Lawn Chairs Round the Fire
By Will Kinkaid
My father’s been dead a year now, in the end his life took a horrible toll on his health, but I choose to remember him back when I believed he was he was wise beyond measure and invincible. I still believe the former, I’m sad there wasn’t truth in the latter. I was thirteen, and I imagine not very good company- not that I knew it at the time. Samuel Clemens once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” So when he offered to take me camping for a weekend, I didn’t realize what a sacrifice he was making- of course looking back, neither did he…
The plan was to drive up to a mountain lake way out in the middle of nowhere. This was going to be a manly trip- no cabin to stay in, no running water, just nature and two men against the wilderness. Like the early pioneers (provided they had state-of-the-art tents, Coleman lanterns, and carbon fiber fishing rods… Dad was something of a gadgeteer, a habit he pleasantly passed on to me). We packed up an old Ford pickup truck the night before, and went to bed early. I was excited about the trip, had trouble getting to sleep. Who the hell goes to bed at 8pm anyway? Not a teenage boy who just discovered a new issue of Penthouse discarded behind 7-11. It’s amazing all the true stories they had printed in the “Forum” section!
I’ll tell you who goes to bed early. People who are getting up at 4am on Saturday. At 4am it was still dark. Not crack of dawn, not early morning- pitch black eclipse underground can’t find your ass with both hands and a mirror dark. That quiet time of night when the silence is so prevalent it’s loud. At least it was, until Dad kicked open the door and bellowed “Drop your cock and grab your socks, it’s time to hit the road!” Years later I’d laugh at the drill instructor who threw a trashcan down the barracks aisle and yelled, “Wake the hell up maggots!”, because after this incident I was immune to the rude awakening. (Immune to the awakening- but apparently not appreciative of it. I was told I’m like a caged wolverine getting poked with a splintery broomstick before 5am. Whatever that means- I should be off probation by 2010…) I’d like to say I stretched and calmly got out of bed. Of course that wouldn’t be right. You see I’d left said magazine on the nightstand and was naively mortified to think Dad didn’t know I had those magazines and I wasn’t interested in it just for the articles. After his cannoneer like declaration I flailed over for the magazine, and knocked it off the nightstand. My still half asleep animal forebrain said “Catch It!!”, so I dove after it, rolling out of bed, and firmly smacking my forehead on the nightstand. As I rebounded back, I put my foot on the magazine (which by now had hit the floor), and actually managed to bust my ass falling out bed. As I lay there seeing stars, I heard him mumbling in the hallway “We’re burning daylight!”
We pack up some sandwiches, and the old Basset Hound, Vagabond, into the truck. Well that was his official name. When Mom wasn’t around we referred to him as “Bullwhacker”- because he was “penilogically gifted”. Dog had a dick that literally dragged the ground. Lucky bastard- no wonder he had such a good temperament. Didn’t like long walks though. Anyway, we hit great wide open road at 4:17am. We drive a couple of hours, pick up a healthy breakfast (doughnuts, chocolate milk, beef jerky and Gatorade). Bullwhacker looks hungry, so I slip him a doughnut. “Quit feeding that damn dog” Dad solemnly advises. So listening to him as all teenage boys do, I slip him a hardboiled egg from our lunch bag. He still looks hungry, so I slide him another egg. And then it happens. There’s a soft hissing, like air escaping from a tire- then a sharp snap. As I was about to learn, that sound was the gates of Hell that was Vagabond’s asshole slamming shut. Scientists say that taste and smell are inexplicably linked. That if your sense of smell is somehow affected, your sense of taste would also go. Try eating something while holding your nose and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Even without the previous experiment, I believe this truth unequivocally- because the foul stench that immediately enveloped the pickup cab was so noxious that it had a taste. Sulfer…vinegar…and something tangy- like pineapple. Dad said “Jesus Christ, must have drove past a dead animal!” and CLOSED THE FRESH AIR VENTS. Just as the tears in my eyes started to clear, there it was again. Pssssssst…snap! “Dad, I think it’s the dog…” Pssssst….snap…. pssst….snap …snap…. “Holy crap, roll down the windows son!” Psssst…snap… As we drove past the dairy farms with windows open we were both gasping for air. Dad later remarked that driving past the mountain of cow crap was the best smelling part of the trip. Lesson One, Don’t feed a dog you’re on a long trip with hardboiled eggs.
