As soon as we wake up every morning, I take my rickety old dog for a leisurely amble not on a lead but letting her choose the route. This morning she took me through the field beyond the house and down the wooded embankment to a little brook that runs along the edge of our property. It is a perfect clear autumn day, bright already at seven; but its dark here under the trees and the grass is still a rich green near the brook. It feels like a separate room – or as I used to say as a child – a foreign land.
For a few summers I played here incessantly, mucking about in the shallow water, building dams and trying to reroute the brook to fill a pond that I was excavating. I had a pup tent on the flat bank and camped out at night sometimes with a friend.
We made elaborate preparations for our overnights, sweeping out the tent with a whisk broom, perfecting the circle of rocks that would be our campfire and making dozens of trips carrying “provisions” from the house. There would be a bucket for the fire – just in case, some art work to tape to one tent pole for decoration, my cat – who would never stay, and once a little pitcher of wildflowers that wilted even before we knocked it over.
I was in charge of reading material, and always included something with capable children making do outdoors like Swallows and Amazons, or The Boxcar Children, or adventures abroad like Dr. Doolittle. My brownie scout handbook was a must (for knots), some Edgar Allen Poe in case we felt like getting scared (we never did) and whatever I was actually reading at the time, from which I would read aloud to Mary Ellen for as long as we could stay awake.
We wouldn’t go to “camp” until after dinner at home, but snacks were crucial; sometimes Saltines with peanut butter and jelly, my mother’s chocolate chip cookies, or individual bags of potato chips, all of which would fill our sleeping bags, first with crumbs, later ants. I know there were once some limes (to avoid scurvy).
As I stand here now, the buildings invisible because of the slope and way too far away for anyone to hear us if we yelled, I’m astonished that we were allowed to sleep so far from adults at that age, let alone bring matches and try to build fires. We were only nine or ten. But children were less supervised in those days, and our fires never amounted to much as I recall.
Mary Ellen was of a practical nature and tended to bring useful things; extra flashlights, pillows, a transistor radio, once a baseball bat “in case”, and always a black and red thermos that we would fill with cocoa or chocolate milk.
On one occasion we inadvertently swapped ours with a similar thermos that my father’s foreman brought to work each day, and had to make do with his lunchtime coffee, which was liberally laced with whisky. We were terribly disappointed at first (just as he must have been!) because it tasted so awful, but then we decided to drink it because we’d heard that coffee keeps you awake – which seemed exciting since it was not allowed.
Undoubtedly due to the whisky, we not only slept early, but also late, and my mother came down to see if we were all right in the morning. She said she had to shake us awake at eight thirty and was startled when the tent reeked of whisky and coffee. She didn’t say a word to us then though, just hustled us up to the house for a proper breakfast, groggy and cranky with our little hangovers. It was only later when I overheard her laughing wildly with a friend on the phone, that I learned that we had gotten a bit tipsy.
My canine companion has finished her olfactory examination of the area and is ready now for breakfast herself. I dispatch my memories downstream on a handsome maple leaf dropped into the brook, and head back to the house for a nice bowl of kibble for one of us, some buttered toast for the other and a delicious cup of Café Suisse with just a little milk – no whiskey.