The nights were still cold when I invited my college friend to visit the family farm. Justin was excited; he had grown up in the suburbs and never explored a farm or had a flashback. Nearly everything excited him, and his pleasure at experiencing the world was infectious.
I showed him Sweetie and Shrek, the pig hutch (now deliciously empty), and the chicken coop in all its putrid glory. Where others would find disgust, he grinned, asking questions all the while. I saved the best for last; my pride and joy, a tree house that I had built myself well out in the forest, away from the house. It was my refuge, my fortress, and I enjoyed improving it all the time.
The Tree House
Heavy two-by-four planks covered by thick half-inch plywood composed the floor to avoid any sagging. The deck was about six feet long by four or five feet wide. I had begged some tin from my dad and created a roof that spanned the whole first floor. A small platform another six feet up, accessible by a ladder of more two-by-fours nailed into a tree, acted as a lookout post. I am not sure whom I was on the lookout for, but defense seemed important. The main floor itself was accessible only by climbing a knotted rope. For quick, dangerous escapes there was a zip line, but you were responsible for stopping yourself before hitting the lower anchor tree. In all the time we used the zip line, we only had one broken arm.
I had cleared the ground of brush under and around the tree house to make a square sheltered area. And I had seen enough survival movies to know that water was crucial, which is why a bushy path wound about twenty yards to connect the tree house to the large creek that ran beside the train tracks bordering our land. As a crown, I had lugged an old tire rim to the clearing and set it up as a fire pit. I was very proud of all this, but Justin seemed almost wonderfully overwhelmed.
After we had finished our tour of the farm and the tree house, we trudged back to the house for dinner. I’m sure it involved gravy and looked incredibly rustic to Justin, though I do not exactly remember what we ate.
During the meal, he enthusiastically recounted our odyssey. Dinner was delicious until Justin suggested camping under the stars. My dinner didn’t turn to ash; instead, I started shoveling it down because it was going to be a cold night. With a look from my mother, I knew we had to do it: Justin had never been camping before. Yet, I also knew we didn’t have the equipment we needed for a pleasant experience. Once back at college, learning nothing from the miserable night that we were about to spend, later that year Justin would suggest camping in a homemade igloo built on the quad. His childish and sometimes naive enthusiasm was contagious and the cause of many anecdotes.
Now, Justin is one of my favorite people, and I am a big fan of camping, but he had no idea what he was in for, while I had years of experience warning me our night would turn out rough. I had been in the Boy Scouts for several years, had been the troop leader when we had hiked the Appalachian Mountains for a week and a half, had gone to camp and earned merit badges in skills from shotgun to aviation, and had also been part of the Klondike Derby, which, as you might guess, was held in the depths of winter.
There is a lot to say for the Derby, but what I remember most were the nights. For my gear, I had a sleeping bag rated to -30 Fahrenheit (the kind with a drawstring around your face so only your mouth and nose stuck out), with a sleeping pad designed to keep the ground from drawing away body warmth, and I had slept in all my clothes: Carhartt coat, overalls, jacket, jeans, long underwear, a hat, two pairs of socks, and my shoes.
Even with the right equipment, a heater, and the shared body heat of a dozen or so scouts tightly packed in the same tent, the coldest I have ever been was during those nights at the derby. I woke up stiff like an old man, not like a fifteen year old, and just as cranky as both combined. Now it wasn’t the Klondike, but we were not prepared.
The Tree House Trip
We didn’t have the right equipment for all the three of us. I had my gear from scouts, but my little brother and Justin had almost nothing. We had to cobble together two more sets of cold weather gear out of old coats and sleeping bags. When we were done, we looked like one boy scout leading two old fashioned hobos wearing mismatched, too-tight or too-loose clothes. Justin, with a slight but powerful frame, looked lost in my father’s cold-weather gear and sleeping bag. My brother’s outfit wasn’t quite as bad (a black jacket with tan snow pants and black boots), but his sleeping bag was rated for movie-watching sleepovers at friends’ houses. We were a group of tramps that would hold out on Justin’s enthusiasm and my fire-building skills. And so with high hopes and bellies hot and full, we set out on our adventure.
We arrived at the tree house just around dusk and gathered fallen firewood. We talked through embers that grew and died until we were exhausted. Once the talk fell low, we decided it was time to sleep. Like cowboys in the movies, we arranged ourselves equidistant around the fire. I zipped myself into my sleeping bag, drew the drawstring tight, and prepared for a cold night.
Justin tackled me awake. His normally enthusiastic and happy voice was filled with terror. I could hardly hear him yelling over the train going by a hundred yards away: “MAX, MAX, THE CHOPPERS ARE COMING! THE CHOPPERS ARE COMING!!! THEY ARE COMING TO GET US!!!!” With Justin shaking me in complete panic, it took longer than usual to extract myself from my sleeping bag. Then, it took the train passing and a few more minutes to remind Justin that we were, in fact, in rural Ohio with no choppers in sight. But he was convinced we were soldiers stationed in Vietnam and that the 5 A.M. freight train was a squad of helicopters coming for us. To this day, he will tell you that for those moments he was there. Choppers in the air and fear all around.
My adrenaline pumping, I demanded, with no hint of anger I am sure, that everyone pack up so that we could go the hell home where there was warmth and food. Thus ended Justin’s first camping experience and, in the year 2010 at the age of 18, his first Vietnam War flashback all in the same trip. I do not know if he has had another of either.