The time the rogue Tennessean's truck tore my Mustang in half in Snowflake, Va., that was a bad trip. The time I took my young daughters canoeing down a freezing flooded river, that was a bad trip. But the time a bunch of us boys went camping at Wiley's family's place in what was then the wilds of Fairfax County, that was a bad trip.
Never mind how long ago it was, but Wiley and I were talking about it the other day, at our 30th high school class reunion. It was back in a time when my father and I would watch beagles chase rabbits around the vast open fields of Tysons Corner. Mostly all you could see was fast-moving ripples in the tall grass, but now and then a rabbit would bounce high in the air and reverse course, causing pandemonium and pileups among the dogs. We had plenty of time to watch while we were waiting for the old guy to open up Tyson's general (and only) store so we could buy cracked corn and laying mash for our chickens. He was supposed to come early but often came late, if at all.
It was a time when an occasional bear would amble through the grounds of the county courthouse, and the police would go crazy with their pistols and shotguns, and the game warden would come, and shake his head, and haul the poor thing's carcass away.
You could take a streetcar to Glen Echo or a train to Leesburg. But you couldn't get insect repellent that worked, or poison ivy shots, or freeze-dried food, or sleeping bags that would keep you warm though wet, or rip-stop nylon tents, or styrofoam coolers, or flashlight batteries that would last the night.
Our camping trip was an official expedition of the Lyon Village Athletic Association, a motley pack of layabouts and ne'er-do-wells (ordinary adolescent boys, in other words) who hung around the park in that Arlington subdivision, talking about God and science and sex and waiting for it to get dark enough. I was an ex officio member because my mother's medical office was nearby, which was handy when the boys needed repairs. Adolescent boys need a lot of repairs.
I have only the vaguest idea where we camped. It was a deep and wonderful woods with a broad winding stream, far enough away from everything that you couldn't hear any road noises or screen doors slamming. The only sounds besides us were the wind in the trees, and owls and bullfrogs and crickets and, if things got real quiet, something going snuffle snuff snuff in the bushes.
Anyway it was way out in the country, which in those days meant west of Falls Church, and when Mr. Russell dropped us off we were alone, on our own, four or five boys with only three or four hundred pounds of groceries to get us through the next two or three days.
Just about everything that didn't have to be cooked was eaten by sundown, except for the secret stashes of candy bars that had been melting and pooling in the bottoms of our packs all day while we ran around in the woods, splashed around in the creek and, in Mike's case, rolled around in the poison ivy.
The candy disappeared, to the sound of surreptitious rustling and slurping, as soon as it got dark enough. The hot dogs were gone. The Campbell's pork & beans was gone, sucked cold from the cans. The No. 10 can of Dinty Moore beef stew was gone, blown sky-high and camp-wide by our having put it on the fire without punching a hole in the lid. The peanut butter and jelly was gone, along with the Wonder Bread, which in those days was building strong bodies only eight ways. The crackers and cookies were gone. The fruit was gone. The milk and juice and cocoa were gone. The beer was gone. Never mind about the beer. Except for the carrots, canned vegetables and other inedibles inserted by our mothers, there was nothing left to eat except the breakfast eggs and bacon and Aunt Jemima pancake mix.
So there we were, laying about in the firelight, writhing in the early stages of starvation and making rude noises, when Wiley began fooling around with his flashlight and discovered that if he swept the beam rapidly back and forth over a moving person, the effect was very like watching one of those herky-jerky early movies. It was just the thing to take our minds off hunger and whatever was going snuffle snuff snuff out there. We progressed from spontaneous pratfalls and short takes to such scenarios as "Gunfight at the OK Corral" and "High Noon."
Once we had overcome our reluctance to play female roles, the playlets progressed to steamier subjects. Sometime between the staging of "Why Susie Left Home" and "What the Butler Saw," Mike began to itch. We knew he was itching because he started scratching, and then moaning. Mike was a beefy sort of person whose habitual truculence probably would be explained these days as a product of deprivation of male parenting; his father was a Navy captain in a time when the Navy was spending a lot of time making the sea safe for democracy. Mike wasn't real quick on the uptake, but his outreach was fast and formidable, so we generally endured his surliness in silence.
Anyway, it soon became obvious that the center of Mike's discomfort was ventral and just south of his equator, and we insisted that his problem wasn't poison ivy but the clap. We lectured him about the wages of sin, and warned him that it was a known scientific fact that his children would be zombies.
But Mike was really sensitive to poison ivy, and he grew so desperate he prepared to set off for home in the dark. His agony touched our hearts, or anyway O'Neill's heart. He went to his pack and produced a half-pint bottle of a remedy he said put calamine lotion in the shade. Mike, ever the suspicious one, read the directions, or part of them, and then poured the stuff down his shorts. For one long moment he stood frozen, like a stunned steer in the moment before he realizes he's dead.
I know it is only through memory's imaginative eye that I recall Mike rising eight feet in the air, but his scream may be echoing yet along the streets of the subdivision that those woods became. I don't remember exactly whether he came down from that initial jump without his pants, or tore them off later.
"It was like battery acid," Mike said. But he said that later; for the time being he was just hopping and writhing and hollering, and now and then making a circuit of the fire. We, meanwhile, were laughing. Partly because we were adolescent boys, than which no creature is crueler. Mainly because all during Mike's dance of despair Wiley, who would grow up to be a lawyer, kept working the flashlight. The frenetic flickering image elevated the matter from tragedy to farce, and the only thing that saved us from well-deserved asphyxiation was that Mike eventually had the happy thought to go crashing off through the bushes (from which we nevermore heard any snuffle snuff snuff) and jump in the creek.
As we sat gasping and wheezing, O'Neill picked up the lotion bottle and read the rest of the directions: ". . . dilute one teaspoon in a cup (8 oz.) of water. Use sparingly."