Ottawa Magazine - - Volume 18 | Number 2 - BY THERESA ANN WAL­LACE

When a storm ru­ins a tense fam­ily out­ing, it’s up to the youngest camper to keep the peace.

My dad seemed bet­ter. He’d stopped wear­ing his wool zip-up buf­falo sweater in the mid­dle of the muggy Mon­treal af­ter­noons, ex­plain­ing to us with a lit­tle shiver of his shoul­ders, “It was 110 de­grees in the shade on the Gaza Strip, and af­ter al­most a year, my blood’s a lit­tle thin.” And for at least a week, I hadn’t heard him in the night pa­trolling the hall­way con­nect­ing the front door to the kitchen at the back of our flat.

But I still felt like cry­ing as I flapped my hand out the back win­dow of our baby-blue Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. My mom was stand­ing on our front steps. She waved good­bye to us with one arm and bal­anced baby El­iz­a­beth on her hip with the other. Her house­dress and face were lit up by the late-day sun. It had taken all day for Dad to pack up, and she looked re­lieved to see us fi­nally go.

When I opened my eyes the next morn­ing at Mont Trem­blant, my dad was shak­ing my brother Dun­can awake. Dun­can was thir­teen years old, skinny and small for his age. He had a buzz cut and freck­les splashed across his face. Dad was dressed in his desert clothes — a soldier’s khaki shirt and shorts and a hat like a base­ball cap ex­cept it had a squared-off peak. He looked se­ri­ous. He moved to the next sleep­ing bag and dug his thumb into the space just above Jimmy’s col­lar­bone. Jimmy, eleven years old and a smaller and skin­nier ver­sion of Dun­can, woke up cough­ing.

“Up. Get dressed. Then I’ll show you how to wash in the lake. Move it!” He knelt over his kit bag, un­pack­ing army ra­tions and sup­plies. He had short red hair and a match­ing mous­tache. He was squat, with mus­cles from all the box­ing and wrestling he had done while grow­ing up in the Ver­dun neigh­bour­hood of Mon­treal. He liked to hold his palms out, study them, then look up at us and say he could kill a man with his hands. We be­lieved him. His wrists were as big around as Jimmy’s up­per arms; even his fin­gers looked pow­er­ful enough to crush bones.

“Ann, you’re con­fined to bar­racks. You’re too small. Stay with the tent.”

“I want to go home now,” I said. I had a sick feel­ing in my stom­ach. The ends of my fin­gers hurt from chew­ing my nails to the quick in the night. A beach­head of pink skin that my nail should have been cov­er­ing throbbed at the tip of each fin­ger. My sleep­ing bag was twisted around my shoul­ders. My back felt stiff from ly­ing on the ground­sheet with­out an air mat­tress or pil­low.

A week ago at supper, Dad had gone on and on about the camp­ing trip. He gripped the chrome edge of the kitchen ta­ble and leaned for­ward like this was the most im­por­tant mis­sion he’d ever planned.

“You’re go­ing to swim. And see wild an­i­mals. And toast marsh­mal­lows over a camp­fire you built your­selves!”

“I want to go home now,” I said again, louder and bolder this time. “You said if I didn’t like it, you’d bring me back right away.” The morn­ing sun glowed red on the walls of the tent be­hind my dad.

“We just got here for Christ sakes,” he said. He snapped aside the tent flap and snarled up his lips at my broth­ers. “March!” Liar, I breathed. I yanked down the zipper in my sleep­ing bag and bit my lips shut so that I wouldn’t cry. I was still wear­ing my sleeve­less blouse and cut-offs from the day be­fore. I hunched over to make my­self small and fol­lowed the boys out. The plas­tic san­dals my mom had bought for me at Wool­worths were lined up by the door of the tent. I sat on the ground to put them on and then squat­ted by the tent. Dad didn’t no­tice me.

Our tent was in a clear­ing along­side a beach. The open camp­ing area stretched along the edge of the lake. Be­hind the camp­sites was a dirt ac­cess road, then lots of trees and the out­house I’d vis­ited the pre­vi­ous evening, hold­ing my nose and throw­ing up into my mouth at the ter­ri­ble smell.

