There will be Hoot Owls

By Ken Bradbury

I think it is Newton’s 26th Law of the Universe or something like that. If you’re camping out with 30 young adolescents who are already homesick and who have never camped in the woods and are high on Mt. Dew anyway, there will be hoot owls. I’m sure it’s a law. Gotta be.

Back in my even dumber days when I began hosting summer youth camps, I thought it would be a dandy idea to borrow a dozen tents and put my young campers in the woods. After all, if you’re going to a camp, shouldn’t you camp? I should have asked the advice of older and wiser heads because I thought it would be a simple matter to do a little singing around a campfire, roast a few hotdogs, hold hands and pray, then go to bed. All of these agenda items were ticked off perfectly except for the going to bed. Kids who’ve never slept in a tent have a hard time sleeping in a tent. Heck, I’d never slept in a tent. What was I thinking?

My own tent-mate was a guy whose nasal passages roared like a Chevy S-10 with no muffler. I kept nudging him to turn over, but each new position caused his nostrils to downshift to a lower gearing, revving up the rpm’s with each shift. Not that it mattered, since I’d only taken a blanket to sleep upon and I found that no matter how you cleared the twigs, bumps, and rocks from under your tent, your sleeping surface will still resemble something from the torture exhibit at the Tower of London. Then add to that a steaming July night with absolutely no air moving around the Morgan County woods. Our goal that week was to show our campers the road to heaven, but this night was more closely resembling the cow path to hell.

I think it was nearly midnight when I heard the first knock on my tent. You’ve got to knock pretty hard on a canvas tent to be heard, but I was awake anyway due to the lumps under my blanket and the snow blower going full blast on the blanket beside me. “Mr. Bradbury, we think we heard something.” We were in the woods. It was a summer night. We heard a great many things. “What was it?” A gulp, then, “It sounded like a ghost.” At this point a camp counselor comes up with whatever lie will put them back in their tent. “That’s the train. It always sounds like that.” They looked at me with such pleading eyes that I felt a bit guilty in that the only train track was ten miles away. Then a few minutes later another tap-tap-tap on my tent. “Mr. Bradbury, we have to go to the bathroom.” The “we” consisted of five seventh-grade girls. I had no inclination to wee with this we. “The shower house is right over that hill. They have restrooms.” Another gulp, then, “Would you go with us?” Oh geesh. In preparation for our first Green Pastures camp I’d planned out the camp schedule, designed the meals, bought the fishing worms, and plotted out the Bible verses, but I’d made no contingency for escorting young ladies to the restrooms in the middle of the night. I grabbed my flashlight and headed off over the hill, perhaps only thirty yards, but a very long thirty yards with five pair of hands clutching my shirt.

After safely returning the gals to their tent with promise that if they’d go to sleep then they’d awake to the smell of bacon and eggs in the morning, I decided that sleeping in my own tent would be impossible. I crawled out of the tent, stepped quietly to the door of my car, opened the door with the least light leakage possible, rolled down the windows, and reclined the seat. This wasn’t going to be a comfortable night in the front seat of my Pontiac Fiero, but at least I’d not be sleeping atop a bed of nails beside a buzz saw.

I think it may have been around dawn when I awoke to find that the entire sky was filled with lint. At least that’s what I thought when I opened my eyes to find three blankets covering my windshield. Sometime during the night three of my young charges had decided that their tent was too hot for sleeping and had spread their blankets onto the hood of my car to get some air and some needed sleep. They’d not noticed that the camp manager was sleeping inside the car. Several possibilities ran through my mind … turn on the windshield wipers, start the engine, or simply blast the horn. Instead, I opted for quietly exited the car and starting breakfast. There are few more idyllic sights than three little girls spread out on the hood of a Pontiac.

When the campers rose to shower and eat breakfast, one of my camp staff mentioned that he’d heard hoot owls. I told him he was wrong. It was a train.

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