I had to talk the boy into going camping. He was willing to go fishing, but camping was not an option for him. It was, after all, Spring Break, and I figured that he had big plans for recreating Star Wars Episode 7: The Fall of Dark Robot or perhaps laying out an epic Heroscape battle. After a day of grilling, prodding, and wheedling, I discovered that his tendency to be a homebody was not the problem. He was afraid of the campfire.
Someone, I am not naming any names or making any pointed accusations, but someone has instilled an unhealthy fear of fire in him. Once I figured that out, all I had to do was promise (despite how much it pained me) not to have a fire, and he half-heartedly agreed to go camping. Meanwhile, his younger sister spent two days alternately running around in circles repeating with glee, "I want to go camping" and wailing through tears, "I want to go camping." I left her at home though we were both broken-hearted about it.
The day before leaving, my son asked me excitedly, "Will we be able to roast marshmallows?"
I replied, "Sure son, we can even make s'mores, but we will have to make a fire if we want to do that."
He looked thoughtful for a moment and conceded, "Okay. We can have a small fire."
We arrived at our campsite at the lovely Lake Winfield Scott campground on Monday morning. It was good to be in the mountains that day as the air was warm, the sky was sunny and blue, the campground was not crowded, and my favorite campsite was empty. Two quick blows took a bit of the wind out of my sails: the boy insisted upon camping at a different campsite (one closer to some neighbors with kids his age), and I discovered that the park service had not turned on the water supply to the spigots or the bathrooms yet (not for the first time I was relieved to have left the girl at home).
The two of us spent the rest of the day and all of the next day hiking, fishing, chasing each other around the campsite with Nerf guns, munching PopTarts, guzzling IBC Cream Soda, roasting marshmallows, and making s'mores. It was a perfect day. I turned off the fire (as my son put it), and we went to sleep in the tent with sticky fingers and tired bodies.
As I lay in my sleeping bag listening to my son fall asleep in his Spiderman sleeping bag, I couldn't help but think of the many times my parents had taken the family camping. Many of my favorite memories of youth revolve around those happy times sitting around the fire at night with my family, the darkened shouts of snipe-hunting among the fallen leaves, the hissing of the lantern on a branch above a game of cards, the smell of bacon and hash browns cooking on the Coleman stove, the pops and sizzles of the logs in the fire, the odor of Off, the flapping of massive moths around the lantern, the showers of sparks rising through the glowing boughs and leaves of sheltering trees to join the stars above. Ultimately, a pop-up camper and big green Chevy van would make camping easier for us. It wasn't long before we were too grown up to camp as a family, and we kids would have to wait until we had our own kids to camp again. It was much too long before that day came for me and my boy, and I found myself missing my dad. He doesn't go camping anymore.
Camping was always an adventure for us. It invariably rained, usually violently. We would hang out our stuff to dry, pick up our storm-scattered things, and go right on camping. On one occasion, a tornado touched down across the lake from us. During another outing, I was sleeping in a little orange tent with my middle brother when he woke me up with an accusation, "Man, did you wet the bed or something?" For a terrifying moment, I thought that I had wet my sleeping bag for I was soaked, but it was the rain pouring in from every direction that was soaking us. My eldest brother and his friend abandoned their tent when they discovered that the lake was rising inside their tent. We all crowded into the camper.
Through all of these camping adventures, I never remember real fear. I do remember waking up in a tent and hearing something outside making a noise like a twelve-foot bear. My heart would start racing, and my mind would start making up violent scenarios. I would remember the story I had read in Guideposts about the guy who woke up with a rattler inside his sleeping bag. Then I would hear my father stir or he would clear his throat like only he can do, and I would instantly be reassured, "Dad's here. He knows what he is doing. Nothing bad can happen with him around. He can take care of any problem. All will be fine." Throughout my childhood, I remember instinctively feeling this sense of safety around my Dad. On long trips to Missouri, I never feared a car wreck. That green van was an armored tank when he was driving (I felt a little different when Mom was driving). I didn't think about it, and I didn't even know that I felt it until I heard a friend of mine speaking about it at his own father's funeral a couple of years ago. He described feeling about his dad exactly what I had felt about my own. I still trust Dad's judgment more than anyone else I know.
I faded off to sleep in the tent wondering if my son felt that way about me. Was he sleeping so soundly because he was counting on his Daddy to fight off the nightly terrors? Did my Dad ever have doubts like mine or did he ever fear? How could I ever live with the quiet confidence and sure competence of my Dad? I fell asleep hoping a stray ember wouldn't burn the tent down.