It's an hour past dark and we have a decent fire going. For which we are grateful, because the temperature's probably going to drop around forty. I am shod in a beatdown pair of Merrill slip-ons, which I have propped up on one of the rocks ringing the fire. I am so entranced by the flames that it's awhile before the nerve endings in my feet report that my soles are melting. I jerk my shoes away and some of them stays on the rock.
People with guitars at campfires are irritating. They only know old hits. Playing old hits around a campfire is like farting during a funeral.
It's September two (three? I am losing time) years ago and we are around a fire at Lake Ouachita. I am reading aloud to my children from my Father's Day gift. Its best story begins with a woman killing her stepson, tricking her daughter into thinking she had killed him, then cutting him up into stew meat and serving him to his father. From there the story builds into something lyrical and lovely and hopeful, and ends in happy tears. I feel grateful to read this while the smoke of the fire saturates everything. I note that my children don't so much as flinch at the horror of it.
The smoke. The smoke always gets in the hair on my hands, in the knees of my jeans. This is a dad thing to say, but the smoke smells honest to me, as do gasoline and lawn clippings and puppy breath. These things smell only of what they are, as if odors could be onomatopoeia.
It is two days ago and I am soaked through with rain and sweat. I am sick of the wet and squelch. I and my son have hung hammock tents between the trees and among the chiggers. We are using the reserved campsite tent, which has cots and a concrete floor, only to store gear. I have done this to pretend that I am still young, because thumbing my nose at the coming squall is surely going to make me feel young.
Instead I lose half a night's sleep to worrying about my boy every time the storm wakes me. This does not make me feel young. Is it bad enough yet to grab him and run for the cots? What if he's afraid to say that he's afraid? But we wake not long after dawn, bone dry and cozy. I let him sit in the shelter tent while I break his gear down in the rain as penance.
I have perfected my chigger bite remedy. It involves scratching the bites until they bleed, then swabbing them with alcohol and swearing. After that, clear fluid rises out of them, and I swab and swear some more.
It is over a quarter of a century ago and I am at a Church of Christ retreat. They are too polite to let me know that they think I am hellbound. I slide out of my top bunk in the middle of the night and land headfirst onto the concrete cabin floor. I vomit several times, am rushed to the ER and diagnosed with a concussion. They pray over my head. Two days later, I pull a groin muscle during capture the flag. They pray over my dick. It will be years before I realize how funny this is.
I do not remember the first time I felt wind on my dick. But I remember vividly how it felt.
It is early winter and we have gone on a campout with older scouts. We are a thirty-minute drive from the city, but we have gone down what feels like America's longest gravel road. We have pissed off the deer hunters by filling a prized spot with hollering children. We camp in freezing weather, our pack huddling around a log fire whose heat is reflected and amplified by a shallow cave wall. I keep my feet near the fire but remember my Merrills. I will be awakened several times by sore hips and cold and will go home rejuvenated.
It is sometime in the 1980s. I am sleeping on the front bench seat of a pontoon boat in the middle of Truman Lake. I fall onto the floor as I would do in that churchy cabin years later, but the fall is only hard enough to wake me. I sit up and watch the moonlight go hilltopping on the water. I imagine I am a sailor on my first of many nights at sea. Tomorrow we will get soft-serve at the Estes Drive-In on the way back.
It is 1991 and I am eating runny eggs and burned bacon on the side of a Colorado mountain at five in the morning. I am watching goats chase each other over the rocks. My horse has tried to bite me three times. I realize I will remember this meal on my deathbed and pour more gritty coffee into my mouth.
It is last spring and my daughter and I are hammock camping in the backyard. Dogs are barking. Some asshole neighbor is playing country music from a car stereo. The breeze is steady and it's cooling off. It is her first time solo in a tent and I am worried that she will get tangled up in her sleeping bag. I am worried that she will be cold or afraid. She shows me what she is made of.
Later I ask her if she and I could go on a real one sometime, just us, maybe to Pinnacle Mountain, and she jumps. She jumps.