|Maybe it was the TV shows that were popular when I was a kid. I was born in 1951, so the TV Western was ubiquitous during those formative years and the cowboys were always sitting around the campfire singing and talking about important stuff. Or maybe it was just the idea of being able to stay up late and see what really happens during the night.
When my brother Davy and I were finally able to convince our parents that we were old enough to camp out by ourselves, we had a grand adventure planned. Who knew that it would be the scariest adventure of my young life?
We grew up in Warner Robins, Georgia, where my dad had set up and developed a small dental surgery practice. Warner Robins started life as a small community in middle Georgia named Wellston Junction, but had the great fortune to be founded right next to the future site of a huge USAF base. The base became Warner Robins Air Material Area (or WRAMA), then finally Robins AFB. We lived there during the height of the Cold War, so we woke up in the morning to the sound of B-52’s taking off in the early mornings (which was pretty amazing, considering that the base was about two miles from our house). Warner Robins was very hot in the summer and we were about 50 miles south of the “gnat line,” so I spent half of every summer spitting out gnats that committed suicide by flying into my mouth or eyes.
We moved there when my dad finished dental school at Emory University in around 1953. My uncle was a civilian employee for the Air Force there and he convinced my dad that he should start his practice there. As I understand it, the argument for it went something like this“Marcus, there’s only one dentist here and he’s a jerk.” So we moved to Warner Robins, or “WR,” as we locals have always referred to it.
Anyway, I spent my first few elementary school years living on Dewey Street in Warner Robins. It was a small house on a tiny lot, but to us, it was huge. My brother and I had our own room so we didn’t have to put up with our little sister Laura, who was down the hall.
But we couldn’t wait to camp out. We kept after Mom all the time, trying to talk her into letting us do it because, after all, I was nine years old and Davy was eight. Mom was patient with us, but just wouldn’t have any part of it.
About this time, the TV series “Ripcord” came out. It starred Ken Curtis (also known as Festus in “Gunsmoke”) and Larry Pinnell. It was our favorite show. Now that I think of it, how in the world did they come up with enough plots related to skydiving to keep the show going for an entire season? But there was great excitement about parachuting back then and, being near a military post, this excitement was intensified for us as little kids. At a time when most kids dreamed of being firemen and cowboys, we dreamed of being a daring parachutist. So, it takes very little imagination to realize that owning a parachute would be a status symbol among kids in good ol’ WR.
Of course, parachutes back then were a far cry from the ones we have today. Today’s parachutes are more like wings that can be steered and controlled to a great extent. Today’s paratroopers can jump from high altitudes and land pretty much exactly on target. But back then, the parachute was much more like a big, upside-down fabric cup that captured air and slowed descent, but offered very little control and lots of danger. Maybe that was the attraction. After all, we boys have eternally been drawn to dangerous and stupid activities that we have to try at least twice before determining, yes, they are indeed dangerous and stupid. It amazes me that our species has survived.
It all started when some kids down the street got the first parachute on our block. As of that moment, every other kid on the block was green with envy and totally without status. We all raised such a hue and cry that all the parents on the block were calling in favors from their friends who worked on the base to get a parachute.
What were they good for? Not much really. These old, retired canopies were generally used on the base to provide a little shade on Armed Forces Day or any other public events. In truth, they did provide enough shade to take the bite out of the direct sunlight on those hot summer days, but that was about it. Most of the folks in the neighborhood used the parachutes for that purpose. Kids all over the street played underneath the family parachute, sheltered by that symbol of adventure and danger.
But not Davy and me. We envisioned an altogether different use for that parachute. We saw it not as an exciting reminder of skydiving, but as a potential tent. After all, how can you camp out if you don’t have a tent?
This was our ticket. If we could somehow get a tent, we’d be that much closer to getting to camp out. We lobbied Mom relentlessly. We brought up all the advantages.
After all, the parachute provided protection and cover if it rained, right? Now that I think back on it, I wonder how Mom kept a straight face to that argument. Have you ever been under a parachute when it rains? It might be better than being out in the rain, but I can’t imagine in what country or on what planet that might be true.
What about protection from wild animals? Well, I understand that our backyard was a veritable jungle, but we were more likely to be bitten by a spider or a tick than a wild critter in that yard. The most vicious animals in our yard were squirrels and the occasional garter snake.
But my mom was like most moms. She listened patiently to all our arguments and nodded at the right time, but the answer was always “No, you’re too young to camp out.”
Then one amazing day, she weakened and said, “Well, let me ask your father.” That response was better than a flat “no,” but was always a little disconcerting. When Dad got involved, things were always a little unpredictable. Sometimes, it was great, because Dad was a guy and would get excited with us. Other times, though, he would put his foot down and the issue would die an instant death, never to be mentioned again.
As I look back on it, I don’t ever remember my Dad being unfair with us. In that era, dads were generally authoritarian, but my dad was a little different. He would usually have a pretty good explanation when he turned down an idea. The truth be told, he generally would allow us these little adventures while he, behind the scenes, would control the scope. And so it was with the parachute.
To make a long story short, we soon had our very own parachute. It was orange and white and enormous. It was much bigger than I thought it would be, and we draped it over our swing set. Voila! Instant tent. Who needed a fancy fort or playhouse to support our imagination?
We spent many, wonderful hours playing under that parachute. It was Army HQ and the base of many a game of Army with our friends and neighbors. It was also the bunkhouse of Roy Rogers’ ranch. It even served as the “Flying Crown Ranch” when we played “Sky King.” We were out there every day that summer, making the most of that amazing gift.
