HAPPY CAMPERS

One lazy summer afternoon, I was relaxing contentedly in my recliner with our little terrier Zoey asleep on my lap. I was enjoying some chips and dip, washed down with a cool beverage as I watched the Yankees pound the Orioles in the Bronx. I was perfectly comfortable as the air conditioning hummed quietly in the background creating the ideal temperature for peaceful tranquility. Being the philosophical type, I could not help but pause and reflect on the fact that, at that moment, life was good……but, of course, I knew it wouldn’t last.

Sure enough, a few moments later my wife walked into the room and looked at me with her piercing, all business, no-nonsense eyes and announced in a way that did not leave room for mature discussion or immature whining, “I think we should go camping.”

I sat stunned as the tranquility dissipated away, and, although it took a few seconds for her words to sink in, I slowly realized, Oh, my God. She’s not kidding!

Now allow me to put this shocking moment into context.

I believe humankind has gone to considerable trouble to build the world of “indoors” so that, unlike our ancient ancestors, we no longer have to exist in the “outdoors”.

Obviously, there is a good reason why they went to all the effort of creating the indoor environment, and that’s because the outdoors features heat, cold, sunburn, frostbite, dirt, wind, rain, flies, insects (especially ones with wings which will figure prominently in our story), fleas, ticks, spiders, scorpions, snakes, rabid raccoons, dangerous varmints (large and small), assorted other creepy critters, and Big Foot.

That is why I happen to believe that camping is nothing more than the unwelcome intrusion of fragile human beings into the unforgiving domain of animals and insects who are far more suited to the land and water than we will ever be. After all, it is an immutable law that in nature only the strong survive.

And I’m okay with that.

I am more than happy to be weak and forced to survive in air conditioning, watching hundreds of cable channels, working on my computer (I have three laptops in my office), and getting tasty snacks out of the fridge.

Why would I attempt to survive without the bare necessities that make modern life bearable in a regrettable effort to “rough it” in the great outdoors? (That’s an idea only fit for a bad reality show.)

I cannot understand why anyone, in their right mind, would want to leave the indispensable possessions they have spent a lifetime accumulating. In other words, why would I want to take a vacation from all the things I love?

I’ll tell you why; because I am married, and my wife hardly ever makes a special request, and on the rare occasion when she does, I feel like I should make a minimal effort to please her.

But then, incredibly, the news got even worse.

Taking visual cues from my body language, which clearly gave away my bewilderment, the love of my life explained why she wanted to wander off into the wilderness.  

“I want to camp out because I want you to take me fishing. Shirley down the street says it’s a wonderful way to experience the beauty of the natural world.”

Just hearing the word fishing made me struggle to stifle a yawn because when it comes to absolute sheer boredom, there is nothing else on the face of the earth that could rival the unrelenting monotony of sitting in a small metal boat in the middle of a lake, hour after hour, being baked alive in 100-degree heat with no shade whatsoever while being forced to converse in whispers so we don’t scare the fish away.

It will, no doubt, be a riveting adventure.

Perhaps I should offer a thoughtful defense for my complete revulsion at the very thought of camping. Basically, I have spent my entire adult life doing everything I possibly can to avoid being outdoors for any measurable length of time. There are many heartbreaking reasons for this, but let me give you one brief example.

I have A negative blood. Now you might wonder why I would brag about something I had nothing to do with. I mention it in passing only because it appears that mosquitos are drawn to my particular blood type in what can only be described as staggering numbers.

My wife and I can step into our backyard together and within seconds they swarm all over me while she remains untouched. (She’s O positive. Nothing special.) My bride always finds it quite amusing as she watches me dance around while simultaneously swatting and swearing.  

So, I know what’s coming when we go camping. I will step out of the tent for the first time, and the mosquitos will issue a feeding alert signaling an All You Can Eat Buffet!! Thousands of the annoying attackers will engage in an unrelenting onslaught against my tender sensitive flesh.

In the blink of an eye, I will be covered from head to toe with red itchy welts as my wife follows me out of the tent and casually flicks away a solitary gnat from her arm.

There was no doubt that this forced retreat into the dark ages was going to be unbearable.

