Dr. Wife, MD, was pulling an all-nighter at the hospital on Friday, so I decided to pack up the Mercedes and take the kids and dog on a car camping adventure in the Pisgah National Forest. We get kind of a late start, and grab a bite to eat at a hot dog stand along the way, so by the time we pull up to our campsite, the sun is already setting. To the left of us is a giant RV, with a satellite dish standing outside it (ah, nothing like enjoying the great outdoors). To our right, buffered by a small pine grove, is a condo-sized tent, larger than my old Manhattan apartment. Only seconds after we step out of the wagon, six barefoot kids race through the pine grove, and swarm us. I can’t tell if they’re cousins, or if they’re brothers and sisters (or both at the same time). About a minute later, their dad saunters through, all 300 pounds of him, wearing a beaten-up Star Trek t-shirt. We make our introductions. (We’ll call him Jed.) “I see you’re from Vermont,” Jed says (more of an accusation than observation).
“Well, we just moved to the area,” I say back. He circles around the car. (Let’s just say that a Mercedes, even one that’s rusted and 23 years old, is not the car of choice among the folks who live in these here hills.) At least four of his kids are now inside it, and my four-year-old son is screaming because he’s just been punched in the eye by Jed’s two-year-old daughter. Jed notices the grease tank in back of the wagon.
“What you put in that tank?” he asks.
“Uh, vegetable oil,” I say.
“I was afraid a that,” he says.
I grab the tent and carry it over to the tent pad, where I start unfolding the poles.
“You camp much, Greg?”
I tell him that Dr. Wife, MD., and I backpacked through these parts when we thru-hiked the Appalachian trail a decade ago.
“Back then, I used to spend a lot of time in these woods,” he says. “I’d disappear, and nobody’d see me for days on end. I might be standing two feet away when you’re hiking, or I might be two miles. You’d never know it, though.” He said. By this time, the dog won’t leave my side, because he’s more afraid of Jed’s kids than my son, who has now been socked a second time, on the same eye, by the same closed fist from the same two-year-old girl. A few of his other kids have begun collecting brush from the nearby woods, and placing it in my campsite’s fire ring. My five-year-old daughter is watching these new friends of hers with interest.
“My kids are getting firewood for yeh,” Jed tells me. “You cookin’ dinner here tonight, Greg?”
“Well, Jed, seeing how it’s 9 o’clock, we’ll be hitting the hay, soon. Anyway, I’m not much good at cooking on those campfire grates,” I say.
“I love to cook on those,” Jed boasts. “I cook hamburgers and hot dogs. I make a good Manwich on it. Tonight, I’m making spaghetti. Chef Boy-Ar-Dee!”
“Well, that’s something,” I say, still trying to put up the tent, while keeping an eye on the two of his kids who are rummaging through the Mercedes, the other two who are getting firewood, and the 2-year-old girl who’s getting dangerously close to my boy again. Unnervingly, I can’t spot the sixth one. Then Jed starts to tell me about his kids. Unprompted. He points to the oldest, who looks maybe seven. “That one’s got whatcha call attachment disorder. I don’t believe it though. I just don’t think he likes to listen.” He points to his four-year-old boy and says, “10 years ago, they’d of called him retarded. He don’t look retarded to you, does he Greg?” I shake my head vigorously. He continues. “Didn’t think so. He’s just taking his time catching up.” He then lists the litany of genetic problems his other kids suffer from. Then he starts dishing parenting advice, the most choice being: “If it don’t leave a mark, the state don’t call it child abuse.”
Now, during the course of the conversation, I can tell Jed doesn’t think of me as much of a man. Maybe it’s the hippie dippie car, or the People’s Republic of Vermont plates, or my scrawny build, the fact that I don’t particularly want to keep bombing the Middle East or buy my gas from there. Or maybe, just maybe it’s my salmon-colored short-sleeved polo shirt, now being illuminated by my sensible LCD headlamp. Finally, Jed spits out what’s bothering him.
“I don’t mean to be critical, Greg, but are you whatcha call a Tree Hugger?” he asks. As I’m standing next to this man--who may or may not be packing heat, who stalks hikers in the woods, who’s well versed in North Carolina’s assault statutes, who could snap me in two without a drip of sweat dropping onto the Capt. Kirk decal stretching across his wide belly—many answers come to my mind, but none involve me saying the word, “yes.” I’m thinking that if I do, there’s a very real possibility that I'll soon be told to squeal like a pig.
“Um, uh, I don’t know,” I tell him, instead. “I don’t know if I’m a tree hugger. But I tell you why I got that car.”
“Why’s that, Greg?” he says, still eyeing me suspiciously.
“To save money.”
His face lightens. Ah, money woes, something Jed can relate to. He chats for quite a while about the lousy economy, and the kid whose child support he pays but he hasn’t been permitted to see in eight years. Meanwhile, I put the finishing touches on my tent. His three oldest kids are now lighting the dinner fire at their campsite next door (is that gasoline I smell?), and the three youngest are playing with my daughter and son ( though my boy now won’t let the two-year-old girl near him). Jed offers to watch my kids the next morning, so I can pick up Dr. Wife and bring her back to the campground. I thank him, but insist that we have to go back home very early the next morning. Very, very early. Eventually, we part ways. I barely sleep that night, thinking that Jed could be within two feet from me at any moment, and I wouldn’t even know it.