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My father did not like living in town, especially in the summer, so we often went camping. Our usual destination was a little campground on Berlin Reservoir, a few miles outside of town. When we got to the entrance of the campground, there were two gates that had to be opened and then closed to keep the cows in the field. (Yes, we had to drive in a field with the cows.) I was terrified of the cows for the first few years we camped there. I would be worried that the cows would charge when either my mom or dad got out to open and close the gates. Eventually, my brother and I were old enough to take on this task. We were still frightened of the livestock and would watch every move the cows made while we were out of the car. To complicate matters, we also had to beware of the cow patties (they were everywhere!) and watch out for the beastly roosters (mean buggers!) that shared the pasture with the cows. We pretended to be brave, but honestly, we couldn’t get back in the car fast enough! It was a pretty bumpy ride and depending on the amount of recent rainfall, it could also be pretty sloshy. My father’s vehicles, first a Pontiac Tempest and in later years an old station wagon (I do not recall the make or model), were not really fit for off-roading. Frequently he would hit an especially deep rut or hole and he would shout a few curse words as he drove. Once through the cow pasture, we continued further through the field that eventually led us to a spot near the lake. My father always chose the same spot to set up camp. He had taken pseudo-possession of a spot where he trimmed some trees and accumulated a small stash of firewood for our use. It became our home-away-from-home.
We camped in an army green, canvas tent, that was held up by an umbrella-like contraption. The canvas smelled dusty and musty at the same time. The odor penetrated our sleeping bags and clothes and by the end of the weekend, it was embedded in our nostrils. We slept on the ground, without air mattresses. The ground was lumpy but didn’t really bother me or my brother. Although, I do recall my parents complaining about it from time to time. At some point, two cots entered the picture, but I don’t remember anyone sleeping on them in the tent. I don’t think it was big enough. Insects were our bunkmates. No matter how well the doors and windows to the tent were zipped, or how much spraying my parents would do, the bugs, flies, and spiders could not be kept out of the tent. I would snuggle down in my sleeping bag and try not to move, so as not to attract attention from the creepy crawlies. It didn’t work.
There were no modern amenities at our campground. No running water, no flush toilets, no electricity. Water had to be fetched from a handpump. This job was a big one for youngsters and had to be accomplished by a duo or small group. The pump was a little distance from our camp, so, just like Jack and Jill, my brother and I would walk to fetch a jug of water. If I remember correctly, the hike was even a little uphill! I can still hear the sound of rusty metal sliding up and down as we pumped. Pumping was physically demanding, especially for a small child. I remember that sometimes I would have to jump in the air and push down on the handle with all my weight to make the pump work. In time, the sound of the water pouring from the spout would be heard. We pumped the water into red and green water jugs and then carried them back to camp. The jugs were heavy for us and even though they had lids, we still spilled a good deal along the way.
Our bathroom was a rickety, wooden outhouse with spiders and Daddy Long Legs everywhere! Bees and wasps made their homes between the boards and in the corners of the little shack. There was no toilet seat, just a dark hole. It was frightening to think about what might be lurking down there! I always begged my mother to go to the outhouse with me. Occasionally, we would get there and there would be no paper in sight. We would have to walk back to camp to retrieve some and this created quite a problem for me. You see, I hated going to the outhouse so much that I would put off going until I couldn’t hold it any longer. Having to make the trip back to camp and then back to the outhouse without peeing my pants was quite an achievement for me! Yes, the outhouse was a creepy and disgusting place, yet here I am, smiling to myself as I write about it. My cousins often camped with us, and if they were here with me now, they would be laughing and telling their stories. We all have a story or two about the outhouse at Cline’s campground!
In the early morning, I could hear my mother rummage through a box of pots and pans to find the pot she boiled water in and our old drip coffee pot. Mom would boil water and then pour it into the coffee pot to drip through the grounds. The result was a thick, dark brew. The coffee pot was a relic. It was dented and blackened by burned on char from flames on the open fire and Coleman stove. When I helped with dishes, my hands would get filthy from the surface grime, but the char was too thick to wash off, no matter how hard I scrubbed.
It may have been my imagination, but the smell of coffee brewing at the campground had a stronger, more rugged smell. Maybe the aroma was stronger because the coffee burned easily in the pot since there was no way to adjust the flame on the camp stove. Whatever the reason, the smell of strong coffee making its way into the tent where I slept, was evidence that I had made it through another night with the creepy crawlies in the tent. Slowly, we would all emerge from the tent and make our way to the picnic table. On chilly mornings my mother would fix me and my brother a cup of warm coffee (again, mostly milk and sugar warmed with a bit of coffee) to sip on with our Captain Crunch cereal. Then we would set off to fish in the lake, or hike around the shoreline.
Everyone enjoyed camping! We always had so much fun…or at least I thought we did. It was only while raising my own children and taking them on camping adventures, that I realized how hard camping was for my mother. My poor momma! To prepare for one of our weekend trips, she had to do all the meal planning & shopping (remember that budget she had to abide by). She had to do all the packing and try to be prepared for all the “what if’s” that could happen at camp. Once at camp, she had to help my father set up the tent and unpack. She did most of the cooking and all of the cleanup. She had to try to keep the bugs and dirt out of the tent, and she had to keep track of me and my brother. I now know these trips were not all that fun for mom, but she hid it well. On these outings, mom and I would get some mother-daughter time by taking small walks down to the lake. I loved those walks, no matter how short, and I will remember them always.
When my cousins and I get together, many of the stories we share are of camping at Clines with our parents. Fishing, swimming, some long walks, campfire songs, and yes, the outhouse! We cherish these memories and value this time we shared as a family. At the time, our parents had no idea the impact that these weekend camping trips would have on us. They had no idea that they were teaching us the importance of family, of taking time to slow down after the work week, or teaching us simple techniques to function in a primitive environment. They were just living life with children, the best they knew how. Getting through life the best way we know how, I guess, is how the best memories are made!