Driving back from a recent family beach vacation in North Carolina, we stopped at a Chinese buffet in Fort Worth to celebrate Hannah’s 2nd grade graduation. Her choice of venue surprised me because, as a rule, if the food is colored anything but a golden shade of fried, she won’t eat it. I, on the other hand, relish anything green, and the weeklong anticipation of devouring sautéed cabbage and stir fried chow mein had kept my mouth watering until we walked through the door and grabbed our buffet plates.
After two bites of a cream cheese Rangoon, however, Hannah was ready for her fortune cookie. So was I. With anticipation I cracked open the cookie and tugged out the fortune. “Happiness,” it said, “lies in good health and a bad memory.” Not true! I protested. Yes, good health is an amazing blessing, but for me, a good memory is more valuable than practically anything else I possess. After all, making good use of my memory is how I put food on the table, and some of my fondest memories are of my childhood growing up in the upstate New York woods.
In the 1970’s, my dad, my two brothers, and I occasionally camped at the edge of our backyard in an eight-by-eight foot canvas tent on sticky summer nights. Tents back then weren’t as supple, lightweight and transportable as they are today. In fact, this green canvas monster was so bulky and difficult to set up that my ingenious Dad built a permanent platform out of 2-by-4’s and plywood and used eye screws to affix the tent to it. We’d leave the tent up all summer where it doubled as a day-use fort. But it was the nighttime campouts we most looked forward to.
You see, my Dad’s a natural storyteller, raised in a family of storytellers from rural southwestern Pennsylvania. When he and his brother got together they’d spin hilarious tales about their childhood that left them holding their stomachs and us peeing our pants. So we looked forward to camping out with Dad not only because it was a backyard adventure, but because we loved cramming into the tent and listening to his stories after the sun went down and the mosquitos came out.
How we ever got any sleep is a mystery, but forty years later I still remember one of his stories in particular: his dad, my Grandpa, was walking alone in the woods one night and heard something following him as he made his way along the pitch-black deep-woods road. As tree branches moved and twigs snapped behind him, he began to run, hesitating long enough to pick up rocks and throw them at the mysterious beast. But instead of a rock, he picked up a toad and chucked it at the creature. I don’t remember how the story ended, but I do remember laughing and being scared at the same time.
Both the love of storytelling and the fondness for camping in the backyard has stuck with me, and I’m excited to pass on both of these loves to my daughter. Hannah’s first campout took place not long after she started walking. I don’t even think she could talk yet when we drove to Dublin, Texas, to attend a Labor Day weekend campout and music festival at the Super C Ranch, owned by retired bullfighter Adam Carillo.
It was 96 degrees the day we attended, and even by the time we got to bed late that night, the temperature hadn’t dipped much below the 90’s. And because we’d set up our tent along the access road to the concert stage, both Mary and I didn’t get much sleep that night. But Hannah slept like, well, like a baby. Since then we’ve camped out several more times, but our favorite activity is pitching the tent right here in our own backyard. At least we’re well aware of the cleanliness of the bathrooms and the friendliness of the campsite owners!
I asked Hannah one day if she’d like to camp out in our backyard. “Yay!” she squealed. “Yes, yes! We can light a fire and eat s’mores and tell ghost stories!” We scheduled the outing to start on a Thursday night, and I promised we’d sleep in the tent both Thursday night and Friday night. Early Thursday morning it poured down rain as a cold front pushed through. The weather forecasters had predicted rain that morning, then more later on in the afternoon, so I broke the news to Hannah that we may have to postpone until the ground dried up a bit. By the time I got home from work and we finished dinner, the gray-bottomed cumulous clouds rising into the crystal azure sky pushed away all those bullying cumulonimbus. The ground had dried out enough to pitch the tent, so we climbed into the attic and brought down all the gear we’d need for the next two nights.
All through dinner Hannah asked if we could set up the tent now.
“No, we’re not done eating!” I told her.
“No, we’ve got to clean up the kitchen!” Mary told her.
“No, we’ve already told you to wait until we’re done!” we told her.
But Hannah couldn’t contain her excitement. She even put on her pajamas—winter pajamas—while we cleaned up.
“You can’t wear those!” Mary scolded. “You’ll be way too hot!”
“But Mom. . . !”
When we finally dragged the tent into the backyard that evening, Hannah, now dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, jumped in and helped me push stakes into the soft ground to secure the tent base while we raised the roof.
Modern tents are so much easier to erect than those canvas monstrosities with their fixed aluminum poles that looked like they’d come straight out of some Civil War field camp lithograph. In no time the tent was up. Hannah unzipped the door and ran inside, squealing with joy. She chattered non-stop, zoomed around the tent several times, and even ran back into the house as the sun set to put on her summer jammies without any prompting. She couldn’t wait to go to bed. First time that happened since the day she was born.
As it grew dark and we settled in for the night, we turned on our flashlights and began to tell ghost stories. Hannah spun the first one, a tale about an owl who waited for the sun to go down (emphasized by Hannah snapping off the flashlight), then went out to hunt for dogs, children and even grandmothers to eat for dinner. Hannah acted out the story on the crumply stage of the nylon floor, turning the flashlight on and off as her imaginary sun rose and set on the menacing owl’s story. The owl—and the story—finally met an abrupt end. Then it was my turn. Bwah ha ha ha ha ha . . . .
True to the compass my own dad set for me, I figured I’d tell Hannah a scary story. A really, really scary story. “Once upon a time,” I began, “A family packed up their car and drove deep into the woods to go camping. The woods were thick and dark, and the family—a mom, a dad and a little girl—was all alone in the middle of nowhere. But as they set up the tent, the girl felt like someone was watching them. She couldn’t shake the feeling, but she knew she couldn’t tell her parents because they wouldn’t believe her. She was relieved when they finished setting up the tent and they crawled into their sleeping bags. As she began drifting off to sleep, though, she heard a noise—something was walking around the tent. A snap on the nylon wall made her sit up, eyes wide, startled.”
On cue, Mary flicked the tent wall.
Hannah whimpered. “I’m scared, Daddy,” she whispered, but I could tell by the tone of her voice she was also excited. Nonetheless I notched the scare factor down (after all, I had a vested interest in Hannah going to sleep that night) and changed the tone of the story’s ending with the girl’s dad stepping out of the tent to investigate . . . and finding a throng of toads migrating through the campsite. Hannah was relieved by the somewhat benign ending.
Mary then told a story about an old woman who lived in a house deep in the woods. The woman owned a dog that liked to lick her hand while she petted its head. One night the woman fell asleep in her chair but awoke to the sound of scratching coming from her back door. The dog continued to lick her hand until she got up to see what had made the sound. As she peeked out the back door she discovered her dog was outside on the porch. “Then the old woman had a heart attack and died,” Mary finished. “The end.”
“What?!” I said. “It was a good story until the ending. Gosh! You even had me sitting on the edge of the bed!”
Mary laughed. “That was an old Girl Scout tale we used to tell each other during campouts. Pretty good, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “The whole time you were telling it I was thinking about how to write it. Oh well.”
Story time over, we prayed over Hannah, then she prayed over us, and we all settled down for a good night’s sleep. Only that ain’t how it happened. And thus the lessons from our back yard campout . . . .
Copyright © 2015 by David C. Hughes