A teenager listening to their parents? Why that’s absurd! Just wouldn’t be normal––a definite pubescent taboo. And, as a teen, I often complied with my adolescent obligation. With the arctic cold spell that’s currently enveloping my area, one episode stands out from the rest––an occasion when I really shouldn’t have argued with my mom and dad.
Christmas break, 1966. My best friend, Bob, and I had concocted a plan to go camping along the Gasconade River, near a little Missouri town called Vichy. Another neighbor friend, Winfred (a.k.a. Winnie), was gullible enough to accompany us on the excursion.
Like most mid-western states in the U.S., Missouri winters could be mild to miserable and typically unpredictable. With snow blanketing the ground and temperatures in the twenties, Mom and Dad––especially Mom––insisted I abstain from this adventure. They cited that sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere in December was neither the brightest nor safest thing I might ever do. Logic and overcast skies told me they were correct. Teenage ego and stubbornness, however, spawned an entirely different perspective. After all, I was tough. I could take care of myself. My parents’ objections merely indicated I had something to prove. Besides, Bob had a brand-new Coleman catalytic heater, guaranteed to keep us toasty all night long. Plus, we’d already stuffed Bob’s ’64 Chevy Impala with gear and supplies that left just enough room across the front, bench seat for two thin dudes and one chubby person to squeeze in.
While Bob and Winnie waited in the car, nearly twenty minutes of bickering elapsed––okay, pleading on my part––before my parents finally caved-in. Uncertain whether my persistence had won out, or whether Mom and Dad figured I needed to learn a valuable lesson, I joined my adventure-starved pals and we were on the way––the Chevy’s rear springs desperately trying to prevent the rear bumper from kissing the pavement.
Two-and-a-half hours later, we turned onto a blacktop, county road that turned into gravel and mud and eventually led to the campsite. Although Bob and I had scouted the location under more favorable climatic conditions, the wintry scene no longer resembled what either of us had anticipated. But what the hell, if Lewis and Clark handled similar conditions, so could we.
Once the site for our temporary digs was established, we cleared the snow to expose frozen earth. Bob decided to turn the Impala around to make unloading our gear easier. Thus began a series of events surrounding the lesson my parents had most assuredly cursed me to learn.
The patch of open ground required to reposition the Chevy was minimal. The sheet of hidden ice bordering the creek that Bob backed over was too. The resounding CRACK indicated that we might be in trouble. The sinking rear bumper, the rear tires spinning in an effort to escape, and the steady stream of bubbles in the frigid water once the tire stopped removed all doubt.
Like the three wise men in awe of the Savior, Bob, Winnie, and I watched crystalline air balls rise past the severed valve stem and collect into a mass of gleaming, clear domes on the surface.
“What do we do now?” Winnie asked.
“Damned good question,” I replied, then looked at the vehicle’s operator.
“Hell, I don’t know,” Bob replied.
With my family’s mechanical background, I was appointed as the automotive genius in the group, capable of unmatched resourcefulness and immediate solutions. In this case, however, I felt that my distinction was highly overrated. I assessed the situation anyway and broke the silence. “Considering the rear bumper swimming in the creek, the spare tire buried under a ton of gear, and that even if we could get a jack in place, we’d never get the car high enough to change the tire, I’d say we’re shit-outa-luck. Besides, I’m not gonna freeze my ass off wading in that ice water.”
“Me either,” Winnie said.
I don’t recall who remembered the small service station in Vichy, but we each agreed, that’s where the solution to our fiasco could be resolved. The hike did us good. First, it was mostly uphill, which generated enough body heat to keep us warm. Secondly, it wore off some of our frustration. Unfortunately for Bob, it also gave Winnie and me ample time to razz him about his uncommon driving skills (something I continue to do to this day).
Relieved to discover that the Vichy gas station owner possessed an old tow truck, we waited until an employee could drive the three of us back to the scene of the disaster.
When the wrecker driver spotted the Chevy’s grill tilting skyward, he said, “How in hell’d you manage that?”
“It wasn’t easy,” Bob replied.
“He has a special gift,” I added, then grinned.
As the driver hooked up his rig to the disabled Impala, I imagined the negative commentary he surely muttered to himself. His intermittent chuckles and semi-toothy smirks as he shuffled back to the controls left little to doubt. Winnie and I smirked, too. By that point, however, we’d probably said enough and restrained from further remarks.
With the spare tire in place and camp finally set up, it was time to explore. The original intent of the excursion was to satisfy our pioneer urge by trapping wild game, then rake in the cash for their pelts. With the snow-covered terrain, critters would be easy to track and their furry coats thick. To our delight, we recognized several raccoon prints in the crusty white powder as well as a fox. If caught, their hides might cover part of the tow bill.
