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Saturday, October 10, 2009

A SUCCESSFUL FAILURE

Our mission was called a successful failure, in that we returned safely but never made it to the moon. In the following months it was determined that a damaged coil built inside the oxygen tank sparked during our cryo stir and caused the explosion that crippled the Odyssey. It was a minor defect that occurred two years before I was even named the flight's commander. And as for me, the seven extraordinary days of Apollo 13 were my last in space…I watched other men walk on the moon and return safely all from the confines of Mission Control and our house in Houston. I sometimes catch myself looking up at the moon remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the moon and wonder, when will we be going back? And who will that be?

…from the movie Apollo 13


CHAPTER 7 FROM THE CHICKEN WHISPERER


My mom, Joan of Arc, is a northern girl married to a southern man, Timex. It would be very funny to say their marriage was like a tiny version of the civil war but it wasn’t. I can only remember a couple of fights, and one of those put all of us in sleeping bags.


Camping was a compromise between my father and mother after my dad had spent a few too many evenings hitting a softball and was confronted about spending more time with the family. The man worked two hundred hours a week. A weekend of camping helped him relax as much as a weekend of re-roofing the house.


Camping is where you leave the comforts of home (television & toilet paper) to rediscover how a battery operated radio works and how pine cones have multiple uses. Sort of what the pilgrims did, except they did it to escape persecution and taxes. They also almost all died the first winter (hint, hint).


Camping, in spite of its reputation, has several advantages. First, it increases your appreciation of food (takes hours to cook) and cold soda (because the sun is usually hotter than Hades). Second, it gives you a fond affection of shelter, even if it is a musty, damp tent (anything to get away from the mosquitoes). Third it teaches you to honor warnings about flammable clothing (never wear a sweater around a campfire, or if you do, just speed up the inevitable and soak it in gasoline).


To understand camping you divide it into two parts - what the adults do and what the kids do. The adults spend all week planning for the weekend (they usually forget something important like ketchup). Kids spend all week dreaming about the weekend. Upon arrival, adults construct a small city of canvas. Kids suffer a hearing loss and run towards water. Adults start the fire. Kids play in the fire. Adults cook the meals. Kids eat the meals. Adults apply first-aid. Kids get hurt. It’s a beautiful relationship.


Ninety percent of my family’s camping weekends simply involved loading the clan into a 1971 Dodge van and driving a short two miles through our farm to the family lake. Immediately Chris and I would jump out and start making a fort out of pine needles while Terry would start walking home.


A golden rule for Terry was she had to go. She could leave when she wanted to, but she had to go. It was family time. Of course she started walking home as soon as we got there. And, believe it or not, she walked the two miles home on a dirt road reading a Harlequin Romance novel. I guess “Scarlett” thought she was too good to bunk with us wretched farm hands.


Life ran in reverse at the lake. My dad did the cooking. I didn’t have to fight over the bathroom, which turned out to be a makeshift outhouse. There was no bedtime, no grass to mow, and rarely did I have to brush my teeth. It was a place for rowing a boat, sinking a line, skipping a rock, lighting a fire, roasting a marshmallow, and catching fireflies. It was the way father Abraham lived.


Two camping trips were the hallmark of our family’s experience in the wilderness: Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch and Walt Disney Land.


Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch had everything a kid could ask for: a creek, a pool, a magic show, and a Frostie Root Beer soda machine. The cans were so cold if you licked your hand the cans would stick to your flesh. For several summers this was our destination of choice. My dad even went to the trouble of building a camping trailer out of plywood to store our gear in trying to mimic an aluminum pop-up trailer. Loaded with a week of supplies, it put our little white van to the test. As a matter of fact, during our first attempt to climb the hill at the entrance to Loretta Lynn’s, the clutch overheated and filled the interior with smoke. Everybody probably thought we were a bunch of hippie’s smoking weed. We actually didn’t make it up the hill and had to get a little help from a ranch hand and a tractor. I wasn’t embarrassed. I was just glad the Pringles didn’t burn up.