We finally make it to the lake, and find a suitable site to set up camp. I’m convinced we could have been fined for environmental impact after the baker’s dozen of air biscuits Bullwhacker launched in the pickup cab, so I leave it open, including the pass through between the cab and bed. We unload the truck, and pitch the tent. Dad pounds the stakes in with a 5lb sledge, and even lets me do a couple. Never used to let me handle dangerous tools before- this is a momentous occasion. So of course I smack myself firmly in the ankle. “You okay?” he asks- even though his back was turned. Gritting my teeth, I reply “Sure!” as my ankle throbs. “Good, get in the truck.” he says. “Okay Pop, where we going?” I ask. “Around the lake”, he says, as he loads Bullwhacker into the BACK of the pickup. (Later OSHA regulations required that a dog’s ass to have at least three feet of open space after hardboiled egg consumption.) And then he does something strange. He gets in the passenger side. I’m standing there thinking he’s loopy from the fumes, and I walk over to the driver’s side. “Get in”, he repeats, “You’re driving”
When you’re a teenager, driving is the pinnacle of achievement; you’ve arrived when you can drive. Well at the very least you can drive yourself to your arrival ceremony. I jumped in, and noticed 3 pedals. Gas…brake…mystery pedal- probably the emergency brake, don’t need it. I whipped the key RRRR….kachump. .. screech…thump…BARHAROOOO echoing from the back of the pickup bed. I discovered several things. The mystery pedal is called the clutch. A 52lb Basset at the back of the tailgate can make it to the front of the bed in .34 seconds when the truck lurches forward unexpectedly. He doesn’t like that and may fart in displeasure. After about 15 minutes of patient instruction I understand the concept of the clutch, and I can drive, albeit haltingly around the lake. It went something like “Vrooom….screech…thump…BARHAROOO…pssssst…snap! Vrooom…Vroom….screech”. After about 20 minutes Bullwhacker decided he’d had enough my amateur driving by throwing up, through the pass through window, onto the front seat. Lesson was over for the day, I thought I did great. As we got out of the truck, Dad remarked, “The poor bastard will be wearing his asshole for a collar”. Maybe not so great… Lesson Two- Left pedal clutch, enough gas will get you out of any jam, and leave dog at home during driving lessons.
After cleaning up dog barf, I was a little restless. “Son, go gather some firewood”, Dad said, less out of necessity and more out indulgence. “There’s an ax over by the tent.” Sweet Jesus- an axe! What was before me was not an innocent camp implement from Home Depot- no it was a Steel Thrasher of Barbarian Hordes! “Take the pistol too, there are snakes around”, he yelled as I walked off. Pleasure….Overload… A 13 year old boy with an axe and a gun is hell on wheels, which is why you don’t ever see them in the city. Well not without a cop yelling “Put your hands on your head…” To be clear here, Dad had taught me about how to safely handle a firearm since I was old enough to walk (he was a rifle coach in the Marines), and to him it was tool, like shovel, a hammer- or an ax. Didn’t mean it wasn’t damn fun though. I set off on my quest for fire, holstered the .22 target pistol, feeling like Attila the Hun getting ready to pay a visit to the Romans. (Historians dispute the theory the Huns carried camp axes and .22s, but the Historical Society of Thirteen Year Old Boys begs to differ, and can offer hand drawn flip book evidence to support its claims.) That’s when I made a discovery about the Southwest I hadn’t noticed to date. There are not a whole lot trees- just almost bare Mesquite bushes, some Yucca, grass and cacti. Looking around I notice some barb wire fences- containing some scraggly roaming cattle. I squeeze through the fence, careful not to catch anything important, which I sincerely hoped I’ll need in my later years, and continue the quest for kindling. The cows were docile, idly chewing grass and contemplating me with the rapt attention they’d give a fly that needed to be swatted. I knew deep in my heart they were rooted to the spot, frozen with fear from the awesome spectacle of Attila entering their sovereign territory wielding not only a deadly battle axe, but the awesome firepower of a .22. Tossing them a sidewise glance, I trotted off toward mesquite that looked like it had some branches around the base- perhaps even dry enough to light. That’s when I became aware of HIS presence. Apparently my incursion into the border had been noticed. A very large bull, made his displeasure known by snorting decisively from 25 feet away. He then pawed the earth, dropped his head, and snorted again. It was high noon, and Attila, now an old west gunfighter, stared down the bull decisively. My hand twitched toward my side, aching to go for the pistol and vanquish the long horned bastard who killed my family (family who was probably hooking up a Coleman stove back at camp right now). The ax hit the ground (gunfighters didn’t use such crude tools), and startled both of us, breaking the stalemate. That’s when one ton of pissed off muscle wrapped in a cheap leather bag decided to knock the smug off the intruder’s face. Ever have a car wreck where things go into slow motion? Well time STOPPED. At least for me it stopped, it seemed to speed up for El Diablo, the Mesquite Eating Ass Kicking BullTM. One minute it was the stare down, the next minute the beast was running full speed toward me, ready to crush me like a soda can hit by a freight train… or a moron kid taunting a bull.
