by Tom Smith
Camping with friends as a kid.
|Our folks wouldn’t let us go until we had a plan. We had to figure out where to go, what to do, get permission and then they’d be OK. We were all scouts, some newer than others but we were all experienced campers. The six of us, Joe and Jim, (the twins) Steve, Mark, Keith (Elmer, cause he looked like an Elmer) and me, Tom. It was the last weeks of 8th grade, middle school in south central Pennsylvania, 1974. It turned hot about a week ago and summer was nipping at our heals, and this summer we had plans.
Being experienced boys of the world, we’d been to the Promised Land, camp Tuckahoe. Based on our extensive outdoor experience, juvenile angst and overall good nature we ought to be able to have a campout sans adults. And damn, we knew how to have fun. So the plan was the first weekend of summer we were going to camp, overnight, just us, no scoutmaster, parents, big brothers no one of authority. What the hell, we were almost fifteen.
A couple weeks before Mark, Jim Elmer and I rode up toward Pinchot Park off highway 74 and took a left where the Conewago creek ran under the road. We rode a couple miles along the creek till we found this huge ancient tree down the hill toward the creek but right on the bank. Everywhere around the tree grew tall grass and there was a house up the hill in front of the tree and across the road, all we needed was permission to camp. We sent Elmer. Elmer looked like an Elmer, a smart skinny kid with kinda messed up hair, dirty glasses, and just plain Elmerish. You know the kind. But that kid was full of balls
Elmer walked up and knocked on the screen door. He stood there a while, then a lady with an apron and dishtowel met him. You could tell he was getting through to her by how he waved his arms, pointed to us sitting under the tree in the tall grass, and we all waved back. A couple minutes later he came down and said Mrs. Whatshername said we could camp next weekend under her tree. Then it was on.
We rode back home and each of us got our old man’s permission for the great adventure. We didn’t know why they said yes, just that they did. This was it, on our own. Just the thought of that kind of freedom, even for a few days, was the coolest thing any of us could think of. And thought of it we did. We planned everything. Since we’d be on our bikes we couldn’t carry the usual kitchen sink into the woods, we’d have to pack light. No problem. We forgot about tents and took a tarp, just in case the weather turned. We packed no clothes just a pair of cut-offs which we pretty much wore all summer, same pair for weeks if you swam in them and ratty tee shirts. The main gear was a sleeping bag, flashlight, some food, full canteen, mess kit, fishing gear and Joe’s sterno stove to cook our catch.
We planned everything during the last days of Middle School when we should have been watching movies and lazing around like the other kids. Every time one or more of us met we’d huddle saying, I thought of this last night or did you remember that or whatever we could think of just to talk about it. We also made sure not discuss it with others that would want to tag along, too many tenderfeet spoil the fun.
Finally, it was the last Friday of the year. The bell rang and we were free. We met on the bus and called each other to shore up final plans. I doubt General Eisenhower discussed Normandy as much as we talked about this trip.
Saturday morning came and I got an early start delivering my papers, then I was off. I rode to Steve’s and we rode to Marks, then on to Joe and Jim’s and finally made it to Elmer’s around eight. Elmer’s mom made us some pancakes and bacon and we scarfed that down fast. We set off while it was still early and pumped our stingray bikes up and down highway 74 for six grueling miles, then veered left along the creek. Those that hadn’t been on the scouting trip were in for a surprise. When we stopped under that giant tree on the bank of the Conewego we all just sat and stared. Cool. A tree, a creek, the road, the woods and nothing else.
We quickly set up our camp, collected firewood, built a rock fire pit went swimming. Hell, we did whatever we wanted too. Some of us took a long ride down the road to see where the creek went, some went swimming and just lazed in the sun on the banks, some took a nap in the shade of that tree. We were never that free before, and probably never since.
As the day went on and grew hotter we did what any self-respecting scout would do, built a fire. Joe and Jim were fishing for, well, fish, and started pulling out Sunnies and Bluegill like crazy. We all got in the game and caught a couple dozen in about an hour. Jim, who thought himself handy with a knife, began to hack the fish into very small bite sized pieces he called fillets. Joe fired up his sterno stove, added oil to his mess kit and started burning these delicacies. Damn, I don’t believe fish ever tasted that good then or since. A fresh caught sunfish, butchered to one tenth its weight and burned in oil on a sterno stove, now that’s living.
Joe brought the music, he always brought the music, Aqualung by Jethro Tull on his cassette player, one tape on a continuous loop. Steve and I rode up to the highway to see if there was a store or something where we could buy some junk food for the night. There was a fruit stand but nothing open. That was all right, someone would have something to share. It was uphill to the highway but downhill to the camp so we cooled off as we just drifted back.
By the time we got to the camp Elmer had climbed most of the way up that tree and was hanging onto the top most branches. From the road we watched as Jim brought over a big armload of fresh green pine boughs and thought; what’s he up to. With one swift motion he through the boughs in the fire, the one we were burning under the tree. A thick column of smoke rose right up along the trunk to where Elmer was. We knew this was wrong but it was way too funny to stop and we were laughing way too hard to move. We rolled in the grass laughing as our friend gasped, coughed and held on for dear life. The smoke eventually cleared and Elmer came down, a little dirtier and hair a bit messier but none the worse for wear. We all had a great laugh at his expense and Elmer took it as his turn. That’s what an adventure is about, doing stupid stuff with friends, coming close to danger and dodging clear. We slept under the tree and stars, talking quietly in that dark night, tending the fire and listening to fish jump in the creek.
Morning came too soon and we made whatever food we had left. The sun was bright and the breeze strong so everything stayed dry. Steve Elmer and Jim rode up to the fruit stand to see if they had anything we’d want to eat. They came riding back like a bat outa hell, laughing and howling like lunatics. Seems they had enough cash to buy a couple of plums but when the vendor turned his head they threw three big cantaloupes in their bike basket and rode off unnoticed. I wonder what merit badge they’ll get for that. We quickly got over our guilt and each ate half a cantaloupe and sat back on our packs like we were all that. By mid-morning we packed up our camp, cleaned the site, put the rocks back in the creek and bagged our trash. We slowly headed back to civilization and the lives we’d lead that last summer as a boy.
We talked as we rode home, sang some dirty songs, cussed each other and just had a great time being kids. We didn’t know then, and some may not know now, just how cool that weekend really was. To hang with friends we’d have for life and know deep down that nothing was ever gonna change. Well, things sure changed, some for the better, some for the worse, but not that weekend.