I clobbered the 16” softball, sending my cousin back peddling. Tom turned and sprinted to pick it up before it stopped rolling. He shouted, “25!” as he swept up the ball. Tom was a couple years older than me and was raised in a family of brothers who played 500 all summer long. The only thing that kept me in the game was my ability to hit the ball harder and farther than he thought was possible for a little kid.
For some reason Tom didn’t toss the ball back. His eye was caught on something inside of the fort ruins. He dropped the ball and entered the inner structure. The old Fort Pickens ruins were cold and damp, which made the afternoon Florida sun bearable. Inside the partially underground fort were brick archways that seemed to fade into pitch-black darkness.
The sight was so amazing that I lost track of where Tom had gone. I suddenly found myself lost within the fort’s battery tunnel. Suddenly an old brick took a blaster shot and shattered from the arch above me. The debris rained down as I took cover. I pulled out my raygun and returned fire. Chunks of exploding brick bounced off of the wall.
I noticed a skylight type opening above and climbed the arch. My hands grabbed a chunk of grass from outside the opening and I pulled myself up and out. I shuttled around behind a bush and took aim. Something was not right. No one followed me out, so I took slow steps toward the opening.
I was hit. I spun around to see the intolerable menace, Dr. Vorick of the Neuzillian spaceport, pointing his raygun at me. He slowly raised it to take aim and I turned away and rolled down the hill, landing out of sight in bushes. The imaginative moment vaporized when Dr. Vorick, I mean Tom, told me that we had been called to dinner.
After washing the dishes, my family went to a laundry mat. There was nothing to do except daydream new adventures about my escape from the evil Dr. Vorick. On the drive back to camp, mom gave instructions for how the Easter morning service would work and how our camping group would walk together to the beach. The car suddenly swerved to miss an animal and I gasped for fresh air.
I rolled down my window to help my breathing, but the skunk smell poured in more potently than expected. My mom groaned about the clean laundry in the trunk, but wasn’t about to return to the laundry mat until after she shared the moment with her fellow campers. She drove a few times around the campsites until she was confident that everyone from the group had smelled the lovely aroma.
The car stopped next to our camper, which made me realize that sleeping in Tom’s pup tent a dozen yards away would be a better choice. My mother quickly agreed and gave me an air mattress for my comfort.
Tom had put up the tent in a small island like space nestled in among a few evergreen trees. It was a short distance from the fort on one side and a shorter distance from my family’s camper on the other. It was well positioned with one exception – It was in a miniature valley, but there was no forecast for rain.
I climbed into the tent and puffed air into my mattress. It was a long and arduous process that Tom quickly gave up on. He decided that his sleeping bag had sufficient padding so he went to sleep on the ground.
I continued to inflate mine, although it was getting more difficult. Once Tom fell asleep, I felt alone in the dark woods. I slipped out of the pup tent and headed to the camper in hopes of finding some courage, but I stopped cold in my steps when I heard a distant coyote howl. I was suddenly aware that I had the choice of sleeping in the camper or stepping up and being a man. Since I did well keeping up with the older kids playing 500, I decided I could handle manhood and the noises in the night. I was exhausted, so I headed back to Tom’s tent and fell asleep.
A crack of lighting woke me up in the middle of the night. Rain was pelting the canvas, so I assessed the pup tent – no leaks. I closed my eyes and fell back to sleep.
I was awoken to a new sunny day by a weird gurgling sound. It was like a sputtering noise made by… I turned toward Tom and found he was asleep, lying in four inches of water. His nose was dry, but he was exhaling through his mouth at the water line.
I was concerned about my predicament and I found that I was floating on the water thanks to my air mattress. It was one of those strange moments in life that you couldn’t make up if you tried. I decided to hold tight and watch Tom sleep, wondering what it would take for him to wake up. It wasn’t long before Tom shifted in his sleep and his face went in the water. He bolted upright, coughing and spitting. He was soaked.
It was hilarious and I couldn’t hold back my laughter, but Tom didn’t find it amusing. He glared at me, “You’ll have to get wet eventually…to get out of the pup tent.”
I realized that to stand up, my foot would have to get in the water and the odds were the air mattress might buckle in my attempt, pouring water onto my legs.
Tom started to laugh, “I’ve got to see this.” He stepped outside and flipped the tent door flap up out of the way to give him a clear view of my future demise.
But, I stayed low on the mattress and started to paddle. Tom watched as my air mattress drifted out of the pup tent and onto the dry ground. He was speechless.
The sun was just coming up over the horizon and I remembered the Easter service. I ran to join my family at the camper. I soon realize my mother’s loops, scenting the campsite with the smell of skunk, provided early morning entertainment. A sign was staked in the ground next to the camper that read, “Welcome to Stinky Hollow.”
Our adventures at Fort Pickens were memorable and I felt the experience helped me brave the new world of manhood. I also learned a couple life lessons like making sure your tent or house is on top of the hill rather than in the valley.