Eyes to Brain- “Large Angered Bovine, approaching, on attack vector”
Balls to Brain- “We can take him!”
Hand to Brain- “Go for the gun!”
Brain to Balls-“Balls, you’re idiots” (advice they sadly learned later in life to ignore)
Brain to Hands-“.22 round will piss off bull, who will still knock us into next week, abort quick draw!”
Brain to Feet- “Move, move, move!”
Anyway, the message to my feet finally made it down- I’m sure all the bull could see was ass on feet as I dove over the fence. No braking involved- just cleared the top line of barb wire like it was six inches off the ground. Adrenaline is an amazing thing. For his part, El Diablo pulled up short of the wire, looked at me hatred in his eyes, and trotted back his cows. Dominance had been reestablished in the not so high plains. Back at an altitude of 5 feet above the desert the law of gravity was about to assert itself. I knew a thing or two about falling from some mandatory karate classes, so I tucked into a ball and mangled to land on my shoulder blades and roll. At least that’s what I told myself. What happened was I caught my shirt on the wire and flipped ass over teakettle over the fence. As I came loose, I gracefully landed on my back- rather than my fool head. Check and mate El Diablo…you’re lucky I let you off so easy. My sore ankle was throbbing, but otherwise I was unscathed. Lesson Three, No matter how bad you are, there’s always someone meaner and uglier just over the hill.
I hobbled back to camp. Dad had the stove set up, and was digging in the cooler for some steaks. (Like I said, conditions were primitive, but we made due.) “Where’s the wood?” he asked. “Uh…there’s not any, all scrub brush, no good branches”. He looked at me speculatively (maybe it was the grass in my hair), and then continued, “Well, we need something for a fire- take another pass. Hey, where’s the ax?” Ut oh. “Ugh, I must have left it…over there”, I weakly gestured. At that moment I’m sure El Diablo had the axe in his personal trophy room… “Well go get it and come back with something for a fire.” Oh horseshit…hey… wait a minute… That’s it! I went back to the fence. Some college kids were driving along the fence line to get to the far side of the lake, and I was pleased to see El Diablo had wandered over the hill to show them who was boss. I hastily retrieved the ax. I also picked up a readily available and renewable natural resource. I remembered reading that the Indians used to pick up buffalo chips and burn them for fuel. (This was back in the days before Indians worked in call centers- when they lived on the plains of the West). So with the ax in my belt, and an armload of cow patties, I hobbled back to camp.
