There are the occasional periodic articles about how the average age of fathers has risen and the advantages of being an older dad. Ed Pritchett, the patriarch of ABC’s Modern Family is a prime-time example of an older dad working through the fatherhood process. I’m not ready to concede that fatherhood is indeed a young man’s game but after a recent Friday night campout, I’m willing to concede that I finally met my Waterloo.
The evening in question was a night spent at a Boy Scout Klondike Derby, a winter camping event in which scout troops gather to compete in various competitive events. The Klondike aspect is that each troop must push or pull it’s own handmade sled from a starting line and then onwards to each of ten separate event stations; the sled can also be mounted on detachable wheels to allow it to run when there is no snow. When the weekend is finished, each troop takes it’s sled back and stores it for the following winter Klondike. It was questionable at the outset whether or not I would even be attending since my Saturday morning was already booked with a cub scout pinewood workshop at a friend’s shop and Middle had a Saturday evening concert that I planned to attend. When there were some questions from Youngest, I agreed that I’d camp with him at the troop site on Friday night and return home Saturday morning, returning back to the troop site that evening after the concert was finished and staying to help break down camp on Sunday morning. Parents with multiple children will understand the variety of plan permutations that are considered before a final resolution is made.
This year’s particular Klondike occurred in early January on the heels of the returning Polar Vortex so that the temperatures were, to say the least, erratic. There was snow on the ground the day before the event was to begin and on the dawn of the day’s start, the temperature warmed to allow rain before finally dropping again below the freezing mark; our arrival was marked by the inability of Youngest’s troop to access the campsite without a four-wheel drive vehicle to haul the gear up. Another local troop was forced to camp in the main dining pavilion because the trail to their site was completely impassable. We pitched our tents on frozen, ice-covered ground in the rain and then set up the chuck box and cooking gear under a tarp that we threw over existing canopy poles. A campfire was only possible because another adult brought along all manner of debris and paperwork that was used for firestarting – and it was here that I learned that potato chips cooked in lard actually make a decent firestarter, holding a flame long enough for the surrounding paper to catch. When we finally turned in for the night, we found that everything was damp because the water simply permeated everything; ice, snow, rain and a London-quality fog caused by the mix of warming air and frozen ground. Youngest and I shared a two man tent; even with an extra sleeping bag spread out under our own two bags, I was wet, cold and uncomfortable, a cocktail that bred a full-bodied ache through my middle-aged frame. When the morning came – after only an hour’s sleep – I was barely able to move because of a longstanding physical impairment and had to tell Youngest then that there was no earthly way that I could spend another night there. It was a painful moment of personal defeat, and not just physical.
Younger fathers do have it over us older guys. They are more physically capable of participating in the activities and it was that morning that I’d wished I was twenty years younger. We do have it over the twenty-somethings in that there is a greater breadth of experience but that’s a poor compensation when the issue is camping or the outdoor stuff that the kids often want to do.
So what is the point here, apart from belaboring my own frailty? The point is that fathers are going to be called upon to step outside of their comfort zone in any number of ways. Guys who were bookworms might wind up camping and varsity football players might wind up coaching their daughter’s midget league basketball team. And older dads will have to figure out how to navigate the physical activities that wouldn’t have fazed us two decades ago. The point is that we try and if we fall on our collective asses, then at least we did so trying. The kids aren’t stupid and they understand that dads – and moms – aren’t perfect. But they also understand that we’re making the effort and if we fail, then at least we can also hopefully demonstrate how to respond to the defeats and knocks that life hands us. And that is a bigger lesson than how to pitch a tent or roll up a sleeping bag.
The Klondike night was one that I don’t regret, but one that I certainly won’t repeat. Youngest knows that while I’ll continue camping with him, there are simply some circumstances that will keep me inside. What I hope that he’ll take with him as he ages is that it’s okay to admit defeat but that it at least comes after the attempt.