I was talking with a man not long ago who mentioned he was taking his children to Paris for summer vacation, and the only thing I could think was how grateful I was that my father never did that to me. Our vacations were spent 50 miles south of our home in Indiana, at Lane’s Camping Retreat, in a blue canvas tent our dad acquired in a trade. He acquired everything in a trade, so that wasn’t unusual. What was peculiar was his ability to convince our mom that spending a week in a tent with five kids and no plumbing would somehow be fun.
The campground had two lakes: one for fishing, the other for swimming. The swimming lake had a diving board about 300 feet high, or so it seemed when we stood at the top, and every year some kid made his way to the end of the board and then froze with fear. We’d run up the dirt lane to the camp store and fetch Mr. Lane, who would amble down to the lake and yell at the kid to jump, for crying out loud! But he never would. So Mr. Lane would climb the ladder, throw the kid over his shoulder, and climb back down. He seemed so put out, so terribly inconvenienced, one might have thought he would have taken the diving board down. Instead, every year he added to its height until it resembled an Apollo launch pad.
One year, on the way out of town, our dad stopped at the Farm Bureau Co-op and bought a tractor inner tube and then borrowed Mr. Lane’s bicycle pump and inflated it. This was a wild extravagance; we had begged him for years for something to float on, and he had resisted, claiming it would lull us into complacency and we would drown. Our looming deaths were constantly on his mind. Then, inexplicably, he bought the inner tube, which lasted several minutes before it sprang a leak and sank while my brother was on it. He would have drowned, except he was five feet tall and the water was only three feet deep, so he just stood up and walked to shore, though for a few minutes it was touch-and-go and could have gone either way.
The swimming lake had a diving board about 300 feet high, or so it seemed when we stood at the top.
After supper — we ate fish from the fishing lake every night — we walked to the camp store and got a bottle of soda or drove the eight miles into town to the Tastee-Freez for an ice cream cone. Back at the campsite, we lit a fire and arranged ourselves around it while our dad told ghost stories until we peed our pants and our mom made him stop. Then we made pudgie pies — two pieces of buttered Wonder Bread with cherry pie filling baked in a long-handled pie iron held over the fire. Mr. Lane would walk from campfire to campfire, stopping to chat, shushing the rowdies, winding down the day.
Mom would pull our towels and swimsuits from the rope she’d strung between two trees and hang them in the tent so they wouldn’t draw damp in the night. We’d sleep underneath them with the tent windows rolled up and tied off, the breeze moving the towels as if touched by ghosts. The raccoons would come out from the woods and prowl around the campfire, eating the spilled pie filling.
“What’s that?” Dad would ask. “Someone’s out there. Can you hear them? Who’s out there? Who is that?”
We would pull our sleeping bags over our heads and dream of serial killers, then awaken to the sound of birdsong and Mr. Lane, driving up and down the gravel rows in his truck, delivering wood for that day’s fires.
Lying there, at the start of day, I would count down the days left, wishing we had just arrived with the week ahead of us. Though I have never been to Paris, I couldn’t for the life of me consider myself deprived.