As I watched from the tent, Dad or­dered the boys to fol­low him into the woods. Ev­ery so of­ten, they came out with an arm­load of branches that they piled a cer­tain num­ber of feet from our firepit. By the time they had fin­ished, the sun was up over the trees and my stom­ach was rum­bling.

“Sit down. I’ve put out your break­fast.” Dad pointed to the pic­nic ta­ble. I tucked in across from Dun­can and Jimmy, feel­ing as if I was get­ting splin­ters in my legs from the seat. My broth­ers hung their heads and stared at the Rice Krispies in our plas­tic bowls. We ate the dry ce­real and drank pur­ple juice that tasted like Kool-Aid. No­body dared ask for milk for the ce­real. My dad stood be­hind my broth­ers, watch­ing the way he did when he su­per­vised their math home­work, ready to cuff both of them on the side of the head when one of them made a mis­take. Dur­ing home­work time, I hid in my room. But now there was nowhere for me to go. I curled my toes un­der my feet in­side my san­dals and wished silently for our camp­ing trip to end.

Heads low­ered, we fin­ished eat­ing with­out say­ing a word. “Here, Ann. You go with your broth­ers down to the lake and wash the break­fast dishes.” My dad handed me a bashed-up me­tal basin but no dish soap. “Use sand,” Dad said. “That’s the best thing.”

Our next few meals were pork and beans, wieners and rice, and some canned army food that tasted like Klik and Kam and looked like a block of raw ham­burger with lots of fat in it. At ev­ery meal, my teeth crunched down on more and more sand. It got harder for us to keep the dishes clean by us­ing sand and harder to rinse off all the sand. When Dun­can pointed this out, Dad said, “Just use more sand.”

Af­ter we learned how to roll up our sleep­ing bags and tidy the tent for the day, Dun­can and Jimmy’s

wilder­ness sur­vival lessons started. Dad stood by the heaped branches they’d gath­ered. Mak­ing cir­cles with his out­stretched arms, he said, “Come here, boys. I’m go­ing to show you how to make kin­dling for a fire.” He took out his spe­cial hunt­ing knife. He kept this knife in a lit­tle hol­ster on his belt. It had an ivory han­dle. It didn’t look like a Swiss Army knife but more like a knife to kill an­i­mals and maybe even peo­ple.

I de­cided to walk down along the beach even though I hadn’t brought a bathing suit. I was seven years old. I had never been camp­ing or to a beach. And I’d never spent a night away from my mom ex­cept when she was in the hos­pi­tal hav­ing my sis­ter. I missed her. I won­dered what she was do­ing just then. She had beau­ti­ful jet-black hair and per­fect white skin, and she was al­ways kind to me — ex­cept for right now, when she’d sent me on a camp­ing trip that should have been boys only.

The day dragged on, with me mostly watch­ing what the boys were do­ing from down on the beach. The late-af­ter­noon sun moved across the sky. I started to feel hot. When I looked down at my arms, they seemed re­ally pink. I poked my left fore­arm with my right in­dex fin­ger. My fin­ger left a white im­pres­sion. My brain felt boiled. I knew my dad would be an­gry with me for get­ting sun­burned, so be­fore supper, I snuck into the tent and put on Jimmy’s long-sleeve sweater so my dad wouldn’t see my arms.

The evening passed slowly. I lay awake deep into the night, star­ing at the roof of the can­vas tent, lis­ten­ing to the wind move through the trees out­side. I felt alone. My dad’s snor­ing had a pat­tern. He started wuf­fling qui­etly, then got louder and louder, then stopped and made a whistling noise through his nose. The whistling was ex­actly like the sound you hear on Satur­day­morn­ing car­toons when one of the char­ac­ters runs off the edge of a cliff and is fall­ing through space. Then he started all over again with the soft snor­ing. My broth­ers looked as though they were so weary and were sleep­ing so deeply, they might never wake up.

The next morn­ing, af­ter a silent break­fast, my dad said, “Boys, go get more fire­wood. I’m go­ing to find out where I can rent a ca­noe for the day.” I headed for the lake’s edge again. I heard my dad talk­ing and laugh­ing loudly and mak­ing friends with the other campers. The wa­ter felt cold on my an­kles. The day had turned cloudy. Af­ter a while, wave­lets smacked against my shins. The wind off the lake bent the trees. Some­times it seemed to blow in cir­cles. The trees on the other side of the lake were jerk­ing back and forth. The sky above them dark­ened to blue-black. The lake was the colour of dirt, and the waves had white spit­ting tops on them.