But we never gave up on our original plan. We wanted to camp out. And wonder of wonders, Mom eventually relented and announced that we could do it. So we started planning.
Of course, we had no gear. Dad got to “camp out” plenty when he was in the US Army, so he had no real interest in camping at that timecertainly not enough interest to spring for equipment. This changed later, but that will have to wait for another story. So we made do with what we had. Under the parachute, we flattened a refrigerator box that we “rescued” from a neighbor’s trash collection. On top of that, we laid out some quilts that Mom had allowed us to actually take outside. And of course, we had our pillows. I mean, we were roughing it, but what kid can sleep without their pillow?
So it was finally decided that we could camp out on a Friday night. Normally, we had to be in the house by 6:00 PM and in bed by around 8:00 PM. But this night, we came in for dinner and then marched down the back steps and out to the back of the yard where our parachute dominated the scene. I remember Davy and I marching out, armed with our pillows and quilts, feeling very independent and manly. Mom came out to tuck us in. She made sure that we were all covered up, with the quilts tucked around our little bodies and comfortable. Dad stuck his head in to tell us to stay in the tent and not to go walking around (which, of course, had not occurred to us until he mentioned it). Then he went back inside. Mom stayed for another few minutes and then went inside.
Of course, we immediately got out of the covers and sat cross-legged in the tent, talking about the day and how great it was to be camping out. After all, it was soon after 10:00 PM, which was my standing record for staying awake (I had tried to stay awake to watch “Maverick” on TV a couple of times, but never made it). We talked for a while, solving the secrets of the universe, as boys are ever wont to do. We realized that we were missing a key camping-out componenta fire. After a brief discussion, we realized we didn’t have any firewood or matches, so we gave up on the idea.
Then, things began to go south. We heard noises from the back door and heard Mom calling out to us.
“Kim! Davy! I think y’all had better come in now. We just heard on the news that a lion has escaped from the circus in town.”
We stepped out of the tent and looked at the back porch. There she was, standing in her nightgown and robe, looking out at us. Now, I have to ask youwhat self-respecting young boy in a small town in Georgia doesn’t know when the circus is in town? And the phrase “There’s no circus in town...” spilled from my lips. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it.
From the back of our yard came a mighty roar. Davy and I both spun around just in time to see a silhouette leap into the air.
Generally, I was bigger and faster than Davy. But I was unable to get out of his way as he spun back around and crashed into me in his haste to get away. He ran over me like Herschel Walker did linebackers. I hit the ground and immediately came back up. I may actually have bounced, because I don’t even remember being on the ground.
I glanced again at the bounding silhouette (which looked somewhat familiar at this point, but not enough to register in my brain) and immediately started running. Even as little kids, we understood the first rule of animal pursuit“I don’t have to outrun the lionI just have to outrun you.” So I spun around to dig in to escape.
I didn’t get fully turned around to make my escape before I discovered a tree. The hard way. I had just started moving, but I hit it so hard that I staggered backwards a few steps. But, I was beyond scared. Actually, I was pretty far into the “terrified” range. Nothing could have stopped me in my quest for the safety of our back porch. It never occurred to me that a lion would never be deterred by something as trivial as a back porch.
I dug in and made tracks. It is a tribute to my speed that, despite my time spent with the ground and the tree, I still beat Davy to the back porch by a couple of steps. I was shocked to see my mom grinning at us. Then I looked back at the lion, which had disappeared, only to be replaced by my dad, who was holding his sides and laughing as hard as I had ever seen.
I think Davy and I both cried, more from relief than anything else. Mom took us inside and dressed our wounds, calmed us down, and put us down in our own little beds. Dad went back out to collect our bedding and brought it in.
It was a couple of weeks before we mentioned camping out again. Dad eventually bought a real tent and we left it pitched in our back yard all summer, spending many nights out there “in the wild.” There were a lot of neighborhood kids that circulated through that tent as our campout guests over the years. Lifetime friendships were forged in that tent.
Now, you might be thinking, “Poor kid! He was probably traumatized for the rest of his life because of that.” That seems to be a prevalent thought these days. But I never saw it that way. My dad and mom both had a marvelous sense of humor and that is a gift that they gave to me, Davy, and Laura.
I also have to say that they helped me to not take myself quite so seriously. I learned that it’s OK to be the butt of a joke every now and then. It doesn’t hurt and shows people that you are human. It also teaches you how to be a good sport and to be a little less naive. Life is going to “whack” you every now and then, and if you don’t learn how to take the bad with the good and bounce back, then you are going to be miserable your entire life.
Some people think “The Man” is out to get them. I’ve found that, most of the time, other people don’t think about me at allthey are too busy worrying about their own problems. It seems to me, the world would be a much happier place if we worried less about what the other guy is trying to do to us and more about taking responsibility for our own lives.
I’ll always remember that night. It’s been almost 50 years since then. Dad and Davy are both gone now, and I miss them. Mom and Laura are still here, thank God. But I will never forget the “Lion of Dewey Street” and the camping parachute.
Kim Megahee wasn’t born in Atlanta, but he got there as quick as he could. He lives there with his wife and the final two unlaunched kids. He also plays bass in the classic rock trio “Shot Too Nabby.” He is currently working on several stories, including a science fiction novel about time-travel, murder, and a doomed love affair.
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