Ashes in the Rain : I have a bad back, a bad heart and a bad attitude, all of which combine to limit my outdoor talents.

Leo Carrillo State Park is a fine little collection of campsites tucked into a canyon a few miles north of Malibu. It offers hiking trails, hot showers and a small store that sells beer and wine for those who prefer lying drunk in the dirt to hiking happily through God's mountains.

The park is obviously not meant for people who enjoy solitary backpacking in Alaska while living off roots and grubs, but it is ideal for weekend outings and family gatherings. That's what I was doing huddled in the rain at Campsite No. 75, as I shall explain. Trudge along as best you can.

To say I am not exactly an outdoorsman is to say Nancy Reagan is not exactly Madonna. Nancy Reagan is definitely not Madonna and I am definitely not an outdoorsman. The last time I was at Leo Carrillo, for instance, I forever damaged my son's image of his father by an inability to even put up a small, two-man tent.

He was 12 and we were having a father-son camping weekend. I cursed and raved for an hour over instructions that guaranteed any man with a high school education would have the tent up in 10 easy minutes. But at the end of the hour, the tent lay in a useless heap, no closer to housing us through the night than it had been 60 minutes earlier.

I was about to abandon the project and teach the boy instead how to mix a tentless martini under adverse conditions when an old man across the way who had been watching and who could contain himself no longer said, "The damned thing is upside down."

The nosy old fool was right, and by the simple expediency of turning the tent over, it was easily assembled. I remember my son looking at me curiously and asking, "Didn't they have tents in the Marine Corps?"

I explained that I was a Marine in an era before tents, and while he accepted the response in silence, I sensed that my credibility as his father-figure had gone whistling off into the chaparral.

Despite an inability to survive in an environment beyond hotels and French restaurants, however, there are times when I am called upon by majority family vote to be a Good Sport. I am, alas, equally incapable of cheerful good sportsmanship, but even the most dour of us have to try occasionally.

So we went back to Leo Carrillo last weekend and even returned to the campsite where I had first demonstrated to my son that fatherhood and camping are not necessarily compatible.

Because time dilutes memories of anguish, I had forgotten the difficulties of arranging any kind of family movement from here to there. The only impediment that came to mind from the past was the necessity of our youngest daughter to use the bathroom the very minute we pulled out of the driveway at the start of a trip.

There was a direct relationship between her bladder and the spontaneous combustion engine that baffled me for years, but disappeared when she began dating. It is not cool to announce one's need to urinate while heading toward the junior prom.

The logistics of camping for a weekend were enormous. It took a camper, a pickup and two cars to pack our supplies to Leo Carrillo, and then I think we left things behind.

Once we reached our destination, however, logistics ceased to matter. It was the Time of the Tent again.

I announced, recalling old failures, that I alone would erect the main tent. It was a mistake. I am no better at putting up tents today than I was eight years ago, and this time there weren't just the two little eyes of my son watching but the six little eyes of my grandchildren. A whole new generation was about to see me humiliate myself.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, a tent pole fell on my head before I really got started, and everyone insisted thereafter that the tent-raising become a family affair before I bashed myself into oblivion.

It's just as well. I have a bad foot, a bad back, a bad heart and a bad attitude, all of which combine to limit my outdoor talents. My mother used to tell her friends I was small-boned and threw up easily to explain my unwillingness to camp with the Boy Scouts, but privately she'd say it was a shame I was so clumsy.

But, what the hell, we got the tent up at old Leo Carrillo and that night I cooked spaghetti, which I am capable of doing. Everyone loved it, although my wife pointed out that the great chefs of Europe probably didn't make the kind of mess I made. My eldest daughter suggested, however, that maybe the great chefs of Mexico did.

Later around the campfire we recalled other reunions as the three children slept in our arms, and, mellowed by red wine and spaghetti, I agreed that coming back to Leo Carrillo in 1989 would be a good idea.

It rained the next morning, so we packed up and left, though as I was making a final check of the grounds I stopped by the campfire made soggy from the storm and, remembering yesterday's warmth, decided that next year I would definitely make an effort to put up the tent by myself. It was the least I could do.

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