Summer weather approaches, bringing with it warm memories of family camping trips at Lake Texhoma. My father instigated these annual trips that only lasted a week, but were so packed with fun that all the years seem to melt into one hot, blissful remembrance. Camping together as a family forces you to share the same sleeping quarters, eat meals together, and play together. It’s like the fresh air can hold you closer than the sturdy walls of a home.
Momma’s memories are not as fond as mine. Camping, for her, was a lot of work. She usually had most of our things together before Daddy pulled in the driveway on his last day of work, knowing that he would be ready to go as soon as we could get everything loaded up in his beige International pickup. My older sister, Tina, my younger brother, Brady, and I were put to work as well. We were the fetchers; fanning out to gather items for Mom to put in saved brown grocery sacks and cardboard boxes; selecting shorts, tank tops, swimsuits, and underwear to throw in her suitcases. These suitcases were wedding gifts to my parents. They were hard, covered in burgundy and cream leather. When Momma placed her thumbs on the two brass buttons and pulled them to the outside edges, the latches “clicked” open and Momma lifted the lids to reveal burgundy cloth interiors perfumed with an antique, musty smell which was not offensive to me, but smelled of summer vacations.
Momma always said that Daddy expected her to pack up the whole kitchen to take on these camping trips. The cardboard boxes were made extremely heavy with cast iron skillets, pots and pans, utensils, old silverware, and such. Daddy loved breakfast cooked out in the open. We might eat sandwiches for lunch, hot dogs for supper, and roasted marshmallows for dessert, but breakfast was a full-on feast of bacon, eggs, and fried potatoes; after which, the skillets would be carted to the nearest water spout, where cold lake water was pumped for us to wash them clean.
We were all called to action when Daddy got home. It was like thoughts of pitching that green army tent of his made him more of a “general” than usual. Two cotton mattresses were hoisted and thrown in the bed of the truck. We didn’t use cots. We didn’t use air mattresses. These older mattresses were stored away all year for this one purpose: to lie side-by-side in the floor of that old tent, Momma and Daddy sleeping in one, us three children crammed tight on the other. Can you imagine a hot summer night…the only breeze coming through the mesh windows of the tent (maybe, if you were lucky!)…stuck between your hyperactive younger brother, whose sole purpose in life was to torture you to tears, and your older sister, who being four years older than you, made her almost too superior to be forced to sleep with you in the first place, on the other? It was hard to get to sleep, as you can probably imagine!
Anyway…everything was loaded in the back of that truck: Coleman cookstove, lanterns, coolers, broom, kitchen, suitcases, etc. Then, hoisted on top–last but not, least–us three kids. Oh, we were told to sit all the way next to the cab because it was not safe to sit anywhere else! That way, Momma could bang on the window and motion to us if we misbehaved. My long hair would whip around all the way there. I’m sure I looked like Bob Marley by the time we arrived, complete with my first sunburn of the week.
Daddy liked to stop on the way to take the family in Gibsons to get our vacation flip-flops that might, or might not, make it through the week. I loved these stops! You never knew what Daddy might buy you; it just depended on how much money was burning a hole in his pocket that week. He was generous to a fault, but knew how to show us kids the way to have a good time. The buggy squeaked its way up and down the aisles with kerosene, lantern bulbs, large square batteries for the flashlight (a must-have for any camping trip, doubling as a middle-of-the-night light used for scouting out a safe place to pop a squat and a prop for great shadow puppets), flip-flops for one and all, water floats and inner tubes piled on top of each other. Sometimes, you might even score a new bathing suit!
When the truck finally made its way over the Denison Dam, you knew you had arrived. Oak trees thickly lined the park roads. Lake air kissed your skin. Heaven and the water beckoned…but not until camp was set up! Young eyes were directed to scour the area for sticks and sharp rocks that might puncture the bottom of Daddy’s prized tent. I was so afraid we would miss something! Nothing was scarier to me as a child than scorn behind my daddy’s big brown eyes. We swept the ground with a straw broom just to be safe. Then, all together, we hoisted the massive tent with a shout here and a tug there, hammering down the stakes on all corners and sides. I’m surprised we didn’t stand there and salute the thing when the assembly was completed.
When the beds were made and all things unloaded and placed in the best possible spot, we were finally allowed to change into our swimsuits. We sat on rough, concrete picnic tables waiting for our parents to make their change. The urgency that we had felt at getting loaded up at the house was now, somehow, shifted into low, slow gear. It took them forever to come out of that tent! “Can we go swimming, now?”
Finally, what I had been waiting a whole year for was happening. We were making that family trek to the water where I would wade in the coldness until about knee deep and then, dive in, allowing my hot skin to adjust to the coolness of Lake Texhoma. I would rise to its surface, look back to the shore, and laugh at Momma. Daintily, she would be inching her way into the water, OOOOing and shivering, and shouting, “It’s cold!” Whereby, my brother would begin splashing her so he could hear her scream, “Stop it! Let me get used to it my way!”
Daddy would swim and laugh. He always seemed happiest in those moments. Later, he would come over to us and let us dive off his legs or shoulders. Often, he would try to fool us by telling us that he had found something. He would clench both hands together like he was holding something and then, when you got close enough to look, he would squeeze his palms together and squirt water in your face.
I sure do miss him and love him as much as ever! He gave me so many gifts; only one of them being the love of camping.