Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It rhymes with hurt

I take full responsibility.

It was the worst camping trip and worst Thanksgiving our family ever experienced and they still resent me for it.  They bring it up whenever they give an example of how they've suffered by being a member of this clan.  I dismiss their whining and assure them that it wasn't that bad.  Stephen gently suggests that it was just as they  describe and remember. 

It started as my innocent effort to create a memorable Thanksgiving Day holiday before the kids all grew up and left the nest--Justin had just recently flown away. Otherwise, we had no real traditions or history associated with the holiday.

We rarely celebrated Thanksgiving most years since it was the tradition for gathering extended family around the table, grocery shopping, cooking, baking for days in preparation, and hosting traveling families arriving from any point in the country. 

When Stephen and I were first married, we lived far from both of our families.  I enjoyed playing house and preparing our small meals for just the two of us.  In those early years, Stephen was in the Air Force.  The base Morale Officers often sent young airmen and their wives to holiday functions hosted by senior-ranking officers around the base.  We took advantage of the new friendships that those might offer and left the details and chores to other hosts.

In later years, when the kids were all quite little, I didn't really see the point of all the effort made for a special meal which would be consumed in short order creating extra cleanup work.  Since both of our families were at least a thousand miles away, and rarely held big family gatherings, we ignored Thanksgiving and started our Solstice celebrations, instead. 

So over the years, Thanksgiving was a holiday we'd enjoy, but only if we were invited away--we rarely made the effort to host our own.  On the few occasions that we did, it just reinforced our opinion that we just weren't getting the true meaning of it all.

For example, when we were just getting settled in Omaha, we had a small circle of friends through The Unitarian Church and Stephen had a small circle of co-worker friends who, like us, were displaced in the Air Force, far from home-towns and family.  We hosted a small group of unattached people and offered an open sideboard to which everyone was assigned what they could contribute to the meal.  One guest, in charge of bringing a vegetable dish, brought a 7 pound raw acorn squash and set it in pride of place on the buffet, arriving just moments before dinner was served.

On the other hand, for more than one Thanksgiving, we were invited to the child-hood home of our church friend, Charlotte Shields, joining her parents Bill and Jean.  Charlotte and her then husband, Al Vovolka, and their young son, Robin, took all nine of us, in a van they'd borrowed from another friend, to rural Red Oak, Iowa, crossing The Missouri River, and traveling over an hour past farm-fields and the rolling countryside of western Iowa.  It really put us in the heartland and mindset of family, heritage, and tradition.  Once we were in the farmhouse, surrounded by hundreds of acres of naked, recently-harvested, soybean fields, we sang songs while Charlotte accompanied with piano, listened to family stories, admired the artwork of Charlotte's mother, Jean, watched the kids play together, and created some remarkably happy memories in the most traditional way of holiday and setting.

On our first Thanksgiving visit, once seated at the table, Charlotte's father, Bill,  asked that we go around the table to recite what we might be giving thanks for this year.  I started to get nervous--I'm not very comfortable with genuine, heartfelt expressions of personal reflection or emotion.  As we went around the table, I got an increasing case of tunnel vision as this close-knit family displayed their affection for the company, their love for their family, their gratitude for their health, and their delight in watching their grandson, Robin, grow and develop.  By the time they got to me I was a sobbing, blubbering mess of uncontrollable emotion and appreciation for being included in this warm embrace of a family gathering.  It was exhausting and a little confusing for the kids to see me in such an emotional state at a dinner table.

Growing up, my suburban family Thanksgivings were probably all very stereotypical.  I just don't recall any vivid details or memories of them.  I'm sure my mother slaved in the kitchen, preparing for the five of us: stuffing a turkey, mashing potatoes, and mixing pumpkin custard (she cooked everything by scratch), using few gadgets of convenience.  Her cooking and preparation techniques were simple, food was good, and clean-up had the importance, efficiency, and sterility of a military hospital operating room after triage.

