year for storms, man.
So, my dad wanted to go “camping”.
As we lived in South Florida in Boca Raton in the Southeast, in order to get our beer budget butts to an ‘exotic location’, we had to drive across the state to the Northwest. He chose an area near the west side of Ocala National Park as his destination, a nice spot near a lake he “knew about” where we could get the jeep in there, get a tent pitched up near a lake, and have a fire and do some shooting.
Doesn’t that sound idyllic? A nice chance for some father and son bonding.
Right. Dream on.
Thinking that I perhaps needed somebody along for that peer bonding thing, he called up my best geeky friend…. oh wait, no he didn’t. No, I would have enjoyed that. I wouldn’t have had the chance to build any more damn character. I just would have had fun. That was not the objective of this exercise.
I was beginning to learn what camping was really about. PAIN.
No, he called up his buddy on the Sherriff’s department that lived across the street (yes, the one whose house we think we shot), infamously mentioned in The Gunslinger episode, and asked him if his son would like to join us.
His son, the wanna-be jock that thought books were wonderful… they made such a mighty fine, rosy glow when you burned them. Not that I’m saying he was opposed to original thought or learning… opposition would imply he had a thought enter his head in the first place.
Okay, I’m being mean, but he was such a stereotypical jock with poor grades and zero imagination that it’s embarrassing. And it’s not really germane to the story, except to say that he and I weren’t exactly ‘buds’. I thought he was an idiot… I couldn’t understand then, and cannot understand now how anyone can actually be against learning something new. Like, as a philosophy or a way of life.
And he wasn’t the biggest fan of mine, since I actually liked to read science fiction and play role playing games with other guys at school, but I didn’t safely fall into the ‘geek to be bullied’ category since I could kick his ass, shoot better, fish better, and generally laugh at one of his dad’s jokes the first time without having to have it explained to me. In small words. My existence tormented that boys’ soul. “He’s a geek ’cause he reads, and geeks are pencil-necked nerds to pants and stuff in lockers, but he can fish and shoot and wrassle and kick my ass… no, those things can’t go together, brain overheating, must shut down before it explodes… arrggghhh! Too late! [kaboom]”
It’s the pride thing that got to me, too. The whole, “Oh, I’ve never read a book except what they make me read in school.” And being proud of it! Like, an admission of reading a book and liking it is a sign of being a little light in the loafers. A gateway to slapping a rainbow sticker on your bumper. It probably makes you a commie.
Hmmm, I’m inspired to write a Katy Perry song spoof, “I read a book and I liked it, the works of Mr Terry Pratchett, I read a book and I liked it, it had Sam and the Night Watch all up in it“.
Sigh. Maybe next week. I promised twww a Converging Forces.
On the first morning of our camping trip, we gathered our gear together, grabbed Doofus the Moron and headed north for a four day weekend. I’m pretty sure. It was definitely longer than one weekend, but I don’t think we took a whole week off in Fall.
It was chilly, no mosquitoes, and wet. Wettish, anyway. The weather reports were threatening stormy, freezing weather alternating with fog all weekend.
Well, maybe so, maybe no, but when you’re in our tax bracket, if you’ve planned a camping trip for such and such a date, you damn well go on a camping trip. You do NOT cancel your plans because it might, I dunno… blizzard. You never know when you’ll ever be able to afford another trip again.
And yes, I know it doesn’t blizzard in Florida. I also know snakes generally hibernate come the chilly wet weather of Fall. I don’t care. I go out in the Fall, and I hate cold weather. If I can do it, why can’t the snake?
The drive up was uneventful. Hey, something had to go right!
Once we reached the end of the winding roads and back trails my dad was sure would lead us to this promised land of camping isolation, it was time to park the jeep and get our packs and assorted gear settled.
My first lesson; put all your stuff on BEFORE you actually leave the house. This is the very bare minimum load planning possible. You do not wait until you are actually IN THE WOODS to find out that you weigh 155 pounds, and your proposed PACK with all attached gear weighs 255!
After strapping on our quick draw gunbelts, pistols, knives, hatchets, canteens, rifles, backpack, tent sections, sleeping bags, tarps, rain gear, food bags, coleman lantern, sterno stove, pots, pans, spoons and forks, a steel grating from a charcoal-style grill that rusted out on the bottom, a twisted-iron tripod and percolating-style tin coffee pot, and a shotgun with ammo “in case I see a duck over the lake”, we looked like a bunch of idiots.
