During the summer when school was behind me, I spent most of my time outside. This included the nights. I fell asleep under the stars listening to the night symphony of crickets chirping, owls hooting, whippoorwills and bobwhites, raccoons chittering, and the occasional coyote yipping and howling in the distance.
Some nights, I spent in the fort I built on top of an old shed just inside the tree line. The cover of tree branches and leaves swayed with the gentle evening breeze allowing the stars to play peek-a-boo. Other nights I camped out in the woods. On those nights, I rarely had a fire going but would on occasions when the fire danger was very low. However, most nights I just set up camp in the back field near the tree line, but still in the open area so I could enjoy a nice roaring camp fire.
Before I could afford a tent or a sleeping bag I used what I had – a lot of blankets on the ground. A few cinderblocks set up in a U shape with an old grill placed on top made a nice cooking area and contained the small fire keeping it from reaching the nearby blankets.
I gathered what food I could from the kitchen – hotdogs, bologna or a can of beans were usually the only options, but now and then I lucked out and could get some hamburger. About once a month or so I was able to get marshmallows and a few times during the summer, I got some chocolate bars so I could make s’mores.
I also needed wood for the fire so I took an axe into the woods and chopped enough downed wood for the night and stacked it nearby. While I was at it, I found a few nice sticks and whittled them down to a point on one end. The thrill of achievement escalated whenever I found that perfect two or three prong stick that aligned for roasting more than one hotdog or marshmallow at a time.
Out in the country where we lived, light pollution was never even a thought and the only sounds you heard were from nature encompassing the night. Cars rarely drove up the road after about 7 p.m. and not many before that. Airplanes only soared overhead about twice a month. I remember lying on the ground as a young child and watching them in amazement while they passed by high in the sky.
While setting up camp and the sun still shone high in the sky, Dad enjoyed questioning me about what time of the day it was or having me point in a certain direction, for example north by north west, by only using the position of the sun. If there were any animal tracks around, he pointed to them and asked what made the tracks, about how old they were, and had me see how far I could track them within our yard. Animal poop was another learning opportunity in the life of a young country girl. Telling the difference between doe and rabbit poop, for instance, and understanding how old it could be would indicate if that animal was possibly nearby.
As the sun went to bed, leaving a crisp clear sky and the soothing sounds of the harmonious night critters, Dad would sit down and teach me about the stars, the Milky Way, and the constellations. He showed me how the Big Dipper was a part of Ursa Major and how it pointed to the North Star, Polaris, which was a part of the Little Dipper, which in turn was part of Ursa Minor. He mapped out Orion the Hunter and how his belt points to Sirius, the Dog Star, being the brightest star and a part of the Big Dog constellation.
Dad took the time to make sure I could always find my way home and how to take care of myself on the trip there; like finding water when there didn’t seem to be any around or how to field dress a wound when deep in the woods.
I am so glad my childhood was filled with the wonder and excitement of seeing and knowing real life things instead of being flooded with overwhelming screen projected images and videos. Videos can never replace the feeling of waking up at the crack of dawn by the dripping of condensation from the inside of a tent onto your face. Or trying to be completely quiet so you don’t scare off the “hide-a-behinds” in order to catch a glimpse of one. That was Dad’s way of teaching a young child to be silent while walking through the woods – LOL.
There were no computers, no cell phones, and no electronic game devices but we did have cards and a few board games. Playing card games turned interesting when you knew from the backs which cards were which because of all the bends and nicks they received over the years. Missing pieces from a checkers or chest set opened the board to substitutes of sticks and rocks, whose meaning had to be remembered throughout the game.
When the night finally settled and eyelids become heavy, my dog and I staggered to the pile of blankets not too far from the fire as Dad headed back to the trailer. My dog curled up into a ball beside me and allowed me to use him as a warm soft pillow. Our minds faded into dreamland by the sounds of the crackling fire and the hoot owls and crickets; with the occasional rising of a dog’s ear as he heard a distant coyote.