Setting up camp for a week of camping is quite a project even today. Back when I was a little girl there was no high-tech, lightweight fabric or flex-cord aluminum rods, no coolers on wheels, and very little pre-packaged food.
Our tent was like a small canvas circus tent, with poles made of wood and no floor. The cots we slept on were canvas and wood, and Mom brought along a large cupboard with enough food to feed a small army. Come to think of it, we were a small army. Once a fellow camper stopped by and asked Dad how he got all his kids to pitch in and work together so smoothly. A slow grin spread up one side of his face and lit up his eyes, then washed over the other side of his face before Dad said, “Oh that’s easy. No one can go to the bathroom until we get camp set up.” Dad had all kinds of ways to motivate kids without raising his voice.
I loved to go to Sleeping Bear Dunes to camp. For one thing it was a little closer than Brimley, so it didn’t take us a week of Sunday’s to get there; for another thing, the beach was all white sand and we got to set up camp on a site right on the beach. That was the berries. The only down side was that campsite was at the top of a sandy hill that we had to lug all that gear up. Geez-o-Pete’s, that was tough. Oh yeah, and getting steaks to hold firm in all that sand was kinda tough, too; but that was Dad’s job; I just had to hold the poles steady while he figured it all out.
Dad drove around and around the campground until he found just the right site for us. It had to be pretty close to the bathrooms, ’cause one Little Kid was in diapers and another was getting potty-trained; but not too close to the bathrooms or people would be traipsing over our lot. That was no good. Then Mom walked around and around the site until she found just the right place for the tent. She told Dad exactly how to put the tent, where the door should face, and how close to a shade tree. Then Dad set the tent up with all us kids helping. Nobody in this world could set that tent up by himself, not even two people could do it. Sometimes it took two Big Kids just to hold one wooden pole steady. Once the main poles were up and the ropes staked in, me and Deanna and Bonita put in the wall poles, that was pretty easy. That tent never, ever ended up exactly where Mom wanted it, but once it was up, there was no way in blue blazes it was getting moved.
Lots of times Bonita and I worked together to put the army cots together. That was pretty easy until we got to the last peg in the hole for the cross-bar, then Bonita held on tight and braced her feet against the legs of the cot and I pulled hard as I could to get that canvas stretched tight and finally: pop, the last cross-bar was in place. Vickie and Loren carried the cots into the tent, one at the head, and one at the foot, singing ‘We are Marching to Pretoria” or some other song Mom taught us, and Mom got everything all organized and neat, with all the cots in a row, and everybody’s beer box of clothes underneath. Little Kids slept toe to toe on one cot, ’cause there was no sense in wasting space. Mom and Dad had this huge double cot with metal mesh and a thin mattress on top; they always slept together, that’s what married people do.
Mom put the cupboard and the icebox in place, right outside the tent door, and the stove on the picnic table, and finally, we were on Easy Street. Just beach and sand and cookies and ice cream and adventure. Sure I still had to help with dishes, making supper, and watch Little Kids, but I liked that stuff anyway; well except for the dishes. Even doing dishes was fun when I was outside. I told Dad that in the old days, people just used sand to scrub pans, ”cause Brillo pads weren’t invented. He said that was a great idea, so I should give it a try.
After that we never packed Brillo pads, ’cause sand worked super, and it was a lot more fun scrubbing a pan on the beach, with the sound of the waves and the seagulls all around me. Dad said that was the best idea ever, and I knew he meant it, ’cause those blue eyes of his never ever lied. Anytime something got burned on, I volunteered to go scrub the pan. That happened a lot, ’cause when we were camping, Dad cooked breakfast every day: hot Tang ’cause it seemed like it was always cold and rainy outside in the morning when we camped, bacon, eggs, and the best of all things, bread fried in bacon grease. That was the most delicious breakfast in the whole wide world. Once Bonita begged Dad to cook that breakfast at home for us. It about made me want to throw-up. I guess some things are only delicious when you’re outside all day and you are really, really hungry, and there’s no Cheerios and fresh milk handy.
Most of the time we all just ran around, built camps in the scrub-brush, jumped waves and swam all day. I tell you, every kid should have the chance to vacation like that: no TV, no radio, hardly any chores to do, just each other. We got to know each other in a whole different relaxed way. Want an ice cream cone? Let’s walk. So what if it’s three miles? We’ve got all day with nothing on the schedule. Now that’s the berries.