Summer is almost here! Fathers everywhere have begun to clean off those year-old burnt cow bits from the ole BBQ, are gassing and shining up their prized lawnmowers, and have finally gotten around to uncovering the pool and cleansing it of twigs, leaves, and the neighbor’s long-forgotten lost kitten Muffin (may God rest his soul). This is all to the little tykes’ glee that that these are the signs of longer days, warmer nights, and hopefully one more year before Dad forces all the before mentioned tasks into their hands.
If your family was anything like mine back in the day (90s), your pops is also eagerly packing away the family crank trailer and priming (patching) that trusty twenty year old aluminum fishing boat for the annual summer tradition of that good old family gathering in the hills!
Camping—that’s what you like to call it. Some may call it the poor man’s vacation; others—it’s just Hell with bugs. It is the ultimate escape from society and all of those mundane chores, pesky bills, and work; you know, those mandatory living essentials that make life possible. So why not just leave it all behind for a week? Just leave those comfortable amenities of home to go and take a stab at playing Survivorman, which, in this case, you now believe you can conquer because you watched that kooky Canadian succeed in Season 3, Episode 1 – “The Sierra Nevada.” But, at that moment in time, why you would want to leave the long-awaited freedom from your school incarceration and the newly warmed, play-worthy streets, to the confinement of a cramped campsite that you are forced to uncomfortably share with all members of your immediate family in the cold and frigid mountains with nowhere to shower and only icy water to swim in, or anywhere to even happily take a shit or get any sort of privacy for that matter because your family is always on your back to do some sort of activity that you really don’t feel like doing (deep inhale!), is beyond comprehension. Don’t get it twisted, you could have a great time cohabitating with the wilderness and learning what it’s like to cherish the simple beauties in life, but like the gym, or church, or volunteer work, or any work for that matter, going just doesn’t sound like a good idea, and getting there is definitely the hardest part, especially when you are so darn comfortable on that couch.
The thing is, kids live in the era of technology. Actually, most rely on it. Consequentially, adults are forced to adapt and live in the same said era, but they’re usually just not as good at using it. To suddenly unplug and live out your days as a Neanderthal—who, you must remember, are extinct—is definitely an easier-said-than-done task for little ones. Kids will cry. Moms will protest. But this is a vacation, damn it. All involved Will, Have, Fun (says all Dads). Period. Now off you go.
As one who is coming of age in the 90s, with hours spent exploring the newly discovered speedy wonders of the Interweb (porn), it is especially painful to leave behind that 136 hour download for the amazing new 30 second movie trailer to the highly anticipated, guaranteed movie of the year, Batman & Robin. Then there is the unfathomable fact that you would additionally miss your Saturday morning cartoons, and that Ash may finally catch ‘em all, and you wouldn’t even be there to witness it! Would he finally make it to Pallet Town? Would Misty forever stay PMSing? Would Jesse and James finally get it on? Don’t even get you started on Goku, who may finally collect all of the Dragon Balls and get to the battle to save the day in episode 63 of the Vegeta Saga. But who knows, because again, you are going to miss it, and you most definitely voice the unfairness of that fact with your newly squeaky voice.
So you leave, and first, you have to endure the drive up, with Dad finding a way to turn a measly two hours into the most grueling six of your life. This is accomplished with calculated stops to seven different Costco locations while accidently leaving behind a prudent survival item (lighter fluid, two industrial sized bottles of ketchup, Dad’s speedo, a 250pc. carton of tampons for your sister) at each one. The music on your cross-retail ride is always memorable; if your parents believe in a good ole family sing-a-long with their all-time favorite duo Sonny and Cher, then may God have mercy on your soul. Never in life has the invention of the Discman been more appreciated.
Then at last, you arrive. But not entirely, because there is the unloading of the boat and the parking of the trailer to be completed before you may begin. The boat is simple enough—one big push and a splash, followed by 139 yanks of the motor cord before it finally spews black oil into the crystal blue lake and starts. Next comes the brain-scratching act of observing Dad park your temporary home away from home. After watching the OCD emerge in your father for an hour as he levels the camper just right, blocks it off, then steps out and relieves himself in a nearby bush to claim his new temporary habitat, you know that camping has commenced. You are now free to wander off and be a good little pyro son or daughter and collect firewood, pinecones, stray squirrels, and other flammables, all while your parents begin the eight hour task of setting up you and your siblings’ tent for that one confusing night that they make you sleep outside while they stay (noisily) in the camper. There is no need for you to stick around and watch Dad smack his thumb with a hammer while Mom tries to read directions to a deaf ear, as you have probably witnessed this entertainment before. Although you have just arrived, as you finish, you are amazed that the first day is already complete, and it is time for your favorite part of the entire trip—the campfire.
Fire—It is the absolute love of your life, coming only second to a tie between Charizard and that older girl or boy just one grade higher than you. Nothing beats the dancing of the lush fall-colored flames as they sway to the crackling of their destructive emissions. Plus, while camping, fire equals s’mores, and s’mores equals heavenly, chocolatey, fluffy, burnt bliss, so fire equals burnt bliss, right (syllogism!)? Exactly. Since this is vacation, you indulge, and then indulge in two more. You play your yearly game of seeing just how close to burnt you can get the mallow without it catching aflame, all the while Mom is ready to pull her hair out as she keeps telling you to back further from the pit, and Dad is laughing, explaining how “Kids will be kids, dear” just as you start waving your torch like Dennis the menace in the movie.
