After Christmas the airwaves are filled with ads for New Year’s parties at local boom-boom bars (that’s what my mother calls strip clubs) and for more classy celebrations at the Hilton or the Sheraton. You can spend the night at the beach, have champagne at midnight and look forward to a breakfast buffet. Or, you can watch the “loveliest women south of the Mason-Dixon Line” remove their clothes, no cover charge, until two a.m. Whatever trips your trigger.
But that’s not for my family, though. We have our own New Year’s tradition down here in the swamp. We go to the Deer Camp and build a huge bonfire, sit around it and drink ourselves stupid. This year we were blessed with moderate weather; just cold enough for a big fire but warm enough for the kids to run around like lunatics through the woods.
The family gets together for an overnighter, also known as a “bunking party”, and toasts the New Year and relives the past one. It’s a night full of family talk about who did what, where they did it and who they did it to. This year we banned discussion of September 11th because we’d beat that one into the ground at our Christmas Eve dinner, already.
The Deer Camp is about 20 miles into the next county, five miles down a winding stretch of dirt road, and smack in the middle of 200 acres of forest and swamp. The accommodation at Dear Camp is a fairly new cinderblock cabin: one huge room with a small lean-to kitchen off to the side. A screened-in porch, furnished with three picnic tables, a couple of rocking chairs, and a church pew, runs across the front and down one side. Inside, bunk beds line the walls and there’s a huge poker table in the middle of the room.
The old cabin, built around 1948, had more character than this cinder block construction: it had the refrigerator out on the front porch, like it ought to be. More like a house than a cabin, it had two-stories, three rooms downstairs and one big one upstairs. The room upstairs was furnished with five double beds and a drum set. The drums belonged to my brother, who drove our in-town neighbors crazy with his garage band, so my parents banished him to the Deer Camp to practice. The downstairs had one bedroom, a living room with a poker table, at least ten recliners, and a kitchen. We used to move the recliners into the front yard and sit in them while we were skeet shooting. About five years ago the old cabin burned to the ground when my uncle got careless burning the weeds in the ditch by the road.
This year I lost a couple great aunts and one cousin. No, they weren’t “lost”, really, but you don’t say folks are “dead” in my family, you say, “They went to be with God” or they were “lost”. Just lost. Minus the aunts, the group is still a large one, with at least 30 family members in attendance every New Year’s at Deer Camp. And they’re all there to get toasted, more or less.
Uncle Pete, my mother’s baby brother, is the first one to reach the pinnacle of complete inebriation. He’s sitting next to me by the fire. As one side of his lawn chair sinks slowly into the mud, his body oozes onto the ground, placing him dangerously close to the campfire. All the while reciting an oft-repeated tale of the Battle of Midway, as he slowly gives in to the slow pull of gravity, he never misses a beat in his dialogue, “It was THE decisive battle of the Pacific. No argument there from anyone. Admiral Nimitz now there was a MAN. And Jack Hill. I’m telling you . . . that godammn Yamamoto, he knew what the capture of Midway would do to strengthen his forces. Did I ever tell you I knew Jimmy Doolittle? What a hell of a man. A gen-you-wine hero, dammit.”
Uncle Pete continues to ooze with gravity, then pull himself back up into his chair, slowly down, slowly up, throughout the night. His endless monologue of war stories mingle with those of deer hunting, stock markets, and country club peccadilloes.
We sit around the large fire and keep it burning by feeding it pine branches and paper plates filled with chicken bones and mounds of leftover potato salad. Some family members are joining the circle for the first time. The New Year’s Eve drinking age rule is a complete bastardization of our normal family get-together rule of “No beer at the Deer Camp until you’re out of high school”. The no-drinking-until-after-high-school rule helps encourage our kids to graduate. A clever niece of mine got her GED at age 15 and caused a big uproar among the adults when she grabbed a cold one at an “overnight” last summer. Hell, rules are rules, I told my brother, give her a Bud. There’s no weird pubescent ritual involved to denote those worthy of joining the New Year’s campfire drinking circle, it’s just a nod from a parent that signifies the new members, those deemed responsible enough to drink, like us.
