I would imagine most people can recall where they were on their 21st birthday. Not necessarily the details, as alcohol in excessive amounts may have been in play, but, at least, a general idea.

I definitely remember mine – I was floating off the coast of California. I was still in Uncle Sam’s Yacht Club in July of 1973 – A Commissaryman on the USS Ranger (CVA-61).

We had returned from Viet Nam in June, and were back at our homeport of Alameda. I was working 8-hour shifts on the boat, and living with 4 other sailors in a house at 17th and Lincoln in the city, commuting over the Bay Bridge maybe 4 times a week. It was rough, but someone had to do it.

Knowing my 21st birthday was rapidly approaching, I put in for 3 days leave, as the Ranger was going to be out at sea for three days over my birthday. Nothing special, the Navy just had to get us out to sea every once in a while to make sure our lives were properly disrupted.

Military Chain-of-Command is an interesting thing. One starts at the lowest level and things either move up the chain or are stopped at any given level. My leave request was stopped at the first. Our Leading ChiefChief Tanzio – did not like me. In fact, he really disliked me. He didn’t like my attitude, he didn’t like that I knew how to get around rules, he didn’t like that I was good at any task I was given, and he really didn’t like that our Division Head a Warrant Officer named Mr. Damedid like me – for most of the aforementioned traits.

Chief Tanzio, knowing it was my 21st Birthday, refused my leave. I had no recourse. I was out at sea.

Fifty Years Ago.

Upon separation from the ship and active duty, this same Chief made me get a strict military haircut before he would sign my separation papers – but that’s a story for another time.

Fast-forward 50 years and we’re camping – at Devil’s Lake State Park in Oregon.

The local family up here does at least one family camping trip a season. Last year, it was over my brother’s birthday in August. We missed that one because of Covid. Victor caught it and then I did.  We weren’t quite past the CDC rules for engagement, so, we stayed home. This year, since my birthday fell on a Friday, it was the perfect date to go. Covid-free.

Camping. The Great Outdoors.

I did a lot of camping and hiking in my youth. When I lived at Tahoe, we went hiking and camping in the Desolation Wilderness, Fallen Leaf Lake, and all over Tahoe National Forest. I even camped atop Half Dome in Yosemite back when it was still allowed. The only time I was atop Half Dome.

But that was then and this is now. Osteoarthritis in knees and hips makes lots of walking less than really enjoyable. [I’m seeing the Orthopedist on August 2nd to work out a treatment plan.]

Victor, the East Coast Boy, had never been camping. He doesn’t quite grasp the logic of emptying out half of your house to go somewhere and sit and sleep outside. That’s what hotels are for. You need bring nothing but your credit card and a change of clothes and venture in-and-out of nature and luxury as you see fit.  Someone brings you food, you leave them a gratuity. Very civilized.

Instead, we have tents and cots – this old body ain’t sleeping on the ground, thankyouverymuch – sleeping bags and pillows, lanterns, coolers with beverages and food, bags with more groceries and snacks, And camp stoves and pots and pans and a sharp knife, a cutting board, plates and flatware, cups and glasses – for 17 adults and 2 toddlers and 4 dogs – not to mention the additional supplies, food, toys and sundry equipment toddlers and dogs require.

Granted, this is drive-up camping where you actually drive up to your site, pitch your tents, and there are flush toilets. But still, the amount of stuff you need to bring with you is mind-boggling!

And then there is the setup.

It’s amazing how much work one must do to relax. But relax, we did. And eat. And eat…

This is some gourmet camping, boys and girls! Our first night, our niece, Katie, made a 4-bean chili with kielbasa – just outstanding! There were pasta salads, green salads. I baked cookies for snacking and desserts – and then it was time to sing Happy Birthday!


My sister, Phoebe, baked the cake. Obviously, she knows me well! And it was delicious! I had more than two pieces!

