The backyard becomes a campground when a tent goes up alongside the driveway.
I doubt 4-year-olds have a bucket list. But if they do, I imagine camping in the backyard is probably on it.
Thus, I grudgingly set up a tent beside the driveway last month. I knew a long, sleepless night was ahead. My 33-year-old back, shoulders, and neck are accustomed to my Sealy Posturepedic, not my lumpy lawn. My air-conditioned house is far more comfortable than the hot, humid night air of Chicago in mid-August.
Our adventure was dutifully timed. The wife was out of town. Sleeping in a tent provided a distraction enough to avoid the “Where’s Mommy?” question.
I waited until late afternoon to announce the evening’s activities. I wanted to be sure the weather would cooperate before I made any promises. Setting the table for an evening of flashlights and sleeping bags, only to have to issue a rain check, was the last thing I wanted.
The forecast confirmed clear skies. I unrolled the four-man tent I haven’t used in years. My 12-by-7-foot Coleman was largely a refuge for underage drinking in my late teens. This was far more wholesome. My toddlers spent much of the early evening pretending it was a spaceship.
Once the tent was erected, I had a great idea. I went inside the house and swiped the four-inch-thick mattress from our sleeper sofa. It was a perfect fit in the tent, and it proved to be a visionary move at bedtime.
After an early evening around the bonfire, we smelled like bug spray, smoke and sweat. We played tag with flashlights and shared ice cream.
The boys were begging to go to bed by 8:30 p.m. I unzipped the tent and everyone quickly crawled inside. Speed was necessary to keep out the mosquitoes, which are having a baby boom generation this year, thanks to ample summer thunderstorms.
The boys climbed into their sleeping bags. I tucked them in, gave them each a smooch and said goodnight. Then the silliness began.
For the next two hours, the boys found new and interesting ways to avoid sleeping. First, 2-year-old Peter wanted to trade flashlights with Bubba. Then they traded back. After that, they wanted to swap sleeping bags. Then, they wanted to sleep on the mattress with me. Later, they decided to share stuffed animals, only to insist they be returned minutes later.
It was like watching the closing sequence of The Benny Hill Show in real time. At one point, I began to hum the silly saxophone instrumental.
The boys finally crashed about 10:30 p.m. I did too. Just before we closed our eyes, Bubba sat up in his sleeping bag. He looked at me and in a loud whisper said, “I love this campout, Dad.”
That made it a lot easier to sleep outside—that and the mattress.
—Howard A. Ludgig, The Father Life
Howard Ludwig is a former business writer who traded in his reporter’s notebook for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad. He can be reached at [email protected].