Well, it had to happen eventually, though when it came, I wasn't ready for it. My son, only ten years old--they grow up so quickly, don't they?-- finally approached me and asked, you know, THE QUESTION. He caught me off guard--- but then, is a father ever really ready to have his once innocent boy come up to him, eyes solemn and full of trust, and so very bluntly ask, "Dad? Why can't we ever go camping?"
Normally I handle his requests for information with a very patient and caring, "Ask your mother." Somehow I know, though, that this is one of those questions only a dad can answer. Summoning up my most erudite expression, I place a warm hand on his shoulder and reply, "My son, camping was made obsolete with the invention of the condominium."
"But Dad," he protests, "The Johnson's camp all the time!"
Johnson! That rat. You know the kind. His Christmas decorations are never up past the middle of January. Every weekend he is out hammering, weeding, mowing, and painting, always whistling as he walks around with the damn list his wife prepared for him, producing such a racket I can barely nap! Johnson, who deviously loads his two boys into his polished truck to go to the woods for days at a time, probably living on nothing but fungus scraped off of bugs or something.
"Johnson is a psychopath," I say reasonably.
You'd think that would be the end of it, but, as it turns out, my son has already arranged for Johnson's wife to call my wife and invite the two of us out for a "guy's weekend" camping with her fruitcake husband.
"I had already planned a guy's weekend!" I protest.
"Doing what, sitting on the couch watching baseball?" my wife demands.
"Which is played by GUYS," I shout in exasperation. Is this so difficult to understand?
"Your son will be heartbroken if you don't go," she advises me in a tone that lets me know she has exercised the Emergency Powers clause in our family Constitution which allows her to veto just about everything I do except use the bathroom. Faced with this, I take the only manly course available.
"Son, I know you want to go camping," I say. "How about instead I buy you a computer game."
"I want to go camping!"
"I'll buy you a Corvette."
The following Saturday my son yanks me out of bed so early I go numb with toxic shock syndrome. I shuffle over in the dark to Johnson's truck, which is gleaming like a chariot from hell. "This is going to be great, Bruce!" Johnson trumpets, scurrying around securing grommets or something.
"Shut up, Fred," I snarl.
He frowns. "My name's Doug."
We drive for hours --- why are there roads out so far? Doesn't the government know when they build the things that the miles of flat pavement will just lure sick individuals like Fred to drop their window washers and steer their trucks toward the horizon? "Guess where we are!" Johnson hoots at me.
I peer out the window. "Nicaragua?"
"The National Forest, everybody! Isn't it beautiful?"
"No Fred," I tell him. "A Burger King is beautiful. My television is beautiful." At that moment I miss my VCR so much my throat catches in a half sob. "This is the jungle. Animals live here."
He frowns. "My name's Doug."
The beautiful National Forest in which we find ourselves was clearly designed for thinner people. The trees are so tightly packed together I can barely squeeze between them. We haven't gone five minutes and I've slipped over a rock and fallen in thick mud. "Oh my God, quicksand!" I gasp. "Help me Fred!"
My son leans over to take a picture of me sinking to my death.
"You're fine," Johnson claims. "Hey, what kind of shoes are those? Loafers? You wore loafers to hike in?"
"No, I wore loafers to CAMP in," I point out. "Nobody said anything about hiking. Why couldn't we have stayed by the car?"
"That was a parking lot."
"And wouldn't you agree that a parking lot is a perfect place for LOAFERS," I snap, deftly demolishing his argument.
They pull me out of the swamp's deadly clutches and we move on, everyone stubbornly ignoring my pathetic limp which if they'd had a shred of humanity would have brought tears to their eyes. I can tell already that this camping trip is going to give me post traumatic stress disorder. "This pack is getting heavy," I warn. Nobody replies, they are frozen into a hypnotic state by the endless plodding through the wilderness. Isn't this how lemmings got started? "I may have to drop it!" I wheeze.
"Don't you dare drop it," Fred snaps, finally appearing a little flustered.
"Why, are you afraid it might damage the piano you've packed in here?" I sneer, giving my son a "see what kind of jerks we're with?" look. I hate for him to witness how petty people can be sometimes.
We trek, I don't know, maybe fifty or six hundred miles into the woods, going places not seen since the time of Jerry Lewis and Dick Clark. My son keeps grinning, afflicted by hiking induced dementia. Predatory trees, man eaters, are reaching out and slashing at my arms, and when I finally make the manly suggestion that we stop and have a beer, Johnson reveals his sick sense of humor and pretends we didn't bring any. Like you can have a "guy's weekend" without beer.
"We're here!" He announces, gesturing to a dirty smudge on the ground.
I stare in bewilderment. "This is it? This is the campsite?"
"Sure," Johnson replies. "What were you expecting?"
"Well, showers, for one thing," I retort.
"Ha ha," Johnson says, "you're going to love this, Bruce."
"Ha ha, Fred, the only part I love is that we've finally ended the death march portion of the program. Give me the flare gun, I'm going to summon the rangers. We're obviously lost."
"I was here just last weekend!" He protests.
"See! You're wandering in circles."
Only the look on my son's face persuades me that I'm actually going to spend the night in this place, so, with a sigh, I set down my pack and go over to help Johnson set up the tent. It smells like the sheets from an elephant's bed. The struts are made of battered aluminum, the fabric is made of mildew. Once it is erect, I peer inside and realize the only way we're all going to fit is if I sleep on top of Fred. The boys have stripped down to their shorts and are splashing around in the small stream so they'll be sufficiently muddy when it's time for bed. Insects circle my face like people gathering around a buffet.
"Wiener dogs and beans for dinner!" Fred announces in a tone which indicates that flatulence gives him jubilation.
It's going to be an interesting night.
Part II of this horrifying tale will be told in a future Cameron Column
Copyright W. Bruce Cameron 1998
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