Camping in the rain: a memory, and three rules for living

Summer 1977. Somewhere outside of Winston-Salem, NC.

The car was hot, its white vinyl seats slick with perspiration. When we were in range of a radio station, my parents sang along to John Denver, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson. When radio stations were not in range, they did their best on their own. My Irish-twin sister Kathleen Rachel and I groaned. (Jayne, you missed it!)

We stopped at a traffic light. A group of long-haired, bearded men on motorcycles stopped beside us. One apparently was trying to get my parents’ attention.

Mom gasped. “Oh! Joe! I’m scared,” she cried. “It’s a motorcycle gang! What do they want?” and similar protestations.

“It’s OK, Ellen, roll down the window,” Dad replied. Encouraged. Insisted.

Mom did.

Garbled words; a short conversation; surprise and gratitude from my parents.

Mom rolled up the window and explained: The motorcycle gang had saved us. The wheel of our camper, a popup trailer, was loose. It looked like it could fall off. We needed to get off the road.

Rule 1: People who look strange and seem scary can be very kind and helpful.

Mom and Dad decided to ditch the camper and invest in a tent, so we headed to the mall in Winston-Salem. It was 1977, and we did not have GPS and smartphones. Mom found this haven thanks to Rand McNally.

Mom has great map-reading skills. (I did not inherit those skills. I spent years on a perpetual adventure because, before GPS, I was always lost.) But Mom could get us anywhere. She deftly followed those lines as they left the page and turned up halfway through the map book. It was impressive.

The mall, found. A search for a payphone, and the number to the camper rental company. Then, Sears. Tents, equipment, boredom.

The day was tedious for Kathy and me. This mall was small, nothing like our Columbia Mall, with its gigantic roaring fountains (that periodically served as showers for the long-haired, bell-bottomed fans of the Grateful Dead) and polished-brick floors (that later proved treacherous for women in heels) and strange-smelling gourmet shop (where I was introduced to bagels, lox, and Nutella).

The most interesting thing about the Winston-Salem mall was that it housed a radio station. Even more interesting was that the DJ asked Kathy and me if we would like to come in and talk to him on the air.

I was shy, but Kathy was game. She disappeared into the station ― she was going to be on the radio! ― while I was left wondering how I had let that opportunity pass me by. I had only wanted to be cajoled a little. Envy replaced boredom as I pondered my fate.

Soon Kathy emerged from the radio station. She was not, however, gloating in her triumph.

In fact, she was furious. Unspeakably angry. Seething. If anger could come to life, it did so in the form of my 7-year-old sister, in the Winston-Salem mall.

“What’s wrong with her?” I asked my mom.

“The man on the radio asked her, ‘Where are you from, son?'”

I felt a little sorry for her. “What did she do?” I asked.

“She said, ‘I’m a girl.'”

Well. What else could one do? Kathy grew her hair after that. For her, the problem was fleeting and easily rectified. But still infuriating, at the time.

Rule 2: Sometimes, it pays to be shy. Or, to frame it differently― Maybe good luck, maybe bad luck: who’s to say?

The rest of the day unfolded slowly ― very slowly ― in the Winston-Salem mall.

At last we were ready: All our belongings stowed in our new car-top carrier and the trunk of our Oldsmobile Omega SX (which, in a few short years, would torture Kathy and me for reasons that, if you imagine being in middle school and riding in a car emblazoned with “SX”, will be apparent). We set off to our campground.

Mom and Dad cheerfully singing “On the Road Again”, with or without Willie.

We pulled into the campground at night, in the dark, as a gentle rain began to fall.

In the ’70’s, tents were not like the high-tech tents of today, with their quick setup, flexible poles, lightweight fabric. This thing was a beast.

By lantern light, Dad allowed us to help. First, we spread out the tent, then pounded its stakes with a rubber mallet into hard earth. Next, Dad painstakingly threaded five sets of rigid metal poles through canvas sleeves, blindly willing them to marry in the middle. (This was about the time I learned that in the world of tools and tents, there are parts called male, and other parts called female, and I wanted to die from embarrassment.)

Finally, the tent was up. We went inside and laid out our sleeping bags. The rain picked up; Dad climbed back outside and covered the entire tent in a giant sheet of clear plastic.

Now it was time to sleep.

It had been a long day.

Outside, the rain poured. We knew it poured, mostly because we could hear it beating on our plastic tarp. Inside, the rain did not touch us. However, we were beginning to sweat. It was probably 98 degrees in there, with 99% humidity.

Then the giggle started.

“Heeheehee. Heeheehee. Heeheeheee.”

Mom’s giggles picked up steam. They were contagious. Soon we were all in uproarious laughter. We laughed till it hurt. We laughed till we cried. We laughed till we couldn’t laugh anymore.

And then we fell asleep.

Rule three: If you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, go ahead and laugh.

Of all the vacations we had ― the trips to Ocean City, MD; the camping trips, in camper or tent; the higher-end excursions ― this one is the one I remember most.

It was not what one would have called a good day. However, it sure was memorable, and the memory makes me giggle.

Our most uncomfortable experiences tend to be the ones we remember most ― and remember most fondly. Or so it seems to me.

So ― moral of the story here, and congrats for sticking around to get to it — if you ever find yourself with a broken camper and a slightly traumatized daughter, pitching a brand-new, complicated tent in the dark, and then sweltering under a giant plastic bag during a hot North-Carolina rainstorm ― I hope you laugh.