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A few days before Thanksgiving in 1990, I suggested to my brand-new bride, Mary, that we spend the holiday at my family’s camp over in Calhoun County. I explained that the annual hunting trip was a tradition for some of my brothers and me, and I thought she might enjoy it as well.
To my surprise, she agreed and seemed really excited by the idea.
Now, Mary was by no means a woods-person, so I should have suspected something was wrong right then. But it was only when I mentioned bringing a tent that I realized we were facing a major communications gap. Specifically, we had wildly different ideas about the meaning of the word “camp.”
That’s because in Mary’s world, going to the camp meant staying at her Uncle Sid and Aunt Millicent’s summer/weekend home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Their “camp” was actually a nice, brick home that featured multiple bedrooms, central air and a heated pool.
(If you ever went to one of the camps my father built, you already see where this is headed.)
“Why do we need a tent?” she asked. “Aren’t we staying in the camp?” The question was as innocent to her as it was ridiculous to me.
“What? You mean inside the camp? Oh, @ # $ % no!” I said.
My skin crawled just thinking about it. I mean it was physically possible to stay inside at either the old camp or the “new” one. Just like it’s physically possible to juggle flaming chainsaws. In both cases, the real question is why you would want to.
For those who never saw them, picture the housing in Slumdog Millionaire as a point of reference. Now, understand that our “new” camp was the kind of place where their poorer relatives in the country would have lived. And those folks would have donated their last rupee to someone staying in our old camp. The truth is, both places would have been condemned by a blind Tijuana building inspector.
For one thing, we had long ago handed over the old camp to the wood rats in something of a “land-for-peace” deal. As I discussed in an earlier post, my brother Steve lost the final battle over the bedroom. From there, we retreated onto the porch for a few years, and finally to a new piece of property altogether.
The new camp offered a couple of advantages, including its convenient location on property we actually own. It was also closer to the water, so the moccasins cut down on the number of rats who lived there. Another advantage was that it had walls on only three sides. That made it much more convenient if you had to bolt outside in stark terror when some critter wanted to share your sleeping bag.
I explained to Mary that, in our world, the word “camp” was more a geographical reference than an architectural one. And staying inside was a (distant) fourth choice for ways to spend the night down there.
A tent was the best option because you could pick it up and shake it out. Once inside, you could zip it up and be pretty well assured that nothing was going to come in. (Although that didn’t mean rats, coons and possums wouldn’t scratch around the outside all night.)
If you didn’t have a tent, the next best choice was to build a big fire and curl up on the ground. A good fire will burn long enough to let you get to sleep. And when the animals do show up, at least you’re not trapped inside with them.
Even sleeping in your car is a superior way to spend a night there. Sure, you may be cramped and either sweating or freezing, but depending on the condition of your ride, you can be pretty sure nothing will get in it with you.
In fact, as I thought about it more, I figured out that the only good reasons to stay inside the camp were: You were severely injured there and couldn’t move; someone was actively shooting at you; and/or you suffered from a crippling case of agoraphobia.
Nevertheless, I’m proud to say that Mary did go and she was a trouper throughout most of the trip. And I give a lot of credit to my brother Bill for helping her adjust. He was very reassuring, letting her know that there was really nothing in the swamp to worry about. He explained that, despite our kidding, the animals down in the woods were far more scared of us than we are of them.
“All except for those damned old flying snakes,” he told her. “They can get pretty nasty.”
* * *
That was 21 years ago. But, spending time in the woods remains a strong family tradition. Believe it or not, it’s a tradition that Mary now enjoys even more . . . as she listens to the stories and looks at the pictures I bring home with me.