I mean desperadoes. That’s it. Desperadoes.
Noise discipline my ass, we sounded like a herd of elephants wearing a kitchen supply store crashing through the woods as we hit the trail. I guess you can’t expect better out of a Navy submariner, huh? I kid, I kid.
Good thing we weren’t there to hunt, I bet we chased all the Mule Deer clear out of those woods and all the way to Alabama.
We hiked a good long while, following trails that looked a little too well worn to be simple game trails. Eventually, sure enough, we reached a nice cleared area at a slight elevation overlooking a very pretty blue water lake, lightly wooded for cover and with decent runoff. It had been misting all day, but as we got there to the 9obviously well used) campsite, the rain began to really come down.
Priorities quickly became established as my dad directed us in what to do.
“First, take all your stuff off.”
“No, don’t just put it down, get it hung up on a tree and throw a tarp over it.”
“If you have to set it down to get the tarp out, at least don’t set it in the mud! Omigod!”
“Okay, now the gear is up out of the mud, it’s got a tarp on it, and we’ve got our wet weather gear on. Let’s get the tent site cleared of rocks and dig a drainage trench.”
“Where’s the entrenching tool?”
“Oh for… okay, get the packs back down and dig the entrenching tool out!”
“NO, not in the mud!”
“Okay, get the packs back up and let’s get clearing.”
“Okay, we’ve got it cleared, let’s throw a tarp down and start setting the tent up.”
“Where’s the tent?”
“YES, we need the tent now! Get it out of the packs, please.”
“Okay, we need the tent poles too.”
“The tent poles.”
“Those long pointy things that look like… well, that look like fucking tent poles, what the hell do you THINK tent poles look like?”
“Who the hell was supposed to pack the tent poles!?!?”
“Okay, now what we’re going to do is set up a field expedient tent. we’re gonna run some of this rope to those four trees, to hold up the top of the tent. First, let’s stake the tent corners down. Okay, now you take this end and tie it to the brass loop in the canvas peak, and once we’ve got four ropes set, we’ll lash ’em to those trees, and they’ll keep the tent up without poles.”
“Okay, so the tent goes up and down like a massive bellows every time the wind blows the trees. Hmm.”
“Maybe we can leave it like “DAD!” okay, okay, just a thought.”
“All right, you two go find some branches, and we’ll carve some tent poles out of wood.”
“Okay, now go back and find something more like a ‘branch’, and less like a ‘tree’.”
“Okay, it’s dark now and it’s really pissing down, so let’s get this tent finished.”
‘Shit, we need a light, let’s get the lantern lit.”
“Boy, that wind sure is something, isn’t it?”
“Funny how cold it gets when it comes straight in off the lake like that.”
“It’s a good thing this style of Coleman lantern can be lit even in a strong wind.”
“Okay, boys we’re going to need to get a shelter up so I can cut this wind down to light the lantern.”
“No, I didn’t bring a flashlight!”
“Go get a tarp and some more rope, and we’ll make a half-assed shelter so I can light this lamp.”
“NO, not the tarp over the gear! Another tarp!”
“Yes, we have another tarp.”
“Will you get those packs out of the mud!”
“No, I don’t…. what do you mean there isn’t any toilet paper in there? I packed the… oh. Well, crap.”
“LEAVES, I don’t give a shit. Use your hands!”
“You can take a bath in the lake tomorrow, we’re gonna sleep in this damn tent tonight!”
“Okay, we’ve got the lamp on, isn’t that better?”
“Now, let’s get this finished.”
“Screw the branches, we’re gonna lash the tent to the trees. Get those ends of the ropes, and hold them while I get this one thrown over a high branch and tied down.”
“Okay, let’s get these others lashed down.”
“All right, now get your sleeping bags and toss them inside the tent. Leave the rest of this shit out here under the tarp.”
“Where are the sleeping bags?”
“What the hell are they still doing in the mud? OMIGOD! When I said get the gear up the tree under a tarp, I meant the bags too!”
