Among our destinations, or just stops, I remember Niagara Falls, Letchworth, Luray Caverns, diamond and emerald mines in North Carolina, an ore mine in Minnesota, Yellowstone, Mammoth Cave, Meramec Caverns…..and more. Vacationing and camping in the late ‘40’s my parents slept outdoors and we three children slept inside the car in some affair my dad rigged up. He did something to the back floor to make a flat bed. One slept on the floor, one on the back seat and one on the front seat. We had moved up to a new car by then, a 1940 something Dodge, we were kids, what the hell. It must have been better than the ’36 hornless Dodge; I had no complaint.
Ours was red and white and named Sarah
Then we got a 1956 Dodge station wagon and Mom and Dad upgraded to the inside; we kids went out. I have to admit, that station wagon was mighty close to a house on wheels and Mom was just too ingenious not to solve any problem. She sewed a screened cover for the back that made a boot when the back door was lowered. The bed of the car with the back gate down accommodated my six foot six inch father. When we arrived at a destination, one of the first jobs of children was inflating six air mattresses. By mouth. But the first job was pitching the tent.
By the ‘50’s family camping had improved enormously from my earliest memories. We generally did not have to dig a latrine or build a fire ring, for example. And, by the time we had the station wagon, we also had a three burner Coleman stove and a Coleman lantern. I’m sure Coleman made tents, too, but we did not have a Coleman tent. We had an Army and Navy Surplus store right there in Akron, Ohio. And, if Dad couldn’t get it there, the store in Cleveland was even bigger.
We had an eight man Arctic Army tent. It said so, on various labels sewed on its waterproof sides. Along with instructions for properly inserting the stove pipe through the stove hole. It was waterproof. It stunk. It weighed at least twenty pounds. I considered saying fifty, but I’m being fair, as I didn’t have to handle it. My brothers were in charge of putting it up. Job One.
I am certain an eight man Arctic Army tent is so large because eight men plus a stove require a lot of room. I am equally certain there is plenty of room, flat at that, in the Arctic. Down in the lower 48 the land is much lumpier, stonier even, with lots of tree roots and scrubby brush bristles all over the ground. I’m certain my brothers did not pitch my portion of the tent on the worst terrain; they slept in the tent, too, and all air mattresses would fail overnight.
In addition to stinking like an old, waterproofed Army tent, this tent leaked. Not a little. All eight men could hang all their gear, probably even their boots, from cunning little rings sewn everywhere around the interior. By a sewing machine with a needle and that needle punched little holes. Moisture seeped through those little holes and rain was driven through those little holes. Then there was the stove pipe hole. And the hole for the center pole. And windows that closed by a tied flap. If we didn’t get up in the morning damp, we got up drenched. Mom loved to reminisce about the one trip where it rained thirteen days out of fourteen. But then, she was sleeping inside the car.
After a number of years the Arctic Army tent became obsolete, and Dad got a new tent. No, he made a new tent. At the Army and Navy Surplus store he found the perfect……………red and white parachute. From one end of the internet to the other I cannot find a photo of a red and white parachute. He must have bought the last one. Here’s a white one in its full glory. Imagine every other panel poppy red. That was our new tent.
It rigged up rather like the Arctic Army. Probably used the same center pole; every third or fourth section was rigged to stand just like the picture of Arctic Army. Don’t ask me how; it still wasn’t my job to set it up. People came from twenty camp sites away to admire it with awe and discuss the possibilities with my Dad. He was mighty proud and held his audience enthralled with his quiet dissertations on the physics of tent making. A regular Omar Kyam.
Parachute silk does not turn water. No, water comes through as through the proverbial sieve. And, it was inagurated on the longest vacation we ever took, twenty one days, to Yellowstone. Three thousand six hundred miles. In a tent that every adult on the way admired and three children despised. It was my last family vacation; I went to college in the fall. But before the next summer my parents had bought a pop up tent camper. Trails along right behind. Sleeps six. But they only needed to sleep five; I went to summer school every year of college, to graduate in three years.
The most important thing I learned from my parents through all those vacations: leave your campground cleaner than you found it. And the vacations were swell, too.