I remember one holiday spent with the Larson family of seven.  Five children and parents, Ed & Jean.  Ed and Dad worked at Norton Company together and our families were frequent companions for camping excursions, often centered around Ed and Dad's scuba diving expeditions.  On one holiday, they joined our family in Plymouth, Michigan, which created a full table, mostly of teenagers, I --not yet a teen--was the youngest of the lot.  I remember just sitting and watching the activity around me, and dearly recall the lively nature of the group and the laughter--non-stop laughter.  Dad remarked that there wasn't a morsel of meat left on that turkey carcass--- like a cartoon turkey skeleton sitting on the platter when the meal was complete.  I often think back to that particular brief moment in time, watching and listening to the frivolity and high spirit of many happy people seated around a full table.  Frequently, I still use that image as a model when planning a dinner event.

So we fast forward to our own three teenagers, those still at home, and my efforts to combine the fun of a camping weekend and a memorable Thanksgiving Feast just a few miles south of our home in urban New Jersey.  Historic Allaire State Park offered the setting--the only camping facility still open in late November.  I booked our camp site at one of the few that had a permanent yurt set up with a fire pit outside and full length picnic tables, all located just a few hundred yards from the heated flush-toilet/shower house.  This was going to be perfect; luxury camping compared to some of our past experiences.

We loaded the van with our most precious camping equipment, leaving the tent at home--we were going to be off the ground, on bunk-beds!  More luxury!

Kathryn, Olivia and I acted as forward observers arriving in Mid-afternoon with all the necessary equipment: an 8-quart cast-iron dutch oven for the turkey, a 4-quart dutch oven for the pie, a three burner gas camp stove, 5 gallon water jugs, the Coleman (tm) lantern, a 60-quart marine cooler full of food, sleeping bags, and the chuck box:

This is an elaborate wooden cabinet with drop-down sides, pop out drawers, and a lift-off piano-hinged top that Stephen built for me fashioned after the chuck-box I remembered growing up as a child.  My grandfather, Allyn, had built it years before and it was always used as our camp kitchen and pantry.   Stephen's version was a little more sophisticated, featuring cubbies for my Tupperware (tm) spice containers--everything from salt to sage, a slide-out for my stainless steel flatware (service for 12), a hanging shelf for KP duties-soap, dishcloth, SOS scrubbing pads, hooks for soup ladles, pancake turners, sausage tongs, mixing spoons, wire whisks, carving knives, and shelves for my traveling canisters of flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, coffee, chocolate, and tea, and enough plates, cups, bowls, and mugs for at least 12 people.

The chuck box, in happier times.

Since we were about to dig in to prepare a simple but full Thanksgiving meal, I needed all the right tools.  We set the fire just right, employing hot coals to roast the turkey in the dutch oven, the girls mixed the ingredients for a pumpkin pie and home-made pie crust, I heated a pan for cranberry sauce, made a slurry of flour and coffee to simmer gravy with the turkey drippings, set several pounds of potatoes to boil and mash, and made efforts to keep-kamp before Stephen and Andrew joined us after work.
Remember, nothing's more fun than gathering sticks. NOTHING!

Caught in typical pre-holiday New Jersey rush-hour traffic, the one-hour drive, took over two, while the girls and I puttered about the campsite, anxiously but silently noticing the setting sun, and more of a concern, the rapidly falling temperature.  The table was set with coordinating Tupperware (tm) plates, tumblers, flatware, serving dishes, and eventually--finally-- Stephen and Andrew arrived.

It was either because we were starving and shivering or because no one dared say otherwise, but I thought it was the BEST Thanksgiving meal we'd EVER eaten--before or since. 

Nothing says camping like setting everything on fire.

The turkey was roasted to perfection, the drippings providing a robust base for a savoury gravy, the stuffing was moist and aromatic with spices and homemade bread, the cranberries jellied sweet and tart, the potatoes soft as silk, a buttery, creamy vessel for a puddle of gravy.  A meal of perfection.  Eaten in less than 10 minutes.  In darkness.

We were cold.  The temperature had dropped dramatically and severely once the sun set. 

Immediately after the meal, we quickly began KP at the Camp Sink:

Another of Stephen's creations at my request.  Our camp sink station.  He built a wooden tabletop using the legs from a discarded folding table, and attached footings to the table top that would hold a shelf strong enough to support two filled 5-gallon water jugs.  One for hot water, the other for cold.  He plumbed one of jugs' spigots to have a sprayer hose to make dish-washing effortless and aseptic  The table top had ample room for a large stainless steel basin used for a sink.