But my wife’s mind was made up. This was what she wanted to do for vacation. But I wondered how can you still call it a vacation if you are retired and don’t work? I mean, in this case, what are you taking a vacation from? Happiness, contentment, peace of mind?

It didn’t matter. My spouse had thought of everything. She was borrowing all of the camping equipment (which included a small heavy canvas tent from the 1950’s) from her friend Shirley down the block.

Let me pause here and explain something about this particular neighbor. I’ve never really cared for Shirley, and the reason is that each time we have a thunderstorm and lose our power, Shirley’s power stays on. Even though she is only three houses away, she’s on a different grid. And what, you might ask, does Shirley do with her electricity while the rest of us suffer? She sits around in her Muumuu dress, eating snickerdoodles while she watches insipid game shows on TV!

But let’s jump ahead in our story.

Only one week later, we arrived at the lake and I spent hours unpacking the borrowed equipment and setting up camp. (The heavy tent proved to be particularly tricky – but eventually, I had our canvas castle ready for habitation.)

It already seemed to me that enjoying nature required a significant amount of work, especially considering that we were only staying for one night. The next morning, I would spend several more hours packing it all up so we could head back home. (My wife didn’t want the cat to get lonely.)

Unfortunately, even though my bride is the ultimate people person, she had decided to pitch our camp as far away from other human beings as possible. “We don’t want to be trampled on.”

I could not possibly see how being trampled on was going to be an issue since we were essentially cut off from civilization. Our ridiculously remote location was particularly annoying to me because I was soon duly informed that it was my job to get the water. (In this glorious age when we are blessed with an unlimited choice in flavored bottled beverages this seemed like a ludicrous waste of time and effort.)

But since our campsite was now established at the extreme edge of the known world, it was up to me to grab a couple of large metal buckets and traipse around until I found the nearest spigot which, unfortunately, was not within my normal walking distance which is from the couch to the refrigerator.

However, fate was kind, and I somehow managed to eventually locate some water. Once the two containers were overflowing with a thick brownish substance that did not resemble anything you would actually want to drink, I staggered back towards our particular parcel of paradise lugging the disgusting liquid.

But to make this little excursion even worse, with every backbreaking step I took, I could see little lizards and assorted other small creatures scurrying in every direction.

Even though I’m now at the advanced age where I have to shave the hair growing out of my ears, I’m still sharp enough to know that the presence of such critters meant that six-foot rattlesnakes were also lurking, just waiting for the opportunity to bite an old man from the city who had been forced to go camping against his will.

But despite the worrisome wildlife that surrounded me, I finally made my safe return, only to find my lovely bride waiting eagerly with our fishing gear in hand.

Sadly, there was no turning back now – so I rented a boat, and we hit the lake.

As predicted, hours crawled by as the sun beat down on us, but then, miraculously, the fish started to bite. My wife actually caught several that she determined were large enough to eat, each time screaming with excitement but then refusing to touch them. (How can you be willing to consume a creature that is too disgusting to touch?)

Ultimately, her fishing success was seriously bad news for me because that meant I had to clean them.

Much to my chagrin, my wife had also borrowed a book about the great outdoors from Shirley (published in the 1950’s) that included helpful tips on how to clean fish in such a way that they were guaranteed to be delectable.

In order to save you a lot of valuable time, I’m just going to quickly review the high points.

As your future entree flops around uncontrollably, you employ a dull, rusty bent knife to decapitate the helpless victim of your aquatic adventure. In dramatic fashion, this procedure puts the brakes on all the flopping – although a little twitching does continue for some time. (Hey, don’t be squeamish – it’s nature’s way.)

Now with the preliminaries taken care of, you get down to the good stuff. You split its belly open and disembowel it. (Oh boy!) All of the internal organs have to be removed. You can’t be a baby about it. You’ve got to get in there with both hands and get it clean because there is no reason to leave any body parts behind. (The poor fish is certainly finished with them.)

The slimy entrails are scooped up and thrown into a not so neat pile which instantly draws tens of thousands of flies that almost block out the sun. Then you cut up what’s left of the poor fish into (mouthwatering?) filets that will eventually be fried in so much grease it will send your lower gastrointestinal tract into cartwheeling spasms creating the severest of emergencies. “Oh, my God! How could you forget to bring toilet paper?!” (That is beyond roughing it.)

