By Patrick F. Cannon
As someone who has written several books on architecture, I am familiar with man’s ongoing struggles to seek shelter from the storm. Since our species emerged in Africa, we have progressed from shaky lean-tos and caves to the sophisticated dwellings of today. With their computer-controlled heating and cooling systems, and stout walls and roofs, they are proof against almost anything Mother Nature might wish to assail us with.
Yet, among us are folk who seek to return to a more primitive past. I refer to the restless wanderers who hoist upon their backs a pack containing a tent and other necessities and venture forth in search of the woods and mountains that ennoble our sacred land. This despite the undoubted fact that all of our majestic sites can be easily reached from a nearby hotel (free breakfast included).
I must admit that my own distaste for roughing it may be based on my experience as a proud member of the United States Army. As part of its basic training, the Army feels obligated to march you – with a 65-pound pack on your back and a rifle on your shoulder – some 20 miles into a remote corner of one of its properties, in my case, Fort Benning, Georgia. Once in an area chosen for its dampness and venomous creature infestation, you were instructed to pitch your pup tent. Now, in those days, you carried only half the tent. Officially called a shelter half, it required you to pair up with a fellow soldier to create a tent, which you would then share (see illustration).
The material for the tent was a kind of canvas, ingeniously designed by the Quartermaster Corps to be waterproof until you touched or poked it by accident. Through a fortunate twist of fate, I was paired with a young man from central Illinois who had been an Eagle Scout. Jim not only warned me never to touch the tent roof, but made certain that we pitched our tent on a slight incline, whereupon he conspired a series of trenches designed to direct water away from the tent. As you might expect, it rained that night and most of the next day. We remained blissfully dry, while all around us we heard the curses of the tent pokers. I should also mention that, once wet, an army sleeping bag takes several years to dry. To add to the general gloom, they decided to treat us to an overdone steak dinner that day. It was still raining, and you had to carry your meal back to your tent. Needless to say, dinner went swimmingly.
My next camping experience came more than a year later, when the signal company of which I was then associated was flown, along with its vehicles, in C-130 cargo planes to Fort Hood, Texas. We were there to support a corps headquarters directing armored troop maneuvers. Our company commander, a fine and typical graduate of West Point, choose a likely-looking flat spot for our tents – still of the same classic pup variety. For the officers and sergeants, he chose a site on higher ground, no doubt so he could admire the admirably straight rows of tents below.
As you might have guessed, it rained, this time a torrent for which the Texas hill country is justly famous. No ingenious trenching system could have saved us from the torrent that came rushing down the hill. The next morning was pure misery, until a stroke of good fortune came my way. Just while I was choking back tears, an unknown sergeant appeared and asked me if I would be interested in returning to the post, where they had need of a cryptographer for special duty. It turned out it was related to the looming Cuban missile crisis, and even the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed preferable to another night camping in the Texas wilderness.
I did some years later buy a nice tent, which I pitched in the back yard for my children. It never occurred to me to fold it up, put in a pack and wander off into the woods. By the way, if you chance to wander into the woods yourself, watch your step. Not all campers bother to dig a hole and cover it over after doing the necessary.
Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon