No Happy Campers

Author’s Note: No Happy Campers is Part II and Conclusion of Telling Tales Out of School.

The truth is if you’re an eleven year-old school boy trying to “apply himself” for the very first time, the universe doesn’t always cooperate.

Take this situation on the evening of Tuesday, September 10, 1962. Blindsided by bad camping trip from www.camping-gear-outletSister Jean, nun and Sixth Grade teacher at Our Lady of the Pines Elementary with a very first day of school assignment:

    “What I Learned This Summer”  500 words. Due: This Friday

I’m sure I haven’t written five hundred total words since First Grade plus I can’t think of one thing I’ve learned since the last day of Fifth Grade. Not one. For three months, I have basked in the full glow of the “school is out/learning free” atmosphere. If I have learned one thing this summer — and that’s one of those great BIG ‘IF’s’ — it sure wasn’t my fault.

I’m stumped. Fully…totally …and completely

Forced by circumstance to apply myself scholastically for the first time ever, I am even not waiting until the last minute. Of course, I might as well get started early. I have nothing else to do after school these days. Just yesterday, I got my wings clipped. Again!

Back in July, Booger Wadsworth and I sneak into the backdoor of the Ashby Theatre along with some Washington High School kids we don’t even know. We finally get to watch Angie Dickinson in the ‘UY’ Rated (Unfit for Youth) movie, The Sins of Rachel Cade. Mom finally finds out yesterday from Booger’s mom and was not happy at all. It will be Christmas before I see another movie —or maybe even the light of day on a weekend. If you put my cumulative groundings together, I’m now grounded deep into the 1990s.


One solution to my immediate problem is to scoop what I learned during the Ashby Theatre escapade –– i.e. what Angie Dickinson and Peter Finch were doing on their knees in the African jungle.

Problem is, this is 1962, simple and prudish times.  Television is black and white. Automobiles have big tail fins. Ken and Barbie dolls are anatomically ambiguous. Parents tell their children “babies are come from heaven and are delivered by the stork” and adult people lose their minds over the zaniest things. For instance, about the only people on planet ‘1962 Earth’ allowed to utter the word “pregnant” are doctors and nurses….and then only if they whisper or spell it out: “Psst. Rachel Cade is p-r-e-g-n-a-n-t and u-n-w-e-d”. If I were to write about Peter Finch and Angie Dickinson, Sister Jean’s 1962 nun’s head would explode …and then she’d call Mom.


In the midst of that evening’s dilemma, Mom comes in to my room to witness what the grand spectacle of her son finally applying himself actually looks like. She immediately sees blank pages in my notebook and me staring into space.

“Having problems, Kiddo?”

“Applying yourself” ain’t easy, Mom. I’m wringing my brain out, but I can’t think of a thing I learned this summer. It’s not fair for Sister Jean to …”

“Well, Kiddo, you should have learned plenty. You’ve forgotten about The Great Campout already? How could you EVER forget how you and those other two stooges…”


My friends, Booger, Pee Wee and I get the idea for The Great Campout by watching Clint Eastwood on Rawhide on Friday night television. The show is all about this big-ass herd of longhorns Clint and his crew drive aimlessly throughout the West. The cattle drive is endless and the cowboys never do get all these cattle to any final destination. (It’s as if the whole pile of cowboys and cattle are homeless.) But every week on Rawhide, they camp out, sleep under the stars, cook over a campfire, eat hunks of meat stabbed on a stick, head-off stampeding cattle and have gun fights with rustlers. A bonus for Clint and his boys is they never have to set foot inside of grade school classroom either unless one of the longhorns happens to get lose and wanders into a schoolhouse that happens to get in their way. The outdoor life seems great and glorious and we want ‘in’, if only for a few days.

Pitching a tent. Foraging for food. Cooking over an open fire. Sleeping under the stars. That’s the life the three of us day-dream about through much of Fifth Grade, which is another the reason Sister Katherine calls Mom last year to complain about me not applying myself.

Now our dream of camping out would seem to be simple and straight-forward but Pee Wee, Booger and I are the ultimate city kids. We have no inkling about outdoor living…no natural outdoor skills…no talent for it at all. None of us has really seen any real wildlife except for a few free-range squirrels and a bunch of blue jays, who fly around like they own the air rights to the neighborhood.



Keeping all of that in mind, I write the following;


The Great Campout

(Or What I Learned This Summer)


William Cantrell, Sixth Grade (Sister Jean’s Class)


This summer, my two best friends, Booger Wadsworth and Pee Wee Higgins and I camped out for the first time ever. We went camping in a farmer’s pasture on the outskirts of Atlanta. This is what we learned.

I.  The first thing I learned is no matter what it says in the Boy Scout Manual, it is not humanly possible to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. If you’re going to attempt to start a fire using this stupid method, one stick better be a match…and the other stick better be soaked in “Regular Unleaded.” Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time, which was twelve hours after we pitched the tent. We didn’t get the camp fire started until way after dark.

