My dad died a little over two years ago. If he had lived, he would have turned 59 this month. I mean to write about him more than I do, but I can seldom find the words.
Many of my favorite memories of my dad involve camping; most also involve fucking up. Fittingly, this particular story involves fucking up while camping.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of sixth or possibly seventh grade, my church organized a group camping trip at a site about an hour away from our house. What I thought this would mean was that all the families who signed up through the church would have a group of adjacent or at least nearby campsites. What it actually meant was that every other family who went ended up with a spot in the RV section while our family ended up with a spot in the tent section. Since we had a tent and not an RV, this was a good thing in terms of sleeping arrangements. Since it meant we were far enough away not to be able to know any kinds of planned events, this was pretty much fail in terms of being a community camping trip for us. .
Not that we were complaining. Much. Sure, my sister and I whined about not being able to hang out with our friends, particularly as we’d found out that they’d left for swimming on our walk to the RV site. And my dad grumbled about someone or other’s piss-poor organization. But this complaining lasted less than an hour — just long enough for my sister and I to confirm that other kids in our church group were, in fact, making plans and having fun without us — before we decided to get over ourselves and have fun anyway.
But prior to having fun, we had to set up the tent. Under the best of circumstances, this is an exercise in teaching the children creative combinations of cuss words. And this was not to be under the best of circumstances.
“Shit,” Dad exclaimed, rummaging through the back of the van.
“There’s the tent,” he continued, tossing a duffel bag on the ground. “But we don’t have any tent poles.”
“We could drive home and get them,” my sister supplied helpfully.
“We could just drive home,” Mom added. Camping was never really her thing.
I didn’t want to leave, not even to get the tent poles. For one, that would be about two hours of our overnight camping trip (it ran Friday-Saturday only so we could all be at church on Sunday) wasted driving in a car instead of engaging in activities that could legitimately be considered “camping.” Moreover, I was worried that if the trip got to be too much of a hassle while we were back at home, someone would say “fuck it all,” and we’d just stay home. I was promised hiking and swimming and hot dogs dropped in charcoal, people. We were camping, and I wanted to stay camping.
Dad, I’m pretty sure, didn’t want to drive back home because he didn’t want to concede defeat. This time around, he was responsible for packing the tent, and so the lack of poles was technically his “fault.” Whether the rest of us were keeping score or not, he was. And the only way he could count this as a win instead of a loss was if he could prove that we didn’t actually need the tent poles.
“Do we have the stakes?” I asked.
Dad sighed. “We don’t have the stakes that came with this tent; they’re with the damn tent poles. But yeah, we do have the extra bag of stakes.”
In my family, we are kind of rough on tent stakes, particularly the flimsy plastic kind. As a result, we’ve been known to purchase an occasional extra set of metal stakes and to keep the mismatched ones in a backup back, just in case.
“So we can stake down the ground tarp and the bottom of the tent,” I replied, thinking out loud. “We just have to figure out a way to get the top to stand up.”
Dad rolled his eyes. “That’s the part that’s going to be a pain in the ass. How exactly do you suggest we do it?”
“Duct tape?” I asked, shrugging and smiling.
“Duct tape fixes everything,” my sister interjected.
“Or we could just go home,” Mom offered.
“If there is a way to pitch a tent with duct tape, I don’t know about it,” Dad said, his voice trailing off. In the same crate as the roll of duct tape — doesn’t everyone keep duct tape in their cars as a necessary supply? — were a dozen or so bungee cords, of varying lengths and thicknesses. He picked one up, examining the hooked metal end.
He unzipped the duffel and pulled out part of the tent, rummaging around until he found one of the nylon loops that would normally guide the tent poles. Threading the hook through the loop, he held it up and showed me, grinning in a way that said, “We are about to do something 100% ludicrous, but damn, won’t it be fun?”
I stared for a second, just letting my brain catch up, until I figured out what he was getting at. I scanned our campsite, which was fortunately almost entirely level. “There are three trees — there, there, and there,” I said, pointing. I looked again.
“I bet we have enough bungees to reach that one,” my sister pointed to a fourth tree a little farther away. “If we hook two of them together.”
As it turns out, it’s actually easier to hook bungee cords through guide loops than it is to thread tent poles through the same. (The poles are straight, and the cloth tent likes to bend, so doing that is about like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. No such problems with rounded hooks and round guide loops.) It is somewhat more difficult to attach the bungees to corner posts — in our case, trees — in such a way that they’re high and taut enough to hold up the tent and secure enough that they don’t slip down in the night or the wind. There is still much creative positioning of cuss words.
But it can be done — at least in a campsite with trees — even without duct tape. The tent held just fine through the night, amid light wind and rain. It is awesome; we still have pictures.
What’s even more awesome is that this is a camping memory instead of a “we gave up and went home” memory. Dad would like that.