Before I began my adventure, I was organizing my supplies in my mom and dad’s garage when I noticed they had a whole storage shelf filled with their old camping equipment. They stopped camping over 30 years ago, but they haven’t given this stuff away.
Neatly organized were coolers, a Coleman stove, gas canisters, a lantern, tablecloths, and even a Ziploc bag filled with bug spray and sunscreen, many years past their expiration dates. Under the pots and pans, I see the 50-year old cast iron camping griddle, wrapped in aged newspaper and covered with an old brown paper bag.
The griddle was a gift to Dad from his first cousin Louie Ambrozic before he died in a car accident. Louie grew up with Dad in Butte Montana. He was, in essence, Dad’s little brother whom he loved dearly, and Louie worshiped the ground Dad walked on.
Louie handcrafted the griddle in the metal casting workshop when he worked at the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Butte. Weighing nearly 10 pounds, the 18 x 12 inch smooth griddle has curved edges and skinny handles on each end. This was Dad’s pan of choice for cooking bacon and eggs over a campfire – it accompanied us on every camping trip.
Growing up in a blue-collar family of seven, camping trips were our family vacations. Once a year, Mom and Dad would load us five kids into our baby blue station wagon pulling our camper, and drive to the great outdoors.
When we were camping, at sunrise, Dad would sneak out of the camper to enjoy the piece and quiet while we were still asleep. Once he stepped outside, he’d pull a Kent out of his pack, strike a wood match against the Diamond matchbox and light his morning cigarette. He’d quietly stir around the campsite, building a campfire and brewing coffee in the aluminum percolator coffee maker.
By the time he enjoyed a fresh cup of Joe and a cigarette or two, the snap, crackle pop of the campfire awoke us from our slumber. We’d file out of the camper to find our strong and handsome father wearing his white Bucket fishing hat and a big grin, lovingly preparing our breakfast.
Like a Sunday church service, there were rituals Dad followed when cooking on the griddle over the fire. First, he’d stack rocks on either side of the fire pit for the griddle to sit on – high enough to assure the griddle wouldn’t be directly in the flames. He would securely place the griddle on the rock stands and let warm up. Then, he’d retrieve the bacon from the cooler.
By this time, the five of us kids would be gathered around the picnic table altar like parishioners waiting for communion. Carefully, he’d pull each piece of bacon off the slab and line it up neatly on the hot griddle. With a sizzle and a pop, the bacon would release its seductive smoky aroma. We’d breathe in the incense and watch attentively as he and the griddle fried the bacon to crispy perfection.
After breakfast, Dad would lovingly clean the griddle, closing the ceremony with a final wipe from a paper towel which he tossed in the fire, and place it back in its paper bag wrapper.
That’s a forty-year-old memory that feels like it was yesterday.
The sound of the opening garage door jolts me from my reminiscing. “How’s it going out here,” Dad asks as he slowly steps down the stairs to join me. Making a B-line to his camping shelf he asks if I need anything for the trip. He stares at their old equipment and starts picking through it. He spots his prize possession; the last tangible memento he has of Louie.
The heaviness of the griddle catches him off guard as he pulls it from the shelf. He takes it out of the brown bag, unwraps the newspaper and looks it over, top and bottom.
His eyes pool with tears as a lifetime of memories rush through his mind like a movie playing on fast-forward:
All the good times he shared with Louie,
When Louie gave the griddle to him,
All our camping trips,
When we were children,
All the friends and family he’s shared this with,
When he was in the prime of his life.
The griddle is not just an old pan to him, it’s a piece of time-travel that transports him to cherished times of strength and clarity when he was much younger.
Overcome with emotion, Dad’s voice raises a pitch as he asks, “Do you have a griddle?” Tears trickle down his soft cheeks as he hands it to me and gives me detailed directions on how to care for it.
By letting go of Louie’s griddle, Dad is telling me there will be no more camping trips for him.
But he loves it too much to let it sit on that shelf and be forgotten. So he gives it to me – his youngest child.
I graciously accept the griddle and promise him I will make new memories with it.
I promise myself I will share his old memories too.