“Come on Joe… Let’s go camping this weekend,” I pleaded over the phone in my preadolescent voice. But Joe couldn’t. He was in trouble from our last camping trip. I was determined to go anyway, so I went downstairs into our family’s hardware store and asked my Dad if he would drop me off with my camping gear east of town and pick me up in the morning. He didn’t look up as he worked with a torch, rosining a new tip onto a fishing pole. “By yourself?” he asked, a cigar dangling out of the corner of his mouth. “Yep!” I said proudly. He nodded at the truck outside. “Alright… load it up!”
As we drove through the woods that evening I kept waiting for some advice, parental or otherwise, like “Don’t get eaten by a panther!” or “Don’t set yourself on fire!” That’s why my buddy Joe was in trouble. He had a habit of over tending a campfire by casually kicking the logs around with his bare foot. So when he returned home last weekend with one leg of his pants burned off, his mom seemed to think it was a pretty big deal. Anyway… Dad didn’t say a word as I unloaded my camping gear next to a dry creek bed. He didn’t even shut the truck off! “See you in the morning!” he said and then… he drove away.
I looked around and immediately felt a wave of anxiety wash over me. It was the first time I had ever been truly alone. It was just me, versus my busy little imagination. (Whoa… I’ve got to shake this feeling off. It’s OK… I’ll feel better if I get busy.) So I began setting up the tent, and starting a fire under the watchful eye of a huge yellow October moon rising in the east.
Before long it was dark, my belly was full of fried Spam and I was trying to keep myself busy, poking at the fire with a stick while I sat on the ground, my chin propped up on my knees. It was unpleasantly quiet and as I sat listening to my ears ring, my bored ten-year-old imagination decided to run amok. (I wonder what time it is? How in the heck did I get sand in my… Are those eyes over there?) “SNAP”! I froze. I couldn’t see past the light of the fire, so I crept off to the side to take a peek. The moon made everything look… suspicious. I listened carefully, but all I could hear was my heart beating. (It’s nothing… Just quit thinking… Quit thinking? How do you do that? I’ll just go to sleep.)
I climbed into the tent, zipped it up and lay there watching the spooky shadows of the fire dancing on the walls. The more I tried to calm down and distract my thoughts, the more anxious and alert I became. (Maybe there’s something wrong with me… no, I’m fine… but what if I‘m not?) I didn’t know it at the time, but I had worked my way into a full-blown panic attack. Fortunately I was still capable of making a calm, rational decision. “I’M GETTIN’ THE HECK OUTTA’ HERE!” Even though I was certain it was around three a.m., I decided to put out the fire and walk… well actually, run like a wild man towards Jones Mobile Village, where I could find a phone. When I finally burst out of the woods, I saw that the lights were on in the Jones’s mobile home. Surprisingly, when I knocked, Mrs. Jones opened the door immediately. “Ben Jr.?” I was out of breath but puffed out a “Yes ma’am.” She clutched the neck of her housecoat. “What in the world are you doing out here?” I skipped the details, “Can I use your phone?”
To my surprise, when I spoke to my dad on the phone he didn’t say much of anything. And on the ride back to the house he didn’t ask any questions… He didn’t even tease me! But the strangest thing was that when I got home… It was only 8:30 pm! I had only been in the woods for three hours!
My parents never said anything about my humbling experience under that October moon. They didn’t have to. Snug in my bed that night, I listened to the comforting sounds of family and home I had taken for granted, and that just a few minutes ago had seemed so far away… the television, my parents voices, dishes clinking, the humming of a fan… my dad burping loudly from the couch to the delight of my little brother who giggled from his bedroom. I smiled, closed my eyes and drifted peacefully off to sleep.