Our Woodlake trip satisfied Daddy for a couple of months, but then he started to get restless again. “Antsy,” Mommy called it. He bought a book about camping, and in the evenings he pored over it, underlining things and making pencil notes in the margins. He drew pages and pages of diagrams and made a long list on a tablet.
“What on earth are you doing?” Mommy wanted to know.
“You’ll see,” Daddy said, humming happily to himself.
He made several trips to the lumberyard and the hardware store. Then he closed himself in the garage and began sawing and hammering. Nobody was allowed to go in. After working in the garage for three weekends straight, Daddy wheeled his masterpiece out onto the driveway.
“What is it?” Mommy asked.
“It’s a camping trailer,” Daddy announced proudly. “As soon as school’s out, we’re going to Lake Almanor!”
It wasn’t a fancy camping trailer you could sleep in, but rather a plain, brown-painted wooden box with an open top and a wheel on each side, small enough to be towed behind our Plymouth. The tailgate of the trailer dropped down on hinges to form a counter, and behind that Daddy built cubbies to hold kitchen goods: tin plates, cups and cutlery, a cast-iron skillet, a couple of pots, matches for starting a fire. Bisquick, Crisco, pancake syrup, ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper, sugar and coffee. At an Army surplus store he bought a Coleman stove with an attached screw-top metal bottle for kerosene, a couple of Coleman lanterns, four down sleeping bags—mummy bags, he called them—and four air mattresses, the kind you had to inflate with a foot pump that looked like a turtle. Finally, he bought two khaki-colored canvas pup tents.
“Why are they called pup tents?” I wanted to know. “Is that where the doggies sleep?”
“No. They’re called pup tents because they’re much smaller than full-size tents, just like pups are much smaller than full-size dogs. Pup tents are made smaller and lighter so soldiers in the field can carry them on their backs.”
“Don’t soldiers have doggies?”
“You, Trish, ask too many questions.”
A hatchet, a couple of buckets, a card table, two canvas director chairs, a folding shovel, and lots of fishing equipment rounded out our gear.
For a cover, Daddy made one last trip to the surplus store and bought a heavy tarp with grommets around the sides. He tied it down over the load with a long rope that crisscrossed over the top from side to side, held in place by sturdy hooks from the hardware store.
“Day after tomorrow,” Daddy announced, “we leave for Almanor!”
“We’re going camping,” I informed Mike Bradley, puffing out my chest, “but you can’t go. Rusty gets to go this time, and we’re going to sleep in sleeping bags on top of air mattresses inside our new pup tents. They’re real Army tents, not like the ones at Yosemite, and they’re small enough so the soldiers in the field can carry them on their backs.”
“Wow,” said Mike, suitably impressed. “I wish I could go too.”
On the way to Lake Almanor, the rope holding the tarp on the trailer came loose, leaving one corner flapping in the wind. Daddy said “dammit” and pulled off on the shoulder so he could tie it again, more securely this time.
We hadn’t been back on the road five minutes when I had to go to the bathroom.
“Why didn’t you go when we were stopped?” Daddy snapped.
“There wasn’t any bathroom.”
“Haven’t you ever peed on the side of the road?”
“No. I didn’t know we were allowed to do that.”
He pulled off again and told me to get out and go.
“But what if somebody sees me?”
“Nobody’s going to see you. Go ahead and pee. We haven’t got all day, dammit!”
I jumped out on the passenger’s side, yanked down my jeans, peed as fast as I could, pulled my jeans up, and jumped back in the car. “I got some pee on my shoe,” I said.
Our tires squealed as Daddy pulled back onto the pavement.
Not thirty minutes later we heard a loud pop, and the trailer began thump-thump-thumping down the highway. Daddy said “dammit” two more times as he braked and veered onto the shoulder. By now it was over ninety degrees. He had to unhitch the trailer and take a bunch of stuff out of the trunk in order to reach the car jack stored at the bottom. Then he jacked the trailer up and took off the flat tire, pulled out the inner tube, and got out his repair kit to patch the hole. Sweat ran down his face and dripped from his chin right onto the glue he was using to fix the tube. “Dammit,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mommy and Eleanor and I sat on the ground in the shade next to the car. I had hold of Rusty’s leash, but he wasn’t interested in sitting. He sniffed around here and there and then, pulling as far as his leash would reach, he peed right on the trailer tire lying on the ground. “Goddamn that dog,” Daddy muttered.
