[Editor’s note: This is one of three Tyee excerpts from The Summer Book, a collection of essays by 24 B.C. writers – the perfect way to laze away a hazy August day. Enjoy! And thanks to Mother Tongue Publishing for permission.]
Late Friday afternoon, in the high heat of July, my dad rumbled down the driveway in his red Kenworth truck, his week of night shifts in the bush behind him, those long hours and miles of hauling logs over washboard gravel roads. He swung open the front door of the house and called up the stairs.
“Hurry up,” he said, “get ready, we’re going camping at the lake.”
As my mother brisked from fridge to cupboard to cooler, packing our sudden rations and loading up for a weekend away, she clucked her tongue, sighed, and shook her head over my dad’s decreed spontaneity for which he had little responsibility except to hook up the trailer and drive.
For the early years of my childhood, our family camping happened inside an oiled canvas cabin tent so awkward and heavy it took all four of us — my dad and mom each hefting one end, and brother and I with the wooden poles, ropes, and stakes — to carry it from the box of the pickup to the pitching site. But at the start of that summer I turned nine, my dad drove into the yard towing a fifth-wheel travel trailer.
“A house on wheels,” he said, and flung open the door, motioning for my mother to step inside for the grand tour. A narrow galley kitchen with a diner-style booth. A scratchy plaid hide-a-bed with sagging cushions. And up the four stairs carpeted in green shag rug, two narrow captain’s bunks with a nightstand between them. The colour scheme — rust and avocado — betrayed the second-hand trailer’s early 1970’s origins, but the bones of the RV were solid, my dad promised.
“What’s wrong with the tent?” my mother said. “I like the tent.”
But my dad insisted that this was a great deal, and besides, he’d already paid for it, cash, on the spot, no returns.
“It’ll be our family getaway,” he said. “Our home away from home.”
In the backseat with my brother, I counted telephone poles, tried not to ask again how long until we got there. My mother glanced again and again in the rearview mirror, eyeing the fifth-wheel that listed behind, as if it might unhitch around the curve in the road. Up the Yellowhead Highway, past the reserve with its low-roofed, plywood-sided houses, over the bridge, and down a gravel road flanked by fireweed and willows, we lurched.
Fraser Lake was just under an hour’s drive. Once a fur trading post in the early 1800s, the town hit the map as an official village in 1914 with the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The famous Last Spike was driven into the ground one mile east of Fort Fraser. But as my dad steered us toward our weekend trip, I wasn’t thinking about geography and history. I knew nothing of the ancient lava beds and the Red Rock Mountain volcano, of the thousand trumpeter swans that wintered on the Nautley River, or of the pictographs of the tribes who first walked the territory. With my dad at the wheel, our family focus was fixed: drive fast to claim the biggest campsite. With the windows rolled down and the local country station blaring classic hits, we headed into the glare of sun and billows of dust rising from a caravan of campers, trucks, and trailers heading for the lake.
We were a family escaping for a more spacious place, or at least, my dad’s version of it, a place where the party hooted all day and roared all night. He was happiest at the centre of the noise, calling for another round of drinks, another log on the fire. In our camping clan, my dad was among his own kind, never alone with his bottle of beer or cup of Crown Royal. At the lake, the Sunday church pew didn’t haunt him. No logging truck’s flat tire or monkey-wrenching called him away from his game of cards. He could sit by the fire however long he wanted to without my mother telling him he’d better go to bed. As soon as we turned off onto the narrow lane that zigzagged through the campground’s fir and pines, he grew light and loose at the wheel, tapping the dash to the beat of the radio’s song.
“Looks like the biggest one,” said my dad, as he backed the trailer into our spot.
The sites around filled with the usual crowd, the party growing raucous and larger. Our camping clan was comprised of my dad and three of his brothers—brothers who, like him, didn’t feel enough guilt to sit through a sermon. Along with their wives and kids, some fellow truckers and lumber mill friends, and a small group of families who’d immigrated from what was then Yugoslavia, a country shot through with civil strife, we formed our own lakeside crew.
For all the eagerness of leaving behind the daily rhythms of home, camp life quickly fell into a parallel and familiar pattern. The boys, a pack of them with slingshots in their pockets, wandered the network of trails that wound through the trees. The men unloaded firewood from the backs of pickups and broke out cases of beer. The women set to work recreating a sense of domestic order, wiping off the picnic tables and laying out communal trays of cookies, potato chips, and thermoses of juice. My dad made his rounds, going from trailer to camper to motorhome door, shooting the breeze and offering to pour a free drink from his brown-bagged whisky bottle to anyone who was thirsty. And when he grew restless, he called our names, told my mother to put down her dishcloth, and motioned for us to follow him.
“Let’s head down to the water,” he said, “and go for a ride on The Lady of the Lake.”
The Lady of the Lake belonged to his buddy Sparky. He’d spent years designing and crafting the 40-foot houseboat, and had used my dad’s shop as his work space. When he finally launched it, our family was there to watch him and his wife Viola, a tall, brassy-haired Swedish woman, smash a bottle of Baby Duck champagne on one of the bright red metal pontoons.
