Trail of Intentions

 
 
My dad was director of outdoor recreation during a family camping trip when I was too young to understand what “laugh about it later” meant. At the time, I’m not sure Dad understood it either, but he was determined to show us the outdoor life. The guy took a beating in my behalf.

It began with marshmallow practice after our first breakfast. We’d be having s’mores throughout the week and he coached my sister and me on how to cook a perfectly toasted marshmallow. Prior to that, my experience with marshmallow skewers had been self-taught. I’d stick it directly into the campfire flames, heat the forks until glowing, then use it to burn the names of family and friends into a wooden plank or split log. Our German shorthair Bruno had his personal marquee prominently displayed above his doghouse door.

If life is about choices, then to this day my sister and I still question what Dad was thinking when he removed a flaming marshmallow from the fire. He studied it, waiting for the perfection to unfold before blowing out the blue aura encasing it. Then, like the fire-eater at a circus, he placed the charred delicacy into his mouth. A lot happened quickly in the moments that followed.

The marshmallow came out faster than it went in. Dad took one step and flung the skewer so hard it made a whirlybird sound across the sky. Bruno watched it sail overhead until it disappeared somewhere below the horizon. Now this was outdoor fun my sister and I could get behind. It was hilarity beyond measure, increasingly contagious with each snort and gulp between us.

Then Dad turned and faced us. From his lip to chin, the marshmallow forks had scorched two marks onto his skin. They looked like snake fangs.

The image of this indignity had to be as fresh in his mind as the ointment on his chin. But God bless his persistence, he took me fishing later that morning. He normally had multiple tackle boxes to house his collection of museum-quality lures. But for this trip, only two fishing rods and his special “traveler” box came with us, the one with hand-selected lures just for the occasion.

We’d been on the water a couple of hours without catching a thing before he said we should head in for lunch. But just then, I was poised to zing one of his Dardevle spoons toward the shoreline. I asked if I could make one more cast. He told me I had the stuff of a hardcore angler.

I let it fly and we watched the lure arch gracefully skyward but never come down. It soared above an overhanging tree branch, draped across it, then wrapped around multiple times with ever-increasing speed. It dangled high above our heads, unreachable by outstretched arms or an oar. Dad cut the line, a favorite lure now an artifact in the landscape.

At lunch, the announcement of my mishap superseded being skunked and anything remotely associated with hardcore angling. After we ate, Dad went off by himself and rummaged through his tackle. He returned with bobbers and a Styrofoam bucket, then asked if I’d accompany him to the bait shop. This tactical maneuver was designed to improve our luck. We’d use simple hooks, several dozen minnows and go out after dark to catch those fish by surprise.

On that night, a Coleman lantern illuminated our boat from the middle seat. Dad shut off the motor, then surprised me by handing over his fishing rod with the open-faced reel. Until then, my only experience was with a push-button reel that looked like a soup can. He explained I’d need to learn open-faced reels gradually. We were just bobber fishing; it didn’t require much casting.

Shortly into our expedition, I noticed a loop in the line on my reel. To fix it, I figured I’d spool out line until I reached the loop. But it was buried deeper than I realized. In the glow of the lantern, I peeled off line by the yard until I finally noticed the softball-size bird’s nest I’d created on my rod. About then, Dad turned to ask how I was doing.

Blurts and sighs from behind tangled line made clear the mess we were in: we were down to one useable fishing rod. So we headed back to camp.

I’d have done anything to absolve my string of ineptitude. Having reached the landing, I hurdled the boat bow and splashed into ankle-deep water. I grabbed the minnow bucket, the lit lantern and set them on the sand. I scurried back to the boat and yanked it completely onto shore.

Had I been looking, I’d have seen Dad leaning over the motor raising the propellor from the water. But instead, my helpfulness spun him over the motor into the murky depths below. He emerged drenched but unhurt, then slogged toward land.

I didn’t wait around. I grabbed the minnow bucket and fled up the log steps embedded in the hillside trail. Suddenly, my wet sneakers spun out and I splayed across the path. Minnows dumped into the woods. I scooped some up, then tried again to outpace the beat-red demon stalking me with a lantern and the fangs of a serpent.

Bedtime mercifully arrived without further roil. But later, I woke and saw Dad standing at the camper entrance shining a flashlight through the open tent flap. Soon, everyone got up to look. Outside, a raccoon had removed the bait bucket lid and was feasting on remaining minnows. It looked around casually as if searching for tartar sauce. Dad told us to stay put. He stepped outside and zipped the tent shut.

In the darkness beyond the canvas, I heard calls of the wild that night—the squeak of a Styrofoam lid, the rattle of aspirin and the pop of a carbonated beverage.

 

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