I am the man my father built.
Never in my short life had I been camping. I hated the grit of dirt and leaves, bugs, peeing outdoors, and the looming prospect of sleeping amongst it all. The woods looked like the terrarium for my pet alligator, and from what I could tell, Wally didn’t sleep all that great either.
Dad thought it was just terrific (“Want to make a fire with two sticks, Mark?” “Did you count the worms in the bait can?”) and he was getting along well with the other dads at this father/son campout with my Cub Scout troop. For that I was grateful.
At school they were calling me a queer and at church the jocks were chasing me down the halls for wearing platforms. But Cubs was populated with other misfits like me. I wondered if the Scouts was a club that parents paid to give their kid friends.
The dusk air was filled with the sounds of mallets thumping, as duos of fathers and sons pitched their tents. Dad was nearly giddy as he carried a long bag from the car. I’ll bet he bought us a brand new one, I thought, since we never went camping before.
Dad unrolled the bag at our feet. There, stretched across the ground, was clear plastic and some twine. Nothing more.
“Somebody stole our tent!” I said, shocked.
Dad laughed. He was one of those men who began most sentences with a laugh or a “heh heh” sound. It was endearing but not at the moment.
“Nope, sport, that’s our tent,” he said, “let’s get it going.” He started to unfold it. I stared and stared. It looked like the largest plastic leftover baggie I’d ever seen. My face felt flush with embarrassment.
Dad was strange. He always had projects going on in the shop or downstairs, like building a grand piano from cardboard (no special reason) or learning about geodesic domes and making one the size of a Starbucks in the back yard. Out of clear plastic.
His obsession for years was box kites, the bigger the better. He started with a six-foot prototype, flying it in a cotton field near home. Then we worked all summer on a box kite the size of a Winnebago that we transported to the field on a flatbed truck. It crashed after a few glorious minutes and Dad, predictably, laughed. “Wow!” he gleefully shouted. “Did you see that crash? Spectacular!”
On weekends you always heard his low, rumbling laugh in the basement when he “had an idea.” Mom hated it when he had an idea.
Dad was now pitching a plastic baggie, and the others were noticing. The mallet thumping slowed and heads turned. Why did we have to be so different? I liked fitting in with this group of Scouts. Dad was ruining everything.
“Dad,” I offered, speaking in the calm manner of a hostage negotiator, “why don’t we borrow a tent?” I looked around and didn’t see anyone who felt like interacting, much less lending. I wondered how long a K-Mart run might take.
He paused and twirled his wooden mallet. I was surprised it wasn’t made from clear plastic. “Heh heh,” he replied. “Nobody has one like this. I made it for us! Nobody makes one like this.” He draped the plastic sheet across a clothesline contraption he’d made and then it struck me.
The stares. The withering, judgmental stares of the others. Once inside our leftover baggie, they could still stare as much as they liked. There was no place to hide. I wanted to throw myself on the campfire.
“But Dad,” I tried, a bit more desperately, “everyone can see us. You can see through thisâ€¦”
“That’s the beauty of it!” and he bellowed a laugh that produced more squinty glances from around camp. “Look up, Mark! We’ll be able to see the stars!”
Those days, and that moment, are lost to time now, and so is my father. Not long after camping out under the stars, our personas traded places. I embraced my sexuality and my misfit charms, while Dad’s struggle to understand my life made him just another parent who didn’t get it. Worst of all, he was made to contend with a teenager who saw him as something abhorrent: typical.
We had many years, later, when our outlooks merged again and we reveled in his various projects and my work as an outspoken gay man. Dad raised exactly what he valued, a man who steps up and asks stupid questions and knows that to soar you must risk the occasional, spectacular crash.
On my best days I live happily in a clear plastic tent of my own design, writing and living as an HIV positive queer for all to see. And on the worst of days, my mind’s eye conjures up a hearty laugh coming from nearby, maybe the basement, where something is being built that will solve absolutely everything.
Usually it’s a box kite, crafted from unlikely supplies and fatherly magic, that carries me far, far away.