It’s finally dark, fire is burning low, and time for the old people to get to bed. The 20-somethings and thirty-somethings stayed up, because that’s what 20-somethings and thirty-somethings do.

Into the tent, crawl into the sleeping bag atop out brand-new cots and…

Have you ever heard the story of The Princess and the Pea?!?

Well… let me tell you the story of the Queen and the Boulder.

The cot was extremely hard – properly rigid as a cot should be – but my light and soft sleeping bag just didn’t offer any cushioning. Lying on my side was hitting pressure points on my hips, radiating pain all the way down my legs. Lying on my back doesn’t work because of sleep apnea. I tossed, I turned, I cursed under my breath – the campground has a ‘Quiet Time’ after 10pm and I didn’t want to scare any wild animals – and stared at the ceiling for hours on end. Three Tylenol PM did no good, at all.

I dozed, fitfully, and finally got up when I heard movement outside. Coffee was perking. I had survived. Barely, but I survived. I was determined not to be cranky – even though I was feeling cranky. The gang started getting up and plans were being laid for cooking breakfast. Food can usually get me out of a cranky mood.

We had bacon and eggs and sausages and pancakes and melons and bagels and English muffins and mini donuts – I got a free dozen for my birthday and bought another three from a great little donut shop close to the house – Pip’s, if you’re in the neighborhood – and orange juice and… and… and…

We ate well. I was no longer feeling cranky.

Refreshed, Victor and I headed into town to buy air mattresses for the cots. No way could I do two nights in that pain.

First stop, Ace Hardware. They had ONE mattress for $54. Steep, but I would have taken out a second mortgage or sold one of the kids, if necessary. The store employee told us that there was a Bi-Mart down the road that would probably have a bigger selection and better prices. Bi-Mart is a membership discount department store in Oregon. Naturally, I have a membership, so off we went. We walked by the guns and ammo, camo clothing, fishing gear, groceries, beer, and pots and pans, and found the cots.

They had a great selection and we bought two mattresses for $12.99 each – and picked up a queen mattress for my nephew, Bill, whose mattress had sprung a leak. It was $20. Three for less than the price of one.

Armed with a battery-operated pump – of course, no one blows these things up manually –  we filled the mattresses. It was like sleeping on Grandma’s Feather Bed – not that my grandmother actually had a feather bed, but you get the idea. It was heavenly.

The rest of the day was total fun – sitting around, laughing and joking, chasing toddlers and dogs, and playing Remember When… There’s a 12-year gap between older brother and youngest sister, so it’s often fun to hear how different people remember different events – someone who was 5 definitely had a different experience than someone who was 17.

Chili dogs for lunch and burgers with all the fixin’s, potato salad, orzo salad, chips and dips, for dinner.

And then S’mores.

Nephew Bill was teaching his daughter how to make them and not fall into the fire pit. I had my obligatory one, but… they really don’t do much for me. And they’re a sticky mess – when made correctly.

Back to the tent and a blissful nights sleep.

Back up around 6:30am – early to bed, early to rise – and another huge breakfast. These folks really are professional campers.

And then the taking apart of all of those things we spent all of that time putting together. We have a 9’x10’x78″ pop-up tent. It takes one person about 90 seconds to put up. Really. It’s amazing.

And it takes about 5 minutes to take down because you have to fold it in such a way so it will fit back into its bag. But before doing the tent, we had to empty it out. Deflate the air mattresses and fold them up. Roll the sleeping bags and get them into their bags. Disassemble the cots – which really takes a lot of effort. Collapse the camping nightstand/table my brother gave me for my birthday. Pack the clothes, the lanterns… leftover food and beverages…

And then get it all into the car along with overflow from my sister. We learned tricks to make it all easier, more creature comforts, streamlining techniques…

Easy peasy.

And the final verdict?!?

We’ll do it again and again and again – even when it means showing up in our motorized wheelchairs and paying our aides to put everything up.

It was that much fun. And more.