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Delightful Disasters

            My father was a successful businessman and a decorated World War II pilot who retired as a lieutenant colonel.  The natural assumption is that he would have been well-organized and a meticulous planner.  He wasn’t.  In fact, planning seemed to be anathema to him, especially when it came to family outings.  For me the prime example of Poppa’s freewheeling chaos will always be our infamous Brown County camping trip.  It was a most delightful disaster, one that I shall always cherish in my memory and a gift on the meaning of happiness that Poppa left me.

            For some reason that I cannot recall we had decided to camp for a weekend at Brown County State Park in Indiana.  My sister’s fiancé, now husband, was to meet us outside the park.  A good friend of mine loaned us a tent.  Late in the afternoon, my father arrived home from work.  My mother, sister, our Shetland sheepdog, who supposedly was going to have a taste of real freedom in the park, and I got into the car.  Already running late, we stopped by a store to pick up supplies, and then Poppa pulled one of his common tricks.  He told us that he had to stop to inspect a plumbing job.  We fumed helplessly.

            We arrived at the park well over an hour late as dusk approached.  Tim, my sister’s poor fiancé, had been waiting all this time for us.  This was before the days of cell phones; so he had no idea whether we would arrive at all.  We pulled into a spot and unloaded the car.  Since I didn’t want to attempt to set up an unknown tent in the dark, I volunteered to cook the hamburgers on the grill.  I asked Poppa to pass the fuel to light the charcoal.  Strangely enough, no matter how much I squeezed the can, I couldn’t get much of a flame going and what flame there was had a very clear blue color.  I finally asked someone to turn on the truck lights.  Much to my surprise, or better shocked anger, I saw that Poppa had handed me the fuel for a flying model airplane that I had purchased for his birthday.  I was fortunate that the can hadn’t blown up in my face.

            Just as I was finishing the hamburgers and Poppa and Tim were figuring out the tent, a car drove up and said that we were in their place.  We didn’t know that you were supposed to reserve a spot.  We loaded everything up, went back to the entrance and were able to get another place.  By this time it was so dark that we decided just to lay the tent on the ground and sleep on top of it in our sleeping bags.  Later, my mom and sister needed to relieve themselves, but none of us knew whether there were any bathrooms or outhouses.  I told them to go into the woods.  They forgot to take a flashlight and were struggling; so they called out for me to turn on the truck lights.  I did, and they immediately shouted, “Not here!”  Unbeknownst to me, I was exposing them.

            Initially, the night was clear and quite warm; so we were all lying on the tent outside of our sleeping bags.  My sister’s legs, which were quite pale, shone in the moonlight.  Tim and I began to sing the verse from America the Beautiful, “Thine alabaster cities gleam;” only in honor of my sister’s legs, we changed it to “Thine alabaster columns gleam.”  We were exhausted and somewhat giddy and couldn’t stop laughing.  That’s when the rain began to fall.  Three or four of us piled into one of the cars with the dog.  By now, Tim and I had lost control completely, laughing and singing silly songs.  We couldn’t sleep. 

            When morning finally came, the sun was shining.  We had purchased eggs and bacon for breakfast.  I fired up the grill, with the correct fluid this time.  Unfortunately, my mom didn’t understand that skillets were needed.  Since you can’t fry eggs directly on a grill, we gave up.  We packed everything, stopped at McDonald’s to grab one of their atrocious egg mcmuffins, and returned home.  As we were carrying everything back into the house, my mother dropped the glass bottle of ketchup, which was smashed to smithereens, covering the garage floor in a wide splatter of Heinz’s 57.  Completely exhausted, we just went to bed.

            The campout was a colossal catastrophe, yet one we as a family have gladly returned to time and again with laughter.  Of course, one could argue that memory recreates the past, turning disasters into delights.   No doubt, and thank God.  Our present experience of the past is part of what it means to be human, but I’ve learned something else from that trip.

            Although I do not advocate dispensing with planning, there is a freedom and pleasure in letting things go and seeing what life brings.  Some of life’s greatest joys are those that come to us unexpectedly.  We can’t plan for them, and, if we had, they wouldn’t have been as enjoyable. 

            Those who seek to plan everything to the last detail often seem to be plagued by the sin of worry.  Even the possibility that something in the future may not go according to plan can rob the present of enjoyment.  Such meticulous planning can be symptomatic of a desire to be in complete control of our future.  This futile grasp at divinity will be exposed by all those elements that are out of our control and always will be.  The perfectionist planner will be left naked and ashamed like Adam and Eve after their foolish attempt to be their own gods.

              Besides unplanned joys, letting go of our illusory grasp on events can help us to trust in God, rather than ourselves, and thus be used by him in astonishing ways.  We should be prepared to be directed into unexpected paths that will accomplish his greater purposes.

            At the end of The Hobbit Bilbo expresses surprise that the prophecies did turn out to be true.  Gandalf replies, “And why should not they prove true?  Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself?  You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?  You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a whole wide world after all!”

            The blessed and humble Bilbo, who had forgotten his precious handkerchiefs, exclaims, “Thank goodness!”  What a relief and joy it is to realize that we are not God and life for us can be a wonder-filled adventure.  Thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien, and thank you, Poppa.

4 thoughts on “Delightful Disasters

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this both in literary style and context. No wonder Maddie holds you on such high regard, Dr. Isley.

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