My children, Joy and Bob, have an especially fond memory of one of the most miserable, unhappy times of their lives. I had the good sense to document it with a photo that has become one of their and my favorite shots of all time. This story just goes to show that what any of us may think of as a simply awful time can turn out to be a point of pride—or at least a good laugh—repeatedly, over succeeding years.
We lived in Ohio at the time. We had begun tent camping a year or so earlier and good memories of camping trips were increasingly common points of discussion.
This particular story took place around the time of the US bicentennial in 1976 as we camped in southeastern Ohio. I don’t recall whether it was before or after July 4 that year, but Joy’s T-shirt that read, “Happy Birthday America,” served as an approximate date stamp.
Bob, Joy, their mother, and I crawled into our sleeping bags the night before and quieted down for a good night’s sleep. Shortly after midnight, we were awakened by loud thunder and flashes of lightning that gave off a soft green glow inside our canvas tent. Within minutes large drops of rain began to pelt the tent as high winds rattled the sides of the tent. The rain intensified.
Each of us lay there commenting on the heavy downpour and accompanying storm. Soon our comments turned to each of us beginning to feel wetness in various parts of our sleeping bags. The rain seeped in or up, or both, and our sleeping bags served as effective wicks to soak up the water.
The thunderstorm brought chilly temperatures that did not jive with our idea of idyllic Ohio summer evenings. It was getting downright cold.
None of us slept as a steady rain continued for several hours. We got wetter and colder as each hour passed. The tones of our voices began to take on a decidedly less amused tenor. We were all tired, getting more irritable with each other for a time, but we soon realized that complaining was going to do us little good.
As the wee hours passed, we began to talk about how nice it would be to pack up and head home in the morning. The car would be warm and dry. We would stop for a hot breakfast on the way. We would take hot showers and put on clean clothes when we got home. We could get some sleep before lunch and go to bed early the next evening. Just thinking about these creature comforts in the midst of our cold and wet predawn hours made us feel better, made us more civil to each other.
The rain stopped a while before dawn and each of us dozed a bit in our soaked sleeping bags. We awoke with the dappled sun shining on the side of the tent, and the presence of the sun made us feel warmer almost instantly. Our clothes were reasonably dry in our overnight bags.
As we began to pack up and prepare to leave, Joy and Bob became cranky again from the fatigue and frustration of the night. Sensing the importance of this unique moment, I asked them to stand in front of our tent for a picture. They usually smiled easily for pictures, but not this time. They had had it.
Bob and Joy as unhappy campers in southeastern Ohio – 1976.
Bob’s stare was intense, with no sign of pleasantness. He placed his hands on his hips, just above his twisted orange shorts, and he was in no mood for small talk. He had mud smeared up his right leg to his knee. His left heel pressed a piece of stray paper into the mud.
Joy looked like she was about to explode with her eyes bugged out and her mouth, chin, and neck strained to the quiver stage. She had developed a fever blister on her upper lip overnight, probably provoked by stress and fatigue. She appeared in no mood for celebrating anything, including our country’s birthday. The final image of deprivation was the empty tissue box by her left foot.
Taken together, these two children looked like refugees. Tired, hungry, frazzled, and dejected. Their picture showed evidence of the most frustrating, fatiguing night of their lives.
In the intervening years since, long after their misery passed, the sight of that picture makes us laugh. Every time. This picture is now among the most treasured pictures from their childhoods.
Of the thousands of pictures I have taken in my adult life, this may well be my favorite. It marks a moment when their character was tested, a moment of departure from their generally pampered childhoods. A moment preceding greater tests to come.