I looked back at our tent: it was flap­ping in the wind. The sand on the beach be­tween the wa­ter and our tent swirled in the air. I walked faster along the shore­line and re­mem­bered Hur­ri­cane Hazel. My fam­ily had been liv­ing in a trailer in Camp Bor­den, a mil­i­tary base north of Toronto, when Hur­ri­cane Hazel killed peo­ple and tore build­ings apart in the Toronto area. I was born a year later, and I’d of­ten over­heard my par­ents and their friends talk about Hazel. I didn’t re­ally pay much at­ten­tion. But I knew in some place in my mind what a hur­ri­cane was and what it could do. I wasn’t sure if a hur­ri­cane was com­ing now. But I felt a tight ache in my chest, and it got harder to breathe. I needed my mom.

“Ann, come here and help me, for cry­ing out loud!” Dad was tug­ging on a rope tied to the out­side of the tent. His knife was in one hand and a ham­mer in the other. My legs shook as I ran. Big rain­drops spat­tered on my head.

“Get in­side!” A gust of wind pulled his hat off his head and tossed it into the trees. The tent lifted up. It bil­lowed into the air like a big bal­loon tug­ging to get free. Only a few pegs were still in the ground. Our clothes and sleep­ing bags were tum­bling to­ward the gap be­tween the ground­sheet and the tent walls. I grabbed as much of our stuff as I could. Then I threw my­self spread-ea­gled on top of it.

“Dun­can! Jimmy! Come back!” My dad sounded mad, like he was that time my broth­ers ac­ci­den­tally set the back shed on fire.

I could see my dad’s army boots stomp­ing around out­side the tent. He pulled on the ropes and pounded the pegs in. All the while, he yelled at the boys to come back, come back. When the storm died down and the rain light­ened up, they did come back. Our fa­ther was bent over, breath­ing hard, one hand on each braced leg as if he’d just run a mile cross-coun­try. Rain braided with the snot hang­ing from the end of his nose. His shirt stuck to his chest. But he’d man­aged to keep the tent — and me — from blow­ing away. I was sit­ting on the ground be­side him, limp and pale, hold­ing onto his shoe with one hand.

My broth­ers walked slowly to­ward the tent. Dad looked up. “Where’s the wood?” “Oops, we for­got.” Dun­can slapped his hand to his

“In a sand­storm, you end up with sand in your teeth. In your boots. Up your ass. Ev­ery­where. It blinds you. In the desert, if a sand­storm

comes up and you’re away from shel­ter, you die.”

cheek as though he’d just de­vel­oped a toothache. He looked apolo­getic.

“You got rocks in your head? You’re both so stupid. You’re use­less. You left your sis­ter all alone and you didn’t bring back any wood.” Dad butted Jimmy on the back of the head with the heel of his hand and told them both to pack up the tent. Then he started bang­ing and crash­ing around the camp­site, swing­ing the me­tal roof rack onto the Volk­swa­gen and slam­ming things into the trunk.

Ex­cept for the sounds of my dad huff­ing, the car was quiet, the kind of hold-your-breath quiet where no one dares speak. I sat in the back seat with Jimmy. Dun­can sat in front. Sand was ev­ery­where — sand on the leather seats, sand on the floor, sand in our clothes.

Dad looked over at Dun­can. He’d turned his back. With his in­dex fin­ger, he was draw­ing quick lines in the con­den­sa­tion on his pas­sen­ger-side win­dow. A game of X’s and O’s.

“You are such losers. All of you.” Dad swung his head around to look in the back seat. The car bob­bled a lit­tle. “One time on the Gaza Strip, we were out on pa­trol and a sand­storm came up. We crawled un­der a tarp in the back of the Jeep to wait it out. In a sand­storm, you end up with sand in your teeth. In your boots. Up your ass. Ev­ery­where. It blinds you. In the desert, if a sand­storm comes up and you’re away from shel­ter, you die.

