Right before Labor Day 1962, Lamar Cope, Bubba Kepley and I – all three of us life guards at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – were bellied up to the bar at the Marine Room talking about our plans for the fall.
No real point to our conversation, we just rambled, discussing among other things places we’d like to visit.
Conversation picked up intensity and purpose as the night wore on.
We more or less decided among the three of us that Hawaii was the place to go to, where they also have some beaches, some waves and probably some young hard bodies in tiny little bathing suits.
And then we decided that hell we were young, and if we didn't just do it, just go, that we never would. Everyone talked about the grand adventure of traveling the world, but only a few had the courage to take even a first step out into the wild.
Which led to a rejoinder that we put to good use that fall convincing ourselves we were doin' right - that… “A man has to do what a man has to do.”
Lamar, Bubba, me and the dog by our trusty jeep in Mexico City.
It was long time ago and I don’t remember exactly how our conversation swung from Hawaii (which seems on reflection to make sense, as if anything in this idea made sense) to Nicaragua (that we only had the vaguest of idea about where it was).
I had an Oak Ridge classmate who was from that country and we were going down to see him and maybe get jobs or something.
But as we were parting that night, we took an oath that we would be pushing off soon for Nicaragua, because “A man has to do what a man has to do.” And I went back to life guard house, forgot about it and went to sleep.
Howsomeever, unknown to me at the time, Lamar, taking seriously what we had said the night before over some beer, seized the initiative and bought a 1950 Willis jeep and a trailer in a town near Myrtle Beach the next day.
That night he found Bubba and I and showed off his prizes... and all Bubba and I had to say was "Damn Lamar!"
But then we went along, Bubba and I. It was the easiest thing to do - we just followed the course of least resistance. Lamar being the alpha dog.
We bought supplies, loaded up and drove to North Carolina to tell our parents about our change of plans. We went to Southern Pines first. Mother cried. Daddy looked hopeless and I left as soon as I could. “Remember Jimbo,“ Bubba would say, “A man has to do what a man has to do.” I felt terrible for letting my parents down, but then the thoughts of what lay ahead in Central America took over and I smiled. Travelling to Central America with two buddies in a beat up ol’ Jeep was a grand alternative to button down perfect UNC/Chapel Hill. Bubba also bet it would be there when we got back… although Nicaragua he ventured couldn’t wait.
By the third day we were in Mississippi. The middle of the afternoon Lamar, who did the driving, suggested that we look for a campsite early because it looked like rain. Actually he said, he was hoping for rain, because he had purchased a U.S. Army jungle hammock, the best camping device available to deal with foul weather, and he wanted to show us how it worked, how absolutely comfortable a man could be in the middle of a rain storm in the middle of the woods. We turned off the main road just past a small creek – “We’ll need water in the morning for coffee,” Lamar said – and soon came across another dirt road down to the creek bed. The clouds above were dark and threatening as we came to a stop and began unloading the things we needed for the night. Lamar got his hammock out of the back of the jeep – new, shiny, compact – it looked seriously functional. Lamar tucked the rolled up nylon, mosquito net and rope contraption under his arm and, as Bubba and I were stretching a tarp out to make a lean-to off the jeep, Lamar took forceful strides out to a small clearing near the creek. A few drops of rain began to fall.
“Come on down rain, you ain’t going to bother me, no siree, because, ol’ rain, I’ve got Mr. Hammock here to keep me nice and warm and dry tonight. Be as nasty as you want to be, it’s quite all right.” He unfurled the hammock on the ground between two trees and began to uncoil the main ropes, humming as he worked.
“I’m going to be here, right here, boys, near the creek. It’s going to be music in my ears tonight, this babbling brook,” he said as he worked on the ropes.
“Ain’t that one tree there a little dead looking, Lamar.” This was not a serious observation by Bubba. He was bringing out the cooking utensils and putting them on the hood of the jeep and just making small talk.
“Well hell yeah, maybe a little bit, but this is a Mississippi tree. Real strong tree. Houses are made with dead wood, too, you know.”
When he had finished, Lamar’s hammock looked handsome. Possibly it was the bucolic scene, the hammock stretched between two old trees on the bank of a creek deep in the woods of Mississippi. The fading light showed its trim rain roof, mosquito netting sides and the comfortable, wide hammock bed. Sticks stretched the roof and the bed out. Lamar did a side step shuffle as he came back to the jeep and got a small pillow, which he took back and placed inside the hammock. He made a show of zipping the mosquito netting open and closed.
“Well come into my house, Mister Lamar, says Mister Hammock. All the comforts of home in here.” He turned and smiled at us, clapped his hands together and walked back under the lean-to, where I had started cooking luncheon meat for supper. Bubba was drinking a beer. It began to rain in earnest.
“Where you going to put your boots, Lamar? When you get into that monkey house, what’s going to happen to your boots?” Bubba, who had sold shoes before, thought about things like that. In fact Bubba was the only Jewish guy I ever knew who sold shoes. ‘Course also, he was the only Jewish guy I ever knew named Bubba.
“See that rock over there I’m using as my stairway up to Hammock Heaven? I climb in, I take my boots off, put them on the rock, and in the morning when I wake up, there they are. Room service. A man has to do what a man has to do.”
