Camping is the great American pastime. Deep in the woods, small groups cluster around crackling campfires sparking in the dark. Occasionally, songs and the intrusive clink of bottles and raucous laughter fracture a quiet interlude. The aroma of juicy burgers sizzling on glowing charcoal pits waft in on smoky breezes.
So do mosquitoes. And on the pristine earth beneath the feet of these happy campers crawl ants, spiders and all sorts of biting insects. That's just part of the camping story.
I was 8 years old in the late 1930s, when my 6-year-old sister Rosemarie and I were shipped off for two weeks to Cradle Beach Camp in Angola. I recall our bus pulling up before a low, wooden building with a long, white porch cramped with second-week veteran kids singing their greeting to us: "Fresh bread monkey, sitting on a donkey, giddyap, giddyap, whoa." I was pretty sure then I was going to hate the place. Soon after, when the regimentation began, I knew I would.
Swim time lasted all of 15 minutes in a cordoned-off area of the lake, where we splashed around foolishly in knee-deep water under the watchful eyes of a couple of young female chaperones. Each night we were served a snack of crackers and milk, and forced to sing songs, such as "Polly Woddle Doodle," and "Found a Peanut." Most stressful were the showers, with those same chaperones soaping me down. Back then two weeks was an eternity.
Aside from bivouac in Texas, where the ticks and the fire ants play, my final camping experience came in the 1960s, when a neighbor couple invited my wife, Jeannette, and me along to Rainbow Lake. That's when I learned what camping is really about.
It's about turning the clock back 2,000 years. Like peripatetic nomads, we carried all our needs with us. Fortunately for Floyd and me, most of the work fell to Jeannette and Eilleen: packing food, bedding, utensils, pots, pans, condiments, etc.; later trying to wash greasy dishes in pots of cold water.
We guys had only to expand the trailer, set up the rickety chairs and tables, start a fire and make sure we had an ample supply of beer on ice. That was the pleasant part of camping.
Night wakened the bloodsucking appetite of insects that swarmed in uninvited to feast on us: Take a slug of beer and slap; another slug and slap slap, all as I stared morosely into a fire that baked me on one side.
Nearby stood the odorous lavatory, where dank walls seemed to ooze poisonous vapors, and wet floors pooled like primordial Petri dishes nourishing gestating plagues. The shower stalls, embossed with green scum, seemed to pose a greater health risk to a bather after taking a shower than before taking one.
Turning in on that first moonless night after we had extinguished the fire and the lanterns, I peered into the heart of a prehistoric darkness I had never imagined existed. Suddenly I thought, isn't this precisely what man has been trying to escape throughout the ages: bugs, dirt, disease and danger? And there I lay, at the mercy of malevolent nature, while not far off, I had a secure house, a comfortable bed, a clean bathroom and lights.
Good luck to those hardy campers who enjoy communing directly with nature. I enjoy communing with nature, too, preferably through my living room window.
James Costa, a retired teacher who lives in Elma, is not a big fan of the great outdoors.