As we neared the water, we heard the unmistakable horn, a half-honk air-raid siren that cut through the light wind and carried across the lake. The Lady of the Lake was far from elegant, and looked less like a sleek vessel than a compact portable trailer bolted atop a barge. As the houseboat motored toward us, red and white and boxy, my dad grinned. He had never learned to swim, was fearful of the water, and yet, as soon as the boat reached shore, as soon as the bow gate swung open and the ramp lowered to welcome guests aboard, my dad grew jokey and bright. I felt it, too — that thrill at being lifted out of the ordinary and set adrift into possibility.
When I stood on the open front deck, I felt like a child movie star, waving at beachgoers on shore, thinking I am here, and you are there, I am going somewhere, and you are not. To the strangers we passed, my dad pulled off his ballcap and tipped it above his head like a captain’s hello. Up and down the lake we cruised with Sparky setting course and trading off with my dad at the wooden ship’s wheel.
With the sun angling down toward the horizon and gulls circling in the cirrus-streaked sky, the houseboat scraped to a stop on the shore of a small nameless island at the east end of the lake. There, Sparky tossed out a rope, and my dad looped it around a log. The men gathered driftwood, and over it, my dad poured gasoline from a jerry can, then tossed a lit match to spark a fast, high blaze. When the flames settled, the adults dragged lawn chairs and blocks of wood into a circle around the fire, and we kids took off to explore.
Away from the fire, I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pant cuffs to wade in the shallows. With a Styrofoam cup, I tried to scoop minnows that darted around my ankles, but every step lifted a murky cloud of silt and made it hard to see. Farther out, the water rippled black and revved with the engines of evening speedboaters jetting circles, going nowhere in the chop.
When I waded out of the water, little brown clots clustered around my ankles and dotted my calves. Specks of mud or lake slime splotches, I thought, and bent over to brush them off. As my fingers slid over the slickness of what clung, what wouldn’t come unstuck, what clearly wasn’t mud, I knew the truth.
I kicked, but they didn’t shake loose. I thrashed my arms and legs as I took off shrieking down the beach, but the leeches with their razor teeth held on. Before I could reach my mother and before Viola could grab a saltshaker from the houseboat galley, my dad stood up from his block of wood and, with a fluid single movement, tucked his cigarette to the side of his mouth and grabbed my arm.
“Hold still a minute,” he said. He reached into his left chest pocket, took out his lighter, and thumbed it to a tiny flame.
With one hand, despite my squirming, my dad anchored me, and with the other hand, brought the lighter close enough for me to feel the heat on my leg. I feared the worst — that like the girl in the fire safety film whose skin peeled away from her calves after falling in the flames, I’d burn, too, but my dad held the lighter steady. At its singe, the first leech shriveled, dropped to the rocks.
One by one, each leech shrank and fell away, and left behind a thin trickle of red at the site of its sucking. My dad thumbed away the blood and wiped it on his pant leg, and when my legs were clean and free of leeches, he turned me loose, went back to his stump, and rejoined the circle.
When we boarded the houseboat for the trip back across the lake, when we reached the campground shore and trailed back to the site and the company of campers roasting marshmallows and pouring more drinks, when I climbed the four shag steps to the upper bunk and my narrow captain’s bed with the old foam mattress, all I wanted was to go home. Across from me, my brother’s bed lay empty. Somewhere in the trees, well away from the watchful eyes of parents, he huddled in his sleeping bag, conspiring in the boys’ tent. All the day’s heat and sun had drained away from the forest and the lake, leaving the night air with a chill that threatened frost.
I slipped into my cold sleeping bag. Through the screen of the tiny sliding window, men’s voices poured forth laughter, and then fell to quiet, all of them listening to one man speak, until finally they roared back again with the joke’s punchline, the story’s next turn. All the while, the pull of the accordion droned through the talking, a low harmony that swung into a slow oompah-pah.
At home, every night beneath a hand-stitched patchwork quilt and wool comforter, my mother’s face would hover as she joined me in saying our bedtime prayer — Now I lay me down to sleep. With the final words — the plea for the Lord to take my soul if I should die before I wake, she touched her cheek to my forehead and pulled the covers to my chin — Amen — and slipped out the door, leaving it open a crack so that light from the kitchen shone in and the sounds of her clinking cutlery back into the drawer, dishes back into the cupboard made me know where I was in the world. But in the upper bunk of the fifth-wheel trailer, with the firelight flaring and waning and sparks popping into the darkness, no mother crept down the stairs, no shadow floated out the door.
One of the men — Aldo or Bruno or Mr. Petrović — started to sing. His baritone voice, clear and bright, rang out in a language I didn’t understand, and soon his fellow Croatians, who had come from so far away, leaving behind bloodshed and war, joined him in singing. When I pressed my face against the window screen, I saw my mother at the picnic table with the other wives, their backs to the flames and the men. In that circle around the fire, my dad hunched in a lawn chair, elbows on his knees, a cigarette hanging in one hand, a squat brown bottle in the other, his ballcap low to hide his eyes. Together the voices made a sound both sad and happy, full of hunger, soaked in wine, singing about a homeland left behind, the song drawing us in, taking us all away, through the darkness and over the waters.