Cloudy skies prevailed, but our trek through the stands of leafless oak, elm, and cottonwood trees proved peaceful. The temperature rose to the mid-thirties and the wind was calm. As we communed with Mother Nature, only the constant gurgle down the center of the Gasconade disturbed the silence.
Fresh footprints heightened the exhilarating experience until they crossed a frozen slough. With the Chevy’s near drowning, caution prevailed. At best, the animal we followed weighed thirty to thirty-five pounds. Even our youthful figures bore a girth more than five times that capacity––especially Winnie. After bouncing a volley of sizeable rocks off the frozen surface, we decided it would be safe, then delicately crossed and continued our pursuit. Winne went first.
Locked-in to mountain-man mode, we carefully laid our single-pan snares, hid them with leaves and snow, then sprinkled on the god-awful scent we’d created from fish parts baked in the late-summer sun. After completing the first set, the olfactory shock with the remaining traps didn’t seem quite as offensive––still brutal, but not as bad. Holding our breath helped a lot.
The afternoon slipped by with little notice, until the combination of decreasing light and a renewed chill informed our intrepid minds that it was time to return to camp. Supper that evening consisted of burgers and beans, which turned out pretty tasty. The meal––including the dishwashing––concluded just before sunset, as the soapy water began to freeze. Bob fired up the catalytic heater while Winnie and I stowed our supplies. Satisfied that we’d overcome adversity, we ducked into the tent and crawled in the sack––clothes and all. Tomorrow would surely bring success to our expedition.
About two a.m. the heater ran out of gas. The sky had cleared and the mercury had taken a nosedive. The only remaining fuel was allocated to the cook stove for breakfast. Scrunching into fetal positions, we huddled inside our bags with the flaps over our heads, which didn’t improve matters. IT WAS COLD! Sunup could not arrive too soon. Thoughts that conceded Mom and Dad were right caused me to wonder about delirium associated with hypothermia.
Once Ol’ Sol finally sneaked over the ridge, Bob, Winnie, and I emerged from our wadded kapok-and-cotton tubes. Still shivering, we focused on a warm pancake and bacon breakfast to ease our bone-chilled condition. I set up the cook stove, while Bob and Winnie got out the fixings.
Ordinarily, the gas-operated stove worked wonders. The funny thing about gasoline in frigid environments, however, is that it doesn’t vaporize and burn as well––a theory we conclusively proved. In the same fashion we’d viewed the deflating tire, Bob, Winnie, and I watched bacon jiggle in the frying pan entirely too long.
The second clue that our luck hadn’t improved was the eggs that oozed from their shells like half-dried concrete. But we persevered. Bob scraped ice crystals from the milk, added it to the eggs and flour, and combined the ingredients to a thick, gooey consistency. Meanwhile, the bacon continued to fry––or tried to. Before the pancake mix hardened, Bob pulled the elastic meat from the pan and dumped in the batter.
The trick to pancakes is to have a hot, lightly greased skillet. Once the batter begins to bubble, flip the flapjack to reveal a golden-brown skin on the opposite side. A minute or so longer, slide ’em off the griddle and voila––perfect pancakes.
Our pancakes never bubbled much. When flipped, their hide barely approached weak tan. But we were starved. Even with a coating of maple syrup, however, the flapjack’s texture and flavor reminded us of the white paste we’d all used––and tasted––in grade school. The bacon stretched like rubber bands. The trashcan ate well that morning.
Still miserable, Bob, Winnie, and I considered our moral and legal obligation as mighty hunters and ran the trap line. Based upon the tracks we’d traced the day before, our optimism remained high. True to form, we drew another blank. The crusty coating used to disguise the metal jaws had frozen solid and immobilized the devices. To add insult to injury, one Victor trap had a fresh coon print directly on the trip pan. We stared at one another, then quickly gathered our hardware and returned to camp. Our trip had been a shut out: Failures – 4 / Successes – 0. With no sign of improvement looming on the horizon, we voiced our opinions.
“This sucks,” I said.
“I’m hungry,” Winnie said.
Bob frowned. “Let’s pack up and go.”
Once I’d arrived home, Dad asked, “How was the camping trip?”
To disguise my deflated ego, I replied, “Oh, great. It was fun.”
“Stay warm? Have enough to eat?” Mom inquired, then pointed to a platter of cinnamon rolls.
Although lying to my parents was not a trait I often practiced or enjoyed, in this case, the truth was the same as admitting defeat––unacceptable.
“Sure,” I fibbed, then by-passed the pastries. My stomach churned in revolt. Ignoring my digestive system, and knowing I should have listened, I took a hot shower and went to bed.
My wintery experience coincides with an apropos observation about teenage arrogance from Mark Twain, a remark I mirrored so well. “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Mark Twain was a wise man.