Putting on the Big Boots

Growing up under the stars

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An afternoon rain shower put an end to field work one warm day in early June. Delmer and the neighbor boys grabbed the opportunity to patrol the shelter belt for deer trails and broods of young pheasants. Not yet 10, the three enjoyed their frequent treks through the trees on the farm.

At the edge of the woods, they crawled up on a five-foot boulder and sat, surveying the woods around them.

“Hey, we should camp out down here. That would be so cool!” Delmer jumped down and pulled a dead branch away from the rock. The others joined in and soon cleared a perfect place for a campsite.

The next night, the red wagon bounced over the path through the trees. Three boys took turns pulling and walking alongside the wagon to keep the contents from toppling. A big paper sack filled with their mothers’ food offerings hovered on top of three army blankets and the big green tarp. Excited about their first night under the stars, they reached the big rock in record time. All that work getting to the campsite made them hungry, so they decided to eat first, celebrating their first taste of independence with cookies and Kool Aid.

Rod scanned the lower tree branches. “We can hang the tarp over that one.”

Darkness settled in as they unfolded the heavy canvas and tried tossing it over the branch. Randy was about to crawl up the tree when a volley of thunder rumbled in the west. Lightning flashed. Shadows fluttered eerily as the tree tops bent in the wind.

With the loaded wagon jostling behind them, the youngsters made it back to the front yard just as the storm let loose.

A year later, the boys ventured back to the woods for another overnight adventure. They set up the makeshift tent. Grommets on the edges of the tarp allowed them to tie the edges together. Though wide gaps remained, they were proud of their handiwork.

“At least there won’t be a storm tonight.” Randy gazed at the round moon, peeking through the leaves.

“Yeah, nothing’s gonna make us go home. We’ll make it all night this time.” Delmer helped himself to another bologna sandwich. Stories and laughter blended with the night sounds of the forest. The air grew damp and cold. Warm blankets beckoned from their tent and soon sleep won.

Suddenly Delmer jerked awake. A pungent odor hovered in the air, overpowering his senses. “Hey, you guys, wake up! There must be a skunk out there!” The three struggled to tie the openings more securely, but holes still gaped at the bottom.

Visions of being trapped in a tent with a wild-tailed skunk danced through their heads. “Let’s run home,” Delmer voiced their common consensus. “The tent and stuff will be okay until morning.”

The next year Delmer drove the pickup to the approach south of the grove, a different place to camp. Here the cottonwood and ash stood taller, older. There were open spaces where dead trees had fallen.

Three near-teens carried a tarp, blankets, cooler, a wire grate, Mom’s cast iron skillet and tools from under the pickup seat. Soon, the tarp was draped over a branch. Strong wire fastened the openings shut at both ends.

They gathered branches and short logs, and soon, flames flickered in the darkness. Wood popped and tiny sparks flew as the fire warmed the night. When they got hungry, they pounded wood stakes around the fire to hold the grate. As flames subsided, the campers cooked supper. Hamburger sizzled in the frypan. When it was browned, they added two cans of pork and beans. Someone chanted “Beans, beans, the musical fruit…” Another glanced at the tarp and suggested that they might want to undo the wire closings.

The boys agreed that their cooking was the best they ever tasted. What was left of supper remained in the frypan on the grate as they talked into the wee hours of the morning. Embers still glowed as they sighed happily and crept into their shelter.

At the first streak of dawn, three tired campers emerged. They stopped short at the sight before them. The campsite had been trashed! Stakes leaned. The grate protruded from the ashes. A perfectly clean skillet sat just in front of the tent. Probable culprits flashed through each young man’s mind.

Three years. Three boys. They grew and matured, prepared to take on the next stage of their lives with a growing sense of independence. It all began as a tiny spark, fanned and nurtured under the South Dakota stars.

Kruempel’s newest book, Once Upon a Midwest Sunset, as well as her 5-book series, Promises to Keep, are available on Amazon.com. Once Upon a Midwest Sunset (an excellent gift of memories) is a compilation of the stories from her NOOKS AND CRANNIES column, which was published in five newspapers in 2020-21. Contact her at deannkruempelauthor@gmail.com

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