“But Cana­dian peace­keep­ers are the best in the world. We did our jobs. And we watched out for each other. Not like some peo­ple. Some peo­ple would just leave their lit­tle sis­ter all alone.”

“Well, we knew she was safe be­cause she was with you!” Jimmy said, smil­ing bravely at our dad.

“How do you mean?” Dad’s head lifted sharply. He glared in the rear-view mir­ror.

“We knew she was okay, Dad,” Jimmy said, try­ing to com­pli­ment him. “We were watch­ing from the out­house.” Jimmy swiped his tongue back and forth over his front teeth.

I was sit­ting right be­hind my dad, watch­ing the cords in the back of his neck. They stood out like thick ropes pulled tight. His head and shoul­ders jerked around. “What did you say?” “We stayed in the out­house to get out of the storm,” Jimmy said, his words slow­ing down as though he sensed dan­ger but couldn’t quite see where it lay. Dad turned his eyes back to the road. His shoul­ders squared as though he was brac­ing him­self for hand-to-hand com­bat. His fin­gers squeezed the wheel and went white.

“You hid in a shit­ter? If there was a world war and ev­ery­one in Canada did that, what would hap­pen? So if we’re ever in­vaded, you two will say, ‘Okay, ev­ery­one run to the shit­ter!’ ”

All the way home, we lis­tened to how tough he was and how soft we were. He stabbed his chest with his in­dex and mid­dle fin­gers when he talked about him­self. “Do you even know what a camp sergeant ma­jor is? I was in charge of ev­ery Cana­dian soldier over there. I kept them all safe. I shook hands with the king of Jor­dan.”

Ev­ery once in a while he’d re­peat, “But there was no sand in the shit­ter, was there?”

As soon as the car stopped at our place, I jumped out and ran to the front door. I kicked off my san­dals and ran down the hall­way to the kitchen. Wet sand speck­led the linoleum be­hind me. Mom was sit­ting at the ta­ble. El­iz­a­beth was be­side her in her wooden high chair, smil­ing and bang­ing a book on the tray so hard, her lit­tle blond curls shook. My mom had a teacup in one hand and the other rested on the news­pa­per in front of her.

When she saw me, she opened her mouth in a sur­prised “Oh!” and spread her arms out for me. I jumped into her lap. She hugged me close. I saw her look at my dad as though she was con­fused. He was hur­ry­ing right be­hind me.

“We had a great time, Mom. It was re­ally fun. We wanted to stay longer. But we had to come back home be­cause there was a storm. The tent blew down. It al­most blew away, but Dad saved it.” I spoke re­ally fast. I didn’t want my par­ents to fight. My dad looked at my broth­ers, his eye­brows raised.

“Yeah, it was good.” Dun­can took off his socks and shook sand into the sink. Jimmy, lean­ing against the fridge, was scratch­ing sand out of his scalp. My mother and fa­ther smiled at each other over my head. Then, look­ing at her all the while, my dad reached out both his hands and took one of my mother’s hands away from where she was hug­ging me. He held her hand against his heart. We all stayed where we were, not want­ing to move on to what­ever would hap­pen next.

One of the kids has asked why I don’t like camp­ing. I never could tell a story sit­ting down, so I have got­ten up from the din­ner ta­ble to act out the nar­ra­tive: wash­ing dishes with sand, the blow­ing tent.

I fin­ish and look around the ta­ble at my hus­band and four chil­dren. “Quite the fam­ily, eh?” I laugh. I was an army brat and proud of it. I ended up re­source­ful and smart and funny be­cause of all those fam­ily ad­ven­tures. And mis­ad­ven­tures. I found out later that af­ter my broth­ers ran for cover in the out­house, they took turns stand­ing on the toi­let seat lid, look­ing out the ven­ti­la­tion hole at us and de­scrib­ing what was hap­pen­ing, both of them laugh­ing so hard, they could barely stand up straight. For years, the mere men­tion of the word “out­house” would make us hys­ter­i­cal. “Hey! How come no­body’s laugh­ing?” My daugh­ter has tears in her eyes, which con­fuses me. My broth­ers and I al­ways thought this was an ex­tremely funny story. Theresa Ann Wal­lace has been work­ing as a free­lance re­searcher, writer, and editor for over three decades. She lives in Old Ot­tawa East.

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