As you slowly wake from a dream you will never remember, something seems strange and out of sorts to you. And as your eyes open, eventually focusing on the ceiling of your tent, you remember that you are not at home – rather you are sleeping next to your brother and the chill morning air is creeping down into your sleeping bag. You pull the bag tightly around your neck and look over at him. He’s crammed against the side of the tent and has worked his way down into the corner. Despite what looks like a very uncomfortable position, he is out like a light. So, you turn onto your back to look up through the mesh netting at the brilliant green trees that spread like a canopy above you. And as your mind clears away the fog of sleep, you suddenly realize it is Memorial Day.
It’s a day that gives you mixed feelings. In one way, it is the best of feelings. Memorial Day, to you, means camping. Getting together with other family members and heading up into the mountains. Three days of freedom and school-end just around the corner.
But Memorial Day also means that the fun is over.
Just a few days ago, you sat on the front doorstep waiting for your Dad to get home from work. Your backpack was filled with all the essentials, and the truck sat in the driveway facing out toward the street and ready to go. The back is full of bikes, beach chairs, ice chests and other stuff. Your Mom and Dad’s pop-up trailer already hitched and ready to go. You just hope your father can get off work early.
And suddenly he’s there and there’s a mad rush to get it all together and out the door. Your Mom runs into the house a couple of times to get a few last minute things, and then plops down in the front seat and looks at your dad with a sigh.
“I’m sure we’re forgetting something!” she says.
“Of course we are,” your father replies. “I just hope it’s you that did the forgetting and not me.”
They smile at one another and with a last “Let’s go!” you are zooming down the highway. An hour and a half later, after a quick bite to eat at a Taco Bell, you start climbing into the mountains – following a long string of cars and campers in front of you.
“Where are we going, Dad?” you ask.
“A new place. We’ve never been before.” He replies.
Not much of an answer, but for some strange reason, it satisfies. Your mind is blank and you have no idea what it’s going to be like. But that’s okay. At the end of the line it’s going to be fun. Your Uncle Jim will be there with his family like they always are. The parents will all be smiling and clapping one another on the back and you’ll get to catch up with your cousins on what’s been going on over the last half a year.
You look over at your brother and he’s asleep in his car seat, head lolling around as your dad negotiates the twisty road. He’s just about to turn five, and although you are only nine, you can’t seem to remember sleeping nearly as much as he does when you were his age. The kid is a pro sleeper – and how he can be sleeping right now is a complete mystery to you. You want to get to where you are going, rip the seat belt off and get out of the truck so bad you can taste it.
Your father pulls off the main highway and follows a twisty piece of road up to the “Campground Store and Office. This is the hardest part. You have to wait in the car while your dad checks in. You can see some campsites, and a lake in the distance, but not enough to know what this place is really like. Hurry up!
And suddenly you are there. Your dad is backing the trailer in, and your cousins are running up to the truck. Your Uncle Jim knows what is important though. As he always does, he walks up and hands your father a beer. Everyone is saying “Hi!” and hugging one another. You can smell the pine scent in the air and already feel the slight burn in your throat from a neighbor’s campfire smoke. Soon you are running down the road with your cousins toward the playground by the lake. “Keep an eye on your brother!” you hear your Mom call after you, as you all go flying down the road toward the sound of other kids playing.
It’s always a little awkward at first when you walk up to a playground for the first time. You are not sure why, but the kids in a playground always feel to you like an army that has established higher ground. They are already there, and they are familiar with the playground and one another – and you are the new kid. But at least, this time, you have your brother and your cousins with you.
You slow down as you get closer, and the four of you see a climbing structure that no one is currently on. The volume drops around you as you walk over together and check it out, while you also check out the other kids in the park. A girl, a little younger than your brother, wanders over to where you are. Eventually, she is followed by an older boy, who is obviously tasked with watching her, and suddenly the dividing lines aren’t so clear anymore. Your brother and your cousin Sarah run over to the slide. The volume picks back up and a few minutes later you’ve all been accepted into the fold.
You look around to see who is around. There is a small kid digging with a stick off to the side. By the end of the night you will have classified him as the “weird kid”. There are a couple of twin boys and another girl on the swings. And at the top of the “fort” is an older girl. You watch her for a while as she directs a variety of other kids in some sort of game they are playing and you realize you like what you see. She’s probably older than you, and you like the athletic ease she displays as she moves around the fort and up and down the ladder. “Trudy.” You hear her name. And it doesn’t take you long to see that this girl exudes an easy confidence like none you have ever felt. She stops for a moment, looks down, and noticing you – smiles.
That’s all it takes. The next hour is all about you and Trudy. Sure, your cousins are there, John and Justin – the twins, and the weird kid, Simon. Your brother is there, of course, and some kids who you don’t know their names, yet. But for you, the woods, the holiday, the weekend – it’s all about this cool girl you just met. Twilight comes, the smell of wood fires intensifies, and in the middle of the most intense “attack” on the fort yet, you hear your father calling you all back to your campsite.
“Gotta go. See you tomorrow!” you yell over your shoulder, as you head back toward your family’s campfire. And that is how the day ends. You, sitting around the fire, marshmallows on a stick, and eventually your mom telling you it’s time to head to the tent.
As you crawl into your bag you are thinking to yourself, “Man, it’s only Friday night. The weekend hasn’t even started yet!”
You have three whole days left – the whole weekend. A lake. Family. Great food. An interesting friend. You have pretty much forever.
But you don’t.
And that is what you wake up feeling this morning. Your tent flaps are closed, but you don’t need to see outside to know what is happening. The noise level has changed outside. There is entirely too much sound than there should be at this early hour. Yesterday had been all about bird song in the morning. The clank of a pot here and there. The sound of laughter – low, a chuckle. People talking softly on a Sunday morning.
But today, there is purpose in the sounds outside your tent walls. You can hear your parents speaking already. Short sentences – statements without responses. You can already hear the crunch of gravel as vehicles pass by your campsite, just feet away from your tent. You look across at your sleeping brother and envy his lack of awareness. He doesn’t really know yet what Memorial Day means.
You kind of laugh at yourself as you think this. Wasn’t it just last night that your Uncle Jim went on for minutes about how no one really recognizes what Memorial Day is for anymore? And then he made it a point, to make sure all us kids were listening as he told us all about the people in the past who had sacrificed so much so that we could live the quality and type of lives we had. He talked about my grandfather who had been in World War II. How he had had to travel across the sea and fight against the Germans. How he marched through snow in the dead of winter and lost some toes. How he had come back, but not his little brother.
You thought that was interesting, but after a while, you just stared into the fire and your mind started wandering and started thinking about…
Saturday was great! You woke up to the smell of frying bacon – one of the best ways anyone would ever wake up. You jumped out of the tent and there were your parents sitting around a morning campfire. They were already laughing at something one of your cousins had said. They had pulled a few chairs around the fire, and your dad had a fork in his hand and was turning bacon on the fire grill. Your mom had her thick sweatshirt on and was sitting cross-legged in her camp chair, hugging a mug of coffee to her chest.
You think to yourself that that is one of the things you like most about camping. The care-free behavior of your parents. Your mother loses that harried look you see so often on her face. Your father doesn’t mention work – not even once. And you are so happy to jump out of bed and be a part of it all. Not like at home, where your mom has to tell you five times to get up.
A half hour later, you are sitting at the picnic table with a bunch of blueberry pancakes and a couple of slices of bacon. Lots of syrup and hot chocolate, too. You are thinking about the day ahead, and what’s going to happen, and your seven-year old cousin is kicking his legs impatiently next to you–back and forth. You are torn. Half of you can’t get enough of this wonderful breakfast and the other part of you is already running down the road toward the playground. The sun comes out and it is going to be a glorious day. Sweatshirts get pulled over sleep-mussed heads and get thrown onto nearby chairs. You can feel the heat of the sun on your arms and neck, while your legs, still under the table, are still goose-bumped by the chill morning. Your brother already has syrup on his t-shirt.
Paper plates get thrown into the trash, and you head toward the playground with clear instructions from your mother. Be back by 11:30 for lunch and then swimming in the lake. The weekend begins as you and your family hit the swings. Except no Trudy. You are having a good time, but you keep looking for her and she never shows up. You are kind of angry. That dork, Simon, is there, and so are the twins, but where is your friend? When 11:30 comes around, you trudge back to the camp wondering what happened?
After lunch, your dad makes you help him hook up the kayak to the two-wheeled roller. You strap a couple of life vests to the seats and your father hands you the paddles to carry. And you all march down the road toward the lake. You are happy again, because you love to go out paddling. When you were really little, you used to sit between your mom’s legs in the front of the boat, and laugh when the water from the paddles would drip down on your head. But over the last couple of years, your dad started taking you out alone with him. Instead of just hanging out near the entry point, you would push out around the point and go exploring. At first, both of you couldn’t stop talking – there was so much to see, and your father intent on teaching you how to paddle in rhythm with his stroke. But after a while, you both would run out of things to say. And it would just be nice to say nothing – to listen to the lake sounds and sound the paddles made as they dipped into the water.
So, the two of you go out, somehow knowing, between you, that this is another golden moment you share. And when you return, there is Trudy. She swims out to where the rope buoys end, and your not surprised to see that she can swim really well. You wonder if there isn’t anything she can’t do. She hangs onto the front of the kayak as you and your father paddle in, and then your dad let’s you take it out with her, as long as you stay close to the beach.
And the rest of the Saturday just goes like that. You swim, you eat, you kayak, and by the end of the day, as you help your father drag the kayak up the hill, you find that you are the special kind of tired where all you want to do is crash somewhere. Somehow, you manage to eat your dinner, help your parents clean up a little, and then fall into a chair. You stare into the flames thinking about how excellent the day was, and before you know it, your mom is shaking your shoulder and waking you up. You pick up your little brother and drag him along with you and you don’t remember a thing until morning.
But now its Memorial Day. You lie there trying to deny what is about to happen, but all too soon, you hear footsteps approaching your tent and the next thing you know your mother is looking down through the mesh, her face framed by a triangle of tent fabric above you and backlit by the vivid green of the trees.
“Time to get up,” she says. “Wake up your brother and come have some breakfast.”
Breakfast. You don’t want it. Your stomach is rolling, and all you can think about is it is the last day. The last thing you want to do is eat.
But you roll over and kick the inert mass beside you, yelling “Hey creep! Mom wants us to get up.” But the little creep doesn’t want to get up. He digs down in his bag and pulls the opening closed over his head and ignores you. So you kick him a couple more times because you know that your mom is going to be mad if you don’t get out there pretty soon. And also because your angry and kicking him makes you feel better. A little.
“Leavme alone!” comes the muffled response. So you start shaking him up inside the bag and tell him you are going to drag him out of the tent if he doesn’t get up on his own. Finally he comes out, and the two of you exit the tent. He’s got a sullen look on his face that now matches yours, and you both look up to the picnic table to see a box of Cheerios and a gallon of milk. No bacon. No pancakes. No fruit salad. Just a “get it done” breakfast.
And then you look at your parents. Your mother is packing up a bunch of food and kitchen equipment into a bin and doing her best to ignore your little brother who is already whining about something. Your father is over by the truck trying to tie down the kayak on top of the cab roof. Evidently he is not being too successful with one of the knots, because you can hear him swearing under his breath.
Now your little brother’s whining has escalated into a full-blown fit of bawling. Not having had enough sleep, he has suddenly realized that you have to leave today, and for some reason, he thinks that throwing a temper tantrum is going to change your parent’s minds.
Your dad looks over at your mom and rolls his eyes. She just shakes her head and tells your brother to be quiet and eat his breakfast. You look at them and you realize they feel just the way you do. So, you pour yourself a small portion of cereal and try and choke it down before you head back to the tent to pack up your stuff. You think to yourself that this is now the second day in a row that you’ve started out in a cranky mood. Sunday morning wasn’t too good either.
Well, it didn’t start that way. When you woke up, it was just like Saturday. You could hear the birds in the trees, and a garbage truck down the way, backing up to empty out the big bins located down by the office. And you started smiling as you remembered how great your Saturday was, and how much fun you were going to have today. So, you jumped out of your sleeping bag, threw on your clothes, and launched yourself out into the world.
Your parents aren’t up yet, but your Uncle Jim is, and he’s got the tailgate down, and is putting things into a couple of day packs that are resting on the back of the truck.
“Good morning!’ he says. “Ready for a hike today?”
“I guess,” you respond, and next thing you know you are in your parents tent camper and asking them if you have to go, or can you “just stay back at camp”. You already know the answer to that question, but all the plans you had going through your mind this morning are blown away now. You aren’t going back to the lake, you aren’t hanging out with Trudy, and you are damn miserable about it. And so, you are determined to bring a little of that misery to your parents to punish them for making plans today.
“Where are we hiking to?” you ask sullenly.
“There’s a falls about two miles from here that we hear is worth seeing,” responds your father. “Your mom and I could use the exercise after all that beer and wine last night. Besides, we told your Aunt and Uncle we would join them.”
You plead your case, but no luck. The plan has been made and agreed to, and all of you are going and that is that. So you stumble around the campsite for a bit while everyone else gets ready – every now and then throwing a spiteful glare in the direction of your aunt and uncle. It’s their fault you are going on this stupid hike.
They ignore you. That just makes you angrier, but you grab a water bottle and poncho (in case it rains) and a bag of trail mix and pretty soon you are all walking down the road in the opposite direction of the playground.
You drag along behind everyone until you get to the trailhead, and then you push by everyone else and start cranking up the hill. You hear your father tell you not to get too far ahead, so you slow down a little, but you make sure that you get far enough ahead of everyone else so that you are completely out of sight from time to time. This results in your father catching up to you and taking you off to the side of the trail for a brief discussion.
“Time to cut this crap out.”
You look down at your feet, and then up to his face, and you can see that the look on his face is one you don’t see very often. But it’s meaning is very clear. So, you stop by the side of the trail and let the rest of the family pass you by and take up your new place at the rear of the group. And slowly, but surely, the trail and the woods and the physical exertion massage the tension out of your shoulders and proceed to calm your mind. You get caught up in the rhythm of the hike and an old song gets into your head, which works perfectly with the beat of your footsteps on the pine needle floor. Before you know it you are at the falls and you all take off your shoes and dip your feet in the cold water.
The parents find a big rock downstream and you all climb up it – your Dad giving the younger ones a hand, and pretty soon you are eating cheese and crackers and salami on top of the rock and the sun is beating down on you. Your Uncle pulls some beers out of the stream where he had put them when you first got there, and the older family members all crack open their cans. Then they all proceed to talk about how cold the stream is and yet it is never cold enough to keep the beer from being too warm. So, you lay back on the warm rock and think about how they do this every year and you just wish they would learn one day, skip bringing the beer, and enjoy one more cold one when they get back.
Well, now you’ve seen the falls, and you want to get back, so you sort of hint at leaving until your father gives you the look again. So you shut your mouth and end up playing with the other kids in a little gravel-bottomed pool over by the side of the river until its time to hike back down the mountain.
You figure that if you are going to get a chance to head down to the playground, you better watch it, so you take your position at the back of the group and slowly make your way down hill, even though the trail is so steep you could easily run all the way back to camp.
When you get back to the trailer, you look up at your mom, and she just says, “Go!” You give her a big smile and you are running down the road again to join your new friends. You get there and there is as big a crowd of kids as you’ve had all weekend. Trudy is there in her customary position at the top of the fort looking like the Queen of the Playground, and you are so happy to be there, you’re even glad to see weird Simon. The rest of the afternoon is spend defending the fort against the little kids and playing Red Light/Green Light and sitting around talking about where you live and stuff. You find out Trudy is ten, and likes to play soccer. She also lives about six hours away in the opposite direction from your home. You get a little twinge at the thought of that, but you blow it off and push it out of your mind.
