By Tim Hayes
We recently attended a lovely wedding of two lovely young people in a lovely little church, followed by a lovely reception in a lovely facility. The whole experience was, well, lovely.
Then I asked where the happy couple would be honeymooning. And all the loveliness of the proceedings proceeded to crash into shards of disillusionment and disappointment.
“Oh, we’re going camping for a week,” bubbled the new bride. Camping. Ugh. To a man whose idea of roughing it means no HBO on the hotel room TV, the very notion of camping feels like an oppression. A penance. An infinite loop of pushing a giant stone up a hill, only to be crushed as it rolls back to the bottom, again and again and again. Like spending time in Purgatory trying to work off the residue of your earthly sins for eternity. A dark, disorienting, distortion-inducing, cold wet fog that never lifts. A hopeless, joyless, pointless existence.
Not that I feel strongly about it, mind you.
This visceral reaction probably stems from a single weekend trip to the woods of northwestern Pennsylvania, circa 1973. My Dad and I were coerced into spending a weekend under a tent by an old school buddy of his. This friend owned a little plot of land about a mile outside of some tiny podunk town up toward Erie someplace, and he wanted to show it off a little with us, himself and his son, and one of his son’s classmates.
“Ripper.” Don’t ask. A shrimpy little kid, who came from a family that struggled somewhat. His hair never combed, his hand-me-down wardrobe always a size or two off either way, Ripper fought the good fight to win attention and acceptance any way he knew how – and some ways in which he had no clue. But that didn’t stop him from trying. It wasn’t that hard to like Ripper. But it could be damn near impossible to bear him for more than an afternoon at a time.
Now, the fellow’s son and his buddy Ripper were a couple of years younger than me. From what I knew, the son seemed pretty harmless, an occasional pain in the ass, but overall just a typical pre-teenager. Ripper’s reputation as a high-energy, trying, annoying millstone preceded him, however. And little did we suspect how spectacularly he would live up to that reputation on this particular weekend. Otherwise, my Dad and I would never have stepped out of our house that Friday.
So we drove north, the old Chevelle packed with sleeping bags, tubs and cans of insect repellant, extra socks, thermal underwear – even though this adventure occurred in the springtime, but what did two city slickers know from outdoor living? – and what we thought would be adequate rations. After getting lost and rerouted a time or two from a well-worn state map in the glove compartment, in the olden days before GPS and cellphones, we at last pulled up to the end of a dirt road and carted our stuff to the campsite. God’s Little Acre. Right.
The host’s son and Ripper came over to help us. Ripper grabbed the food bag, hoisting it with such overzealous, eager-to-please force that he managed to tear it, sending our supplies bouncing and rolling into the dirt, grass, sticks, mud, and whatever creepy little life forms could be found down there.
Next came pitching the tents, which turned into every cliché from every movie where people not used to doing such things made absolute fools of themselves. My Dad’s buddy and his kid had a grand old time watching and laughing at us, and it was pretty funny. Ripper, as was his wont, added an unintentional level of danger and drama to the proceedings, though, finding a spare hammer and managing to drive spikes so far into the ground that making adjustments became impossible. He also smashed about three of his own fingers in the process.
After a fitful night of choppy sleep, the sun rose on Saturday morning and out came the mini-bike, a scaled-down motorcycle just right for three early-adolescent male campers with hormones just starting to percolate. The son, who owned the mini-bike, took the first couple of laps around the perimeter of the site, revving the engine, showing off, and scaring away scores of birds and critters in the surrounding trees. I took a spin next, concentrating like mad on remaining upright and not taking the turns too fast.
Then Ripper climbed aboard and opened up the throttle full-blast. The bike flew straight up in the air, Ripper got dumped on his keester, the bike landed beside him upside-down, then fell onto his leg. Nothing broken, but the incidents had begun to mount noticeably. I could tell. We were slowly being Ripperized.
That evening before dusk, the two dads sent us off into the woods to find sticks to build a fire for weenie and marshmallow roasting, and maybe some storytelling once it got dark. So off we went, unaware of what Ripper had in mind. The other kid and I began accumulating sticks from the forest floor. Ripper had bigger plans, though. He had brought a small, hammer-sized axe and would chop his awesome timber contributions straight off of the trees.
He must have been a good 100 feet away when we heard: WHACK! – silence – AAAAAAHHHHH!!!! MY HAND!!!!!
We ran over to him only to see that he had chopped off most of his left thumb, blood gushing like I’d never seen, and Ripper screaming his head off. We told him to hold it on the best he could, and we all ran back to the soon-to-be-broken serenity of the campsite.
The dads sprung into action, wrapping the thumb to help staunch the bleeding, then my Dad put Ripper in our car and drove him to a hospital in Erie. About six hours later, in the middle of the night, they returned.
“Tim, get up,” I heard my Dad whisper into the tent. “Huh? What’s wrong?” I slurred, rising slowly from a dream state. “We’re leaving.” “Now? What time is it?” “I don’t care what time it is. We’re packing up and going home – now. I can’t take any more of this. I’m getting eaten alive by bugs and this Ripper kid is driving me insane. Let’s go.”
If the other campers heard us schlepping all of our gear back to the Chevelle and driving away into the night, they never said so. We got home at dawn, took showers, crawled into our respective beds and slept the sleep of the dead that whole Sunday.
A honeymoon spent camping? Well, I guess that would be one sure way to test a marriage right out of the gate. For me? Not in a million years, my friend. I’d rather try my luck in Purgatory first.
Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes