The most exciting phone calls I remember as a young girl came not for or from a boy, but from my Dad. As I mentioned he owned a Hardware Store in our small Midwest town and to accommodate the farmers, he stayed open until 9:00 on Saturday nights. It was an economic necessity for us , but it made for a very short weekend! He usually came home for supper from 5:30 to 6:00 on Saturday nights. But two or three times a summer while my brothers and I were growing up, the phone would ring shortly after he’d gone back to work. Without suspecting anything we would answer and he would say, “Ask your Mom if she can be ready to go camping by 9:00?”
We knew what it would involve, it would be work for everyone, especially for Mom. However, Mom wouldn’t miss a lick, she’d smile and say, “Tell him, we’ll be ready.” Then we four would switch into high gear! Mom would have to go to the grocery store, because camping food required a special menu. My little brothers would run out to the shed and start wrestling our heavy canvas tent out to the driveway so it could be put in the trunk when Mom got home with the car from the grocery store. The boys ranged between four and twelve in those days. I’d get the picnic basket out from under the bed , our house was small so we stored where we could. I started counting out the silverware, glasses, plates, cups, spatulas, coffee pot, hot pads, and so on. The boys would then patiently get the lantern, check the kerosene can , line up the tackle boxes, the axe, and the small pistol that Dad kept unloaded by the bed plus the box of ammunition. They stacked it all up along the side of the house so that when Mom came back they could help her carry in the groceries, then they would load the car quickly.
Because my father was crippled with Polio, my brothers learned how to do things capably at very early ages. Dad trained them, so they knew how and what to do. By the time John was 7 or 8 he could “straw boss” the packing pretty well. Mom and I went to work in the house while the boys were outside, we lined up the food, the bedding, towels, and bathing suits. We added a flashlight and my Dad’s pride and joy, the short-wave radio! Since Dad owned the Hardware Store we had one of the best short-wave radios in town. We never went camping without that, it was our highway to adventure in the night.
Even now I can see the kitchen table piled high with the necessities. The screen door would slam as the boys ran in and out carrying things to pack into the car. The moths and bugs came in with the boys, attracted by the light, but Mom didn’t fuss. She knew Dad was probably “full up” with the he store and anxious to get into the ‘great outdoors’, as he always called it. To facilitate life for him required loving tolerance on her part. Dad had grown up in Nebraska on the shores of the Ponca River and he never really did get enough “outdoors” after he became a bookkeeper, then a Teller in the bank, and finally a store owner. But he knew all the tricksof how to put up the tent. He would position it, the boys would lay it out according to his instructions, then he would crawl around to pound the stakes in, because he used the back of the axe and he was afraid they’d get hurt. However, they were very capable and careful and it wasn’t long until they could put up the eight person 70 pound tent by themselves and dig a trench around in case of rain.
When the Mercury was loaded, it would be almost 9:00. We three kids would crowd in the back seat with our feet carefully placed around and on things, then our 80 pound dog would join us in the already crowded backseat. Oh well, such is love, we didn’t fret about his bad breath, big feet, or crowding! The adventure had begun.
We would stop by the store and pick up Dad, he was ready except he would change out of his good work clothes when we got to our site. Our camping spot was on Rosebud Indian Reservation land down by a river called the Little White. There wasn’t really a road in to ‘our’ spot, it was more of a trail and I can remember after the 90 mile drive, seeing headlights shine up into the tree leaves as the car bumped over the trail. “with luck boys”, Dad would say, “you’ll have the tent up and the beds made by the time I have the fire started and the coffee perking.” The nights stars looked big and gorgeous in the sky- it was so different from the view of the night sky in town.
Actually, they would have to scout wood before they started putting the tent up, but usually there were some dried pieces along the river and with Frisky along we weren’t too afraid of snakes. Then Dad would fix the fire ring by clearing brush and putting stones in a circle , while Mom got out the frying pan and other essentials for hamburgers at midnight. Dad always made coffee in an old percolator when we camped and I can hear the wonderful sound now of that pleasant little “burp”, “burp”, “burp” against the background of the river rushing by. Dad usually sang a few bars of “I want to drink my coffee from an old tin can, while the moon is riding high.” Dad rarely sang, so it meant he was feeling happy and free. The Stars were low overhead, above the tree tops and it seemed, nothing could be more wonderful than the five of us and Frisky out there in the middle of the ‘great outdoors ‘.