It’s a great afternoon, and you head back with your cousins to a dinner of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. The parents have discovered the joys of ice-cold beer and after dinner your mom sends you down to Trudy’s camp to see if she and her parents want to join us for some music.
The next thing you know, they arrive with some chairs of their own, and Uncle Jim pulls out his old guitar and starts singing the dozen or so songs he knows. Pretty soon everyone is singing “Bye Bye Miss American Pie” at the top of their lungs and you are wondering for the hundredth time how your father’s brother can only know the ten or so old songs, but he can remember every verse of that one. It doesn’t matter, though. Everyone knows the chorus, and for the hell of it, you sing that chorus about three extra times at the end until it just kind of peters out with one last “This will be the day that I die.”
It’s quiet then. No one says anything, and all you can hear is the creaking of chairs and the crackling of the fire – a stray cough now and then. Everyone is lost in their own thoughts and staring into the embers. And no one wants to break the silence.
And then Trudy’s parents are saying their “thank you’s” and you are saying goodbyes and your dad is pouring water on the fire. The dancing light on the trees is gone, and you hear people calling out “G’night!” and the once dreamlike camp is dark now. You drag yourself into your bag and think about what a grand day it had been and how sorry you are that it is done.
But now it is Memorial Day. And you think to yourself that Memorial Day is definitely the worst day of the whole holiday. You wonder to yourself, “If this day is about remembering, why do I feel like when I get older, it will just be about remembering how many times I felt bad about the end of a three-day weekend?”
You’d like to take off for the play area, but you know that your parents will insist on you helping pack up. So you slowly put your stuff into your bag, and make a half-hearted attempt at rolling up the tent. But when you get done, you have a tent roll that is easily twice as big as the bag it is supposed to go into. You can feel the air that is still trapped inside it – the air you failed to get out, and your father gives you an irked look and grabs the tent and the bag from you. You decide to look busy doing something else for a while.
You get done, and your father tells you to go help your uncle, so you go across to their camp and help load up their truck. And pretty soon you are looking at one of the saddest sights you can see. Two loaded trucks, trailers hitched up to the back and an empty campsite. It is the exact opposite of seeing the same thing ready to pull out of your driveway last Friday. “This sucks!” you think, but you make sure you don’t say it out loud.
You walk over to say good bye to everyone and suddenly your Uncle looks up and your mom and dad and says, “You think maybe you guys have time to walk down to the lake for one last beer before we take off? I’m in no hurry to end this wonderful weekend.”
You look at your parents and you can see they feel the same way. They look at you and say, “Take off you two! You’ve got an hour,” and without even thinking about it, you and your brother and your cousins are off again – racing toward the playground down the road.
On Friday, you had all the time in the world, but now you have just one thing left to do. Get the most out of the next hour that you can. Your feet are pounding down the rock road and you are thinking how strange time is. You had three whole days and they are gone now. But now you’ve got a whole hour when you didn’t think you had it – and it is the greatest thing.
You hit the rope ladder at full speed and join a significantly smaller group of kids at the top. But there is Trudy and you find out that she and her parents are staying an extra day. And you are so jealous.
But time is short, so you all start playing with a zeal and with an anxious tension you hadn’t had during the previous days. Somehow you have to fit all the fun in that you can. Your eyes keep wandering back toward the trucks and your ears are tuned up to their highest sensitivity – straining to hear what you don’t want to hear – your parents calling. And then you hear it.
And then you are all talking at once, and saying good bye and hoping that you might see one another some time. And at the last moment, Trudy reaches over and gives you a little hug and says she is going to miss you.
You hear your mom call again, so you grab your cousins and you start running up the road. But you stop one last time and look back to see the Queen of the Playground looking at you from high atop the fort. And you wonder, what is worse? To be hopping into the truck right now, or to be standing up there, watching all your friends drive away?