As we reached the other side, the tensions melted away, and our moods shifted to celebratory relief. When we reached the shore, we tied the canoe down, high-fived each other quickly, and even let out a hoot and a holler. But exhaustion set in quickly, and we took a break staring at those blue bundles, wondering how we’d get them up to the campsite. My father suggested we walk to the campsite and see how far it was, then come back and get everything unloaded. He was sure if we knew how far we needed to go, we could focus and do what needed to be done.
The campsite wasn’t too far from the lake, no more than half a football field, but the terrain was uneven and treacherous. Roots from large trees poked out from the soil, while large rocks appeared where our feet landed. Once we reached the campsite, my father looked back at the lake and traced with his hand the path we needed to take with our gear.
“See that?” he said. “We can take that path right there up to that rock, then ease over and come up over there. We’ll have to watch out for those roots, though. Those things’ll getcha.”
We carried the first bundle up the path. It wasn’t heavy, but it was big and awkward and required two people to carry it. We put the bundle down near the only sign of civilization in the campsite’s clear, open space, an old brown picnic table. “That wasn’t so bad,” my father said softly.
It took a few hours to unpack all the gear. Afterward, as the sunlight faded between the trees, we set about gathering rocks to arrange in a ring for the fire pit and dry branches, twigs, and leaves for the fire.
My father kept two sticks to the side and gave one to me after the fire crackled. Using our knives, we sat near the fire, quietly whittling the ends of the sticks into fine points. The sticks could also be weapons, if we needed them. Instead, we used them to roast hot dogs and marshmallows.
Soon, it was time to sleep. We laid out our sleeping bags inside the tent and zipped ourselves inside. I kept my knife near me, so I could get to it easily in case any wild animals got too close to our tent, our food, or my father.
There wasn’t a whole lot to do in the woods. In the mornings, we attempted to fish. We pushed the canoe out onto the lake, then paddled what we thought was a good distance from the shore. With no anchor, we let the canoe drift as we cast our lines out into the water that was so clear we could see the rocks and plants sitting in the soft brown and glowing green bottom of the lake. Schools of small fish darted back and forth as if they were all connected by invisible wires, while an occasional whirligig beetle skimmed over the surface of the water, leaving a small, thin wake in its path.
Each day, we practiced our knife throwing with a set of small, thin knives my father purchased for our trip. Chipmunks skittered through the thin grass of our campsite, and I took to throwing my knives at them, much to my father’s chagrin. “Don’t do that,” he admonished. “We can’t eat those things. There’s not enough meat on them.”
My father told me stories about his youth and the things he’d seen. He grew up in rural Oklahoma, moving between Wilson, Okmulgee, and Ardmore. When he was about three years old, his parents sent him and his older brother, Joe, to live with his grandparents, Granny Duck and Grand Daddy Ed. He didn’t know exactly why he was sent to live with his grandparents, but it seemed to him that his parents couldn’t take care of his brother or him, and his grandparents could, or were at least willing to take on the responsibility.
When he spoke of Granny Duck and Grand Daddy Ed, his voice smiled. Despite meager means, Granny Duck expected good grades from her grandchildren, and she expected them to be clean little boys who wore clean clothes. Grand Daddy Ed was a man who could go weeks without uttering a single word—perhaps because he was “simple,” surmised my father—but he was a good, gentle man who loved both his grandsons.
My father and his brother were prone to mischief. They ran around the farm shooting each other in the ass with homemade slingshots. They made a go-cart from washing machine parts. It didn’t run. He made it sound fun, but he also believed raising two rambunctious little boys made life tougher on his grandparents. “That poor woman,” he said of Granny Duck. “She was a saint to tolerate us.”
He went on about how neat and clean Granny Duck kept that small house, and how she made the best biscuits and gravy he’d ever tasted. During those years, he said with pride, he never slept on anything but a bed with ironed, lightly starched sheets.
When he was in fifth grade, he returned to live with his mother and father. His father was an alcoholic who beat and verbally abused them, while his mother didn’t do much to stop it. Most of the time, he was left to his own devices. He never spoke of this part of his life with bitterness, but with confusion and a small curiosity about how any of it could have been possible.
“Hey,” he asked me one night, next to me in the darkness of the tent, during one of our bullshit sessions. “Did I ever tell you how I learned to swim?”
“Well,” he explained. “It was two ways. First, I learned to put my head underwater and hold my breath in a bath tub.”
“I’ve done that too!”
“The other way was, we had a fish trap out of hog wire, about five feet wide and five, six feet long, and we’d put it upstream and the fish would swim into it. That’s how we caught fish to eat.”
