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RSVPhillippi | August 2017


Unhappy Campers

By Dennis Phillippi

Picture this; a mid-60s model Country Squire station wagon, sky blue, with faux wood paneling on the sides. Inside there are eight people. In the front seat are my parents, both of whom have dyed, permed hair. In the back seat are four children, ranging in age from 16 to 10. Behind them, in the wagon part of the station wagon are me, age 6, and my brother Doug, age 9, sitting in pop-up seats, kicking one another. There is not a seat belt to be found anywhere in this vehicle. It is 1971 and we are screaming down an unfinished part of something called an “Interstate”. Much of the wide road is still leveled dirt. My father has decided to experiment with how far he can drive on this completely unsecured freeway project, at well over 70 miles an hour, before he runs out of bridges. We were on our way to the mountains of North Carolina for the annual August Family Vacation.

If you’ve done the math then you understand that my parents manufactured six kids in the span of 10 years. You’ve also noticed the stunning array of questionable other decisions my folks made. If memory serves, my father was wearing matching faux denim jacket and pants. Not jeans mind you, faux denim pants, with decorative white stitching. This was known as a “leisure suit.” Casual enough for driving to the mountains, quasi-dressy enough to wear to the office. My mom, I’m sure, was wearing a pants suit, and we kids were all wearing bell bottoms and were in the early stages of disastrous early 70s hairstyles. When you watch “That ‘70s Show” and laugh at the haircuts you have no idea what they really looked like. The hair on that show is toned down to not look as ludicrous as we actually looked.

Once we arrived in the mountains, thankfully having not plunged off of a half-finished bridge, we pulled into the campground. Now, I have no idea what campgrounds are like these days, but back then this one was comprised of marked off dirt lots. This little slice of heaven was just large enough to accommodate the whale of a car and a large canvas tent. You read that right, our tent wasn’t some space age waterproof fabric that breathed and had windows. The Space Age was taking place at that moment and the cool stuff hadn’t trickled down to normal people yet. Although we did have Tang, the powdered orange drink that the astronauts supposedly enjoyed in orbit and on the way to the moon. Why our brave men piloting rockets were willing to choke down this swill is beyond me.

Our tent was World War II era technology. There was no Velcro. There was no floor. There was no air. If it rained and you made the mistake of touching the wall of the tent, that place would immediately begin seeping water and wouldn’t stop until we all went away to college. This structure was intended to house “up to four people”, but when you’ve gone ahead and produced half a dozen offspring, those kind of suggestions often went ignored. We were crammed into this space like cordwood, often two to a sleeping bag. These were appalling conditions that would have been red flagged by the Geneva Convention. To this day, I can remember the smell of wet canvas and teenagers.

The activities during this August Family Vacation amounted to going into the woods. That is no exaggeration, once were all awake, which was as soon as the sun began turning the tent into a huge Easy-Bake OvenTM, we were all expected to just go into the woods. “Not too far” was the vague safety instruction. The older kids would loaf around in folding plastic chairs listening to the radio, which my father thought was needlessly intrusive. He thought we should enjoy “the sounds of nature,” which were comprised of mosquitoes droning and birds shrieking. It was better to endure The Carpenters and Helen Reddy. My brother Doug and I would pretty much splash around in the nearest creek or try to get our hands on matches. We would’ve loved to have been at home watching “The Partridge Family,” but it was summer, so there wasn’t anything on TV anyway.

When people hear that I’m the youngest of six kids born in 10 years, they often make jokes about The Partridge Family or The Brady Bunch or The Waltons. Those sure were big happy families. We were just big. No one ever bothered to explain to us why exactly we drove for seven hours to sleep on the ground and eat hot dogs my dad burned on the rusted, falling apart permanent campsite iron grill. One of my chores during the day (I wish I was making this up) was to gather sticks and twigs and branches to act as fuel for this “cooking.”

My wife and I have a lot of friends that are considerably younger than us, and they often go camping. Any time someone says that word, I involuntarily wince, but their experience is far different than mine. They sleep in high tech tents made of lightweight fabric that acts as a coolant in the summer and a heater in winter. These tents can apparently fold small enough to carry in your wallet. They have bicycles that can be lifted with a pinky finger and camp stoves that are solar powered and can make flans and soufflés. They sleep on air mattresses that feel like floating on clouds. I hate them.

Every few years my wife suggests we reconsider “our position on camping.” That’s because when she was a kid her family camped in a Camper. Basically a van with a pop-up roof. I won’t even consider that. I consider it “roughing it” if the TV remote in our hotel room doesn’t have a “previous channel” button. Happy camping campers, I’ll think about you when I get my wake up call.