Camping, Not So Southern Style/Phantasy Friday

Y’all know this is all Sadie Grace’s fault, right? She’s the one who went and tweeted about chiggers. Set off a chain reaction of memories.

Raised–excuse me, ‘reared’; you ‘raise’ cattle, as my mother oft reminded–with a foot in both worlds (south Detroit and the sand beaches of Long Beach), meant the realms of camping were unlimited. A veritable cornucopia of polar opposite experiences. And tribulation for my aforementioned mother, may the angels ever keep her company.

Mama never cursed. Never. No matter the incentive. She spelled the words. And the times I can remember that happening can be counted on one hand, with fingers left over. And believe me, we five kids tested that woman! My restraint isn’t as good as hers was. Make me angry and I can control myself with nary a slip. Try to push my buttons, you won’t garner a thing. Scare me? The air turns blue and there are huge, low-hanging sulphurous clouds, thick enough to obscure visibility. I’m taking the two out of three and running with them.

My interest in natural science was born the first time Dad took us ice fishing on Milford Pond. Bundled up against the cold enough to resemble the Michelin Man, we followed him out onto the vast expanse of snow-dusted ice. He ended up having to tether us together because each good gust of wind would separate us. Sail force is a strange and wonderful thing. For sailors. But scary as all get out as a seven-year old watching your father running to catch up to you as you’re  blown, arms spread for balance, both booted feet rattling over rough ice like a scene from The Exorcist. Didn’t help much to drop to your hands and knees, either. Gloves don’t grip ice any better than boot soles, and were snatched clean off your hand if they snagged on something. Made you spin in some pretty cool circles, though.

Like some bizarre version of roped crack-the-whip, we finally made the appointed fishing spot. Dad bored holes through the three-foot ice with his spud, rigged our stubby fishing poles with mousies (Mayfly larva) for bait, and  we were set. We caught enough fish to hold our attention for three full hours! There was no net. No live well of water. You tossed your catch onto the ice where they flopped until they froze into things resembling curved wood chips. Didn’t know fish had no eyelids back then, so I was fascinated by their startled, wide-eyed expressions. Kept poking them with a finger, making them rock on the ice. Fins extended and little mouths frozen in wide open O’s, I though they could very well be the marine version of frightened cats. Like maybe Jaws slid up to them, nose to nose, in the water.

Once home Dad gave a lesson on cold-blooded species. He filled one side of the kitchen sink with water and dropped in one of our ‘fish-chips’. We were awed when it began to wiggle. Screamed with delight when it splashed and thrashed, fully resurrected. Then he left us alone with it while he put away our gear. Bad Daddy.

Mama came in to the entire basket of now thawed fish geysering water everywhere as they leapt like running salmon from one bowl of the double sink to the other. Fishy water everywhere. Now D-A-M might be a man-made retention for water; but “D-A-M-N fish” meant Daddy was in deep poop and we had no television for three days. Really missed Disney that weekend.

Summers in the South were great. Camping on Cat Island meant splashing on the sand bars, a cooling spray in the hot sun. Capturing fiddler crabs and tiny silvery fish in the tidal pools, fishing for speckled trout in the surf, their scent like fresh watermelon. Gigging flounder by lamplight at midnight was grand adventure. You fought mosquitoes a couple hours each morning and evening, but there were no ticks. No chiggers. Neither could survive the salt water we played in. Sea nettles might raise a stinging welt, but a little unseasoned Adolph’s meat tenderizer neutralized the venom. Camping on Wolf River was a different story.

In the piney woods, lurking in the straw covering the ground, there are chiggers. Nasty little borers that burrow into the layers of your skin and stay there. They create large itchy bumps wherever they make their home. Usually under the edges of your swim suit, t-shirt sleeves, shorts cuffs, waistband, shoe tops, or underwear. Um, everywhere. When I say itchy, I mean a miserable, never-ending claw fest. The chigger, though disgusting, isn’t the problem; scratching until the bite gets infected is. And though we swam constantly, fresh water has no effect on them.

Unfortunately, my Aunt who believes the only way to treat chiggers is to smother them out was there. It was the bad luck of nine kids for her to find a large bottle of  deep crimson nail polish in her bag. By the time she’d meticulously painted each bite we were poster children for what looked like some new, exotic, red-lesioned disease. Our families had no problem identifying us among the other children. We were the only ones covered in red spots you could see from across the river. Mama was humiliated. And furious. After all, she’d thought to bring a bottle of Chigger-Rid, the party partner of Deep Woods Off.

With no fingernail polish remover we were doomed to remain campsite freaks because nothing would scour it off. Mama even resorted to trying wet sand and a cloth. We all were rubbed raw and howling before she gave up. Still say Mama should have played outfield for the Detroit Tigers. Small she might be, but her wind-up? Impressive. We couldn’t even see that polish bottle anymore as it arced away. Just the splash where it went in, far, far, down the river.

Never mess with Mama’s kids without asking first. Had another spelling lesson. B-I-T-C-H.

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5 Responses

  1. Bwahahahahaha, thank you!! That was the greatest. Um, mostly because I’m NOT the outdoors type and camping to me is Hell on Earth. I don’t care if it’s on a beach or a campground…if it doesn’t involve a/c a real bed, and solid floors. I’m not going.

    I wondered what was up with the Chigger tweets!

  2. LOL I have a cousin who claims ‘roughing it’ is slow room service at the Hilton, so you’re not alone in your convictions!

    Don’t know if I’d willingly endure that kind of cold anymore (except for the aurora borealis!!), but I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything!

  3. A wonderful story that evoked many childhood memories since I was brought up on Fowl River. Mama swabbed our chigger bites with Camphor Phenique–a very stinky concoction. Thanks for the reminder. Rita VF

  4. My son slept under an oak tree as a scout and earned the nickname “Chig” as a result. i think camping is staying at a Motel 6 as opposed to the Marriott. Have had my share of camping in my life and I am so over it. I DO love your stories. Make me giggle! S

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