A couple of weeks back I mentioned that I got an unusual gift one Christmas, three weeks at a wilderness camp. I also said it was a gift that didn’t pan out — the understatement of the century.
As I waited for summer to arrive I read the brochure for that wilderness camp and showed the kids in the neighborhood pictures of deep woods, campfires, kids roughing it — the works. We talked about it for days on end. About sleeping in a tent with the stars overhead. Or sliding out of a sleeping bag before sunrise and getting the campfire going. Or being chased by a wild bear.
One thing we never got tired of talking about was eating. Slabs of meat roasted over glowing coals. Tons of flapjacks. Sourdough bread, twisted around twigs and leaned into the flames. Mouth-watering potatoes, buried in the ashes and hauled out, crisp on the outside, steaming hot on the inside, and ready to be salted and slathered with real butter.
All washed down with steaming hot chocolate in tin cups.
I swear, every time I thought about that wilderness camp my mouth began to water!
At long last the great day arrived. Mom and Pop drove me out to the camp and I checked in at the admin building, where I said goodbye. I thought I’d be aimed in the direction of the place where the kids were camped at the moment and told to find my way out there on my own, but it didn’t happen that way.
Instead, some fussy old nurse spent over an hour poking and prodding at me and asking me questions about mumps, and measles, and whatever. When she finally got done, she told me, “Just sit over there on the bench. Someone will take you to your hut.”
Hut? That didn’t sound too good. I’d been hoping for single tents, or none at all, and had decided to accept a four- or six-man tent only if I had to. A hut sounded suspiciously civilized to me.
But a hut it was. A tall thin older guy wearing shiny new chino pants led me down a well-trodden path only a couple of hundred feet long and dropped me off in a wooden lean-to with eight bunks in it, two three-high racks on each side, and a two-high rack along the back wall.
I was disappointed that I was going to have to sleep indoors, but at least the front of the lean-to was open to the air, not closed as I feared it was as we approached it from the side.
“You’re the first kid in this hut,” Chino Pants told me. “You can take any bunk you want.”
I started to put my things on the top bunk on the left side, the one with the best view of the night sky. “Hey, junior!” Chino Pants said, frowning at me. “You’re pretty skinny. Better grab a bunk by the back wall. It gets cold out here at night.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I like this one. More like outdoors.”
He gave me a sour-faced frown. “Suit yourself, Tonto. Get unpacked. Put your stuff on the shelf at the end of your bunk. And make sure it’s neatly stacked. Seven other guys are assigned to this hut. I’ll pick you all up around four for supper.”
Which he did. I could hardly believe it. He counted us off like cattle and marched us off to supper, a long line of kids all talking at the same time as Chino Pants yelled at us to shut up. I didn’t talk much though. By then I was really worried.
Supper was a another eye-opener. We ate in a big old dining room filled with picnic tables and lighted with bright fluorescent lights. Spaghetti and meatballs served on heavy white plates, with some kind of thin lemonade that tasted like the five gallon can it came in, and knives and forks that weighed a pound apiece.
The place was so noisy I could hardly hear myself think. The kids all talked at the same time. And what about? I could hardly believe it. About how they wished they were back home.
“Wait’ll tomorrow,” I told myself as I tried to shovel pasta into my mouth with a spoon the size of a hand trowel. “We’ll get out into the woods tomorrow and do some real outdoors stuff.”
And we did. Right after a hearty breakfast. Your choice, lumpy oatmeal or cold cereal served in a little box you broke open and ate right out of. Now, that’s roughing it! And right afterward we ventured out into the perilous wilds of a big old dusty field in the middle of the camp, where we ...
Played games. Games? Can you believe it?
Mostly we played capture-the-flag because that way they could break us up into two huge groups, one to protect the flag, and the other to try stealing it, which was impossible of course.
When Chino Pants and his clones weren’t looking I slipped off into the woods. There were some old stone walls out there, all collapsed and fallen down.
And some tracks — mostly deer. And a squirrel that played the old hide-and-seek-around-the-tree-trunk game with me. And a rabbit that kept looking around because it knew I was there, but couldn’t see me because I refused to move.
Wasn’t much, but it was better than capture-the-flag.
When I heard a whistle blowing I went back in and listened to Chino Pants and his half dozen clones as they yelled at us and marched us off to lunch — a long, dusty, sweaty, thousand-legged, very disorganized centipede. Lunch was bologna sandwiches with no mustard, apple pie with no apples, and more tin lemonade.
And the afternoon? Rest time. From what? Beats me!
Well, I survived. All three weeks. Then I went home and found I had missed V-J Day, the biggest thing that had happened since I was born. I went out in the back yard and chewed on a hot dog Mom made for me — with mustard — and tried to make up my mind whether to tell the neighborhood about my three weeks at wilderness camp.
I broke off a piece of hot dog bun and tossed it over to a sparrow that was eying me. “Hey, bird, what do you say? Should I tell the kids the truth about my three weeks at camp?”
It stopped pecking at the chunk of hot dog bun, stared me in the eye, and made a mess on the sidewalk.
It was good advice. I took it.