As I came into the camp I stacked the cow patties by the rocks we had used to make a firepit. Dad looked puzzled, until I illuminated him on the many uses of cow manure, and how methane in cow farts may one day power our cars. (As of this writing flatus collection does not in fact power motor vehicles. There have been several incidents of gonad fires caused by collegiate researchers, but as yet the labwork has yet to bear anything more than endless hours of amusement on YouTube.) How he didn’t burst out laughing is a mystery to me, but he managed to keep a straight face and solemnly nod. I’m sure what he meant was, “Why don’t you take your dog barf and cow crap covered ass over the lake and wash off some of the funk?” But what he asked was “Why don’t you take a swim while I finish up the steaks and potatoes?” I was knee deep by the time he mentioned potatoes, and I was looking forward to trying out my new scuba mask and snorkel. Jacques Cousteau was exploring the ocean’s depths on television, and I was sure that my important research in West Texas lakes would be invaluable. After all, I had the latest and greatest equipment from K-Mart, a $10 mask and snorkel set. I wonder if sea monsters lived in lakes?
As I swam out, into the cool water, my ankle finally quit hurting. Nothing like ice cold water to soothe an injury. Of course at that age water wasn’t bone chillingly cold, it was just invigorating. I noticed there was quite a bit of algae and plant life, so what ever lived in the lake had pretty good camouflage and natural cover. I was out in the middle of the lake, and the college kids had set up camp on the shore opposite the camp Dad and I had set up. Typical college party- music, beer in cooler, and kids yelling and generally having a good time. I stayed far enough away not to disturb them, content with scanning the lake for signs of life. A fish bit my toe, but was gone before I could get around to see him. Wait, is that a turtle? Swimming over I stalked what later turned out to be a rock. I then found a school of minnows, and was trailing them. Unbeknownst to me, the college kids had proceeded to the drunken college chick tossing. This involves six or seven idiots scooping up some poor unsuspecting lass and flinging her into the nearest body of water, be it pool, lake or ocean. She screams, gets wet, and then plots revenge on the poor bastards that will take years to come to fruition, usually ending in multiple homicides. I had no idea this was the greatest game ever created. Anyway, said idiots collected Barbie, Veronica, or Misty- whatever her name was, and proceeded to wade into the lake. The splashing caught my attention as I was at research depth, probably one foot and still at standard atmospheric pressure (blast this cheap equipment!) Misty’s twenty one year old ninety pound frame was airborne at just the time as I looked over. And at the moment God smiled upon me. Misty was wearing a yellow bikini top, and as she was unceremoniously dropped 5 feet in front of me, the impact peeled her top up to her neck. There I was, face to face with real honest goodness free range boobies. It was the greatest moment of my young life. I opened my mouth to say “Holy Crap!” before I realized I was in fact still under water. Spitting out the snorkel wasn’t so bad, but inhaling the lake water wasn’t fun.
Lungs to Brain, “Can’t…gasp..breathe…”
Balls to Brain, “Priority Override! Standfast! We have confirmed unrestrained live boobies!”
Brain to Lungs, “Suck it up, we’re not moving.”
Lungs to Brain, “Oh very funny. What, one set of knockers and you go stupid? Brain? Brain??”
Through sheer act of will I remained motionless while Misty pulled her top down and waded out- then I broke the water sputtering and gagging for air. The college guys were laughing so hard one fell off the tailgate of the truck- if looks could kill Misty would have skewered me on the spot. Grinning like an idiot, I swam back to camp.