And, although I’m not prone to bragging, I am proud to say that when the grisly job was completed, even though there were a few close calls, I still had the same ten fingers I started with.

That night at dinner, while consuming the skillet fried delicacy, who hours before was happily swimming in a muddy lake but was now making a beeline for my colon, my wife casually remarked, “This is good. No fishy taste at all.”

I stared at her in disbelief. “Then what was the point? Why did I go through hell to catch and eviscerate a docile creature just so we could be thankful that it didn’t taste like what it was?”

My reasonable questions fell on deaf ears. My spouse was too caught in all the magical memories we were making during our weekend in the wilderness.

But there was still one more memory to make.

Later, after sunset, while my wife and I sat at a wobbly folding table playing cards around a small battery-powered lantern that barely put out enough light to allow her to catch me cheating, I stretched and yawned. (Camping is so exciting!)

Allow me to explain why my mind-numbing boredom was important.

As anyone who has spent time around these anemic illumination devices can readily attest to, the pitiful amount of light they give off still has the incredible ability to attract every type of flying insect known to entomology. Moths, beetle bugs, scary flying critters with huge wingspans, and horrible loud buzzing beasts all converge the moment the lantern is switched on.

You end up playing cards with one hand while you use your other hand to desperately swat at dive-bombing invaders, who may or may not have stingers loaded with paralyzing venom. (The camping fun just never stops!)

So, even though I was caught up in the pulse-pounding excitement of playing cards in near-total darkness in the middle of nowhere while I missed the Yankee game on TV, I stretched and yawned.

In what proved to be an extremely unfortunate coincidence, it was at the exact moment when I leaned back and was most vulnerable, that the swooping trajectory of an enormous flying hissing beetle led it straight into my wide-open yawning mouth.

Now……I am aware of the fact that many cultures around the world choose to include insects as part of their dietary regimen. Good for them. However, here in the Heartland, that type of cuisine is generally frowned upon, and I happen to believe with good reason.

As my wife looked on in a silent mixture of horror and an odd fascination, (she wanted to look away – but she just couldn’t) I instinctively clamped my mouth shut which resulted in a clearly audible crunch followed by an unfortunate reflexive gulp. I could feel my eyes bulging out until they became the size of ping pong balls as the gigantic insect slowly slid down my throat and plopped into my stomach joining the greasy fried fish.

In a flash, I bolted from the table and sprinted off into the gloomy darkness retching and gagging, As I frantically searched for a suitable spot to discard the contents of my stomach, I remember thinking to myself how this kind of thing usually doesn’t happen when you’re sitting comfortably at home on the couch watching TV while happily munching on chips and salsa.

Although I can’t say for certain how much time elapsed while I was evacuating the greasy fish/flying insect combo from my digestive system, I was finally able to slink back to our campsite feeling slightly dehydrated and ten pounds lighter.

My wife was waiting.

With my stomach still churning from my unexpected encounter with the nocturnal side of nature, I expected my darling to shower me with words of understanding and comfort.

Instead, she gave me a look that clearly conveyed her amusement at my distress, and then she thoughtfully asked, “Would you like some dessert?”

The next day while driving home, we discussed, in a somewhat less than cordial fashion, what we had learned from our little nightmare in the netherworld.

I pointed out that I didn’t understand why we couldn’t camp like normal people by staying in the air-conditioned lodge, watching TV, and enjoying tasty snacks. But my wife would have none of it. She was convinced that those poor souls were missing out on the true exhilaration of communing with nature.

Apparently, in her opinion, you weren’t really camping unless you suffered.

Personally, I think being nearly eaten alive by masses of mosquitos, being forced to slice, dice and ingest copious amounts of greasy fish, and increasing my protein intake by devouring an insidious invading insect in one giant gulp more than qualified as suffering.

But I will admit that attempting to survive without any modern conveniences during our one and only camping trip removed the last bit of doubt from my mind about whether or not I would’ve made a good pioneer.

I think it is obvious to any person who is reasonably perceptive that I would have been another Daniel Boone!

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