When I was a kid, my cousins and I used to camp out in my uncle’s cow pasture. Our tent was no fancy Coleman job like you see today. It was a tarp normally used to cover firewood. A couple of sawed off 2×4’s held up the tarp. There was no waterproof floor beneath us. If it started raining and you were awake enough to know it, you stopped camping and started running to the barn.
There were three of us, and we’d build a good-sized fire, roasting wieners and MoonPies on sharpened sticks, chasing them with baked beans and Dr. Pepper.
Girls were the main topic of conversation next to football. Sadly, we were a lot better at football. But we saw ourselves as thirteen year-old country philosophers, holding court on how to best skin a catfish or train a hunting dog or tie a trotline. I learned to gag on a sweet cigar outside that old tarp, trying to ward off determined mosquitoes. I can’t remember which was worse, the mosquitoes or the cigars.
If fire ants showed up, we abandoned the position. Fire ants are not only immune to cigar smoke, they’ll take your cigar away and smoke it in front of you just to prove who’s in charge. Usually, however, we were pretty selective about where we pitched our tent and tried not to leave any food lying around to attract varmints or bugs.
One night in late March, under a Comanche Moon, we decided to set up camp near a creek, further out in the pasture than normal. We tried to catch some fish, but they outsmarted us, leaving us with only the MoonPies and beans.
On a side note, in case you don’t know, creek fish are about twice as smart as pond fish. So you have to be less lazy to catch them. And on this camping excursion, we were working up a good case of lazy. It was a little chilly out too and we brought several of granny’s old blankets.
In the middle of the night, I guess my left foot – only clothed in an athletic sock – decided to work its way between the blankets, under the edge of the tarp and out into the wilds of the thirty or so cows my uncle pretended to ride herd over.
At first I didn’t feel anything. The cow roamed up real quiet like and started munching the loose toe of my sock. I didn’t feel the cow pull off my sock either. Nor did I feel her start licking my foot like a sweaty popsicle. Next thing I knew, that cow chomped down on the soft bottom skin of my foot and let me tell you, I reared up from there like a donkey eating ten-penny nails. The sound of me screaming spooked the cow and she got a better hold of my foot and yanked me full-body, arms akimbo over my head, right under that tent and out in the field where I flailed and hollered in the most pathetic display of unmanly behavior I had exhibited up to that point in my life.
My cousins, seeing me sucked right under the edge of the tarp must have thought aliens had abducted me and they took off running towards the barn, leaving the foot-eating cow and me alone in the light of the full moon. I have never really forgiven them.
After a focused kick to the snout with my one good foot, the bovine moaned a sad wail, yodeled and turned me loose. I stood up to run, but landed face down into a terrace, catching my bare foot on my soppy, wet, cow-spit-covered sock which had snagged on a root, while breaking my nose on impact.
When I finally reached my feet I ran straight into my uncle’s electric fence, folding over it, catching all the wattage right in my groin. There were a lot more stars out once I rolled over, hoping to gain enough feeling in my lower extremities to stumble, broken-faced up to the barn where my two cousins were crying, laughing so hard. Did I mention I have never forgiven them?
I didn’t go camping for four decades after that night. When I finally tried to go back to sleep in a tent last year at a national park off Virginia’s Skyline Drive, I wore my steel-toed work boots all night and slept with a baseball bat and a big flashlight. Before I went to the campsite, I had two questions for the park ranger:
“Ya’ll got any loose cows up this way?” and “Where’s the closest electric fence?”