We pulled into the campground at Lake Almanor late in the afternoon and got our first taste of what camping was all about. Daddy hiked down to the lake to fill two buckets with water, strung up the rope from the trailer as a clothesline, and then showed Eleanor and me how to use the turtle foot pump to blow up the air mattresses. We had to take turns because it was hard work. Then he put up the pup tents and used the folding shovel to dig a shallow trench around each tent and continuing off into the trees. “In case it rains,” he said, “the water will drain away and not seep into our tents and soak everything.”
Our last chore was to spread our sleeping bags on top of the air mattresses and gather a pile of kindling. “In order for an outfit to run smoothly and efficiently,” Daddy reminded us, “everyone has to do their part.”
While he was telling us this, Rusty went over and peed on the side of one of the tents. Daddy yelled at him and tried to catch him to give him a spanking, but Rusty ran under the car and wouldn’t come out. “Goddammit,” Daddy muttered under his breath. “Goddammit to hell.”
By now we were all starving. Daddy set up the Coleman stove on its stand and worked the little metal pump with his thumb so the kerosene would go to the burners. Mommy opened two cans of pork and beans, and while the beans heated, she spread a piece of bright yellow oilcloth on the redwood table provided at the campsite and got out the bread and butter.
“You girls set the table for your mother while I find some larger logs for our campfire. In order for an outfit to run smoothly and—”
“Yeah, yeah, Daddy, we know.”
After dinner we were all so tired that as soon as the dishes were washed and put away, we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. Rusty was tied on a rope outside, but it didn’t take him long to wriggle under the mosquito-net door of our tent and snuggle down between Eleanor and me. It was, after all, a pup tent.
The next day we went fishing. Daddy showed us how to stick the hook through the worm’s body several times, starting with the head. Eleanor and I hated that part, but Daddy said it didn’t make any difference because the fish were going to eat them anyway.
I caught my first trout that afternoon, and Eleanor caught two. Daddy caught a whole bunch. The colors running down their sides reminded me of shiny rainbows, all pale, shimmery red and green and blue. Daddy kept them alive in the water on a string threaded through their gills and mouths, kind of like Rusty on his leash.
Late that afternoon, he cut off the fishes’ heads right behind the gills—yuck!—slit open their bellies—yuck, yuck!—cleaned out their guts—yuck, yuck, yuck!—scraped off their scales with a little scraper, and turned them over to Mommy. Her job was to dip them in beaten egg, roll them in Bisquick seasoned with salt and pepper, and fry them in the frying pan. When they were all brown and crispy, she squirted on a little lemon juice and set them on the table. Daddy showed us how to use a knife and fork to carefully lift the fish meat off the string of bones that went down the fish’s middle, but I guess I wasn’t doing such a good job because Mommy came around and finished it for me. “If you swallow fish bones, she said, glaring at Daddy, “they could perforate your stomach.”
The pink trout meat was delicious, and I ate every bite.
Later, as we sat around the campfire, Mommy said she and Daddy had a surprise for us.
“Tell us, tell us, tell us,” I yelled. “Tell us the surprise!”
“Well,” Mommy said, “you girls are going to have a new baby brother or sister in a few months. I have a tiny baby in my tummy, and it’ll be ready to be born this fall, probably before Christmas.”
“Just one?” I wanted to know.
“I think so,” she said. Sometimes people do have twins, but I’m pretty sure I just have only one baby in my tummy.”
“How will it get born? Do you have to squeeze it out like Mittens squeezes out her kittens under the boxes in the garage?”
Mommy laughed. “No, Trish, not quite like that. I’ll go to the hospital to have our baby.”
“Is our baby a boy or a girl?”
“I want a baby brother,” Eleanor said.
“Oh, yes, I want a baby brother too,” I chimed in. “I want a baby brother with blond hair and big blue eyes and fat red cheeks like an apple.”
“I want a boy too,” said Daddy, “and I don’t care what color his hair and eyes and cheeks are just so long as it’s a boy. I wouldn’t even care if it’s two boys! But one of them will have to be named Arthur, after me.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Mommy said, patting her tummy and smiling a nice happy smile.
That night, as I snuggled down in my mummy bag, I dreamed about the new baby, only in my dream there was a whole litter of babies and they had to stay under the boxes in the garage at night because Daddy wouldn’t let them come in the house because they had fleas.”