The Little Pipsqueak

© 2012-2014 Matthew Templar
Thanks again to RCN for his editing wizardry. It makes for a smoother read.

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

This story is copyrighted by Matthew Templar, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.

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Chapter Sixty

"Hi, Mrs. Carlton. This is Tim McGill. Your son and two of mine ..."

"Oh, heavens! Tim McGill, of course! It's so nice to hear your voice. Little Raymond talks non-stop about your boys. It was quite an adventure, after all. We're so thankful that it came out alright. How are your boys doing after that ordeal, may I ask?"

"Yes, you may, and please call me Tim. My boys are doing just fine. In fact, we're getting a gang of men and boys together for a camping trip this Monday that should last about three or four days. I'm calling first, to invite your husband and, of course, your son. Second, we're getting together tomorrow night to do the planning. You know, see who has what equipment. Kinda like a ..."

"Um, Tim? I hate to interrupt but my son and my husband are, um, out of town through next week. They're, well, they're on their own outing, as it were. I didn't want you to have to explain so much only to find out they can't go. Please excuse the interruption."

I was more concerned about the change in her voice than I was for the intrusion. If I didn't know better, I'd say she was on the verge of tears.

"Oh, I see. Well, I hope they're having the time of their lives. Is it a men's vacation, kind of like we've planned for our outing?"

"Um, yes, I guess you could say that. Yes, they are on their own, um, outing, as it were. Another adventure, you could call it. He he."

That was about the worst try at a laugh than I'd heard in a very long time.

"Well, have Ray call the boys when he gets back and he can come over and use our pool. It's just a three foot deep above ground but it's very refreshing on hot days, like now."

"Oh, how nice of you. Yes, I'll certainly have him call. They should return ..."

At that instant, it sounded like it was all she could do to hold back an all-out cry. What was going on?

"Really, they will be gone all next week but will, hopefully, be back by the middle of the week following. But thank you for the invitation. Like I said, Ray enjoyed your boys so much. Now, if you'll excuse me, I, um, I have to, um, to do some things before bed. Thank you again, Tim."

"You're welcome, Mrs. Carl ..." I started, but I was talking to dial tone before I finished my sentence.

I just hoped everything was going to be alright, whatever 'everything' was.

By the end of the evening, most of the men had accepted the invitation to the planning meeting the next night. I'd given in and invited them to plan on hotdogs and hamburgers, but to a person, they wanted to meet after dinner. Fine with me. Much less worry.

When we all got together, the kids went off somewhere, along with Ralph and Tyler, who seemed to get along well, even if Tyler kind of clung to the young man and seemed in awe of Ralph's self-esteem and command of the boys.

"Pop, can I stay and listen?" asked Elliot.

"Sure, Elliot, but I'm sure it's going to be somewhat boring. Wouldn't you rather be with the guys, and Enrique?"

I couldn't believe that I was dangling Enrique in front of my son.

"Yeah, Elliot. Let's go for a walk or something," offered Enrique.

"Good going, Tim," said Dan with a smirk, after they left.

I also looked over at Enrique's father, Matias, only his look wasn't a smirk. It was one of concern. He must have felt as I did that, if we didn't already, we would soon have our hands full keeping those two boys hormones in check.

What a great and, in some ways, surprising group of men and their boys we'd collected. Besides my three boys and me, we had Lenny, Dan and his three, Ralph, Melvin and Denver; Dan's brother, Bill, and his son, Connor; Matias and his two, Enrique and his older brother, Jose; of course Tyler and Joshua; George Curtain and his two boys, Stewart and Liam; and Ted Pendergrass and Brad. Devon and his clan couldn't make it on such short notice and Ray and his dad were off on their own, doing something. Dan also invited Sheriff Norton, whose first name I finally found out was Dale, but he said he was too busy to get away during the week at that time.

I was really looking forward to getting to know more about several of the dads, like Ted, George, Matias, and Dan's brother, Bill, plus a few of the kids that I didn't know yet.

The result of the planning meeting was to leave early on Monday and return that Thursday afternoon. Lenny told us of a place he was told about that wasn't totally roughing it. It had bathrooms and showers and regular campsites. He was going to call and make reservations which seemed like a long shot, right in the middle of the summer season.

One thing that put me on edge a bit was that everyone agreed that we needed one of us to be in charge, over all. Not the boss, just a reference if there was a particular decision to be made. And, without any discussion, someone mentioned my name and all the men, except me, yelled their 'yes.'

"But ..." I started, sounding pretty lame, I'll admit.

"No buts, Sarge," Lenny piped up, interrupting my plea for leniency. "You're the man with the know-how. Heck, you've commanded troops in a war zone."

There were lots of yeahs and alrights.

"Wait a minute. First off, so have you, Sergeant, I might add. Second, Dan has quite a bit of experience leading his troops, third, if you all recall, it's Coach Pendergrass who has lots of experience wrangling young boys into a team, and fourth, I certainly hope we don't need my training in fighting the enemy while we're camping with the boys."

The guys all blew off my first three reasons and laughed at my 'fourth' reason.

"Yeah, well, you never know, McGill," spouted Curtain.

"So it's settled," Lenny said and they went to discussing the food preparation as I sat there with my mouth hanging open.

Each of us had a list of food to bring, along with personal cutlery and mess kits. A couple of the guys had cooking pots and stoves. Since we weren't planning to hike into a campsite we were able to have more equipment than if we had to travel light. Still, no one mentioned having a travel trailer or RV.

After the meeting, and when everyone had gone home, I talked to the boys about what was decided and that we really did have some things to pick up.

"Pop, isn't Karen coming? She'd fit right in, wouldn't she?" asked Jeffy, smiling through a nice rosy blush.

"You're kidding, right? You're not serious. He can't be serious, Pop. I can't believe this," stated Elliot while he looked at his brother as if he were an alien.

"Whaddya mean? I just asked if she ..."

"Yeah, well, that's just it, isn't it?" said Elliot, shaking his head. "She's a she and this trip is only for guys. He's. Get it?"

"Okay, okay, guys. Take it easy. He obviously didn't connect with that part of the planning."

"Wait. So she can't come because ... ? Oh, I get it now," said Jeffy.

AJ was busy swinging his head back and forth between the two boys, taking their exchange in as best he could, as Elliot tried to explain the difference between Karen and the rest of us. Luckily, it didn't involve any anatomical descriptions.

"Yeah, yeah, okay. I get it now. Brother!" said Jeffy.

Elliot was still in disbelief. "Sometimes, Pop, I just don't believe it."

Our shopping trip was really a lot of fun. We took Joshua with us as neither he nor Jeb had any camping gear of any value.

"Now see here, you whippersnapper. I got me some gear alright. Joshua, you take Tim here down to the cellar and go over to the far corner where the basement doesn't go all the way back. See, Tim, it was never completely dug out in that corner. Anyway, there should be some things stacked up on that dirt ledge. Go on, go on, now."

We walked down the steps into the dark and forbidding basement. The kids hadn't been down there before. I didn't even know it existed. Our house didn't have a basement.

"Oh, yeah," explained Joshua, "Sir, you would not believe how many cobwebs I removed in order to even get down the steps. Luckily there hasn't been much reason to go down there. There isn't really much down there on that side of the basement."

Three boys were hanging around at the top of the stairs as Joshua and I went ahead. Elliot finally came down as did Jeffy. But ...

"Ew. It looks really creepy, Dad," said AJ. "Um, Great Grampa, could you tell me that story about when you were in the Navy, again, please?"

"That's the Seabees, AJ, and I wouldn't go down there either. Now, just come over ta yonder and you, Lewis and I can commence commencin' on that story."

I'm sure I could hear AJ sigh in relief.

It didn't take long to find out what Jeb had stored down there. It was all very neat, just very dusty. Jeffy saw a big duffle bag-sized canvas carrying bag that looked plenty large enough to have a tent in it.

"Oh, Jeffy, don't touch it. It could have anything on it and they're all bad for you," fired off Elliot as Jeffy grabbed the canvas package.

"Oh, it won't kill ya, except by worrying about it, El."

Then Jeffy pulled back his hand, covered with dust and cobwebs and, looking at Elliot with a sinister smile on his noggin, moved his fingers up toward his mouth as he licked his lips.

"Don't even go there, Jeffy," gasped Elliot. "That's just disgusting."

Jeffy had a good laugh until Elliot grabbed his wrist and tried to push Jeffy's hand into his mouth. That caused Jeffy to stumble back and, in so doing, grabbed what he could to stay upright. What he grabbed was the canvas bag with what I guessed had the tent in it and it just about disintegrated in his grip. As he fell onto his butt, a swarm of spiders came rushing out of the new opening and just as quickly as they appeared, they disappeared again up and over the edge of the failing bag and back into the darkness.

Jeffy slowly opened his hand with part of the bag in it and several spiders started to crawl down his wrist and onto his arm.

"EW! Yuck, yuck, yuck!" cried Jeffy as he quickly jumped to his feet and violently shook his whole arm to rid him of the pests.

"Oh, quit! You're slinging them all over us too!" shouted Elliot.

I'd stepped back a bit and was watching, trying my hardest to quit laughing. It was a rather creepy sight, but seemed pretty harmless.

"Everything okay down there? You boys find the skeletons I buried down there yet? Ha ha ha!" laughed Jeb from the top of the stairs.

"I've had enough, Pop. If there's anything down here it's gonna be in the same shape, isn't it?"

"Too true, Elliot. Let's go on up."

"Fine with me. I'm outa here!" said Jeffy as he rose up and started toward the steps.

"Jeffy, brush yourself off before you go up," Joshua said taking a few swings at Jeffy's backside to help him out.

"What? Are there still spiders on me? Gross!" he exclaimed trying to brush away everything and anything attached to him. He was twisting and turning, trying to see every part of him.

"No, but your butt is covered in dirt and dust. I don't think your great grampa would appreciate your spreading it all around his newly redecorated living room," I told him.

