When I was a child I used to vacation at a very exclusive retreat center. It was known as my parents’ backyard.
Once the weatherman could guarantee at least two consecutive rainless summer days, my siblings and I would get the tent out and enjoy the wonders of backyard camping.
Since we pitched our tent a stone’s throw from the house, there was no need to pack light. Consequently, we’d fill our mini camping dome with as many mattresses, pillows, sleeping bags and blankets as our mother would allow. Along with securing the necessary sleeping paraphernalia, we made sure plenty of alternate light sources were at hand. Shadow puppets, ghost stories, and repeatedly saying “What was that?” all require adequate flashlight mood lighting.
Since our parents seldom accompanied these backyard expeditions, we also filled our nylon shelter with crumb producing foods. As we settled in for the night, we were surrounded by a mound of bedding infused with Cheeto and Dorito particulate. Of course, settling down was more of an idea than a reality.
First, there was the cat experiment. Even though Patches had never given us any indication she desired to join our encampment, each summer we attempted to include her in our expedition. Each summer Patches quickly rejected our invitation. Her stern and decisive rebuffs led to some of our tent’s most pronounced tears.
After the cat ritual, there usually were one or two emergency bathroom breaks. Not a midnight break, but a “Hope I don’t have to go at midnight” preemptive pee. This usually happened about a minute after Mom said her final goodnight. Since the house was so close and the putting on of shoes was such an inconvenience, we’d usually run for the bathroom sans shoes.
Those of you who grew up in the great Pacific Northwest know what’s coming next. With a frequency that can best be described as eerily uncanny, my shoeless run eventually would happen upon a slug. Stepping on a slug with one’s bare foot will create memories to last a lifetime, from the initial surprise of the slimy squish to the hopping and repeated scraping of the foot. Then there’s that strange feeling you just can’t shake. Even though the slug has long since fallen back into the grass, you still swear you feel it affixed to the arch of your foot.
Finally, after the potty breaks, the not so scary stories, the cat adventure and the consumption of one too many snacks, someone drifts off to sleep. Unfortunately, I have never been the first to slumber. Rather, I am left to document the sleep progression of those in my enclosure. First my brother Jeff, then my sister Christine, then anybody else but me. Whether three, five or two of us, I am the last to find rest.
So I wait … I wait until I am confident everyone has transitioned into dreamland. I listen for deep breaths and meaningless mumbles. My mind turns to matters far beyond our tent. I listen for the rumble and whistle of distant trains. I wonder if the conductor is experiencing a mundane existence or if he too feels the stillness of the moment. My ears drift upward to the overhead flight pattern. I imagine passengers readying seats and tray tables for descent or settling in for the beginning of a long, sleepy, midnight excursion. I wonder if the cabin is full of activity or if a quiet inevitability has overcome the plane.
Most importantly, I wonder if I slowly should unzip the tent flap, tiptoe up the back stairs and head to my bedroom. The answer was never the same, but the question was almost always there.
To be young, to be careless, to be free … to be fearful of being awake and alone. When I was younger, I would tiptoe the back stairs, push inward our unlocked door and stealthily walk the creaky wood floors toward my bedroom down the hall. Empty of blankets and pillows, I’d curl up in the bed sheet and place one arm behind my head. Soon, Patches would bed down beside me and the snore of my father would serenade me to sleep.
What a glorious summer retreat.