Suddenly your sister screams; a bug went down her shirt. Your dad leaps to the rescue, somehow knocking over the only thing that happens to be on the ground within a thirty foot radius, which also happens to be a propane lantern that is now dangerously close to the fire. Your brother yells about losing the only other light that he was using to read as Dad bats at your sister as if she were aflame herself. Mom begins to yell also, and suddenly you realize that there are fifteen flashlights pointing in your direction from fifteen separate far off campsites. You laugh and turn your gaped-mouthed gaze back to the lantern, waiting in amazement for the real fireworks to begin; the 4th would be coming early this year. As the excitement builds, you spring up and run around with your lit baton and yell, “Look Mom, I’m Gandolf!” The scene (disaster) lasts only a few more minutes and suddenly dies down to silence. Once everyone stops breathing heavy, your mom announces bed time, all (at this point) to everyone’s delight. Your brother throws down his book and you look at the cover, which reads: Goosebumps: Welcome to Camp Nightmare.
Your dad wakes you. You peek outside the camper window and it is still dark out; what on earth is going on? He whispers that it’s time to go fishing—your (eye roll; correction, his) favorite pastime. You don your clothes and go with your siblings toward the boat.
The aluminum boat has been in your family for years. The issue is, each year as everyone gets older and larger, the boat gets smaller and closer to being a kiddie pool within the lake as water splashes over the side from it being damn near sunken from all of the weight. You all enter cautiously, not being too ashamed to wear your required orange life vests to your dad’s surprise. This is not because the law mandates it, but simply out of pure fear. As you slow and near the center of the lake, you gaze to the right to the amazingly beautiful sunrise peeking just over the mountainous range, but then return your sights back left to the horrid, all too close to your face half-moon of Dad’s ass which peeks way over his swim trunks as he bends to grab the supplies. This, you feel, will be implanted in your memory for years to come, no matter how hard you try to forget.
As everyone casts out, Dad’s play begins (spoiler: it’s a drama). He starts with a monologue of the days when he was growing up, explaining all of the different sizes of trout he’s caught. He talks in length of the friends he brought along with him and the special connection he made with his father. He then moves into a diatribe of how things have changed and there are too many damn boats on the water now, disturbing the peacefulness of this venture. He quiets and looks down. You think it’s over, but he looks up and soon flows into a soliloquy and says, “I died a little inside as I grew. Oh, where did the time go? I must have lost myself along the way somewhere, but always seem to return here to search for it. The memories of me as a child, they almost feel empty now without the connection that arises here, fishing with my own children. Time stands still and happiness returns! Alas, the new memories restore the old! As I steer closer to death I draw closer to renewal; the moments solidify, and here I sit, relieved to find myself again. Oh-” he trails off, then quickly comes to and realizes that you and the rest are staring blankly and wide-eyed in his direction. There is silence for a moment, and then your pole yanks downward. Dad leaps. Your hands go up. Sister screams that familiar yelp. The boat rocks. Fear hits your heart. Chaos ensues, and the struggle to reel in the prize begins.
Ten minutes later you’re breathing hard with a log in your hand (yay. . .).
The rest of the grueling four hour endeavor is a flop, and you realize that patience will never be a strong suit of yours (and your fondness of theater may never be regained). Your brother does come away with one measly ten-incher, which your sister cries about as Dad decides that it has swallowed the hook and needs to die quickly to avoid any further suffering, so he bangs its head on the edge of the boat. This noise, you feel yet again, will also be in your head for years to come. The poor fish breathes its last struggled breaths as you anchor up to return to shore. Spectacular then antagonistic sceneries, talk of life and witnessing of death, all with action in the middle—you feel as if Act I is complete. You may be scarred for life but at least you got a dinner and a show.
The rest of the trip is filled with more of the norm: failed hikes, fish guts, near drownings, sprained ankles, dry hamburgers, mosquito bites, and a bear. Yes, the ever sought after bear-scare is inevitable on that one night someone forgot to load the ice chest into the car. Even after the many warnings from the forest police and the many seen notices from the bulletin police, someone always forgets. You are awoken in the middle of the night to grunts and growls that strangely aren’t coming from Dad’s direction. Mom is shushing everyone and you take the fetal position, thinking once again if Pikachu will ever recover from his sickness, if you’ll ever live to finish your Pog collection, and how you may never get to see The Sandlot again. But the moment passes, the noises abate, and you know that the trip has come to an end.
The car ride home is quick and painless; everyone seems to be in a rush to get back to normalcy (bathroom facilities) now. When you arrive, there is no unpacking, there is no arguing over other chores to be done, and the mood of the air is serene. Mom orders a pizza, and you escape with your slices to your room and quickly flip on the TV and start the VCR, which had been skillfully set to record everything in your absence.
The TV flashes black and white snow. Nothing appears.
You press play again. More snow. More nothing.
Your heart races. Your hands tremble. Your lips quiver. Then it happens—Ash’s face appears. “Pika, Pika” rings merrily in your ears. He’s alive. He’s okay. And so are you. Summer is here. Another year had come and gone. You survived the trip. Now the wait to the coveted 4th of July (“On Fire”) begins.
End of Part 1