Elliot and I helped too and made sure all the dirt and dust was off Jeffy before we all went up.

The kids spent the next few minutes describing in vivid detail their terrifying experience in the vast darkness below ground level.

AJ never did close his mouth but, for some reason, Lewis thought it was the funniest thing. He'd listen in awe and then start to laugh at nothing, really. He was so funny.

"Well, there you go. Told ya it's been a while since any of that was used. Yup, before the boy took off for the service, nigh onto ... hm-m-m, well, years ago," Jeb told us ending with a smile and a little sniffle at the memory.

So, at good old Walmart we bought a nice-sized, six-man tent, six sleeping bags, two powerful lanterns, mess kits and several foam pads to spread under the sleeping bags. We waited to buy the provisions I'd signed up to bring.

The weekend seemed to take forever to pass. Time was at a standstill. Helping the boys pack for their first trip of more than just an overnight somewhere was quite an experience.

"I don't think you'll need your dress pants, AJ, but maybe an extra pair of shorts," I told my youngest, trying not to chuckle. "Maybe even some underwear and socks."

I'd gotten the three boys athletic bags big enough for a few days travel. They could also use them if they decided to take up a sport at school. Checking on AJ's job of packing was amusing. Then again, I can remember forgetting things I'd need the times I'd packed to go somewhere.

"I'm coming in to check on your packing, boys," I told Elliot and Jeffy.

"Pop, El's making fun of me because he's folding everything so perfectly and I'm just layin' stuff in my bag."

"Elliot, you need to be a little tolerant of your brother. You do have the skill and desire to keep all your clothes neat and tidy. Not too many boys your age care as much about their clothes as you do."

"I know, Pop. It's just that, see?" he said, when Jeffy stuffed a t-shirt into his bag. "It isn't even folded. I swear he just got it off the floor and jammed it in his bag."

"Yeah, well, it's not like we're gonna have a fashion show or anything. Right, Pop?"

"And how can he tell his dirty clothes from his clean ones?" Elliot continued, pointing to several piles on the floor.

"Jeffy, he is right about that. You need to keep your clothes off the floor and separated between dirty and clean clothes. You have a dresser and a hamper to help you. You'd do well to take note of the way Elliot treats his clothes. That way you'd be far less likely to lose clothes. What are you looking for?"

"My blue t-shirt. It's my favorite."

AJ came and stood in the doorway to the other boys' room.

"We have to wait a whole 'nother day to get to Monday, huh? We could just go today and save time."

"That would be nice but we have plenty to do today. You boys need to be very attentive to your nephew. You won't see him for four days after we leave."

My boys didn't seem to ever need to be reminded to pay attention to Lewis. He was such a little character that it was rare for him to not be the center of everything. But they were even great about changing him and bathing him. It was another in a list of many reasons that I was very proud of my sons.

"Okay, who's going to pack for Lewis? He needs some clothes and toys to take to Linda Sue's house for the next four days."

"Oh, oh, I can, I can! I'm good at packin' stuff," shouted AJ, trying to hold up his overstuffed athletic bag with both hands.

"I didn't get him a bag so I guess we need to use some shopping bags for him."

All three boys stopped what they were doing and descended on my room and Lewis' dresser, in which we kept most of his things.

"Pop, if we pack up all his toys today, what will he play with until tomorrow?" asked Jeffy.

"Good point, son. Let's wait on the toys and be sure that each of you has something set aside to wear tomorrow, too. Also, I doubt that he'll need every toy he owns. We'd need a truck to haul everything."

I had Lewis in my arms and he couldn't have looked more interested in all the excitement over things he knew were his.

"I'm gonna miss the little guy, Pop," offered Jeffy, poking Lewis in the tummy.

"Me too, Pop. This will be the first time without him for so long."

"I agree, boys, but I still think it's for the best."

Believe me, it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. When we arrived at Linda Sue's house, she was right there to be with Lewis as much as possible. It wasn't too early in the morning. The boys had slept in until eight and got Lewis up when they came down. We'd packed the truck the night before. The back was totally full of equipment and our bags of clothes and other necessary items for our four-day trip.

Lewis seemed excited to see Linda Sue and Tyler. He held out his pudgy arms to Linda Sue when she reached for him and he was all smiles. After a minute of being tickled and laughing Lewis strained around Linda Sue to find Tyler. Then Tyler got to hold him for a few minutes while we brought in everything we'd packed for Lewis' stay. AJ insisted that we bring his walker 'because it had all those neat toys all over it that Lewis liked so well,' according to AJ.

Finally, it was time to say our goodbyes. I didn't know if it was a good thing to make much of our leaving him or to slip away while they were in the other room. Somehow, the later seemed devious, so we all gave him a kiss and a hug and he watched us all walk out the door and close it.

It would be four days before I found out how he reacted to us leaving. One good thing was that Karen drove up as we were driving away. Lewis loved his Karen. The distraction would be wonderful. Still I wasn't looking forward to a graduate who looked me in the eye and asked why his only blood relative, his grampa, abandoned him for so long that one time.

