Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Memories of Camping

This is a little excerpt from something I've been working on.

But the thought of one-hundred foot flames licking the hillside, endangering those who live there is still a scary thought. It was windy and hot and dry. It was a beautiful day to be fire. Throughout the rest of the day it was more of the same: flashy lights, wailing sirens, smoke columns. Rinse and repeat. One column turned to two, then more. By evening all the individual columns, gray brown smoke crawling up see through cylinders, way high up until it hit the ceiling, had converged into one massive plume.

The area was thick with smoke. Campfire thick haze that makes eyes water, throats dry. Smelling that aroma brings back memories, kind of like gasoline. My mind always wandered to my preadolescent youth when my family would go camping. My mom, dad, brother and sister, me and grandma, we’d all load into the Buick station wagon, complete with wood panel siding. It was an ’83, and boy was it a dream. We’d usually head over to Patrick’s Point along with another car toting various aunts, cousins and whoever else seemed to have no specific plans that week.

After the three-, sometimes four-hour drive, we’d arrive at the overcast destination – a true oasis compared to the fry pan heat of the valley whence we came. The rides were made longer noting the cramped, hot breath dishevelment of the car’s interior. Dislodge an arm here, cross a leg there, sometimes the smallest person in the car sat on one’s lap, all for the sake of a getaway. During my later years, when the kids were older, and bigger, the inside of the car closed in at an unfathomable rate. Air conditioning reached my parents in the front seat; whistles and infrequent puff gusts occasionally made their way to the back seat. But nothing could be said of the “far back,” which wasn’t a seat as much as it was a storage area. Remember, this was a Buick station wagon. My childhood chariot.

Every time we needed to stop and go pee – which, by all measurable and rational standards was far too often – it was more of the same. Unfold, dip, tuck push and be pushed out the doors. For those in the far back, we’d have to wait until somebody, once they’d finally made it outside, felt the need to come around and swing open the squeaky corral door. We hot, sweaty kids (I was a chubby little guy) would then use finely-tuned skills of navigating through the honeycomb amalgam of tents, ice chest and suitcases – yes, suitcases – that my father proudly called “packing.” We’d run around, happy to be outside with real air. But too short lived those escapes were. A round of potty breaks and snacks later, it was back to the compacting reality of the weeklong getaway. Crimp, tuck roll and dive back into the car we went. Oh, great. It’s my turn to have somebody sit on my lap. Walls closing, chest tightening. Freedom only through the windows, which were restricting enough to make it all seem fake.

We all knew it was only a matter of time before Grandma called for Jesus music. As a youngster, I enjoyed the tunes. All the classics like “Old Rugged Cross” and “Amazing Grace” sung with the enthusiasm of an aging cow. Singing. Bopping around. La-lala-lala. This is what we’d do. But as time went on, and I rapidly approached the age of neuroses, I felt trapped under a boulder. Seeing glimpses of light and deafened by the car full of people singing with heartfelt vigor. The screams of feral cats in a fight had more talent then my cumulative family. But stop they did not – each singing more off tune than the previous. Even with that analysis, not once do I remember somebody, anybody, let loose an on-key note. Amazing, really.

The last camping trip we ever took, when I was 13 or so, was unforgettable. Stuck in the back seat, music screaming, luggage numbing my stocky legs, I felt something. Heart racing, chest tightening. Sweat glands operating at capacity. Then a slow trickle, up, not down, starting at my stomach. The burning ice-picked its way up my chest, into my throat. And it burned. I wanted to cough, but I couldn’t. My mouth, salivating now, smacked sugary with the unpleasant aftertaste of the afternoon’s soda.

“It’s getting really hot back here. Can somebody roll down the window?”

Grandma, who until then was in a quiescent trance, seemingly content, asleep on a pillow wedged between the door and her seat, would pop up, frantic. Back up went the windows. Apparently the wind coming in – the cool, refreshing breath of life - messed her hair. But her hair’s already messed up from laying on the pillow, I thought. Apparently, I wasn’t allowed to think. Back to lala land went grandma.

“Mom,” I said. Fa-lala-lala. Nobody seemed to hear. “Mom!” this time louder. Down with the music.

“What is it?”

“My throat’s burning. It hurts.”

“Well, you probably just ate too fast, or got too much air when we stopped.” Up went the music. Fa-lala-lala.

“Mom, I’m going to die. You’re killing your own son!” Everybody in the car laughed.

Finally she grabbed some Tums from her purse and told me to chew them. “This’ll help,” she said. So I chewed. One froth crunch after another, I chewed. And it bubbled. The bubbles brought to mind a slide recently shown in science class of a dog with rabies. I panicked.

“You gave me rabies. Mom, I have rabies!”

“You are such a little pansy sometimes. You’ve just got a little heart burn. Chew those and wash it down. You’ll be fine.”

At the time I wasn’t aware hearts were supposed to burn. All I had to wash down the sludge sticky mess was the remainder of the afternoon’s cola. Warm, watery sweet and tangy. “Why are you sweating so much?”

Eventually we’d make our way to the destination. Tuck. Roll. Free. Well, free until my dad called on us to unload the heap of crap from the wagon’s hindquarters. Out came tents and ice chests and no less than three bags for each of the women present, chock full of changes of clothes, make up, battery-powered curling irons and the like. Meantime, somebody would start a fire. Or try to start a fire. A lot of work went into snake charming one consistent flame out of a pile of used napkins and small sticks we found near the campsite. But once that fire got-a-roarin’ we knew we were in for a treat. It was no secret what I looked forward to. I was 13 and pudgy. S’mores. The iconic treat.

Wood cracking, log rolling, parents quarreling over what to make for dinner, children sitting fireside, marshmallow-mounted sticks in hand, screams of teenagers partying a few sites away, sun setting through the clouds, another log on the fire, the captivating prowess of blue orange flames, bigger and bigger yet, licking up and away from the log, reaching for something but never quite making it there, the taste of stirred up dirt on your teeth and piney smoke, made sweeter by the roasting, and often charring of puffy sugar on a stick: this is what camping meant, and this is what I thought about as I watched the land I knew eaten by something with a years-long appetite.