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A Love Filled Gift
by Reggie Duke (Cloudwalker)  
Cloudwalker's Appalachian Trail Page

Anticipation can be a 10 year old boy’s worst nightmare. It was during April of 1978 when my dad casually strolled through the living room of our home with a large box neatly concealed in birthday paper under one arm. Being only 2 weeks shy of my birthday, I followed this familiar figure of a man in hot pursuit down the hall-way and into his bedroom. “Is that for me?” I inquired. “Could be” my dad responded, as he emptied his pockets of loose change and keys. My dad was a man of few words. He could tell me more with his eyes than most people could using a Webster’s Dictionary. This method of communication was especially effective when I wasn't being the “perfect child” that my parents knew so well. For the next 2 weeks all I could think about was that festive camouflaged box just sitting there, hidden in plain sight. What could it be? I know, a tackle box. It had to be, since fishing was more important to me than breathing. It had to be something related to my love of fooling these cold blooded creatures into biting a hunk of plastic that in no way resembled anything in the animal kingdom. Yeah, that’s it, a tackle box.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, April the 26th arrived. I tore into that box like a shelter mouse into a bag of GORP. The wrapping paper was nothing more than a pile of confetti when I unveiled my reward. When my eyes finally focused on the words and picture on the side of this card-board treasure chest, I could feel the weeks of excitement and anticipation leave me like a bullet from a high powered rifle. A sleeping bag? What was this man thinking when he picked out this gift. It wasn't like I was in the Boy Scouts. Heck, we didn't even have a Boy Scout Troop in this no-traffic-light town in Eastern, NC. “Thanks Dad”, I said in my most convincing voice. Was this it, a $15.00 sleeping bag? Where was all the fishing gear, the lures, a tackle box, maybe a rod and reel. This had to be the worst birthday of my entire 10 years.

I think I used this gift a total of 2 times during my youth, camping out in the back yard with my buddies. Most summer nights in the South are so hot and humid, you rarely need anything more than a cotton sheet, let alone a 35 degree sleeping bag. Like most gifts we receive as a child, they somehow get pushed on the back of a shelf or shoved under a bed where they are forgotten about and taken for granted. It wasn't until a couple of years after I graduated from high school that I would use my sleeping bag once again. A couple of close friends were going to camp out one January weekend during the remaining days of Squirrel Season. That night the temperature dipped down into the upper 20’s, putting my fifteen dollar, 35 degree bag to “the test”. To my surprise I slept just as warm that night as I would have in my own bed. The next morning we ate breakfast prepared on an old white gas stove and headed into the swamp in different directions to hunt for squirrels. As I sat there in the glow of the morning light, my mind was not on squirrels or hunting. I couldn't escape the feeling of guilt I felt. How selfish I had responded to a gift that was given to me by a man that loved me more than life itself. I never told my dad of my disappointment on my 10th birthday. Even years later as an adult I could not bring myself to tell him the truth. I guess I was afraid after all those years it would still hurt his feelings, but I somehow think he knew how I truly felt. He always did know me better than anyone else.

I mentioned earlier that anticipation can be a boys worst nightmare. It can also be a grown man’s dilemma awaiting the arrival of his first child. It was during this highest point in my life that I hit rock bottom. Standing beside a bed in an intensive care unit, I held my dad’s hand as his spirit left his body and this world. In the months to follow I would ride an emotional roller-coaster full of highs and lows. My wife could sense my depression and would schedule her doctor appointments on my days off from work so I could be with her and see the ultra-sounds. Later on, the reality of my loss would slowly creep up and once again I would be face to face with the fact that my dad would not be here to see the birth of his grand child. Someone once said that “Time heals all wounds”. I think some wounds never completely heal because we are left with emotional scars but in time the hurt goes away.

A couple of months ago, on a car camping trip to east Tennessee, I used my sleeping bag to tuck my two children in one night. It’s ironic, how almost 25 years later, a gift that I thought to be cheap and worthless means more to me today that it’s weight in gold. My sleeping bag is not filled with fine goose down feathers or high-tech synthetic fiber, but instead is filled with love. Love will keep you warm when all else fails, no matter what the conditions are.

Today, as I rolled up my sleeping bag and put it into it’s stuff sack in preparation for my wife’s first weekend in the back country with me, I glanced toward the Carolina blue sky, and with a smile on my face and sincerity in my heart, I once again said, “Thanks Dad”.