Archives for category: days of olden

We took the kids camping this summer. I haven’t done much camping in my adult life due to my inability to develop a talent for sleeping on the ground. And it is a talent, I can only assume, given that other camping people don’t seem to end up sleeping in puddles at 3 a.m. or have boulders rise up out of the ground to stab them in the shoulder, despite the tent area being a smooth sea of cushy grass at set-up time. Clearly, there is some sort of genetically-linked gift (strategically placed fat pockets?) that allow some people (the power of slight, unconscious levitation?) to sleep comfortably on the ground (bones that rubberize after dark? Internalized water repelling capabilities?). I don’t have that gift.

Despite this, when I think of my childhood, the times spent crammed into a tiny camper, eating Dinty Moore beef stew and roasting marshmallows, take up a surprising amount of memory space considering we only went for a week or two per year. Sometimes we took an old Army tent instead of the camper, and I can bring to mind the exact smell of that damp canvas, the ring of the metal poles as they clanked together in their bag, the feel of grit under my sleeping bag.

In contrast, I remember nothing about my entire second grade year. Not a thing. It’s a complete blur.

Anyway, given the importance that camping memories have for me, it was clear that I would need to find a way to take my kids off into the wild. And that way would have to keep me off the ground. And because we still have a half-built house, that way would have to be justifiably cheap. These conditions puzzled us for a while, but last fall some friends were selling their pop-up camper. Have you experienced the wonder of the pop-up? It’s got the scrappiness of a tent…but with beds. Beds that are a good five feet off the ground. My god, could anything be more perfect? Needless to say, we snapped that up and last weekend, we finally got around to taking it out.

Like other events on the child-adult experience divide (*cough* Christmas *cough*), once you cross to the other side you suddenly realize that things don’t just…happen like they did when you were kid. You don’t just “go camping” like I remembered. Before the camping part there is the buying and the cleaning and the packing and the sorting and the winnowing and reminding and the reserving and the panicking and the frantic searching and the testing and the hooking up and the driving and the unpacking and the…well. You probably get the point. It wasn’t how I remembered it.

Except for the part where “I just need to hook up the trailer. It will only take a minute” turns into an hour of sweating, swearing, debating, cajoling, wrestling, banging, finally connecting, and “Oh, hell, the lights don’t work. What should we do? Just drive carefully?” That part was EXACTLY how I remember it.

Other things were how I remembered them, as well. We went to Cobscook Bay State Park, which I tented in once, many moons ago, with Michael before we were married. (I know it must have been before we were married, because I sure wouldn’t have volunteered to sleep in a tent AFTER we were married.) My mother insists we went there when I was a kid, too, but I have no memory of that. In truth, I probably do have memories of it, but it’s just blurred into all the other state parks we’d camped in through the years. When we arrived, it was like a sudden time warp back to my childhood. Same pine needles, same pit toilets, same initials carved into the picnic table shelters, same state park brown paint slapped on every wooden surface. These state parks. They never change. They exist outside of time. They are stable and eternal. They are perfect.

It was a successful trip, but not perfect. We went fishing. We traipsed around back roads. We foraged some of our food–clams, mushrooms, berries, fish.  We washed dishes outside. The kids seem to fight more than I remember fighting with my sisters (SHUT UP, MOM), Sam got sick and didn’t sleep well, and I had to take Annabel on a middle-of-the-night run to the pit toilets where I heard something large breathe right next to me. It poured torrentially our first night and, while the camper didn’t leak, that unpleasant, musty dampness hung on.But I didn’t mind, what with being five feet off the ground.

On the morning we left I spent some time snuggled with Annabel on her bunk, looking out at the carpet of pine needles to the ocean beyond. “I really like this, Mom,” she said. “Do we really need to go? Can we do it again?”

Yep. We can.

camping

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It’s been a surprisingly warm winter. Just the other Sunday we had our lunch at the picnic table. A picnic lunch in January? Unbelievable.

But, yes, a picnic lunch it was.  That’s how warm it has been.

As a result, I haven’t been able to wear the pants very much this year, just twice so far, actually.  They are so thick and heavy that I can only save them for the coldest days.  It’s getting colder again, so I have hopes to pull them out again. But I wear them when I can because they are warm, comfortable and my dad’s.

That’s weird, isn’t it?  For a 36-year-old woman to wear a pair of her dead father’s old pants?

I suppose it is.

Yes, I suppose it is.

