2007.06.20 The tent over the clothesline

Written by David Green.


A few minutes ago I noticed the sheets were still on the clothesline and darkness was coming on. I went out and removed a couple clothespins and brought the loose corner of the sheet across my shoulder and it hit me right away.

Instantly I was transported to the back yard of my childhood home on Cawley Road where a blanket had been strung across the clothesline for a tent.

It’s amazing how smell can work like that. And somehow it seems amazing that a flannel sheet hanging from a clothesline in 2007 would smell exactly the same as a blanket in the night air in, say, 1957.

Sure, why wouldn’t it? Well, why should it? Hasn’t anything changed in 50 years? Should it really smell just like it did then?

Here’s how I remember our back yard camping experiences. We never had a tent. We weren’t a camping family. I don’t think there were a lot of camping families back then.

The first step was to obtain an old blanket to toss over the line. I think it came from the garage or the car. Not a good blanket, that’s for sure.

We’d toss it over and then get rocks from around the big buckeye tree. That’s what we called it. It was actually a horse chestnut tree and it was huge. An incredible specimen. We were told the seed from which that tree grew came from Henry Clay’s estate in Lexington, Ky. We drove by the place last year and I, of course, I thought about horse chestnuts.

I thought about collecting them and throwing them in the fire of burning leaves along the curb in the fall. Now there’s something that can make you say, “Gee whillikers, I was lucky to be alive back then, back when you could rake leaves to the street and burn them. Roast some marshmallows, listen to horse chestnuts blow up.”

As I was saying, the big old horse chestnut tree in our back yard was surrounded by a ring of fossil-laden rocks not quite three feet high. There was dirt in the middle where pansies were grown, but the rocks served as the perfect tent peg to hold down the corners and sides of the blanket to make a tent.

A typical night would go like this. My brother Dan and I would go out to bed when it got dark. The mosquitoes would bother us. We’d spray the area with Off and try to go to sleep.

Suddenly, our father would rush the tent making some ungodly noise and either it was all over with right then—back to bed in the house—or else we’d last a couple of hours unable to sleep with the hard ground and the night noises and the mosquitoes and everything.

In time, tent design improved. We would add a blanket on the ends to keep the mosquitoes at bay. We acquired sleeping bags. But I still had trouble sleeping out there. I’d last the night but go inside in the morning exhausted and thoroughly bored from lying awake.

Over the years, I stopped doing this and it was my younger brother, Tom, who would sleep out with Dan or maybe the Leitner boys. By then it was my turn to go out and scare the bejeebers out of them.

Dan once had a night that probably made him think about the “Twilight Zone” show on television. He went to sleep alone in the clothesline tent and woke up in the back seat of our car in the garage. He was still in his sleeping bag.

He went inside the house and asked our parents who moved him to the car. Nobody had. He didn’t return to the tent that night.

Since those back yard days, there have been so many wonderful and so many miserable nights outside. Camping along Lake Michigan, along the Pacific Ocean, on an island in Lake Michigan, on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. In a burned out house, on a park picnic table, with a visit from a mother bear, in a field of slugs, suffocating under a shirt to keep the mosquitoes away, collapsing a tent in the middle of the night to prevent the storm from destroying it.

Thinking about those experiences, I feel overdue for a night out. We have a clothesline. We have blankets and even a few of those fossil-filled rocks.

Just don’t tip off my father.

    – June 20, 2007 
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