Monday, October 26, 2009

Story Value

The worst times make the best stories. I don't know for sure when that reality first hit me. I remember Sally and I talking about it during the storm-ridden summer of 1993 in Nebraska. We had just purchased a three-room cabin tent from Cabela's. The purchase of the tent itself was a recognition of how bad our camping experiences had been.

I used to enjoy camping, even after the high school fishing trip to northern Ontario with my physics teacher where it rained every day, and where the boy scout pup tent my friend Beau and I were using had taken on all the characteristics of a large, khaki sponge.

Having children changed my perspective. On the one hand, I wanted them to enjoy the same simple pursuits I enjoyed. At the same time, I was really paranoid about their health and welfare. These contradictory values clashed on the campground. I've already written about our freezing in Yellowstone and being drenched in Glacier NP during our Pacific Northwest excursion in the summer of 1990. The next year we tried a camping vacation in Colorado and Utah, and were washed out in some of the driest places in the country. Though these stories are worth the telling, they can wait for another day. The end result of these dreadful experiences was a plan to buy one large tent to use as a secure base camp, from where we could take day trips with the assurance that we'd have a warm, dry, safe place to sleep. Thus the three-room cabin tent from Cabela's....

We purchased the tent using the Cabela's catalog. Having compared descriptions of the various tents they sold, we felt it would meet the needs of our 2 adult, 3 child, 1 large dog family the best. At $300 including tax and shipping, it was expensive, especially given our means in those days. But we felt we were investing in something important. The tent was shipped to us, arriving in Lincoln on the morning of July 8, 1993. We excitedly opened the box and examined the contents. The kids were interested in seeing what it looked like, and so was I, so the decision was made to erect the tent in the back yard.

The words that come to mind at this point are "Barnum & Bailey". I had never seen a tent that big, apart from the circus. I wasn't sure the thing would fit in a camping area, at least other than a KOA style parking lot. Indeed, it was reminiscent of an RV without wheels. While Sally and I debated whether we should keep the behemoth, the kids were moving in with the intention of spending the night. For seven-year-old Evan, moving into the tent included not only a sleeping bag and pillow, but also stuffed animals, Lego building sets, and his bicycle. Good thing it was a big tent.

As the day went on, the girls decided not to sleep in the tent with Evan and his stuff. He was really upset, so I decided I'd "camp out" with him. Before moving my stuffed animals, however, I decided to check the weather. 1993 was, after all, the year of the Great Midwest Flood, and knowing what to expect only seemed prudent. I went in the house and turned on the TV.

The first bad sign was that several local stations were off the air. I checked around the dial, and finally found a station that was broadcasting... a weather warning. They were reporting 90 mph winds just west of Lincoln, and were urging everyone in their viewing area to take cover immediately.

In our case, taking cover meant moving bedding, stuffed animals, Lego blocks, a bicycle and Evan out of the tent. Sally and I worked as fast as we could as the sky darkened and the winds picked up. Sally took Evan in the back door while I hurled the bike into the garage. Just at that moment there was a simultaneous bolt of lightning and clap of thunder, and the lights went out. In the next second we heard Megan scream from the dining room window, where she was following the action, "The tent!!!!"

There wasn't time to look back. Sally and I pushed the kids down into the basement, and poked around for candles, flashlights, and an AM radio. We asked Megan, "What about the tent?" Her response was to whirl her finger in the air, saying, "It was like the Wizard of OZ!" We asked her where it had gone, and she said, "Up."

Waiting for the "all clear" signal over the radio, Sally and I stared at each other across the basement for the next two hours, pondering the fate of our $300 tent. At some point, one or the other of us said, "This is going to make a great story someday." And we laughed.

And therein lies the tale. We laughed! Thinking about the story value of the entire, sorry experience took us one step outside the crisis. We realized that what mattered most to us was that our kids were safe, and that we had survived to tell the story.

That July storm is referred to as the Derecho of 1993, a term derived from Spanish, which means a straight line storm or wind. It caused severe damage through parts of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Our power was out for three days, and we were luckier than many.

The tent? We found stakes and bent and broken poles strewn across several neighbors yards. There were likely parts on top of the roof of the house behind us, since that was the route the tent had taken. The scuffed, torn remnant of the tent itself was eventually recovered a quarter of a mile away, wrapped around a small tree by a grocery store parking lot. Our credit card company, which insured such sales, refused coverage of our loss, stating that the storm was an "act of God". I argued that, as an ordained minister I thought I would recognize an act of God, but to no avail. We got the tent repaired, though I'm honestly not sure we ever used it for camping. It was pretty much a loss.

But Story Value? Story value has continued to be central to our lives. It is a concept that is worth much more than $300, and has proven so on many occasions since. Including this morning. When things seem the darkest, don't despair. Hold on to each other and the story value, and you'll make it through.


  1. We used the tent again. After moving it from Nebraska to Beloit to Lawrence to Mount Vernon, we went camping up at North Cascades National Park. Must have been 1998 or 1999. We joked that we should call the weather service and warn them about possible tsunamis given our record of setting up tents and the storms that follow. We also took the canoe which has been so heavily used.

  2. Absolutely right! It was the same weekend that the Humane Society removed all the cats from the house in Bellingham. Sally and you kids loaded the truck and went up to Colonial Creek without me. I came home, took off my clothes by the basement door, showered, and drove up separately. It would have been July of 1999.

  3. I think perhaps our family has large-tent-buying tendencies. I do love the tent that i bought for myself (for more than 300 dollars), a 3-person, which has been used by me and my friends, both with and without me. I also paid more for it than we did for the 3-room. It is considered hefty at just over 7 lbs with fly, stakes and footprint, but its like my rustic palace. You can crowd 5-6 people into it for a card game. It slept 3 people on an entertainingly slanted flat spot during my recent camping trip to Bull of the Woods wilderness.

    I appreciate the love and concern for my health while camping. I have learned the important lesson that the most important part of comfortable camping is to stay dry. With a 'bathtub' floor and nifty full coverage rain fly with condensation vents, I stay pretty comfy. It is wonderful to be able to get outside and let yourself breathe away from work.