Not so long ago I decided it was high time I took my seven year old son out on a camping trip. Being a weekend dad this would be a big deal, the first time he and I had gone into the wild together. To further enrich matters it would be myself and my son and my girlfriend of a year and a half and her ten year old son. I decided that I was going to be the best camping dad there had ever been. By the end of it both boys would be fully camp experienced, we would all have bonded and gained a new understanding of just about everything one can. Or so I hoped.
We set out, the car packed solid and both boys in the back. We were off to the caravan park in Onrus, just outside of Hermanus. I smiled and smiled. On arrival we were happy to find that the place was fairly empty. The boys piled out and rushed ahead, searching for the best spot, which we found, a beautiful open glade looking out over the sea.
'Right,' I said, summoning a line from my own dad's repertoire, 'lets get cracking!'
I dumped the tent out on the ground and watched as the two boys swarmed over it.
'Is this right?'
I look at my boy. He's holding a grossly misshapen and unwieldy tent-pole, all stuffed together in every way but the right one.
'No, you need...'
Just then Ado, my girlfriend's son, interrupts, grabbing the pole away from my boy.
'No, that's wrong,' he blusters, 'it goes like this.' He quickly dismantles what's been done and starts to put it right. I'm taken aback. I was just about to gently explain a camping type life lesson. I'd like these guys to be gentler with each other, and I say so.
'Okay, just slow down.' I look at Ado. 'Mark hasn't done this before.'
'Oh, sorry,' says Ado. He takes Mark's hand and starts to show him exactly how to put it together. I watch. Its clear that he's trying to impress me.
'Okay, lets unroll the cover and get it up,' I say.
'I know how!' shouts Ado, running for the tent bag, knocking Mark over as he does.
The weekend starts to unfold. We do everything that was planned, and everything that I'd dreamed of. We swim in the lagoon, body surf the warm sea, explore the rocks, walk in the veld. We take slow drives looking at all the great sea-side houses. We wonder what it must be like to live here. At the same time, though, and to my horror, I'm finding that camping with these two boys is difficult. They're relentless. Somehow, and I'm not sure when it happened, everything has turned into a competition with my attention being the prize. I feel constantly hounded and harrassed. I know I need to stay calm and fair, but it's a challenge.
'Dad,' says Mark, 'look at this stick!' He shows me an interestingly curved stick.
'Look at this,' counters Ado, dragging a whole rotting branch out of the bush.
'I'm the best at swimming,' declares Ado, demonstrating a frantic ten metre splash into the lagoon.
Later, while I'm trying to relax after a morning on the beach.
'Daddy,' says Mark, 'Ado won't let me bowl.'
'That's cause he can't get me out,' says Ado. I think to myself that this isn't how its supposed to be. The more I try to be calm about things, the worse they get. So, of course, I snap. I grab the ball from Mark and quickly and aggressively bowl Ado out, three times in a row for good measure. He's hurt, I can see it. I've humiliated him and now Mark is confused, too. Angrily, I tell them to stop messing around and just play nicely.
That night my girlfriend and I are making supper. The sky is clear, the air is still. I, however, am pre-occupied. The boys and their surely damaged young psyches are weighing on me. I feel like a pressure cooker, my mind churning with all the things I feel I'm doing wrong. Finally the food is ready. We've done fresh fish in tinfoil. It's taken a while and I'm hungry.
Inside the tent my lady has spread out a lovely picnic area for us to eat on. We all sit down and I proudly break the seal on the dish. Fragrant steam rises in a cloud.
'I don't like fish,' says Mark.
I turn to him. He's looking at the meal as if it's dogfood.
'I don't like it.'
'Well, there's nothing else.'
'But I don't like it. I don't like fish!'
He eyes me. I grab his plate and spoon a helping of fish onto it.
'You'll eat it because there's nothing else,' I growl. He eyes me some more. I don't budge, staring him down. His lip starts to quiver. Finally, tears flood down his face.
Over the following two weeks I am haunted by the camp. Every day I think of my woeful performance. I promise myself that never again will I be such a bad dad. Finally, the second weekend after the camp comes around. I collect Mark and bring him to our place. He and Ado play as usual. He seems to love me still, but I'm not sure. I'd apologised for shouting at him the morning after the fish incident, but still, I feel low.
Later that day the three of us are in the car. 'So,' I say, testing, 'what did you guys like most about the camp?' I turn round to see them, both sitting in the back seat. Both faces light up.
'Everything,' they chime, 'every part was the best.' They get back to playing.
I'm floored. Absolutely shattered. They have no memory of the tension at all. Nothing, not even a murmur.
'Best camp ever,' says Mark. 'When can we go again?'