We two old coots in the photo above have had a lot of adventures together. One of the scariest times was when we first camped outdoors on the farm.
Kenny and I slept in a room on the second (and top) floor of the old farm house. It always got scorchingly hot in the summer, when the heat would collect under the cedar-shingled roof just above our heads. On our farm near the small town of Flagler, on the high plains of eastern Colorado, the summer temperatures in those days would hover in the 100 F range, and might even rise into the 110 F range on rare occasions. Our bedrooms, right under the uninsulated roof, baked all day in the cloudless sunlight of a high altitude. One day, in the summer between my third and fourth grade year at school, I talked to my little brother Kenny, who was two years younger than I, about sleeping outdoors, and of course he was all in favor of doing it! After all, I had joined the Boy Scouts, who were big on camping. And one of our heroes in the Little Britches series of books by Ralph Moody, that we really loved, slept outdoors a lot. So we asked Mommy and Daddy if we could do it, too.
Mommy’s immediate reaction was, “NO! There are spiders and snakes out there, and cows are wandering around, and they might step on you! And the coyotes have been getting really close to the house lately! And Amanda, our neighbor on the farm one mile up the road, says she has heard there were wolves sighted up north of her place! NO! IT IS TOTALLY OUT OF THE QUESTION!”
Daddy was quiet, but in thinking about it now, many years later, I realize that he had something up his sleeve. He was probably thinking, “I’ll go along with Mommy, but I’m going to have some fun!”
Well, when Mommy said, “NO!” I gave up on the project, but of course my little brother Kenny had to keep pestering her. Finally, about mid-July, Kenny wore Mommy down, and she agreed that we could sleep outdoors for one night only. But there were rules that we must follow. The most important one was that we had to be near the back door of the house.
Kenny and I immediately sprang into action, planning our very first outdoor camping adventure. We would use some metal fence posts and a truck tarp to erect a tent, and we would lay down a smaller tarp for the floor. Large nails were used to tie down the tent. The sheets, blankets and pillows from our beds were put in our tent. We got a large supply of provisions from the house, water, sandwiches, crackers, chips, cookies… We probably had enough food to last for a week.
After much negotiation, Kenny managed to get Mommy to agree that the campsite would be outside the fence around the house. Originally, as I said, Mommy had wanted our tent to be just outside the back door. But Kenny finally wore her down, and managed to get her to agree to having it about 20 feet away, outside the fenced garden, but still close enough to get into the house quickly if there was an emergency.
Finally, as the last light of the summer evening was fading, Mommy and Daddy came out and gave our camp site an inspection. Mommy asked again if we really wanted to do this, and of course we said an enthusiastic “YES!” Then we crawled into our tent and closed the flaps.
In the darkness of the tent, we started doing the silly things that most young boys probably do when they are alone, like holding the flashlight under our faces, acting crazy and saying scary things. A short time later, Mommy called out from the back door and asked, “Is everything okay?” We undid the flap and stuck our heads out, and said, “Sure!” and then continued our activities of being silly, making faces and telling spooky stories to each other.
More time passed, and one of our flashlights went dead. So we rummaged through our supplies and found replacement batteries and continued our crazy storytelling adventures. Time passed. It was very dark outside, and in the distance a few coyotes had started howling.
All of a sudden, we heard something walking outside our tent! It sounded noisy and huge! We stopped talking and giggling, and listened intently. It was walking just south of the tent! We shut off our flashlights. Whatever it was, it walked by our tent and continued slowly on its way. We thought of our mother’s warning. Maybe it was a big cow or a bear?
Kenny and I tried to continue joking and making funny faces, but some of our enthusiasm was gone. And then we were frozen by a lone wolf cry that sounded like it was coming from the direction of the corral. Kenny and I immediately put out our flashlights, and pulled the covers over our heads as we listened to the wolf howl, answering the coyotes in the distance. We snuggled into our blankets and tried to go to sleep, but I think we both knew that was impossible. Some more time passed as we lay quivering in the dark.
Finally Mommy called out again to see how things were going. She said she was going to bed now, and asked if we wanted to come in. Kenny was out of the tent in a flash, and I was not far behind. We had managed to make it to midnight in our tent, but we were glad to get into the familiar safety of the farm house. We didn’t want that wolf to get us!
In the morning, I asked Daddy about the noises we had heard the night before, and he just said “What noises?” with his big devilish grin. I knew something was up, and when Kenny and I went outside, we saw a man’s footprints walking around our tent and down to the corral.
We did not sleep outdoors any more during that summer. But for all the rest of the summers, until I went to college, we slept outdoors on the front lawn. Sleeping outdoors under the perfect dark, cloudless summer skies of rural eastern Colorado, where the Milky Way unfurled itself majestically across the heavens, and sparkling meteor trails flashed bright across the darkness, really strengthened my interest in astronomy.