Be a happy camper… Family fun in the outdoors

–by Mary Helen Darah

Camper, Jim Scheib, scans the horizon for the perfect campsite.

It’s hard to believe that three and a half decades have passed since my family’s fateful Friday the 13th camping experience. It’s even harder to believe that I wasn’t thrown into therapy over what some of the more negative members of our posse still refer to as our own personal “Survivor episode sans Prozac.” Yet, I have found one thing to be true about those who “hang” in the outdoors. Campers cope and cope we did.

Three families naively headed to Pokagon State Park with the intention of having some fun and frolic.

My family had a Holiday trailer we towed behind our station wagon complete with faux wood trim. The Wrays, whose four ultra-athletic children made the rest of us kids feel like talentless freaks, set up tents with the efficiency of circus employees. The Baumann’s had a pop-up camper that Mrs. Baumann, with great diligence and determination, made downright homey.

We parked our Holiday trailer in a lovely spot overlooking the lake. I honestly don’t recall who was first to notice its slow descent down the hill toward the lake, but I do remember the chaos that ensued. My brother, believing he had super human powers, tried to pull off a “Superman” impersonation as he clung to the hitch of the trailer in a valiant attempt to stop its downward progression. My mom yelled for my brother to let go. As he came to his senses, my Dad jumps in moments later and attempted the same feat but quickly released his grip from the hitch and helplessly watched the descent of our camper. Astonishingly, instead of continuing down the hill and plunging into the watery depths of Lake James, it came to an abrupt stop after traveling only three additional feet. A little dogwood tree had saved the day.

My mom was the first brave soul who stepped inside our home away from home to assess the damage. All seemed to be unscathed except the cabinet drawers had been forced open, making it look as if we now had a poltergeist. Unfortunately for my dad, his underwear drawer was located directly under the fridge door. The contents of the fridge, including a large pot of chili that was to be our dinner, was now in his Jockey briefs. My dad was forced to go “commando” the rest of the weekend.

Things eventually simmered down to a mild mania. We settled once again at the picnic table and played board games. Though it was very difficult to concentrate due to the aroma of a slow-cooking casserole wafting in our direction, made by Mrs. Baumann. Knowing that I was most likely going to be on the receiving end of chili from the underwear drawer, I set about trying to score an invite to the Baumann camp. I was successful in my mission. We anxiously waited at the table as Mrs. Baumann emerged from the pop-up trailer with her culinary delight. Mrs. Baumann was the most ladylike woman I had ever met. It was quite surprising to hear her say an unfamiliar word when she tripped on a small rock, causing noodles, chicken and cheese to take flight and land in the gravel. With bloodied knees, and still clutching her spoon, she scooped up the casserole back into the Pyrex dish and proceeded toward us. She slopped big heaps of the carnage on our plates. Looking as if she were possessed by demons and refraining from eye contact, she chanted over and over “Don’t say a word! I mean it girls. Don’t say a word!” My friend Kari, who was the bravest of the bunch, took a bite. Two seconds later, she spat out a small piece of gravel which caused an outburst of laughter from us kids.

Meanwhile, at the Wray family camp, the canned peach-hating boys, were throwing their unwanted fruit over their shoulders into the woods when Mrs. Wray turned her back. We found out later that evening that skunks are quite fond of peaches.

That night, even though many of the adults thought that we shouldn’t press our luck, we had a campfire. We burnt marshmallows, sang songs and reminisced about our day in the great outdoors. As I looked around, I saw three families who were in fact “bonding,”often through coping. It is a weekend that I shall always cherish. However, to this day, I’m not a big fan of chili or noodle casserole.