II. On account of us taking so long to just light the campfire, Booger’s Uncle Harlow, who Booger’s Mom made come along in order to keep an eye on us, said we could forget foraging for food in the woods. Besides, he said, you never could tell what we might run up on in all those woods in the dark and that he certainly wasn’t going up in the woods with us. So then Harlow and Booger drove to Butch’s Drive–In to forage for hamburgers and fries, but only after we swore Harlow to secrecy about it because what would people think if they knew we were eating burgers from Butch’s when we were supposed to be eating off the land the way Clint Eastwood would do on Rawhide? (I wouldn’t even write about it now, but I need those words in order to get to 500.)

III. While we tried to light the fire, we also learned a lot of new cuss words from Harlow, but you probably don’t want to hear these new cuss words, you being a nun and all.

IV. Another thing me and Booger and Pee Wee learned is that bigger is not always better. By the time Booger and Harlow got back with the burgers, we’d ‘found’ some railroad ties on a nearby railway overpass. We threw a bunch of them on the fire and in no time flat we’d built this big honking bonfire you could probably see from outer space, which is the reason the Atlanta Fire Department later showed up. Another thing I learned is firemen know a lot of the same cuss words that Harlow knew, so maybe Harlow is not all that original anyway. Despite the fact the firemen cussed at us, we offered them some of the Butch’s Drive-in burgers and fries. Luckily, they said they’d already eaten because after all of that we were hungry enough to eat one of the farmer’s cows that was walking around the pasture like he owned the place which Harlow said the cow kind of  did.

V. How to know when food is done when cooking over a campfire is something my friends and I figured out too. The first thing to do is to stab the potato or hunk of meat with a sharp stick. Holding the stick in such a way the meat or potato hangs out over the fire, the raw food is done when the stick burns through and the food falls into the fire and ashes. Of course, you probably should invite Harlow along as he knows the way to Butch’s Drive-in, which is where you’ll now need to go again and get food that’s not burnt-up or have ashes on it.

VI. On the last night, we learned pine wood is a lousy for a camp fire. During the day we’d cut down a couple of big pine trees and threw them on the fire. What we didn’t know before is that pine bark pops right off the tree whenever it gets burning red hot. It pops a long way too, like maybe twelve or fifteen feet right on to our tent. Tent material, we learned, burns fast and really bright, which makes you think maybe tent material is what people should rub together instead of two sticks people when they are trying to start a fire but didn’t have sense enough to bring matches. Anyway, when the tent caught fire, it was really bright but not so bright that you could see it from space, though you could probably “see it from France” which is what the Atlanta Fire Department said when they came back the second time.

VII. We even learned things after the trip was mercifully over. One of the things Mom said she HOPED what I’d learned was “…my lesson” which was “…to never go camping –or maybe anywhere else — with Pee Wee and Booger as sidekicks, two idiots, who knew even less about the outdoors than I did.”


I received a grade of “B” on the paper although since I used Roman Numerals, it should have been an “A.” Two things in particular that get nuns all hot and bothered are good penmanship and Roman Numerals, both of which turn out to be not all that necessary in real life unless you grow up to be that “John Hancock guy” or unless you’re trying to figure out which Super Bowl is coming up. On the other hand, you can be dumb as a bag of hammers but if you have good penmanship and find a way to sneak Roman Numerals into your homework, nuns will sometimes let you get away with murder.

Mom told me that maybe, like The Great Camp Out itself, the ‘B’ grade might be a lesson in lowered expectations.

She also tells me that both she (and the Atlanta Fire Department) fervently pray “the camping out thing” as well as my infatuation with Angie Dickinson are phases I’m going through and that hopefully I’ll grow out of both rapidly like when I went through the bed wetting phase when I was five and six.

It was then I announce to her that in fact I’ll probably have a lot more adventures in the great outdoors in the future. Pee Wee, Booger and I have already started planning something bigger and other things we saw Clint Eastwood do on Rawhide. Next summer, we’re planning The Great Cattle Drive!



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6 thoughts on “No Happy Campers”

  1. Boy, that brings back memories. We were country boys, but the end results turned out pretty much the same for us. And I felt the same way about Angie Dickinson.

    1. Mark, I learned at an early age that camping out hardly ever turned out well. It was it’s own punishment. Maybe it was something we Catholics did for Lent. Also learned around that same time that Angie Dickinson was first in the hearts of many a young male Baby Boomer. Thanks for writing, Mark. Will

    1. Thanks for writing, Bill.
      Nickname was ‘Fingers’. OK, I know what you’re thinking dammnit. Nickname came not because of any ‘lifting proclivities’ but rather because ‘the kid’ (me) was playground MARBLES champion –every year. Will

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