Okay, I could have been obsessing some.

The drive took us to a part of the state that I hadn't been to before. A range of green-covered mountains angled off to the south of us and gently rose into the most spectacular scenery. All of my boys were glued to the windows. The most they'd seen was city life and hard buildings that didn't inspire as did those majestic hills that we wound our way onto.

"Wow, Dad, this is really neat. It's like a whole new country or something. Everything is so different," AJ told us.

The other two boys quickly agreed with him and made their own comments about the beauty before them in their own way. It made me think again about how they had learned to appreciate so many beautiful things in nature that we tend to take for granted, after their kidnappings only weeks before.

The camp was located just off a secondary road on a beautiful wooded hillside. The problem was that the camp wasn't kept up at all. Actually, it looked like little had been done to maintain it for several years.

As we drove up the potted paved road to the camp site, past a sign at the turn off that looked like a strong wind would make kindling out of it, there was something about the place that didn't sit right with me. While I didn't necessarily expect a well-groomed, five-star park, I did expect some care to have been taken, especially during the height of the summer season.

What I saw was mostly an overgrown roadway with lots of mud holes. The few places that weren't overgrown looked like they'd been butchered. It wasn't selective or designed, just whacked away several feet from the road. It gave the effect of not just a bad haircut, but a splotchy job at best. It looked like a half-baked effort to restore the place, but not very recently.

We drove up to a small parking area next to the first building we came to. An old sign over the door welcomed us.

Shady Haven Campgrounds - Rest a Spell with Us

When Lenny and I got to the office to sign us all in an overly plump woman in a dirty house dress came to the counter with a fork in her hand. We evidently interrupted her lunch.

The moment she saw us she looked over her shoulder and yelled, "They's here, Wilbur. Git yer butt out here and sign 'em up."

Then she gave us a condescending smile and turned around and walked away to finish her lunch, I suspect.

Wilbur was a middle-aged, thin man in ill-fitting overalls, slippers on his feet and a square of paper towel tucked into the top of the bib overalls, acting like a bib. His hair was rather long and unkempt. Overall, he personified the total look and feel of the campground we were about to stay in for four days.

"Y'all are most welcome to Shady Haven. Please sign up right here on this piece o' card paper and then I'll show ya your spots. I think I talked with one o' you boys about three sites, but, out of the kindness in this here heart o' mine, I'm a givin' ya'all four sites for the price o' three."

I thought that was awfully generous of the man, until later when I found out why.

We each signed a registration card and paid for the first two nights.

We wandered down the road that evidently ran around half of the campground with each site taking off from there. There was another circle and set of sites that made up the other half. It was actually a pretty big place. The individual sites were much like any other campground that had a driveway and a picnic table. There was even a rusty old wood fire grill by each table.

To say the place was a mess was an understatement. I quickly realized why it was so easy to get reservations and why he gave us the extra spot. No one else was there that we could see.

As the man, Wilbur, wished us well and walked away, I had to ask, "Lenny, was the person that told you about this place a very good friend? I ask because I wasn't really looking forward to roughing it."

"Well, it is a lot greener than Iraq ever was. There's a water spout across the road, well, trail, from our camp sites." He only winced a little as he tried to keep a much more positive attitude than I had right then.

"Yeah, well, let's go check out the showers and rest rooms before we get everything unpacked," I told him as we walked back to drive our vehicles and the restless kids to our sites.

I was ready to apologize for the place we'd found ourselves stuck with. After all, no other campground would have any room if we left to seek one out. But before I could share my disappointment with the rest of the troops, I experienced a lot of their feelings just by observing and listening.

"I'll have to say, Tim, if my Kaye were here, she'd either have those folks by the neck until they were committed to cleaning this place up pronto, or we'd be out of here so fast there'd be a new road, straight as an arrow all the way to the city." George couldn't stop laughing as he took in the whole place from the vantage point of our sites.

All the boys, for the most part, were walking around the sites that were ours and looking at each old table and each rusted out fire grill. Their talk was animated and their smiles were glorious and didn't stop as they inspected every corner of our sites.

I say 'for the most part'. One exception was Tyler, always an interesting subject to keep one's eye on. As I looked at his reaction to the place I couldn't help but wonder if there were any thoughts in his mind about being on the farm. His initial reaction was of awe as he slowly turned around where he stood in the driveway that ran down the middle of one of the sites. My worries were laid to rest when Ralph walked up to him, laid his hand on Tyler's shoulder and, waving his arm as if to indicate the whole area, began a dialog that had them both smiling. I wish I had walked closer so I could hear what was going on, but I got sidetracked.

"Pop, are we really gonna stay in this ... this hole?" asked Elliot, my little clean-freak. "It's like a nightmare. I'm not sure what I can or can't touch. Some of it is really ... ew-w-w-w."

"Awe, quitcher worrying, bro," said the older of his two siblings. "This isn't like a hotel or anything. It's campin'. It's supposed ta be dirty and stuff. You'll get used to it."

