David C. Hughes, Writer

“For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your JOY will be complete." –Deuteronomy 16:15

Archive for the tag “Humorous writing”

Lessons from a Backyard Campout (Part 1 of 2) (2015-07-24 Daily)

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 . . . .

(continued)

Copyright © 2015 by David C. Hughes

Cross-Country Communications (2015-06-16 Daily)

Mary and I have two different ways of communicating. A common way Mary gets her point across is through sarcasm—she says it like it is, with a thrust and a 90-degree twist. She even wears a T-shirt advertising her talents: “Sarcasm,” it says. “Just one more service I offer.” It’s truly one of her love languages, and she seems to love just about everyone. Yes, sarcasm is the mind’s natural defense against stupidity, and Mary has honed her craft to a sharp (tongued) edge.

I, on the other hand, am a master of passive aggressiveness—I say it like it ain’t. I can attack you without you knowing it, leaving you scratching your head and wondering why you want to curl up on the sofa and devour an entire half-gallon of butter pecan ice cream while watching an episode of Six Feet Under. Waa.

Mary can tell you firsthand of past demonstrations of my sweet PA ninja skills. One evening, when she was pregnant with Hannah, we got caught in a torrential storm while driving to church. As heavy rain pounded the windshield and I craned my neck to see the highway, Mary asked me to slow down. Without a word I let off the gas, moved to the right lane, and turned on the flashers. I drove slowly enough to lose a race against a sleeping turtle. While the windshield wipers slapped away the raindrops in time with the incessant clicking of the hazard lights, she finally spoke: “You can be such an ass sometimes,” she declared. Yes, darling. Yes I can.

During our recent road trip from Texas to North Carolina and Virginia, Mary and I got to practice our respective communication styles with passing motorists. I’m a quiet guy for the most part, except when I’m talking, which is often, and stupid drivers tend to evoke the worst in me. If they do something idiotic I’ll demonstrate my expertise in both PA and pure A. A passing driver may glance at me and think I’m talking to myself, but, no, I’m really carrying on an animated conversation with him; in that moment the driver actually has my focused attention, like a bug under a magnifying glass on a hot summer’s day. Just because I’m looking straight ahead and grinding my teeth doesn’t mean I don’t have his best interests in mind. As long as those interests are for him to surrender his driver’s license and hang up his keys for good.

For instance, I’ll most likely begin a conversation with a driver if he rolls up behind me on the freeway, moves into the left lane, pulls alongside, and slows down, keeping pace. I call these types of drivers “pacers,” wondering if they’re fighter pilots by the way they love to drive in formation. When someone pulls up beside me it’s like invading my personal space—he either needs to speed up or slow down, not keep up three feet to my left. It makes me want to wipe potato chip grease on his passenger-side window. I mean, really, if he was in such a big hurry, why doesn’t he commit and follow through with the maneuver he initiated? It’s irritating. …

Talking about commitment and follow-through, what about those drivers who hurriedly pass you, swing back into your lane, and slow down right in front of you? Ugh! I call these folks “blockers.” They manifest a kinetic form of passive aggressiveness, and since I myself suffer from hostility-with-a-smile, I easily recognize it. What’s that old saying? “Familiarity breeds contempt.” So if someone’s gonna pass me, he should act like he means it—keep going at the higher speed, else he’ll see my lips moving with exaggerated smacks and flashes of teeth as I pass him back, notching my cruise control up another mile-per-hour just to outpace him.

While heading back home from Virginia, a guy driving a scary-looking black GMC Yukon XL kept passing us and disappearing over the next rise. Five minutes later I found myself passing him. Ten minutes after that the same black GMC Yukon XL passed me again, and three minutes after that, I passed him. This pattern continued for dozens, maybe even hundreds of miles, causing me not so much to gripe as to wonder what the heck was going on with him. I nicknamed him the “jogger” because he constantly jogged for position then relinquished it. Over and over again.

Back when I was a kid my brothers and I were big-time into walkie-talkies, and C.W. McCall was one of our heroes. We studied Citizens Band lingo and dreamed of the day Dad would break down and purchase a wicked 23-channel Cobra radio so we could practice our 10-codes using cool handles like “Charlie Tuna” and “Big Toe.” One of the CB slang phrases I remember is “rolling roadblock,” a term describing two vehicles cruising side-by-side at a pace slower than the traffic stuck behind them. Practically nothing can loosen my irate tongue more quickly than falling in line behind two semi-trucks keeping pace with each other in adjacent lanes while we roller skates queue up behind them. This can turn me into a bucket mouth faster than feeding the bears for doing 75 in a double-nickel. 10-4, good buddy.

Another conversation stimulator is the driver I refer to as a “weaver.” You know the type, the guy who’s never satisfied staying put in his lane when traffic is dense but moving along at a tolerable clip. Usually driving hopped up cars like late-model Dodge Challengers or Chevy Camaros, these drivers can evoke all sorts of commentary from Mary and I, such as “I wonder what he’s compensating for?” or “Where are the cops when we really need them?” Weavers also inspire communication on a higher-level: I usually end up praying for the guy, asking God to keep the innocent people safe in the event the driver starts a fiery chain-reaction crash.

While driving on Interstate 20 just east of Meridian, Mississippi, a white pickup truck zoomed up behind me in the left lane while I was passing another vehicle. The pickup driver flashed his lights and I moved back into the right lane as soon as I could. As the pickup passed us, I noticed it was a beat-up old work truck driven by a guy who obviously loved his job—why else would he be doing 95 in a 70 and flashing his lights? Within seconds the “aggressive,” as I like to call these kinds of drivers, got blocked by another car cruising in the left lane (I’ve labeled these drivers “cruisers” because they hang out all day in the passing lane doing the speed limit or below). Instead of passing the cruiser on the right, the aggressive rode up on his bumper and continued to flash his lights. Finally frustrated by the unyielding blockade, the driver of the work truck whipped into the right lane, but instead of passing the cruiser right away and moving on, he waved at the guy using various hand gestures reserved for drunken birthday parties and PG-13 movies. Luckily Hannah was absorbed in the world of Minecraft at that very moment so she didn’t get to witness the friendly exchange and beautiful demonstration of communication at its finest.

Communication while driving is imperative to staying safe and to notify other drivers of your intentions. Whether through the practice of employing mechanical signals, eye contact, application of appropriate (or inappropriate) hand signals, or verbally relaying messages, cross-country trips can also provide a prime opportunity to work on your own style. No matter what your approach, be it sarcasm, passive aggressiveness, or any other form of communication, the driving habits of other motorists can provide endless hours of study, polish and honing of your particular brand of panache. Now allow me to prop my pillow against the window, close my eyes and listen to Mary work on her skills. Ahh, road tripping … there’s nothing better than the sound of the wind, 80’s music and the execution of the subtle art of sarcasm to bring a smile to my face.

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by David C Hughes

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