The first tent I owned darn near ruined me for camping. I’m not complaining that it was too big, but it required two elephants and a dozen Amish barn builders to erect. It wasn’t like a pup tent that weighs 3 ounces and pops into shape when you throw it on the ground. No-sir-eee-bob, ours could hold a battalion of Marines. My sister’s Boyfriend thought he could win us kids over by giving us an old army tent and he was right; everyone has a price and ours was a tent.
The tent was big; it was green; it was ours; and it almost killed us. However, the Boyfriend’s status diminished considerably each time we went camping.
I was taught never to look a gift horse in the mouth so I won’t start whinin’. In my Dad’s estimation, Whinin’ was right behind Cussing and Sassing in his Top Ten List of Deadly Sins. So I’m not whinin’, I’m just sayin’ that a ten-year-old boy’s first tent ought to be one he can put up with the help of a dog. But all I had was my younger nephew Kendall who disappeared at the first hint of manual labor. Always.
Furthermore, the tent should be light enough a little boy can go camping on the spur of the moment instead of having to hit the weight room and steroids for two months in advance.
There are a number of problems for a ten-year-old camping in Kansas with a tent the size of a Winnebago. One problem was that the tent, like us, wasn’t all there. Three of the stakes, one of the poles, and six of the tie-downs were missing.
Another problem was the wind. Kansas was named after the Native American tribe, Kansa, which, roughly translated means south-wind-that-blows-harder-than-Brian-Williams-on-the-six-o’clock-news.
We don’t find our true north in Kansas by looking for a star or seeing what side of the tree the moss grows on. Instead, we look at which direction the trees lean; they all lean to the north since the wind predominantly blows out of the south. My sister, Carmen, once took a sapling home to New York where the wind never blew and, sure enough, the tree leaned to the north.
An additional problem for little boys camping in Kansas was coyotes. Just to be clear, they are pronounced kuy-yotes, not kuy-yo-tees. When coyotes start howling, well, little boys have been known to wet themselves in broad daylight. Coyotes are attracted to high-pitched screams, like those of a dying rabbit. It turns out that dying rabbits and ready-to-wet-themselves ten-year-old boys emit the same sounds.
For us, the prime camping ground was the shores of Hobson’s Pond. However, there was one significant challenge: The Cows of Hobson’s Pond. It took a lot of courage to set up the tent because we knew the ridicule we would suffer at the hand of the cows. Cows were like our mothers, the Generals, who had an opinion about every little thing we kids thought, said, did, or wanted to do.
We tried camping on Hobson’s Pond once, but they stood outside our tent all night long, mooing. Cows are like college kids; they’ll pull an all-nighter if they think there’s fun to be had.
Maude, the cow, whispered after it got dark, “Hey, hey little kids. The boogey-man is coming to get you.”
“My Mom said there’s no such thing as a boogey-man.” I wailed.
“Oh, yeah? Well, we see them hanging around outside your bedroom window all the time. And if the boogeyman doesn’t get you, the coyotes will.”
“I have a gun!” I quivered.
“Oh, is this the same Red Ryder you shot your Mom with? We stood up for you once, buckwheat, but you’re camping in our house now.”
“I’m not afraid!” I shouted through the tent wall.
“Did you know Charles Manson broke out of prison and he’s coming this way? He’s riding with the Hell’s Angels, too. They like torturing little boys. And Walter Cronkite said the Russians are going to nuke us tonight. Besides that, the Rapture happened twenty-minutes ago and your Mom and Dad made it, but you didn’t. You’ve been Left Behind! We’re calling Truman Capote, too. He’ll like this story.”
Conversations like this are the reason The Cows of Hobson’s Pond are responsible for my neurosis.
We lasted ‘till about midnight then decided that the quarter-mile run home dodging cow pies in the dark was better than the increasing terror the cows were inflicting on us.
Next time, we decided to camp closer to home in our yard under the big cottonwood tree. We called the Amish, hitched the elephants, and set the tent up. The Amish volunteered to bring their families of ten kids each and spend the night with us since there was plenty of room, but we took a rain check.
Dad: “You boys know there is a storm coming tonight?”
Me: “Yep, but we’re not afraid.”
Dad: “Okay, we’ll leave the light on for you just in case.”
The tent had no floor, so we threw our sleeping bags on the grass and cuddled up with the chiggers for the night. When I think of my childhood, my first thought is often of chiggers. Once they came out during the spring, I was covered with chigger bites until the first frost. The only relief I got was to fire up Dad’s belt sander and remove my first layer of skin. I spent my childhood looking like I had a perpetual case of the measles or the Russians had finally nuked us.
Kendall and I told a few ghost stories, agreed that this was more pleasant than the night with the Cows, and vowed that we were staying in the tent even if a tornado came. We then drifted off to dream of hunting bears with Daniel Boone.
Daniel’s musket exploded at the same time the first clap of thunder levitated our little bodies above the bed of chiggers. The pelting rain and wind slammed against the side of our tent like our Moms yelling at us to quit playing in the street. Soon, water started running in on the bare ground but, by golly, after Mom made fun of us for coming home early from Hobson’s Pond, we weren’t about to go inside.
The tent flapped the way Dad described one of the Lollipops (Little Old Ladies of the Party Line Society); her tongue is hinged in the middle and flaps on both ends.
We moved closer to the middle but the groundwater found us and started us on the journey to Hypothermia-ville. However, we were so determined to ride out the storm that only the Rapture could have dislodged us from that tent. Never have two young souls more earnestly prayed for the return of Jesus.
The pelting rain turned into large dump trucks unloading entire lakes of water on us. The tent might have stayed upright if all of the parts were accounted for, but they were not and it did not. It collapsed around our shivering little bodies like a wet towel the size of Texas covers two drowned mice. My gosh it was heavy.
Coyotes usually stay in their dens during a storm, but the sound of dying rabbits above the clamor was too much to resist. It seemed like no matter which way Kendall and I crawled, the sound of them howling moved in front of us.
Mom was waiting for us when we finally stumbled inside just before the coyotes ate us. She had big, dry towels and was muttering something about who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to let these little idiots set up a tent with a storm coming and I wonder what happened to those dying little rabbits outside?
Dad handed out medals for bravery and said that discretion is the better part of valor. The next day, he took the tent to the Army surplus store to trade for a smaller one.
The owner recognized it. “Yeah, some guy came in here a while back and traded me out of that tent. He said he was going to use it to bribe some idiot kids of a chick he was dating. I told him it was not quite all there and he said that’s okay, the kids aren’t either so it should work just fine.”
Dad got a smaller version we could handle without the Amish.
We never saw that Boyfriend again.
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