Jeffy was in a good mood as were Dan's boys that were right by him.

During his wandering around, AJ finally stood still, leaned back, spread his arms as wide as he could and announced, "This place is neat! We're really campin', huh, Dad?"

His smile was infectious as usual and all of the kids joined him and were high-fiving and agreeing with him.

Good grief! A whole camp filled with little pipsqueaks!

"Looks like you're outvoted, McGill. I think the boys are up for staying," laughed George Curtain.

"Si, Senor Tim. I think they like what they see."

"Sarge, you old stick-in-the-mud. Hah! This is going to be great," assured a boisterous Lenny as he slapped me on the back. "Loosen up. No bullets flying over our heads, no bombs bursting yards away. What could possibly go wrong? Huh?"

"Okay, I suppose we can start unloading and setting up our sites. Maybe we can ask for some pruners so we have room for our tents, though."

"More like a chain saw," laughed Dan as he left to carry a cooler to one of the picnic tables.

As the men all started to unload their gear, I looked up and couldn't see any of the kids, all of a sudden.

"BOYS?" I shouted.

Down the road I heard the sound of running feet and breathless boys showed up a few seconds later. They all stood at the end of the driveway to our site and waited, breathing hard, still smiling happily.

"Boys, our families have been involved in some really heavy duty experiences of late and I want us to be able to relax and enjoy our stay as much as we can. To do that I'm afraid I need you to be aware of some boundaries."

I got nods from everyone and my talking brought the other adults over to listen in.

"Okay, first rule, no one goes anywhere without permission from one of the adults. That does not include Ralph or Tyler as adults this time, simply because they don't need to have the responsibility for you guys. I'm sure Ralph will enjoy a break. Oh, that includes Joshua as well. He needs a vacation too."

"Um, sir, um, Tim, does that mean we don't need to tell you where we're going or that the kids can't tell us, like they do the adults, where they're going?" asked Ralph.

He and Tyler were standing next to each other at the tailgate of Dan's SUV, with their arms full of sleeping bags. Joshua was over by my truck digging in the back.

"It means you don't have to be adults this trip. But I think it's all of our responsibility to tell someone if we take off, okay? Adults or kids."

I saw a lot of nods, agreeing with me.

"Let's see, rule two, always go with at least one other, and preferably two other boys no matter where you go, please."

"Even the bathroom, Pop?" asked Jeffy.

"Even the bathroom, Jeffy. Of course, any adult can go with you as well."

His eyes went wide and his cheeks lit up until he saw all the adults smiling at him.

"Agreed, men?" I barked.

Another bunch of nods. So far I was doing okay with the authority that was handed me. It wasn't a thing like telling the troops rules in the desert. In some ways, this was even more serious than even Iraq. My men over there were a trained fighting force whose very survival depended on each of us making informed decisions immediately, based on what we had learned.

But my 'troops' that weekend consisted of a bunch of kids that generally had very little concept of roughing it in the woods, even as civilized as a campsite with bathrooms and showers was or should have been.

"We'll talk about meals and bedtimes as we go. One other thing, this is not just your vacation, boys. We all want to have a good time, right?" I asked them.

More nods.

"Then each of us has to do their share to make it a nice time for kids and adults. Whaddya say?"

No groaning. I was thankful for that. And the kids immediately started to hold their arms out to grab something handed to them.

After most of the equipment and supplies were set up in their respective places, a few of us decided to check out the showers and toilets.

The shower and restroom facilities, from the outside, didn't appear to be as rundown as the rest of the place. You can't do too much damage to concrete bricks and cement floors. The plumbing seemed to be in good shape even if the place smelled like it hadn't been cleaned in some time.

"Oh my golly gosh, Pop, do we really have to do our thing in here?" asked Mr. Clean, Elliot.

That time, however, I couldn't blame him and silently wished Kaye was there to go after the owners to clean up the place.

"Lenny! Front and center, soldier!" I shouted as seriously as I could muster.

"What are you goin' on about, Sarge? You havin' flashbacks?"

"You're going with me to talk to Wilbur about cleaning up the latrine. I don't blame anyone for not wanting to go in there. Just washing their hands could be cause for a widespread epidemic of catastrophic proportions."

"Oh, brother. Come on, then," he said, leading the way up the road.

When we got to the office building, Wilbur was out front, trying to figure out how to repair the broken handle on a metal rake, with the stick in one hand and the tines in his other. Being a bit perturbed at him and the campgrounds, I couldn't believe the rake had ever been used enough to be broken.

"Hey there, gents. Excuse me. I was just tryin' ta fix this here rake. Seems the wife ran over it on her way to the spa a few week ago."

'Spa?' I thought.

Lenny and I exchanged the same look of surprise, trying to visualize ... We even shook our heads at the same time to get that picture out of our minds.

"What can I do for you men? You just ask and it's yours, sure as shootin'," he assured us with a big grin.

"Um," I started, but Lenny butted in.