While my dad started adjusting the clutch and my mother got busy setting things up for our week of fun, I’d put on what I would wear for the entire week- a pair of swim trunks. I’d run down to the creek and dive into the icy water where I lived for seven days. I got out of the water to roast hot dogs, eat Oreos, and drink Frostie root beer. It was a trial run of Heaven.


We really didn’t do anything the whole week except catch a few camp shows at night. A guy named Ricky Rebel would sing a couple of songs and then a magician named Phewy Lewy would saw someone in half or pull a rabbit out of his hat. I grew up raising rabbits and wasn’t too impressed with the rabbit trick. I could put two rabbits in a cage and show you 200 a week later. I’d also seen my father saw off his own body parts and just tape them back on.


On the hill, along with the camp show, were the rich people with their fancy Airstream campers (all aluminum luxurious RV’s built to last a lifetime) hooked up with electricity, running water and sewage. Literally their RV’s were a little nicer than my house. Ok, I’m kidding…they were a lot nicer than my house. My dad, however, is a genius who can build anything. He built our house… by himself. Building a house requires several people, unless you’re Timex. Imagine if one person had built the great pyramids, they might be a little less than perfect. So our house has imperfections but is unique and belongs in a museum.


The fact he had built a house gave him the courage to build his own Airstream. He went out and found a couple of old axels, took a welder and made a trailer. He then took a camper that fits in the bed of a truck and bolted it to the trailer. Then he took plywood and built a shell around it. To authenticate the Airstream look he painted it with silver roof paint. We took the invention to Florida.


We pulled the six thousand pound contraption with a 1972 green Dodge pickup with no air and an AM radio. I think we got about four miles per gallon while we drove 45mph for thirty hours to get to our first KOA stop in Tallahassee. My two sisters and I rode in the back of the truck, blinded by the sun glaring off the silver paint of the camper in tow, all the way to Florida. We turned a few heads in 1983.


We did the whole Florida thing. We went to the beach and drank some salt water and ate some sand. After almost drowning, we put a few seashells for souvenirs in a zip lock bag for later (should have never opened it when I got back). We drank some fresh orange juice at McDonald’s and ate some fresh seafood at Long John Silvers. We went to Walt Disney Land and discovered Mickey Mouse can’t talk.


We limped back home because the camper started having axel trouble and the truck started having engine trouble. The truck pulling the camper was the equivalent of a remote control car trying to pull a diesel truck (with the brakes on). The only thing worse than riding in the back of a truck across a hot Florida highway is riding in the back of a truck that is not moving. Like Apollo 13 we began to wonder if we would make it back home. This was the critical moment. Would the homemade axel hold? Would the truck engine survive the intense heat of the July sun? Would the family dehydrate before re-entry? We made it back and celebrated by eating a steak and ravaging the salad bar at Western Sizzlin.


A successful failure, you look at life and a lot of things don’t work out as planned. But in those moments of challenge we forge some of our finest memories. A family who suffers together, stays together. We were tested and we all passed. We learned often what brings us comfort in the midst of discomfort is the trust we have in those around us. It is our decision whether we stay or leave, just like it was Terry’s. If I were me again, I’d climb back into that truck and do it again, not only because in some weird way it was fun but also because in some weird way it was fundamental to my story.


Our family time was called a successful failure in that we returned home but never perfected the art of traveling around the country in our homemade Airstream. In the following years I have determined our limited resources prevented us from achieving our goal of becoming professionals. It was beyond our control and impacted most of my childhood, in a positive fashion. As for me, these early years of camping were not my last… I have continued to confront the elements and assume the challenges nature presents. I sometimes catch myself staring into a campfire and remembering my changes of fortune on our family trips, thinking about the parents who worked so hard to take me there. I look at the fire and wonder, will I continue to come back? And who will I bring with me?

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