I’m watching my grandfather gulp down his coffee seated in front of an early morning campfire. Somehow it doesn’t scald his throat as the boiling liquid disappears. I look at the mug of coffee in my ten-year-old hands, steam coming off of it like a cloud from a train’s smoke stack. I put it up to my mouth and, before it even touches my lips, I recoil from the heat. I’m not allowed to drink coffee at home, but this is camping. I want to look like a natural when I take my first sip so for now I warm my mitted hands on the mug and wait until the liquid cools.
You can acclimatize your mouth. I learned that from my sister who finishes bowls of hot soup before I even start. I’ve tried it, but I don’t think the pain is worth it. I look at my grandpa in his red and black plaid shirt and blue skull cap, his white beard kept neat and close to his face. It’s his birthday today. My dad takes him camping here every year and now I’m old enough to tag along. It’s a men’s retreat, they tell me.
“I used to hunt squirrels in these woods,” he says. “There was no camping here back then. It was all Provincial Parks territory.” He grew up here. His father used to supervise the park. He’s told me all this before.
“Americans used to come up here to hunt,” he says. He gives the cast iron skillet a purposeful nudge, the bacon fat crackles in response. I ask him about his father.
“My father fought in both World Wars. He had one of those stories from the first war that reads like bad fiction.” My grandfather prefaces it this way, guessing that I won’t believe him otherwise. “It sounds corny, but my father kept all his letters from home in his breast pocket next to his heart. His sisters would send him letters and pictures of Jesus and the Saints. He kept it all in a leather wallet. He was riding a horse up to the front line on one occasion, they still had cavalry in the first war, and a piece of artillery went off near him. The men who found him thought he’d been blown to bits, but it was just the horse’s entrails. Mess all over him.” I stare at the bacon; my appetite doesn’t wane at this description. “He didn’t have a scratch. Piece of shrapnel hit that wallet near his heart, would have killed him, but it didn’t even break skin.” I let out a low whistle. “There are a thousand stories like that,” he says. “Stuff like that is bound to happen when so much killing’s getting done.”
The bacon’s almost ready and he cracks six eggs into the pan. Real estate is a problem and the whites of the eggs crowd each other. My dad comes back from the showers. He’s using a walking stick he must have found on the way.
“It’s funny,” my grandpa continues without looking up at my dad, “my father never spoke about that war, yet for some reason that story got passed down. A little too romantic, I always thought.”