The young children run through the dark forest surrounding the camp. They grew up going to the camp and know how to run just far enough out into the woods before getting the shit beat out of them. I know, that’s politically incorrect to say or do, but it’s the ass-end of the Great Dismal Swamp and you don’t fool around in there. You’ve got to put the “fear of God” into children, and you’ve got to do it early in life. This is a part of the South with no incorporated towns and less than 6,000 inhabitants in the entire county. It’s remote enough to still have panthers and some environmentalists have re-introduced the red wolf into the area, much to the dismay of the residents. Bears are a common sight and many a house cat doesn’t return from a midnight stroll around here. Near the Deer Camp it’s safe, though, the noise and fire keep animals at bay. And by and large the wild critters have enough to eat, so they’re not too likely to go after a little one. We just don’t tell children that, cause we don’t want anyone wandering around on their own until they’re old enough to shoulder a rifle.
The woods reverberate with the high-pitched screams and squeals of the children who have no supervision and realize it. Nearby, the sound of a bard owl’s cry competes for dominance of the night. Every once in a while my cousin Bookman gets up and walks to the edge of the cleared land, listens to the kids and comes back saying “They’re all fine, no one’s crying. Didn’t hear no bears growling, neither.”
Sparks from the fire light up the night and reflect in the children’s eyes as they come just within earshot of the grownups and pause to listen, to see if it is still true. And it is. No one is paying any attention to them. Too excited to sleep, they stay in the woods all night long. Close enough to the grown-ups to feel safe but far enough away to feel independent, the children solve their own conflicts; smacking and threatening the transgressors into silence. They mete out juvenile justice in a quiet way designed to keep the grownups out of their dark, secret forest, hissing words they don’t think we can hear . . . “They’ll hear you. Shut up. Okay you can have it, just be quiet. Don’t tell Mom. It’s not bleeding, you’ll be okay. I’ll give you my Mars bar. Shut up. Shut up you, don’t be a baby.” The youngest children learn quickly that any squalling will result in bedtime and the oldest know just how much to tease before backing off. They play flashlight tag amongst themselves, never realizing that we watch their lights flash about and this is how we secretly keep track of them.
Come dawn the sunrise is like a big screen TV in a dark room when there’s no other light but the effervescent glow of the screen: captivating. Nothing but a thin stream of smoke and the smell of burning food remains of the fire. Surreal colors reflect off the exhausted children’s faces as they surrender to daylight. Creeping into the fire circle, one by one they gently place their hands on parent’s arms or shoulders, reminding adults of their responsibility for the safety of these once fierce but now frail and small seven and ten year olds.
And so gently nudged into a brief moment of sobriety, the parents rise. Grasping their offspring to their chests like grocery bags, they carry the children inside the cinderblock cabin and drop them with loud thuds onto pallets made of hundred year old quilts and wool blankets. The childless members of the fire circle slowly realize the anonymity of darkness is fading and the liquor bottles are empty. Glass bottles and beer cans impede their progress as they wend their way toward the cabin. Crawling in between the quilt covered mounds, they claim their own territory and promptly pass out. The more agile kids get the top bunks, those who have no bed sprawl out on the floor.
It’s almost noon as one by one the children wake. They creep silently, single file, out the door and settle at the picnic table on the screened in porch. They’ve slept in their clothes. Covered with mud and smelling of the humid southern earth, they are finally too exhausted to pick fights. Aunt Louise, Uncle Pete’s wife, helps them recharge their batteries with huge tumblers of orange juice, mounds of pancakes heavily laced with syrup, and the promise of another ride on Uncle Pete’s ATV if they will just stay quiet until Bookman wakes up and has his coffee. Things will be better that way for all of us.
And, as 2002 begins, I painfully unwrap myself from my sleeping bag cocoon and stumble into the kitchen. I stopped drinking around two a.m. so I’m in relatively good shape, compared to the rest of the inert masses laying about the room. I go into the kitchen, pour a cup of coffee, and drink half of it in one scorching gulp. It’s New Year’s Day so I open the freezer door, grab five bags of black-eyed peas and a hambone, and start cooking.
In the South, black-eyed peas symbolize good luck and eating them on New Year’s is a tradition. I’d be fixing them with rice, the combination making for a delicious dish called Hopping John, but the mice got to the rice first. Hungry little bastards. Aunt Louise is fixing to make the cornbread and she starts digging through the remains of yesterday’s meals, searching for the cast iron skillet. No one lets my mother cook any more, not even for a regular family dinner. She tends to forget she’s cooking, wanders off to something else, and has, on several occasions, come dangerously close to burning down the house. This cinder block cabin should see us through many a New Year.