September 15, 2010

Mandatory fun

On a grassy Hoosier hillside, a towheaded young lad rode his Tonka truck into the perimeter of a puppy that was tethered to a stake. When he rode through, the puppy went mad, barked his puppy throat hoarse and ran circles around the boy, causing him to hop off the truck, trip on the tether line, fall down and cry, and then get up and do it all over again.

Finally, the boy’s father looked sternly at his young son and said, “Boy, if you don’t stop botherin’ that puppy, I’monna whup you with that puppy.”

“Hold on,” I said, “Let me get my notebook. I’ve got to write that down.”

This journalism emergency took place on Labor Day weekend, when I escaped the city for God’s drunken acres, where it’s still possible to pitch a tent with a hundred friends, sleep under the stars, drink a beer or two, and overhear colorful threats from one’s unwashed brethren. It reminded me that one of Louisville’s best features is how convenient it is to escape. You can travel 30 minutes in any direction and come home with chiggers and quotes. Try doing that in San Francisco!

Our traditional Labor Day campout takes place each year near Patoka Lake on a gorgeous rolling meadow owned by a bighearted family. Some of us have been camping together since college, and some are newcomers. There are ne’er-do-wells, occasionally-do-wells and always-do-wells. There are men and women, boys and girls, dogs and guitars. There are four generations of us now, ranging from septuagenarian shamans with copious wisdom to tiny tots with enviable energy. People camp in tents and campers and RVs, plus one fellow who sleeps in his lawn chair. There are technicians and engineers and nurses and teachers and CEOs and felons and accountants and salespeople and at least one phlebotomist, which is as fun to write as it is to say.

We don’t aspire to much more than beer, music, beer, horseshoes, beer, hiking, beer, conversation and beer. But other activities have a way of creeping in, such as pancakes, hugs, dirty jokes and lying on a county road at 2 a.m. gazing up at a sky that’s impossible to see in town. If it sounds like heaven, it’s because it is.

So why do I always dread this weekend a little bit? A friend and I conducted some careful analysis and came to the conclusion that I am a tad anti-social. I am one of those people who wish they could have been there to high-five Jean-Paul Sartre when he wrote “Hell is other people,” except the moment would have been marred for both of us by each other’s presence.

I am best alone, second best one-on-one. In a pinch, I can get by in a group of up to 3.5 people. If there are more people than that, I become uncomfortable and silent and start looking forward to when I can be alone again. For being such a loudmouth in print, I guess I’m surprisingly quiet in person. I would rather write than converse. Ever since I was a kid, I could never quite come up with the great comeback in the moment but could always whip off my best material in my head well after the fact, when it was too late.

So why do I go off into the woods with dozens of other people for a long weekend of singing and drinking and sweating and struggling with what my dear, departed friend Clyde called “mandatory fun”? Maybe it’s good to flex those muscles once in awhile. Maybe I do it for the social challenge. But mostly I guess I do it because they let me.

Rest assured that no puppies or children were harmed in the making of this column. Before I had a chance to get my notebook out of my tent, the boy looked at his dad and laughed at the preposterous idea of getting spanked with a puppy. His laugh was an infectious little giggle, the kind that makes everybody else laugh, even if they are shuddering a little bit inside. Even the dog seemed to smile.

And then the boy took his truck to play where he wouldn’t bother the puppy, and I sat down with my notebook and all was right with the world.

Jim Welp is the author of “Summary of My Discontent — Constructive Criticism for Discerning Americans,” now available at Carmichael’s Bookstore or Amazon.com.