A while back, a good friend asked: What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me?
This isn't one of those easy questions, like: “Have you ever shot an elephant?” Spending six decades on this planet is just bound to give anyone plenty of scope to make a complete fool of themselves. Plus I'm something of a klutz, and all too often blind to the most obvious hints. You can see, then, that it might be difficult to select just one example from so many.
So very, very many ...
At least with this classy crowd, who demand something more than a cheap laugh, I can exclude any anecdotes which are of a more personal nature. (Although, for a small sum, I might make them available to a select clientele.)
And to be honest, I couldn't vouch for what follows as the most embarrassing incident of my life. There's a good chance I've mercifully forgotten the best candidates for this dishonor. Let's just say that for one reason or another, this incident was marginally more memorable. Forgive me if it takes a bit of prosing to work around to it.
I got my first pair of glasses when I was 12 years old, but I was understandably reluctant to wear them back in the days when “Four-Eyes” was a familiar taunt for my age group and “Geek Chic” wasn't trendy. It didn't help at all when the mother of my friend next door told me those clunky horn rims made me look distinguished. I know she was only trying to get me past feeling so dorky, but at twelve, the last thing I wanted was to look “distinguished” -- which my Adultspeak translator instantly rendered as “nerd”. So I resisted wearing the things, unless I absolutely had to.
The summer after ninth grade, my two older brothers and I took a road trip out west. We three boys planned to spend a month making a grand tour up through the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, then down to the desert Southwest and finally to Yosemite, where the highlight of our trip would be to spend a week back-packing.
Quite the itinerary, considering we had to wedge all our gear and food and three back-pack frames into my eldest brother's red 1968 VW Bug
Our trip got off to a less than promising start: My brothers were determined to drive as far north as they could that first day. Which meant spending almost an hour in a traffic jam, on a sultry evening in early June, downwind of the Chicago Stockyards. We eventually fetched up at a campground somewhere in lower Wisconsin around ten that night. Utterly exhausted, we just tossed our sleeping bags on the ground and immediately crashed.
It was a warm night; none of us got inside our bags. I was awakened maybe half an hour later, by the realization I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Meanwhile, my brothers were staging an impromptu slapstick routine as they got in each other's way while struggling to put up the pup tent. Pitching your tent for the first time, by flashlight, as you're harassed by a voracious swarm of tiny but extremely determined winged bloodsuckers, is not conducive to haste. It's a miracle no one hammered a stake through their foot.
But we got the tent, with its blessed mosquito netting, erected eventually, piled in and zipped up the fly. Isolating us with only a couple dozen or so of the pests, who continued to annoy us throughout that night. But at least it kept the blood loss down to only a pint or two. I'll pass over what it was like to share an old-style two man backpacking tent with my two older brothers that first night. We were all slender, wiry guys in those days, but still ...
Being too young to have a driver's license, I was relegated to the rear seat, while my brothers spelled each other at the wheel. Sharing the back of that VW with a pile of camping paraphernalia, I spent a considerable amount of road time during that trip sitting with my knees bumping against the back of the driver's seat. Or I could lie down in a position somewhat similar to a Mercury astronaut in his space capsule -- with even less available leg room. Thankfully, I was still a few inches short of my adult height. And had brought along some paperbacks.
You can imagine what a joy this was, traveling through the desert in an un-airconditioned Beetle. With the rear heater vent stuck open. At least it was a dry heat ...
To make our money last, we car-camped and did our own cooking. My eldest brother, Cliff -- who had made a similar trip a couple of years previous -- was in charge of the menu. He had two basic meals: For breakfast, invariably, rice boiled with dried apricots, with a spoonful or two of molasses on top, and for dinner (far too frequently, in my opinion) Kraft Mac and Cheese, with a can of tuna fish mixed in. In fairness to the cook, the instant tuna mac casserole was more of a fallback supper while traveling, and not, like the rice and apricots, a daily affair. But we hadn't room for an ice chest, which naturally limits one's culinary choices a bit.
I remember one such sybaritic repast in particular, served up as night was falling after a long day's drive, at a lonely roadside campsite somewhere out on the plains. A chill wind gusting from the north sucked the heat out of this revolting mess within seconds after it was ladled onto our tin plates. Certainly before I could sit down and shovel a single fork-full into my mouth. Believe me, you haven't lived until you've dined on a plateful of gelid, congealed mac and cheese and canned tuna chunks, as a stiff breeze -- apparently unobstructed in its descent from the polar regions by anything loftier than a shrub or two -- freshens your complexion.
I was never a big fan of canned tuna even before we went on this trip; after all these years, the very thought of it still makes my gorge rise. But I was too hungry at the time to care all that much. None of us gained weight on this vacation.
Lest I leave the wrong impression here, despite my dwelling on some of the less enjoyable aspects of the trip, the truth is we all had a blast.
Still, looking back, I'm always astonished at what tough little bastards we were. But the real outdoorsman of the bunch was my older brother, Harlin, affectionately nicknamed “The Varmint” when he was but a young sprout. He was a throwback, born too late to be a long hunter or a mountain man, and a few decades too soon to host one of those survival-in-the-wild TV shows. While Cliff and I (grudgingly) shared the pup tent, Harlin preferred to sleep in the out-of-doors, with a canvas tarp for cover if the weather turned inclement. Like when we woke one morning in Yellowstone to find everything shrouded in six inches of wet snow.
That was the day we decided to pack up our gear and head for the desert.
