Sunday, July 27, 2008

Park rangers bust the wrong guys

We’d finished setting up our tent about two hours previous, the kids were zonked, and I was settling into a robust cigar and my sixth beer. It was a perfectly peaceful night of family camping at scenic Ohiopyle State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Then three cars full of early 20-somethings pulled up and I was immediately disappointed to realize it was going to remain perfectly peaceful.

Out of the cars piled a mixed bag of fresh-faced kids, boys and girls, who looked like they’d showed up for a wholesome weekend of co-ed whitewater rafting. The handsome boys were strong and tan, the pretty girls were supple and exuding charm. I could tell instantly they were going to be considerate, friendly and, as a whole, would have absolutely nothing in common with the guy I was when I was their age.

It all looked so alien to me. When I was their age, I never did anything with groups of my peers, I was rarely sober and I never did buddy-buddy stuff with girls my age. Heck, I rarely got to do the only thing I really liked to do with girls my age.

I spent vast swaths of my 20s in dark taverns and bright ballparks with colorful guys who liked to drink as much as I, and that was a lot. The best part of those years was when me and another guy worked in small town newspaper bureau with just the two of us. The office was right next door to a friendly tavern and if the doors in both buildings were open, we could hear the Bat Phone ring from our barstools.

It was a classic guy bar with a cranky and filthy-mouthed 70-year-old bartender who’d come by and knock on the window every day at 1 p.m. to let us know our beers were ready. It was all great, dissolute fun.

Back then, my life was so guy-centered that it wasn’t until I was 33 that I said my first complete sentence to a female. And with mighty consequences, those words were, “So, ya wanna get married?”

I was sitting at the campfire next to the woman who’d answered, “Yeah, what the hell,” to that question. I told her about how when I was that age I never could have imagined mingling for purely social reasons -- no ulterior motives -- with women. Or being in the woods. Sober. And how the 20-something Chris would have nothing to say to the 40-something Chris he was destined to become.

We watched in fascination as one-by-one they came up, said hello, and assured us they wouldn’t be any trouble.

And they weren’t. They were drinking beers, but without the adolescent drive toward raucous results. They were just good honest kids. And it was about cost them.

A park ranger came up with his flashlight and told them it was illegal to drink beers in a state park. Who knew? They were all adults. They weren’t causing trouble. It’s yet another sign that the purity police have gotten out of hand.

Then he walks over to our camp. “Evenin’ sir,” he says, real respectful (our beers were discretely tucked beneath our seats). “These kids giving you any trouble?”

No, they’re real polite. Good kids.

“You let us know if things get out of hand.”

That would likely have been self-incriminating, but I assured him I would.

Four or five beers later, our campfire sputtered down and Val and I packed it in. I was up early the next morning to the sounds of neighboring tents being dismantled.

I asked why the unexpected vamoose.

“The police officer snuck back up and busted me with a beer. He fined me $125 for open container and said we’d all have to be gone by 8 a.m. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do out here if we can’t enjoy a couple of beers by the campfire.”

I suggested several convenient narcotics and pharmaceuticals. They all laughed like I was kidding.

I pulled aside one of the guys who’d been nervy enough to have another beer. I asked him, hey, did you ever think of making a run for it?

“What? And let them take the fall for me? It was my mistake. I had to take responsibility.”

That’s another difference. I would have run like hell.

And I mean from my family.

There’s still some things the 40-something Chris has in common with the 20-something Chris.

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