"Wilbur, I can't imagine that you would want us to use the restrooms and showers as they are."

"I don't? Um, why ...?"

"Do you suppose that someone forgot to give them a scrub down the last time you had guests here?

"Um, let's see," said Wilbur. Then he actually looked up, his mind twirling to think of something important until finally, his hand came up and he started to count his fingers with his other hand - twice. "Um, well, I mighta forgot some. See, it's real hard ta get help up here, this bein' so far from town and all."

"Well, we would love to be able to come back to enjoy your hospitality again, Wilbur, but it isn't going to happen with that building in the shape it's in. It's really putrid."

"Um, it's what? Pew ... what?"

"It really stinks, Wilbur," I interjected before he could hurt himself processing more information.

"Oh, that. Well, I'll just go get the pressure washer and some o' this here formula that they sold me with it. It'll clean it up 'til it's a sparkling like the night sky," he said with a proud smile on his face.

"Thank you, Wilbur. I'm sure it'll look great. But remember, we've got kids that need to go soon, so-o-o ..." Lenny said, extending the word so Wilbur could finish the thought.

"I'm on it! I'm on it. Don't you boys fret none," he said as he turned and started to walk around the building, talking to himself while he looked like he was patting himself down. "Now, let's see. What did I do with the keys to the shed?"

We were both rolling our eyes when he'd turned the corner, but, to our amazement, after about fifteen minutes, we heard a power washer rev up and run for several minutes. It was even coming from the direction of the facilities, thankfully.

When it turned off, we waited several minutes, then Lenny and Elliot ran over to check things out.

"Actually, it cleaned up real good. And, with any luck, the smell of bleach and cleanser should be gone in several weeks," Lenny said, laughing like he always did.

Elliot had a satisfied grin on his face. I was beginning to think bleach was his favorite fragrance.

And, a few minutes after that, "Da-ad, the toilet paper in that place is soaking wet!"

It didn't take long to resolve the TP debacle. I sent Jeffy and Elliot running up to the office and almost all the boys followed them. Soon they came back with two plastic wrapped packages of dozens of rolls of the desperately required fibers.

"So, does it meet with your approval, Elliot," I asked as he came walking back from supervising the proper placement of the rolls.

He blushed a bit and ensured me that everything looked fine. A little wet, but fine.

The sun was being particularly friendly to us as the temperature continued to rise. All the boys helped place tents and load up each with sleeping bags according to who was sleeping where. The only real question of residency was where Enrique and Elliot would lay their heads.

"There's plenty of room for you in our tent, Elliot," I offered.

"Yes, but I thought Enrique and I could ..."

"You are most invited to join with your brother and me, Enrique. Elliot is also welcome, of course," said Matias, Enrique's father.

"Si, Papa, gracias, but we thought ..." ventured Enrique, timidly and with a nice rosy complexion.

"The idea, boys, was to stay in family units at night, after a campfire. You'll have all day, at least waking hours, to be together. Isn't that enough?" I thought that plan was better than making sure that their sleeping bags wouldn't zip together.

They were a little upset but seemed to quickly set it aside when someone suggested doing an exploration of the place before we started dinner.

An interesting comradery seemed to develop very quickly with the group of kids in that they all seemed to go places and follow each other as a herd instead of individuals or even as couples, well, except one couple, and even they went with everyone else, for the most part. And, believe me, I don't call them a herd lightly. There was nothing light about how they moved the earth as they all moved around, and never unless it was at a dead run, it seemed.

Another nice thing was their acceptance, no, more like devotion to Ralph and Joshua and to some extent Tyler, who was still quite a follower. The boys would ask them to go with them most of the time. So, seeing that pack touring the campsite was like a mob scene.

Their discoveries included a small lake that had plenty of room for a few fish hooks, according to our young experts and a sign saying that it had been stocked, though no indication of what year that was.

"Dad, they got a river and we can fish! Can we, can we?" AJ asked, jumping up and down as he held onto my arm.

The boys around him were almost as excited as he was.

I hadn't seen any of the guys unload fishing equipment so I wondered if Wilbur had any.

A few minutes later, I found out.

"Well now, we've got purty nice sets that we rent to our guests. I could let you have several and I'll even give you a discount on account a' you being so understandin' and all. You know, about the facilities down yonder and all."

"And I suppose you'd be willing to sell us some bait as well?" I said with a bit of sarcasm in my voice; something that went totally over the man's head.

"Darned if'n I don't have just the thing," he said smiling as he came up with two jars of eggs and a small container from the refrigerator. "You'll need to try both. Sometimes they bite those eggs like they's starvin' and sometimes they want these little worms. Never can tell."

It took him a while to get four fishing rods untangled. Those and a tackle box with hooks and extra line were part of the package he offered me. With the bait, we were set.

"Okay, guys, I want you all to make sure that everything is set up in your tents so we don't have to trip over everyone and everything in the dark when it's bedtime. When your dads say you're set, we can discuss the fishing."