The rain began coming down in sheets. It was pitch dark outside the lean-to. We ate the luncheon meat and bread, drank a couple of beers, talked about Central America, a conversation which was short on facts and long on expectations, and occasionally remarked on our surroundings. The water from the creek was rising, almost to the rock Lamar had placed to help him into the hammock. I suggested that if Lamar wanted safe passage to “Hammock Heaven” then he ought to consider making a dash over to that part of the world sooner rather than later. There appeared to be no let-up in the rain.
As Bubba and I were making ourselves comfortable under the lean to, Lamar bent down and unlaced his boots. He took a flash light and after a moment’s pause to look out at the rain, he put his head down and ran the eight or ten paces to the hammock. We watched him in silence as he dipped under the rain cover, unzipped the mosquito netting, climbed up on the rock, stuck his head inside the mosquito netting and jumped up, turning around as he did, so that he ended up sitting with his feet dangling outside.
“Oh, it so nice and dry in here. Oh this is so wonderful. Just listen to that rain on the roof. Man doing his thing.”
We could barely hear him above the rain but we saw him reach out, take off one boot after the other and place them squarely on the rock and then his legs disappeared inside the mosquito netting and when he zipped up the side, the hammock was balanced.
Bubba and I continued to look out in that direction; we had settled in for the night in semi sitting positions hard against the side of the jeep. I closed my eyes and started to sleep when thunder cracked through the night. Suddenly wide-eyed I could see from the lighting that the water was coming up around the rock under the hammock.
“I think our friend Lamar is in for a hellva night.” Bubba said as he reached over and lit a cigarette.
We watched for the next thirty minutes as the water continued to rise. Finally with the boots only a few inches above the lapping creek, we saw the side of the mosquito net sag as Lamar unzipped it and his left hand sneaked out, grabbed one boot and retreated with it back inside the mosquito netting. Then the hand sneaked out again but as it grabbed the second boot a branch which had been pushed up on the bank by the rising water, suddenly slapped at Lamar’s wrist and in surprise he dropped the boot and his hand retreated into the mosquito net, but quickly reappeared as he reached out to get the boot before it floated away. This disrupted his balance in the hammock and it tilted to the side. Lamar began tumbling out head first, but he got his hands down to catch his fall and there he was, half in and half out of the hammock.
He reached one hand in and grabbed the other side of the hammock and tried to pull himself up and in, but when he lifted his hand up from the creek, the hammock flipped over and Lamar landed in the water.
Standing up he righted the hammock and dove in, head first. This obviously put him at a disadvantage in zipping up the mosquito netting and he tried to turn around inside to put his head back to the front, however he lost his balance inside and the hammock turned over again, dumping him back into the water. The boot he had first rescued tumbled out behind him, plus his pillow. A blanket fell partly out.
He was back up quickly, picking up the pillow as he righted the hammock. He stepped gingerly on the rock, pushed the blanket back inside, tossed in the pillow, put his head inside the mosquito netting and jumped up into the hammock.
The old tree holding one side broke near the ground, under the water. Bubba and I heard the pop and exchanged glances. It was clear to us that the tree had broken but we were surprised to see that it didn’t topple over. We looked at one another again. Bubba raised his eyebrows and cocked his head slightly to one side. Finally, slowly, the broken tree started to fold in toward the hammock. And slowly, the bottom of the hammock began to dip down toward the water. Slowly, Slowly.
“Auggggg,” from inside the hammock as this obviously was not lost on Lamar.
The old tree stopped leaning. Lamar’s butt was only a foot from the water. He was at almost a forty five degree angle however and I was wondering if he could stay in that position all night when the tree gave way completely. The hammock and Lamar landed in the water with a crash. A branch from the tree lay on the hammock and impeded Lamar’s exit.
As Lamar disengaged himself from the branch and the hammock, the pillow floated away. He slogged through the water to the tree, untied the hammock rope and turned around a few times until he found another tree within distance to tie the hammock to. Completely wet now, he splashed through the water, retied the ropes, splashed back to the hammock, righted it, reached in, took out the wet blanket and threw it away. As he started to climb in he reached up, tore the limb off and climbed back into the hammock. It dipped down close to the water. Then there was quiet. No movement. Only the rain sounded. The hammock looked forlorn, war torn and not nearly so handsome as before. It was surrounded by water. We imagined Lamar was lying quietly, with his knees drawn up.
Lamar stirred in the hammock.
“Augggggg. The god damned branch punched a hole in the roof. The fucker is filling up with water inside.”
The next morning we rounded up our gear, packed the jeep and trailer and went back out to the main road south. Near the intersection we pulled in to get gas and the guy filling our tanks asked where we’d come from. When we told him that we had camped down by the river, he whistled.
“Biggest water moccasins in the world down there. We live here but we don’t go there. Fish off the bridge. Too many stories of them snakes biting folks.”
Lamar slept all that morning in the back of the jeep. Bubba and I drove, occasionally breaking in song about a man just doing what a man had to do.
We did not know a communist revolution was fomenting down where we were heading that would make the snake infested banks of a Mississippi river seem pretty tame in comparison.