Dad had the steaks ready, and we sat down on lawn chairs around a dark firepit. To this day I think steak tastes better on a steel camp plate. We ate and I told him about my close encounter with the pink nipples of destiny and I think he was almost as happy about my adventure as I was. As we cleaned up the steak and potatoes, he told me about his own daring escapes when he was my age, culminating when he left a rubber dog turd in a ray of sunlight, just as my Grandfather woke up one morning. As Grandpa explained, “Damn dog!”, Dad rushed in and grabbed it with one hand and tossed it to Grandpa. Dad said it took him years to learn that “shitholyfuckinghell” wasn’t all one word. And he also learned that Grandpa didn’t like to have a turd thrown at him first thing in the morning, but doesn’t mind having his car washed every day at 6am for a month. As the sun began to set it was getting a little cold, so it was time to get the fire going. I optimistically went to the lake and filled a bucket, as an emergency “fire’s out of control” measure. As a good scout with tell you, the secret to getting a fire going is to use good tinder, starting small. There was plenty of dry grass, so I tossed some into the pit, struck a windproof match (I learned that the only thing that rubbing two sticks together makes is blisters), and had a tiny flame going in no time. It was now time for the “fuel”. I plopped a rather large cow patty down, and with a fizzle the fire promptly went out. Ah ha, note to self, the Native Americans must have used DRY patties for that fire. After a trip to the lake with some hand soap, I was ready to try again. Dry patties eventually caught, and Dad and I learned another important thing about those tribes. Smoke signals must have been inadvertently invented when Running Nose lit up a buffalo chip by the lodge. Oh sure they burned, but it smoked like a fog machine. We discovered if you soaked the patties with lantern fuel, they went up with a whoosh and burned much better. Lesson Four- Bullshit can be entertaining. It was getting dark, so Dad and I pulled up a couple lawn chairs by the fire. We laughed and I told him jokes- then he related one of his favorites, which was appropriate given Bullwhacker’s day…
A campaign worker came to the door of a farmer just outside a small town. Earl Duggins was running for the state senate, and since Earl was from the town the worker asked if the farmer would vote for him. “Hell No!” said the farmer, and went to slam the door. “Please sir”, said the man, “why wouldn’t you vote for Earl? Before he went to off to college, he was the drawbridge operator just down the road, I’ve never heard of anyone who didn’t like him.” “It’s a long story”, said the farmer. “I have time”, said the worker. “Okay, come on in and set down” said the farmer. The farmer began his tale.
About ten years ago I had a prize bull. His name was Cecil. One day Cecil got sick- vet said something about a blockage. Vet wanted $100 to give him some laxative, figured I’d do the job myself for free. The only problem was I didn’t have any way to…uh…deliver the medication into the “other” end. I needed a funnel, but didn’t have one. What I did have was an old Calvary bugle. I figured it would work fine, so I plugged it into Cecil’s butt, and poured in the medicine. Well Cecil didn’t like that much, and he startled. In a panic he broke down my fence, and went barreling off down the lane there. Well the laxative was powerful, and every few steps he would break wind. When he did, the bugle would blow, and scare him, so he was pretty much running at full speed when he came up to the drawbridge. Earl was working that day, and he raised the bridge. Cecil ran off the end and drowned.
“Well, I’m sorry for you’re the loss of your livestock”, said the worker, “but I don’t see why you blame Earl?” “It’s simple”, said the farmer. “I wouldn’t vote for anyone to govern who can’t tell the difference between a steamship whistle and a horn in a bull’s ass!”
To this day I can still picture a bull running down a country lane with a bugle in his ass. Ah, childhood memories… We spent the rest of the evening fishing and talking. Eventually exhausted, we climbed into our two man tent, and zippered it firmly down. We stoked the fire a bit so Bullwhacker could sleep near it- since there wasn’t room for all of us. I woke at dawn to snoring in my ear. Snoorrrrre….pssssst….snap! What the hell? Bullwhacker was lying on my sleeping bag. The methane level was reaching toxic levels- so Dad and I evacuated the tent. Scratching our heads we couldn’t figure out how he got in. A little bit of bacon and detective work solved the mystery. I left a piece of bacon in the tent, zippered it down and watched as he did his magic. Turns out he didn’t like being out by himself, and he figured out if he stuck his nose in at the bottom of the zipper, he could raise his head a little at a time, open the zipper gradually, and come on in. He made himself at home on my sleep bag. As I got up I noticed the fire water bucket had frozen- smart dog.
After breakfast we took a walk through surrounding hills- if you have a dog letting them run loose in the wild is a special treat (as long as there’s nothing out there that would make them lunch). Several times I lost sight of him, only to see the white tip of his tail protruding above some grass. He was running and baying, generally having a great time. I was too, until Dad unintentionally scarred me for life. Vagabond found a leg bone of one of the cattle that had died of natural causes, and it was pretty funny to see him try to drag it and keep up with us. He didn’t want to let it go, and he didn’t want to lose us. So he was trying his best, but was lagging behind. “Hold up Dad, dog needs his bone.” To this day I wonder what the hell he thought I said. He was an engineer on the railroad and his hearing was bad, but the next two sentences out of his mouth paralyzed me. “Yeah, your mother was a cheerleader back in high school, I used to see her shaking her ass by the field when I was playing football. Sex with your mother is great, why did you ask?” he said. We both stood there stunned, I, open mouthed, unable to speak or breathe, and him slowly realizing the irreparable damage he had done to his only son. “I didn’t…uh…Ddddog…bone”, I stuttered, “go back camp now…” We walked back in silence- him probably in blissful memories- me wondering if they make bleach for your ears…shudder. Lesson Five, Not all knowledge is power, some is pain. Gut wrenchingly awful pain.