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My dad (“Ralph,” he’d tell people. “My name is Ralph. You know, like everyone’s dog on television? Yeah, Ralph.”) joined the Navy when he was 17 years old.  A November baby, he was always one of the youngest in his class and he graduated from high school five months shy of his eighteenth birthday.  I’m not sure how being younger affected his school days, but it worked in his favor in the Navy.  As a result of his below-18 enlistment, he only had to serve three years instead of the usual four.  He was happy about that in later years.  He thought that was a good deal.  I don’t think he loved being in the Navy.

Why the Navy, anyway? He was from the western slope of Colorado. He loved fishing, camping, and walks in the woods.  He liked horses and wide open spaces.  My whole life I don’t think I saw him in a boat bigger than a canoe.  He liked to be alone.  Why in the world would he be drawn to the Navy, right after the close of the Korean War?  Why would such a man commit to cloistering himself on a ship, in close quarters, with hundreds of other men?

I don’t know why.  Like most things having to do with his Navy time, like most things having to do with his life, my dad didn’t have much to say about it.  It just was.  It was a thing he did and by the time I came along he was doing something else and he didn’t really see the need to tell me much about it.  Why didn’t I stop bothering him and go weed the tomatoes?

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A while ago my sister went to my grandmother’s house and brought back a stack of letters my dad had written during his time in the Navy. She spent hours transcribing his illegible lefty handwriting.  They are sweet, straightforward letters, practical to a fault.  Blankets are cheap here, can I buy you some?  I have to go see the dentist; they say I’ll need that tooth pulled.  Do you have some money to spare? I hate to borrow it but I’m in a bind.  I’m bored; didn’t make it to the show.  Tell the folks I’ll try to write soon.

He ended up as a mechanic on an aircraft carrier.  That’s not a surprise.  He was handy.  He could fix anything.  “I scored the next to highest score in mech,” he wrote from boot camp. “I hope I can get in a school for mech.” He did.  By 1955 he was in charge of a plane.  He didn’t want to be; too much responsibility.

He went to Japan.  The boy from Colorado was in Japan and all he had to say about it was that the way they took their shoes off sure did help keep their houses clean.  He went to Hong Kong, too. It was crowded. What else, Ralph? What else about Japan?  What else about Hong Kong? Isn’t any of it interesting to you, Ralph?

For god’s sake, man. Why the Navy?

We’ll never know.

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I have more than this single pair of zip-front pants, of course.  I have his full navy uniform: the button-up pants, two wool sailor shirts, the seabag.  No coat, though, I think my sister has that. She absconded with it in high school, when a vintage Navy peacoat was just the thing to go with your combat boots.  I was terribly jealous that she got to it first.  The rest of the uniform was mostly forgotten about, until one day when we all dug it out and I put it on as a joke.  It all fit me perfectly, this uniform intended for a 17-year-old boy.  It still does, mostly.  The button pants and shirts are tucked away in the seabag in the attic.  The regular pants hang in my closet.

They are, even after 50 plus years, the warmest pants I’ve ever seen.  The wool is dense and a bit stiff.  In the days before fleece and Gore-Tex, wool was all they had to withstand storms at sea.  This stuff can withstand.  Once, for kicks, I put them on and went for a walk when it was -20 degrees.  I was warm.  I was plenty warm.

His name and number are stenciled on the inside in white.  He scrawled his initials on the tag in the back, too.  At one point he repaired part of the fly by stapling it.  The staples are still there.  They make me laugh, thinking about teenage Ralph stapling his pants back together.

I love those pants.

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I only ever got one semi-full story from my dad about the Navy. He told me once, apropos of nothing that I can remember, about how much he loved being on the aircraft carrier.  In particular, he liked going to the back of the ship.  He would hang out at the stern and watch the wake from the engines stretching off into the distance.  Back there, he was surrounded by nothing.

Once in a while a plane would take off.  He would watch it race down the length of the ship and launch, dropping suddenly down below view as it left the ship, and then climbing up, up, up into the sky.  “That was really neat,” he told teenaged me about teenaged him.  “I really liked watching that.”

I love that image of young Colorado-raised Ralph, sitting on a random crate in his stapled pants, smoking cigarettes and watching planes take off from a ship.  I love that image because even packed in tight with hundreds of other men off the shore of Japan, he found a way to be alone.  I love that image because it sounds like something I would have done.

Some people have family heirlooms, ancestral estates, and elaborate family histories.  They have gravy boats with pedigrees and stories about Great-Aunt Victoria’s scandalous affair with the count.