“Okay. Toss some rocks on the loose stuff so it doesn’t blow away. Don’t worry, this rain will let up soon.”
[everybody gets inside the billowing, roaring, wheezing tent, twisting every which way as different trees are moed in different directions violently by the ever increasing force of the storm, climbs into sleeping bags while still fully clothed and mostly soaking wet, and the lantern is turned off]
And that voice comes out of the darkness, cutting across the roaring of the wind and the flapping of abused canvas.
“So… hey, isn’t this great? Nothing beats camping in the woods, does it boys?”
“Get some sleep, we’re going to have a LOT more fun tomorrow!”
After a very long night, I finally did fall asleep. And yes, I’ll admit that it’s impossible for me to quote exactly what was said 25 years ago. But I have spent the last two days thinking about this, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got the sequence of events down right. Including what happened next. And I do know how my dad talks, so I’m pretty sure, aside from some rah rah bullshit pep talks, I’ve got it close.
The next morning, I awoke feeling quite rested and refreshed. What a wonderful night’s sleep.
Damn, maybe my old man knew something about this camping thing after all.
I lay in the sleeping bag, all curled up and warm, the only opening being right over my face, where the cold and the wet had condensed and made me know one thing; I wanted to put off getting out of the bag and into the clammy morning air as long as possible. Like, until there was a roaring fire outside, if at all possible.
As I lay there, trying to be quiet so nobody else in the tent would be disturbed and, like, wake up and make me GET up, I heard the flat crack of a rifle echoing from off a ways.
It kinda sounded like someone fired a rifle, down near the lake. But the way sound travels near water, it could have been fired from the other side of the lake for all I knew.
I poked my head up a little bit, to find the tent empty. Deserted.
No sleeping bags, no dad, no Dufus the Moron, nothing but me in my bag, and my new hiking boots there next to me, and my rifle and gunbelt coiled on top off the wet tarp we used as a ground sheet.
Yes, it was a wet tarp, because it took forever to get the damn tent opened and set up on top of it.
I crawled out of my sleeping bag, feeling warm and comfy, but damp with my thick clothes full of moisture that had been well warmed by my body heat.
My body steamed in the morning chill, and the tent was still. There were no sounds of rain, no blowing of wind.
I threw on my boots without lacing them, grabbed my gunbelt and strapped it down. Then I poked my head out, expecting to see the two of them at a roaring fire, getting some food ready.
Nope. Things were straightened up a fire pit was laid in, sopping wet but laid in, wood seats were set up, the gear was stowed away neater, and a line had been set up between trees with sleeping bags unzipped and spread out to dry in the wind.
I drug my bag out and got it tossed on, but there was still no sign of my dad or Doofus.
Then I hear the very faint sound of voices, down from the water’s edge, and another flat crack of a rifle.
I stroll on down with my rifle in hand, and see the both of them fully dressed, shooting at a tree near the lake.
As I walked up, they both gave me the strangest look I’d ever seen, like I was a mutant, or had grown a third arm or an eye in the middle of my forehead.
They looked at me like I was a freak, or a clown, and I might start doing tricks or frothing at the mouth at any moment.
My dad looks at me, and asks me, “Did you hear anything this morning? Anything at all?”
I have to admit I didn’t. I tell him I’m sorry that they cleaned up the camp, but I didn’t hear them get up and move around.
My dad looks at me, and says, “Well, we got up and we made some breakfast. Then we cleaned the camp. Then we got our shit out of the tent, and you still hadn’t moved. Then I chopped some wood, and that didn’t wake you up.”
“So then I was a little pissed, so I had (whatever the hell the kids name was) hold the tent flap and watch you, while I took my shotgun, laid it across the top of the tent, and fired it to get your ass up.”
“You didn’t even twitch.”
‘So, we gave up trying to wake you and came down here an hour ago to do some shooting.”
“By the way, you snore louder than anyone I’ve ever heard in my life. Tonight, you’re sleeping in a shelter-half on the other side of the camp.”
Now, if my wife had had any idea, any idea at all how loud I could snore, and how easily I could slip away into sleep and sleep the sleep of the just in a heartblink, she’d never have come near me with a ten foot pole, let alone marry this chainsaw of a snore.
Ah yes, the joys of camping. True bliss.
Boy, it sure does build character!