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FIRST PERSON

Camping? It's a Piece of Cake

August 18, 1996|CHRIS ERSKINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I'm sitting by the campfire, watching my son trying to eat the bratwurst I just cooked for him.

It is so tough, this bratwurst, that he is having trouble tearing off even the smallest bite. And when he finally does, he chews so hard that I can see those little bones along his temples--those little tectonic plates in the side of the head--working overtime against each other.

He does not, bless his little heart, complain about my cooking. He just concentrates on the meal, killing it softly with his little squirrel teeth.

"Not bad," he finally says. "Not bad at all."

This year an estimated 60 million Americans will head out to the wilderness, making camping one of the most popular family-oriented recreational activities.

What makes for a successful trip? I really don't know. And I'm willing to share what I don't know with you right here.

*

Setting Up the Tent: One measure of a man is how he sets up a rental tent at 9 in the evening, by flashlight, with all the kids watching.

It's not a great measure, just a measure.

The tent comes in a surprisingly tiny box, no bigger than a carton of Velveeta cheese. Wait, this is a carton of Velveeta cheese. Shine that flashlight over here, son.

OK, here's the tent. The instructions, bless their little hearts, are carefully folded and creased so that the most essential information is almost unreadable. For example, the first section reads: "First spread out all the parts on the ground. Now ---- ---- ---------."

That's the crease line, all squished into hyphens. As a rule, every 12th line of tent instructions is a crease line.

Against all odds, the tent goes up in 45 minutes. And there are only six or seven leftover parts.

Piece of cake, this camping.

*

Building a Fire: The campfire takes on additional importance because here on the mountain, smack dab in the middle of summer, the temperature is hovering around 40 degrees. As I try to light the fire, the kids huddle around and offer advice.

"Dad, you're going to blow us up," the oldest daughter says.

"Huh?"

"All that lighter fluid," she says. "We're gonna scorch."

Sure enough, the freshly lit fire makes a sort of nuclear whoosh, sending a ball of fire 20 feet into the air. I look down to find that where I once had leg hair, I now have little kernels of former leg hair.

Fortunately, the kids have moved back about half a mile and their leg hair is unharmed.

Piece of cake, this camping.

*

Going to Sleep: The kids, bless their little hearts, just love to end the day by slipping into their warm sleeping bags.

It's the actual sleeping they have problems with because once they are in their bags, the kids' favorite activity is watching the shadows flicker against the side of the tent and imagining all the creepy things that are going on out there that will end in their untimely deaths.

They summon, in their little heads, tidbits from every scary movie and bedtime story they have ever heard and assemble them into a giant fright montage.

Meanwhile, I am working on a major headache. Here, 50 miles from the nearest aspirin bottle, the kids have given me a mental wedgy that you would not believe. Just as I'm about to lose my mind, they finally drift off to sleep.

It is peaceful now, as peaceful as peaceful gets.

Suddenly, I hear a terrible cry in the night, the kind of sound that sends shivers up and down a camping parent's spine.

"I have to go to the bathroom!"

*

The Camp Bathroom: The camp bathroom is a grungy plywood shack, probably 80 years old, in a sad state of repair. That's not to say it isn't very nice.

The kids don't spend a lot of time in the camp bathroom, however, because the toilet sits over a hole 20 feet in the ground and they believe there are alligators down there.

And who is to know really if there are or aren't alligators in camp toilets because no one has ever really checked.

Let's just say Dad doesn't spend a lot of time in the camp bathroom either.

*

Going to Sleep Again: Back in the tent, the kids pile on each other like sled dogs and finally fall asleep.

I, on the other hand, get into this pre-sleep think sequence where I worry that it is too cold and that the kids are all going to freeze and how am I going to explain to their mother when we get home that her children have lost all their fingers and toes to frostbite and that they will never again be able to squeeze the toothpaste or kick a soccer ball, and while I am thinking about all this I finally fall to sleep. Real sleep. Wilderness sleep.

This turns out to be the worst thing I could do to my fellow campers.

Remember your father's snoring, that subhuman sound that rattled the nails loose in the house? Well, that's me. Or so I've been told.

The ensuing conversation in our little tent, I hear later, goes something like this.

Son: Can't you make him stop snoring?

Oldest daughter: He worked so hard today on this camping trip.

Son: So?

Oldest daughter: So I hate to wake him.

Youngest daughter: I'll bet if you put this sock in his mouth, that would make him stop snoring.

But for some reason, a rare sort of kindness envelopes them and they decide not to wake me. This kindness lasts about 45 seconds.

Son: Dad! Dad!!

Me: Huh? What? Huh?

Oldest daughter: You were snoring, Dad.

Me: I'll roll over. It usually stops when I roll over.

Son: Thanks, Dad.

Me: 'Night, everyone.

Everyone: 'Night, Dad.

Youngest daughter: Dad?

Me: Yes, honey?

Youngest daughter: I have to go to the bathroom.

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