While that did cause some groans, they were pretty good about scurrying off to their sleeping areas. My three got their new sleeping bags laid out after we decided on the sleeping arrangements. I laid mine out next to AJ's and Jeffy and Elliot spread theirs out so our feet would almost touch in the center. We had a really bright lantern that I hung near the center of the tent that would light up everything very well. I'd also bought one for outside the tent, battery operated, so it could be used if someone had to trek out to relieve themselves in the middle of the night.

We also made room in our tent for Joshua and Tyler, since they didn't really have a home family. My boys were thrilled to have them with us. Enrique was only a bit jealous of Joshua and discussed with Elliot the consequences of any hanky-panky with Joshua.

The boys ended up being too excited to take up fishing that first afternoon. It was also suggested by one of the men who had dipped a hook and sinker on several occasions that we wait until the morning or just at sundown. I suppose that was when fish do their searching for their breakfast and dinner. That plan was fine with me. There was too much to organize to add something like fishing lessons for eleven new fishermen.

The kids' day was spent going from one end of the camp to the other, in search of ... practically everything one could find in the woods. Actually, it was so great to let them take off, knowing they were well taken care of by their good buddies, the three younger adults, four if you counted Bill's son, Connor, who was Dan's nephew, so they could explore almost anywhere they wanted.

By the time we got around to dinner, they were all dragging.

After a dinner of camper's stew, which the kids all loved because they pretty much got to decide what went into their aluminum foil 'package', with a few suggestions from the adults that knew the result of such things gone bad, like very little moisture, and after we all cleaned up our own mess kits, we sat by the fire and talked and joked. It was the personification of the stereotypical male bonding time and it couldn't have been better.

One of the things that I was happy to suggest was introducing the rest of the crew to Dan's and his boys' 'Numbers Game' check-in time, minus the white board, of course. But, since no one else was privy to the concept, Dan suggested that someone explain the rules first.

"Oh, can I! Can I!" shouted both AJ and Denver, waving their hands over their heads to get anyone's attention.

Dan was the one in charge of this time so he told AJ to tell the troops when we first learned about it and then asked Denver to explain how we all go about accomplishing the task.

"Okay, so way back when I first came to be with Dad, well, we didn't get along too good sometimes," he told the group while looking at me a bit shyly.

I smiled and raised my eyebrows and pointed to me, then him, which made him smile really big.

"Anyway, so Dad called Dan and we went over there and that's when we found out about all these guys living there that he was dad to, well, foster dad. We spent the day there and I had a great time making new friends like I never, ever had before."

As he said that he leaned over and wrapped his arm around Denver and they both couldn't hold in their smiles. As usual, they were infectious and soon everyone was smiling.

"And right before we left Dan asked us to stay and do this part where we tell how our day went."

"Ooh, ooh, now me?" asked Denver of his dad.

Dan nodded and Denver proceeded to explain the exercise.

"See, every night, before we get ready for bed and before Dad says what's gonna happen tomorrow, I mean, the next day, we all say how our day went and then we give our day a number. It's supposed to be between one and ten."

He stopped and sat back a bit.

Then Dan encouraged him to go further. "You're doing great, big guy. But tell them why we do that."

Denver had to think for just a minute until we could see the light come on when he thought of a way to explain.

"Oh, so, we do it so that we all have ta be open to each other. Like, if we didn't we'd never talk about stuff botherin' us or not want to talk to each other 'bout important stuff. Right?" he asked, looking at his dad.

"Very good, Denver," Dan told him, rubbing his youngest ward's shoulder. "We all know how important communication is in any relationship. This has always been a way to keep those channels open between all of our family. Since it's almost fun and non-threatening, everyone gets to say their piece without anyone else adding to it. That's called 'crosstalk' and it isn't allowed in this case, so everyone feels free to open up at least once a day."

The memories of that first night came flooding back to me, almost engulfing me with a mix of emotions and pride that my little guy and I had come so far. I reached out and stroked AJ's back and got a huge and happy grin from my son in return.

"At home we used to write our names and the numbers on a board so we remembered what the week before was like," explained Melvin. "But we don't have one here. But we have lots more people to do it now. It'll be so cool!"

"So, who's first?"

It was quickly decided that Dan's crew would start since they were the 'experts' at the numbers game. (Check out Chapter Nine to read about the first time we learn of this.)

We were mostly still in family groups, made easier by whose family we sat next to. You must imagine that we'd never have gotten away with Enrique's family sitting all the way across the campfire from our family. And we had to promise a few times that we could rearrange who sat next to who the other nights so all the kids could sit by their friends as well as their dad's.

I think that was one of the interesting serendipities about our whole group, that everyone got along together, but mostly that each family got along okay as well. Like, I was dying to know what caused the permanent smiles on the Pendergrass's faces. But to a man, each dad seemed to be in tune with his offspring in a very pleasing way, though different in how they went about it in many ways. The kids gave up high numbers and the adults were a bit more conservative, but still sounded very pleased with the experience up to that point, that is until we got to the two Pendergrass men.

