With the gentle reassurance, guidance, and constant support of Don and his wife Pam, I made significant progress while living with them—a complete turnaround from where I had been headed. I lost weight, found full-time work and joined the Army Reserves, eventually moving to my own apartment not far from Don’s.
Then I met Samuel. He sat a few stools down the long wooden bar at the town pub where others our age gathered. He came back to my apartment that same night, and we remained a couple from then on. He helped do various things at my apartment, like adding fixtures around the bay windows so I could hang ropy macramé holders for large leafy plants. A guy who cared enough to help seemed like a good thing and I hung on to him.
By spring we talked of moving in together. Some friends he introduced me to pitched a tent for the summer in a meadow near a campground. It made us wonder, could we do it? The thought of free rent and the abandon of outdoor living became irresistible. Mom still owned a hundred acres of country land in the nearby town we had moved away from. She didn’t mind us using her land as long as we had permission from Lester, the farmer who rented the land. And Lester didn’t object as long as we stayed off the fields he cultivated, voicing the same parameters as he had when I rode my horse there in earlier years. We were on our way.
An old grassy dirt road, more like a tractor path, led to the barn where I had sheltered my first pony, and then back up a hill to the fields. We went off the path up the larger treed hillside, excitedly checking out terrain for the perfect spot to appear. And it did, halfway up, an empty area circled by a tall stand of pines, just right for a nine-by-twelve foot tent. We looked at each other and knew we had found the ideal location.
Of course the site would take some leveling, but Samuel knew about hard work; it came naturally to him. The dirt removed from the higher elevation helped raise up the lower two sides. Next he dug deep rain ditches which diverted any water downhill. I helped in other ways but not with the digging, though I mastered the skill just from observing. I put his method to use months later in boot camp when rain trenches had to be dug around the pup tent on a weekend field trip. My only army commitment that summer involved one weekend a month at the Reserve Unit and a two week stint off- base. Active duty would begin that fall.
We had already been to Tent Town, investing in top-of-the- line camping equipment made by Coleman, most importantly our tent. It would be our home for the summer, so quality counted. Other Coleman products included a gas lantern, cook stove, and metal plastic lined fridge, all three of which would last us for decades. My garage sale treasures completed the interior: a large thick area rug, double mattress, even a stuffed rocking chair. Another rare find included a compact wooden closet for Samuel’s white shirts, necessary for his job as a frozen foods manager at the local grocery store.
Tent life provided an idyllic setting. We existed in another land, one without roads, electricity, or modern conveniences other than a radio. We woke to the morning chorus of birds, as close to the elements as one could get. There is nothing like coffee perking in the woods, or bacon sizzling with eggs soon to follow in the greasy pan. Even washing dishes seemed like fun, the sudsy smell of dish-washing liquid out of place in the fresh air, thrown with a splash on the ground when finished, the long counter wiped clean with bits and pieces of food flying for the squirrels to feast on…no brooms needed!
After relaxing with dinner around the campfire, we’d gaze long into the evening at the hypnotic flickering before retiring to bed, lost in the light of ever-changing yellow, orange, and red cinders.
Samuel hooked a car radio up to a battery for our entertainment pleasure. Our favorite show came on at ten p.m. The slow creaking door opened the broadcast of The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, then E.G. Marshall’s hauntingly deep voice began the story. Killer Crab struck most memorable with “suckers like silver dollars,” the bizarre tale coming to life as the fire crackled, casting shadows on the trees and high grass nearby.
Mesmerized by the golden glow of flames, our minds wandered into the ocean depths where monsters lay in waiting or elsewhere, into killers‟ psyches and other sinister, dangerous places throughout the world.
One tall pine close by made the ideal toiletry area. Samuel pounded a bathroom cabinet into it with a table underneath and I added an enameled water basin on top. The little mirrored door opened and we stored the normal hygiene accessories: Samuel’s razor and shaving cream because if he sported a beard it had to be wrapped in a hair net, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hair brushes, and other assorted items. Tree branches became towel racks. Olives came to the deli at the store where he worked in tall plastic containers with lids that screwed on tightly. They made excellent water containers that could be lugged down the hill to our vehicles for refilling elsewhere and dragged back without spilling.
One water jug sat under the table with Grandma’s long- handled dipper, no longer used to fill pitchers of holiday punch kept cold in her breezeway. Though Grandma had become too frail to host our big Christmas gatherings, she still lived at the base of the hill by the barn in the big farmhouse. And Don had to convince her to stop worrying about her granddaughter’s seemingly crazy scheme of living in a tent for months at a time right there on the big hill behind her house.
The other water container was tucked a few steps away, next to the longer table holding the cook stove and all other kitchen necessities. For bodily relief, one had only a short walk downhill into thicker pines where an upside down crate hosted a toilet seat over a big hole, another one of Samuel’s digging projects. The pine branches made a nice shroud of cover for privacy. He showered at a friend’s house; I did my bathing at Mom’s.
As summer began cooling into fall, my Army commitment— which included active duty—loomed closer. The new venture, all on my own, began in October at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Don sent me off with a proper farewell dinner at the local favorite restaurant. With Mom chipping in, they paid for a hotel near the airport that night after the celebration dinner. Samuel only had to drive me across the highway the next morning to catch the early flight.
Samuel continued living at the tent into November, until it became too frigid, then took everything down and moved to an apartment for the winter with the couple who had also tented that summer. I flew away from Samuel to something I did not know. My stomach swirled with excitement as I nervously fingered the large packet of Army entrance paperwork on my lap, riding atop the clouds.