“Oh yeah. They’d swim in, but they couldn’t swim out. Anyway, the bottom of that river was notorious for changing.”
“What river was it?”
“The Deep Fork River.”
“The Deep Four?”
“No, the Deep Fork.”
“You could walk across the river one day, and the next day, there’d be holes that you could fall into.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“Yeah, it kind of was. But if you were aware of it, it wasn’t a big deal,” he said, shooing away the thought. “But one day, I went out to get the fish trap, and I stepped in one of those holes in the bottom of the river. Before I knew it, I was underwater.”
“No! What did you do?”
“It’s kind of goofy, actually. I had just read a Cub Scout manual a week or two before, and in the manual, it described how to dog paddle. Then, for those two weeks, I thought about dog paddling and what it would be like and how to do it, kind of hoping for an opportunity to try it out. So, I got my opportunity. When everything was going dark, I remembered how to dog paddle and swam back up to the top.”
“That was lucky,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “But that’s how I learned to swim, by falling in over my head.”
“That sounds scary.”
“It was,” he confessed. “But that’s the way they used to teach people how to swim back then. They just threw them in the water.”
Given his tortured upbringing, it’s no surprise, then, that my father was unfazed by how poorly our family fit into Kenilworth, or that he was oblivious to his family’s struggle to find its place. My mother didn’t enjoy living there, and my sister had her own tribulations, but my father seemed almost not to notice the snubs. He simply didn’t care what other people thought of him. He knew no one could do anything worse than what he had already survived.
In the end, I believe our camping trip was as therapeutic for my father as it was for me. It was not only something he felt a father should do with his son, but it also provided him a way to gently teach a boy how to survive.
During our final hike on the last day of the camping trip, I found the courage to ask my father if he had ever struggled to make friends when he was my age, if he ever doubted himself, or if he had ever lost his confidence.
I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of a response. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he told me to quit being such a goddamn sissy about it all. But he didn’t.
“Sure,” he said. “Sure, I did. Hell, I still do.”
“Absolutely. Little boys doubt themselves. When they grow up, they become men who doubt themselves. Everyone feels that way from time to time.”
I thought about this for a moment. “I don’t know why I don’t have any friends.”
“I’m your friend.”
“Yep. If I was your age, you’d be my best friend.”
“You’re my dad. You have to say that.”
“That’s not true. I think you’re cooler than any of those other kids. And if I had to pick one to be my friend, you’d be it. Hands down.”
Our walked slowed, and what needed to be said, was said to me. “I love you, buddy. More than you can understand.” He put his arm around my shoulders, pulled me close, and kissed me on the top of the head.
Embarrassed at the show of affection, I didn’t say anything. Instead, I looked down at the ground as we continued to walk. “But why don’t the other kids like me?” I asked, still confused.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “But if that’s the way they are, fuck ’em.”
In the morning, we broke down camp and loaded our gear into the canoe. When we reached the other side of the lake, we took the gear from the canoe and loaded it into the car. We drove a few hours; neither of us truly convinced that the trip was almost over. At some point early in the drive, we decided we needed a good meal and little bit of civilization to ease us on our way. My father saw a small place near the two-lane highway and pulled off the road so we could get a hearty meal before going home.
It was the kind of place that only small-town locals would go. As we took our own seats, a waitress pulled my father aside and politely told him that we smelled awful, then subtly suggested that we should eat someplace else. My father looked at her kindly, acting slightly embarrassed, and explained in a charming way that we had just returned from a camping trip and that we weren’t some wayfaring indigents who happened into the restaurant from the highway. He assured her that we would be paying for our meal and that we’d try our best not to bother anyone.
The waitress didn’t press the issue any further. As she walked away, my father sat down and picked up a menu, but he couldn’t keep the request of the waitress a secret. A few seconds passed before he whispered across the table, “Hey,” he said, smiling through the scruff on his face. “We musta done a good job camping, because we smell so bad she wanted us to leave!”
The truckers and the locals in the diner, who were hunched over their plates scooping food into their mouths, occasionally looked over at us, then back down at their plates, not sure what to do with the scruffy man who came in with his dirty son. We paid them no mind. While we ate our food, we giggled and giggled about the fact that we smelled so bad we were asked to leave. We stayed where everyone could smell us, saying “please” and “thank you” every time the words were needed, and we ate all our food with a fork and a knife and with our napkins placed neatly in our laps.
S. Grady Barrett is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. He runs GoonSquadSermons.com in his spare time, where he writes about politics, MMA and other forms of madness. In 2008, he earned his master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
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