Bearing up under Labor Day

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 30, 2002

Labor Day weekend is not my favorite holiday.

Growing up, I dreaded it - my father took the name of the day very seriously and we spent the weekend pulling weeds out of the driveway, scrubbing grout in the bathroom, washing windows and cleaning gutters.

On the rare occasions we weren't poster children for child labor laws, we were stand-ins for Hansel and Gretel, forced to spend the weekend in the wilds of the Great Smoky Mountains. Keep in mind this was (mumble mumble) decades ago, when the park was not as crowded as it is now. You could set up your tent -or in our case, an old Nimrod pop-up camper trailer - and not see another camper for at least 50 yards. We would pull in, set the tent part of the trailer up. Mom would set the kitchen up - notice that mothers have no vacation - while dad sacked out on a bunk. Big brothers went on the wild firewood scavenger hunt while Little Brother and I explored, bringing home the usual camping souvenirs

– feathers, pinecones, chiggers, and poison ivy.

(Big sister always managed to find a way out of camping - there is only on old Polaroid to prove she has ever stepped foot out of doors in her life.)

Bears were a problem then, much more so then than now, and my dad prided himself on his bear-proofed campsite. The best way to keep the bears, or other critters, especially those of the black-with-white-stripe variety, out of the campsite, was, of course, to make sure there was no food out anywhere. Edibles were hung in a bag over a tree until one cub got bold and managed to climb far enough out on the limb to nag it. Somewhere, we still have an old Mountain Dew can with four neat holes punched into it.

Dad made his own "bear-proof" homemade storage chest. No bear ever got into the box, but one did drag it 20 feet down the trail.

Of course, the "no food" rule was occasionally rescinded. The Middle Brother, at six-foot-six, didn't fit in the tiny Nimrod and had to spend his camping days on a custom-made cot beside the fire.

If we were in a fairly bear-free area of the campground, Dad would wait until the brother was asleep, then toss crackers and marshmallows under the cot. And wait.

In Chicago, the fog might move on little cat feet, but in the Smokies, the evening mist comes in on dainty little black skunk feet. Within 20 minutes, there would be a family of skunks, nibbling on marshmallows , inches from my sleeping brother's backside. I learned more about skunks in those midnight hours than Steve Irwin knows about crocs. I learned to recognize spotted skunks, striped skunks, albino skunks, eastern skunks, and, of course, angry skunks.

Once there was a nice little parade of black and white weaving under my brother's cot, my dad would hiss.

"Psst, John….. wake up!"


"Don't move….there's a skunk under your bed!"

Of course, sometimes it backfired (not that way - we never had a skunk discharge his weapon in camp). Once, he left the bag of marshmallows on the floor of the camper. Taking little brother off to the camp bathrooms in the middle of the night, Dad also left the door to the camper open.

I woke up to the sight of tiny eyes in the doorway, glowing red in the darkness, and screamed.

I dove across the camper, into my mother's bunk. She lunged up with a pillow and charged at the bear - yes bear. If it had been less nimble -or aggressive, it may well have been the first bear in history to be beaten to death with a feather pillow. It lumbered off into the darkness - with the marshmallows - while we cried and trembled.

Moments later, Dad and Little Brother come back, roaring with laughter.

"Did you hear that?" Dad said. "Some silly female screaming blue bloody murder. I wonder if it was a skunk?"

Grabbing her trusty, bear-killing pillow, my mother advanced grimly upon my father.

He spent that night on the cot. I spent the next night in the back of the old Falcon station wagon, terrified to sleep in the camper. Of course, that was the night the bear came back and decided to climb on top of the station wagon and rock it back and forth….

We went home the next day.

So, no, Labor Day is not one of my favorite holidays. In fact,

I can - forgive me please - hardly bear it.