I have a pair of stapled-together Navy pants.

I’m okay with that.

As I said, they are very warm.

The following is a list of things that I used to think my mother was falsely accusing me of but that now, as a mother of two children, I realize I was actually doing:

  1. Walking through the dirt pile.
  2. Waiting until she was on the phone to need something.
  3. Talking far louder than justified.
  4. Whining.
  5. Being sassy.
  6. Dropping my fork on purpose.
  7. Antagonizing my sibling.
  8. Listening for when she might be trying to quietly get a snack for herself and then rushing to the kitchen to beg for some.
  9. Claiming to be full. Until five minutes after dinner dishes are cleared. Then–ahaha! Can you believe it?–being hungry again.
  10. Refusing to sleep when obviously tired.
  11. Moving items from place to place in the house just to drive her batty.
  12. Digging every toy out of the toy box.
  13. Lying about doing any of the above.

It’s possible that I exaggerated just a smidge in the last post.  We do have some concept of how to tap maple trees.  Well, I do, anyway.  I have done this before.  One year, when I was 13 or so, my father decided to tap some trees and try the syrup thing himself.  Given my age, I was enlisted as his helper.  And, again, given my age, I’m sure you can imagine how absolutely delighted I was to spend some quality time tromping through snowy woods with a parental unit while collecting tree snot.  I’m not sure I actually called it tree snot, but that certainly seems like something 13-year-old me would have said, so let’s go with it.

I’d love to give you a rundown on how much sap we gathered and how much syrup we boiled down and how our homemade maple syrup was a million, skillion, trillion times better than store bought maple syrup, but I really can’t.  Because I was 13 and 13-year-olds really don’t care about any of that.  So while my journal from those days is full of all sorts of exciting woes and loves and slights and plans, in many different and exciting pen colors, it is woefully vague on maple syrup notes.  However, I do remember one thing, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that you would expect a 13-year-old to remember.

You see, a key part of the syrup-making process is the boiling.  It takes a notoriously large number of gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.  Sadly, I can’t remember how many. I’d look it up for you but I’m lazy.  A lot.  It takes a lot of sap.  Massive amounts of sap and massive amounts of boiling.  In traditional sugar houses they do this by building a gigantic, hot fire outside and using a wide, flat-bottomed pan to speed to boiling process along.

My father did not employ the giant fire/giant pan method.  I’m not sure why, really, as he was both a champion fire builder and someone who really enjoyed finagling things, so given those two facts I would certainly have expected a bonfire the size of Manhattan under a pan fashioned from an old oil pan.  But no.  He decided to boil the syrup in a plain, old, standard-sized stock pot on our plain, old, standard-sized stove which was inside our plain, old, standard-sized kitchen.

You don’t find many recommendations for boiling down maple syrup inside a house.  In fact, most discussion about boiling sap suggest very, very clearly that you should do this sort of thing outside.  There’s a reason for that.

Steam.

Boiling gallons and gallons and gallons of sap down into syrup produces a truly frightening level of steam.  A fill-a-sauna level of steam.  A run-a-train-with-it level of steam.  Enough steam to clean the pores of every starlet in Los Angeles.  Enough steam to chug out open windows and make our house look like that cartoon guy who is really, really angry.

Except, of course, it was March in Maine so our windows weren’t open.  In fact, it was an old house with drafty windows so some of them were even covered in plastic.

Which explains why, on the night we started boiling down the sap, I was walking through our kitchen when I suddenly felt a drip.  And then another drip.  And then a whole shower of drips.  So I looked up.  And I noticed that our ceiling was looking rather…wet.  Because steam, when it cannot escape out doors or windows or some other proper ventilation system, goes up. And when it goes up, it collects.  It collected on our otherwise undistinguished beige ceiling tiles. And those otherwise undistinguished beige ceiling tiles dripped.  They dripped for days.  They dripped so much and so long that we learned that while they were really undistinguished, they weren’t actually, really, in truth, beige.

They were white.

Apparently.

Who would have thought?

13-year-old me certainly wouldn’t have thought that.  I’m still a little amazed by it, frankly.

And that’s pretty much all that I remember from my previous experience of boiling down maple syrup.

This time around, we aren’t exactly sure how we will boil down our syrup.  But we definitely will not be doing it inside.

There are some things about my house that I don’t really need to know.

The things that are beige in this house are just going to have to stay beige.