I’m sure none of us could imagine how life could be better than it was then. The folks never told us to go to bed when we were camping. After we’d eaten hamburgers and fresh fruit, and topped it off with a candy bar, Dad would tune in the short wave, accompanied by lots of static, of course. He’d tune in “far away places with strange sounding names” and he’d talk about the wonderful age we live in. “someday you will travel and see these things.” He would say to us. One night in particular I remember we listened to Mozart’s sonatas from a live broadcast in Germany on the BBC and he said , “Someday you’ll hear them live in a great concert hall and remember this night beside the Little White River in South Dakota.” We have indeed all three grown up to travel internationally, something my Dad could only dream of doing.
Finally, one of us kids would think about swimming or fishing in the morning, and slowly we’d peel away into the tent. Mom and Dad would sit up even later and talk and drink coffee and stare at the fire and just be glad to be alone together, with us! The next morning we’d slip on our suits and go swimming in the river. Dad’s only rule was that there had to be at least two together, so we worked it out. We had wonderful games with “rustlers” sneaking up on us and peeking over the bluffs, or Indians about to attack, however, we were always warned in time by our faithful dog Frisky that danger was near! Oh, the games we played In that shallow sandy bottomed river. We’d dig deep holes and bury each other and, it was a giant playground that makes Disneyland seem mild in comparison. Eventually, the wonderful smell of bacon and coffee would get us out of the water and we’d all have breakfast together. The folks would wash up and then luxuriate over the Sunday paper. Later while Dad cut up the vegetables and meat for his famous ‘camp stew’, Mom would come swimming with us. She knew all kinds of rhymes and songs that added to the sunny free feeling of the day.
We camped in kind of a draw on very sandy soil. A real death trap should there be a flash flood upriver, but when it was dry there was no problem. If it rained much we would leave early, but if it was just a sprinkle of rain, we would linger, swim, fish, then eat Dad’s famous camp stew and fresh bread. Just before dusk we would head home, because Dad had to open the store early Monday morning. There would be a sandy mess for the rest of us to contend with but such a glorious time was well worth it.
Laterwhen I was dating, my boy friends liked to go camping on the Little White with our family too. In fact I sometimes wondered if I was the total attraction or if they just liked being on our family outings? “Well”, my Dad would say to Mother, “it’s better than leaving them in town and the current beau can help out our boys.” If I had a boyfriend along, we took two tents and he slept with my brothers in theirs. It seemed our family was special and the town boys liked the freedom, the swimming, the eats, and the target practice. They had never experienced anything like late night ‘cruising’ on the short wave and the conversations around the camp fire that it occasioned. I guess it was Dads answer to teen-age temptations. Neither my brothers nor I had much desire to get into trouble, there was just so much to do. There were always those exciting phone calls to anticipate on weekends and one year Dad called and told Mom to get ready, he had heard there was a free concert in the Park in Denver, Colorado on the 4th of July. That was 10 hours away, but what a 4th of July that was for us. After the concert and fireworks we drove a couple hours and camped in the Rockies. My Dad was a master of surprise entertainment for his wife and kids.
When John was about ten Dad bought a reasonably priced, folding canoe which added to the delight of all! Though it made work for my brothers, it was fun! There was a creek nearby our camping spot and it could be carried there and was great for boat rides and fishing. Before I knew it those years were over and it was time for me to go to college and see what “attracting” I could do on my own.
Many years have gone by and I have received many phone calls since then, but they have not compared with the delightful unexpectedness of my Dad’s voice suggesting a late night camping trip. Sometime soon, My Heavenly Father’s voice will call me, perhaps unexpectedly, with the suggestion of the greatest outing yet, only this time He will call me to the Jordan, and my heart will beat high with excitement knowing that I’m already prepared, as I rush to answer His call.