Once clean-up was done--not so easy in the dark, most unpleasant in the cold--and after vainly trying to stay warm around the dwindling campfire, we abandoned story-telling and harmonica playing and retired to the yurt:

A yurt is a semi-permanent, but portable, dwelling traditionally used by nomads in Asia.  It's constructed of canvas around a lattice-work frame and roofed--more cabin-like than tent-like. 

The Yurt. Sleeps up to six, freezes up to eight.

This being New Jersey, there was no hand-felted roof made by Mongolian shepherds, and our flashlights revealed the many names carved into the planks and wood bunk frames of previous visitors.The yurt also had a large permanently framed sign stating that under no circumstances would stoves, fires, or heaters of any kind be permitted in the yurt.  So, the kids each took a bunk, unrolled their -30 degree ranked sleeping bags,  and Stephen and I zipped our sleeping bags together and unrolled a sleeping mat on the floor.  We all hunkered down for the night.

But the temperature kept dropping. 

and dropping.

and dropping.

We tossed, we cuddled, we adjusted, we zippered our heads into the bag.  We just couldn't get warm--no one could get warm.  We could hear teeth chattering.  Frequently, someone would get up and 'go to the bathroom', but they were really just warming up in the heated facility.  It was a long, cold, uncomfortable night.  I was sure I'd make it up to them all by making a fabulous camp breakfast:  eggs, sausage, pancakes, hot coffee, the works.

When first daylight came, we stirred, and I was first to get the morning routine going.  I went to fill the kettle for a large pot of strong coffee, but the water jugs had frozen.  Solid.  The gas stove (the ever-faithful Coleman pressure pump) wouldn't hold a charge, so I couldn't get a burner lit. I started a new camp fire;  I could make pancakes and sausage over the flames. 

We'd spent all our collected wood the night before trying to get warm, so I sent the kids to forage for kindling and branches.  They culled enough to get a modest fire going and I made pancakes.  The butter was frozen, but worse, the maple syrup wouldn't pour.  Anything we left outside of the cooler froze, anything inside the cooler was fine.I didn't think real maple syrup could freeze at all, but this was as close to frozen as it could get.  The kids were as frozen as they thought they could get. 

So tradition was lost, very little fun was had, I created way too much work for a simple turkey meal, and, really, everyone just wanted just to go home. So much for Thanksgiving. 

I'm remembering this particular Thanksgiving celebration since we just celebrated our Canadian Thanksgiving. (It's the same weekend as the US Columbus Day.)  So what am I thankful for?  It's simple; A vivid memory of a time spent with friends and family, ultimately, a story to share. 

Mostly, that no one lost any toes to hypothermia.

In the background, Andrew and Kathryn stare dully at a tent bag.
It's the most fun they had all weekend.


  1. I feel better knowing that Olivia was fully prepared for sleeping in frigid conditions during her stay in Austin thanks to the Thanksgiving camping trip.

  2. That Austin trip is another example that Olivia gives for suffering as a member of this clan.

  3. I'd never heard of a yurt before! The idea was good and I'd have given you a 10 for effort. What does Stephen say about these plans while they're being hatched?

  4. Jane has skipped over the biggest issue of the weekend: the sleeping experience itself. As I recall it, you had to cinch up the sleeping bags until only your nose poked out to breathe, then when your nose got too cold, waking up just enough to tuck your head inside completely, which quickly became stifling, then waking up just enough to find some alternative way to breathe in some frigid outdoor (or indoor, no difference) air, all of which were equally uncomfortable and still required constant readjustment to avoid frostbite. And hearing the constant shuffling and writhing of the kids in the bunks doing the same thing. It was a very long night. Around 3 or 4 am, exhausted, we gave up and, accepting the inevitability of sweet death, finally fell asleep, only waking when the morning sun taunted us with its chilly light. Good times!!

  5. Q:"What does Stephen say about these plans while they're being hatched?"
    A: "Am I going to need bail money, this time?"