Skipping ahead with my story, we arrived at Yosemite in the middle of the afternoon. Our route along the eastern Rockies and then down through the desert Southwest had been a revelation to a kid raised among the comparatively puny woods and hills and hollows of Middle Tennessee. But Yosemite was something else again: Half Dome; Angel Falls; Tuolumne Meadows brilliant with wildflowers; looking up from the floor of the valley and seeing the dizzying illusion that makes those those impossibly high, sheer walls of granite appear to be perpetually toppling toward you against a fixed background of clouds. Words are feeble things, though, when confronted with the scale and transcendent beauty of this place.
Our plan was to stay at a campground for a few days, hiking and sight-seeing around the park, then shoulder our packs and head off into the back country. But the first thing to do, as always, was to set up camp. My assignment was to collect the fuel for our campfire. So off I went into the woods behind the campsite and began gathering up sticks.
This seems the appropriate place to mention that from the time we hit Yellowstone, at every park the rangers had given us the lecture about not having food or empty wrappers or soft drink cans in the tent or around the campsite, and cautioned us to hang our food properly at night. This advice had been given added emphasis by the fact that two campers had been killed by grizzlies so far that spring, in two different parks. Needless to say, we followed those instructions to the letter. So you can see that that bears were very much on my mind.
I'd been scrounging firewood for a while, since the pickings were rather slim this close to the campground, when I heard a noise behind me. I spun around, and saw my first bear close up.
Well, okay, the bear -- a cinnamon bear, probably a juvenile, who was merely standing on top of a fallen pine tree, eyeing me curiously -- was maybe ten or fifteen yards away, so it wasn't that close. But being in the woods, alone, after all those warnings from the rangers and the gruesome stories of people being eaten alive, as far as I was concerned it was a ten foot tall, half-ton grizzly reared up on his hind legs, all set to give me the Benihana treatment.
I dropped the sticks and took off through a stand of saplings, no doubt leaving one rather perplexed bear wondering what the hell was my problem. The one small bit of solace I can take from this textbook example of panicked scarpering (besides not having to change my underwear afterward) is that at least I had it together enough to hope the close-grown saplings I was dodging around might slow down this rampaging terror I was sure was at my heels.
Of course the bear didn't follow me. When I dared to look back, it was nowhere to be seen. I gathered up the tattered remnants of my courage along with another armload of firewood, and headed back to our campsite.
But this was not my most embarrassing moment of that day.
Back at the campsite, I learned that shortly after I went off to find firewood, the bear had paid Cliff a visit while he was unpacking the car. He turned around to find the critter attempting to enter the VW by way of the passenger window, no doubt to get at our food. I don't know how he made it desist, but obviously this was neither a very fierce nor a very large animal.
It didn't so much as scratch the paint or put a rip in the upholstery. But it wasn't finished with us, yet.
Not to put too fine a point to it, after returning to the campsite, I found I needed to emulate that proverbial bear in the woods. I soon discovered the restroom for our section of the campground was closed for repairs. So I had to walk, at a somewhat brisker pace, over to the next campground.
Remember how I was reluctant to wear my glasses? I'm fairly certain I had them on when I was in the woods and met the bear. And I doubt that I would have let that stunning scenery pass by all out of focus. But vanity prompted me to take them off while I was walking through the campground. You know: in case I met a cute girl.
Having locating some functional facilities, I was on my way back to our campsite when I walked past a small crowd standing by the roadside. Some of them seemed to be looking at something across the road, but all I could see was the fuzzy outlines of trash bins, although one of the bins appeared overly full.
So I stepped on by, down the middle of the road. After I'd strolled past, an incredulous bystander demanded, “Didn't you see the bear?”
And this, ladies and gentlebeings, was my memorably mortifying moment. That same damned cinnamon bear was there, dumpster diving, with only its furry hindquarters visible above the rim of the bin. And I had walked right past it.
Shortly thereafter, my brothers appeared on the scene; Harlin took the initiative and drove the bear away by shouting and pelting it with clods of dirt. Yes, this was one fearsome creature.
However, it did achieve a certain measure of revenge. After we'd eaten supper and hung the food from a high branch on the big pine in the center of the campsite, we retired for the night -- Cliff and I to the tent, and Harlin to his sleeping bag and tarp, which he had placed beneath the tree, on the cushiony mat of shed needles.
I was drifting off to sleep, when there came an urgent whisper from outside: “Cliff! Henry! Wake up!”
Cliff mumbled, groggily, “What do you want?”
“The bear's back.” After sleepily pondering this development for a few seconds, our eldest brother delivered this sage bit of advice: “Well, leave him alone.”
We were such a caring family.
Next morning, Harlin informed us the bear had snuffled around the campsite while Cliff and I were snoring away in the tent, then climbed the tree from which we'd suspended our food. That is, the very same tall pine he'd chosen to sleep under. (Which, in retrospect, may not have been the smartest thing to do.)
Not wanting to draw attention to himself, Harlin did his best to imitate an inanimate object while our nocturnal visitor clawed its way up the pine. But we'd chosen our limb well, high enough up so the cache dangled well out of its reach, from above and below. So the bear eventually gave up.
According to Harlin, he experienced some tense moments right then, during this frustrated thief's descent. All my brother could think of was how accurate he'd been a few hours previously, lobbing those hard, gravel-studded clods of dirt at it -- and wonder whether the beast might be cherishing a grudge. He could all too easily imagine it making vengeful promises to itself as it scrabbled back down the tree.
Fortunately for him, the bear merely wandered away in search of an easier meal, and that was our last encounter with the creature.