As I tried to wash the image of my pirate father giving my mother a right Jolly Rogering from my minds eye (arrrgh!). Life needs a rewind button. Or at least an unhear and unsee button. The rest of the day was spent frog hunting with Bullwhacker- I was sure I’d land one for the record books, but (fortunately for me) the 10ft long ones must have been hibernating. The lake was surrounded by pussy willows- that name still makes me giggle twenty five years later, and reminds me of another old joke from the fireside.
An old man is sitting on his porch when a little boy walks by holding a roll of chicken wire. He asked the boy why he needed chicken wire. The boy replied, “I’m going to catch some chickens”. The man told the boy that using chicken wire isn’t the way to catch chickens, but the boy went anyway. He returned later in the evening carrying several chickens. The man was shocked. The next day the little boy walked past the man again, this time carrying rolls and rolls of duck tape. The man asked what he was doing and the boy replied, “Today I’m catching ducks”. The man told him that’s not how to catch ducks, but the boy proceeded anyway. He returned later that night with an armload full of ducks. The man was amazed. The next day the little boy walked by the man carrying a pile of pussy willows and the man said, “Hold up, let me get my coat, I’m coming with you!”
As I was kneeling while looking for my prey in the pussy willows (snicker), I did find something I wasn’t looking for. A snake. A fat six-footer slithered over my ankle. I thought it was a stick, so without looking I reached back and picked up what turned out to be his tail. My faithful dog immediately jumped into action- yipping like a Chihuahua on espresso and making a beeline for camp like his tail was on fire.
Eyes to Brain- “Stick is floppy, must be wet. No, wait…movement detected. ”
Brain to Eyes- “Identify”
Eyes to Brain- “Looks like a snake. Yep, that’s snake. Why are we holding a snake? ”
Brain to Hand- “What the hell were you thinking?”
Hand to Brain- “I don’t think there genius, that’s your job. Now what?”
Brain to Hand-“Okay, okay, let me think. I know, drown him! Whip him over our head and out into the lake.”
Hand to Brain- “Are you sure?”
Brain to Hand-“Who is the thinker here?? Execute! Go! Go! Go!”
Hand to Brain- “Okay”
Zippy the Wonder Snake made three or so revolutions over my head like a lasso, and then sailed off into the middle of the lake. His last thoughts were probably “What the hell was that about?” And then Zippy did something I didn’t expect. Instead of sinking, he started swimming; BACK toward me.
Eyes to Brain- “Snake is returning on mission of revenge”
Brain to Feet- “Haul ass. I repeat, haul ass, this is not a drill. This demon serpent can probably fly.”
Feet to Brain- “We’re outta here!”
Lesson Six, Snakes are not made to fly- but they can swim. I made it back to camp in record time. Dad and I packed up the camp, and I caught some Z’s on the way home. I left that campsite with mostly pleasant memories- and some lessons for a lifetime.
1. Don’t feed a dog you’re on a long trip with hardboiled eggs.
2. Left pedal clutch, enough gas will get you out of any jam, and leave dog at home during driving lessons.
3. No matter how bad you are, there’s always someone meaner and uglier just over the hill.
4. Bullshit can be entertaining.
5. Not all knowledge is power, some is pain. Gut wrenchingly awful pain.
6. Snakes are not made to fly- but they can swim.
My thirteen year old brain translated that to…
Hardboiled eggs can lead to gas which can get you out of a difficult situations. There’s always someone meaner and uglier, but they can provide you with hours of quality entertainment. The quest for knowledge can cause pain, but sometimes you just have to let fly and go!