"Can I, Dad, can I?" asked Brad, getting a little excited and a little bouncy sitting on the ground between his dad's legs. If you remember, one of those legs was still in a cast.

"Oh, I suppose. It sure is a good reason to have a high number, isn't it, Son?"

"Ye-ah!" said Brad, sitting up a bit more, ready to expound on the reason for his happiness. "So, some of you guys know what Dad and I have been doing, well, what we've been kinda goin' through and how it changed when Dad broke his leg. Well, not because he broke it, but ..."

His dad was chuckling a bit as he tried to help the boy. "I think they all remember the change we made that day, huh, Son?"

"Ye-ah! Okay, so, anyway, we wanted more than anything to have my mom come back and live with us again. So, Dad started taking some classes or something, to be a better dad and husband I guess?" he asked, looking up at his dad.

"Well, mostly therapy, but the outcome was the same, yes."

"Ye-ah! So, anyway, Dad finally asked Mom like last week and guess what?"

He looked around with the biggest smile as he pushed back and held onto his dad's legs, waiting for someone to guess.

"What? Tell us, Brad," said AJ, himself sitting up, fired by Brad's excitement.

"Okay, well, Mom said yes, she'd come back. And guess what, when we get back from this trip she's gonna move back in to try us out for a while. But I know it's gonna be for like always, isn't it, Dad?" he finished looking up at his smiling father.

"Well, I certainly hope so. We've all worked hard for this to happen. I'm really encouraged that it happened so quickly, too."

"So, what's your number, Brad? Ya gotta say!" Denver, the authority on the numbers, told him.

"Um, well, if it only goes up to ten then it has to be a ten, but it could get a whole lot higher than that if I could make it do that."

"Yeah!" AJ said. "Ralph did that once and then so did I. It was great! You can too, Brad!"

The men eventually got around to talking to Ted and congratulating him on his efforts to put his family back together. He kept saying how nice it was to see a smiling Brad so much of the time. It was really an encouragement.

Everyone talked about what a great time they were having and looked forward to the rest of the time with us all.

It was going to be a very interesting four days.

Our next experience was getting out the makings for s'mores.

It started out with the kids finding their own sticks to roast the marshmallows. They brought them to us oldsters and we would whittle their ends to points. The sticks, not the kids. Then we had the safety talk about no sword fights. Actually, the kids were very well behaved. I did threaten once to take away Jeffy's if he didn't calm down.

To a boy, I don't think any of them had ever had the gooey treat. To a man, I don't think any of the dad's had thought about the nightmare of having to help clean up their gooey boys afterward.

"How far away is that lake?" asked George. "We could just throw ..."

"NO!" came the chorus of boys. Then they all, as one, did a shiver to show how cold that would be, before they all traipsed to the restrooms to wash their hands and faces.

Everyone finally got tired enough to call it a night. Besides, our lanterns were bringing out some bugs. The men stayed up a bit to do the 'men talk' thing but we couldn't hold out for too long and separated to find our way to our nylon abodes.

I think my three sons were staying awake to attack me because as I slipped into the tent quietly, so as not to wake my little angels, the three pipsqueaks jumped up, pulled me down and started to hug and kiss me like the crazy kids they were. It was glorious.

"Hey! Quit yer racket over there, McGills," shouted George. "Do I have to come over there and separate you four, no, six youngsters?"

"Oops," said AJ. "We just wanted to show you a thank you for how much fun we were havin' already."

"Yeah, Pop."

"Well, thank you, boys. You have no idea how much that meant to me. I look forward to a lot more attacks in the future."

And so passed the morning and the night of the first day, and it was good.

"Pop, Pop! Did you hear that?" asked Jeffy, obviously concerned.

It was very, very late the first night and all of our troops had bedded down hours before, when most of my tent's occupants were awakened by a very noisy vehicle making its way through the paths to their campsite, I assumed. Whoever either couldn't find their spot or weren't satisfied because they drove around the whole circle twice, their lights shining into our tent for sure, all of the other tents too, no doubt. The sounds and reflections died off as the vehicle evidently found their spot at the other end of the next circle of campsites. We didn't hear them after that.

"Sh-h-h. Of course, I heard it, Jeffy. Now, try to go back to sleep."

"But, Pop, what if they're like terrorists or, or a gang that go around murdering campers in their sleep?"

He was getting a little extreme and I certainly didn't want him to excite AJ, or anyone for that matter, though I didn't think AJ was awoken by the noise or our talking. But my logical boy came through and put the worrying to an end.

"Yeah? What if they're a bunch of nuns just wanting to go camping and had to wait until after evening prayer or something before they could leave the monastery, Worrywart?"

I could hear Joshua snickering and then whispering as he must have been explaining what was happening to Tyler.

"That's usually a convent, Elliot, but thank you for putting a welcome perspective on the situation."

"Yeah, El, thanks," said Jeffy, sounding no less satisfied with his brother's new take on the event.

Things finally seemed to settle down, until ...

"What if the nuns have machetes?"

"Jeffy!" Elliot and I both said in unison.

End of Chapter Sixty

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