Editor's note: This column by Terry Tomalin about his then-6-year-old nephew, Tyler Nelson, appeared in print on Jan. 6, 1991.
Tyler Nelson dreamed of one day going camping with the big boys. "When are you going to take me camping, Uncle Terry?" he'd ask. "When can we go camping?"
Like most adults, I had plenty of excuses.
"I've been pretty busy at work, buddy. Soon," I'd reply. "Anyway, it's too hot to go camping . . . maybe when the weather gets a little cooler."
But nephews don't want much, just a little time and attention. After a while, I started feeling guilty.
So on Christmas morning, full of holiday cheer, I said the words the 6-year-old longed to hear. "Let's go camping."
Tyler didn't say anything at first. Maybe it took a few seconds for it to sink in. Maybe he heard me, but thought it was just another empty promise from an uncle who was always "too busy."
I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to my 31 nephews and nieces, I often promise things I can't deliver.
"I mean it," I said. "Let's leave Friday afternoon, camp out and come back on Saturday. Maybe we can even fish a little."
His eyes lit up. I hit a nerve — fish. "You mean it?" he said with a smile. "You, me and my dad?"
Three days later, much to the lad's surprise, I returned as promised.
Then, with enough gear to mount an expedition up the Amazon, we headed for Lake Kissimmee State Park. We had a tent, sleeping bags, a stove, pots and pans, and of course, a wide variety of flashlights and pocketknives. You can never have too many flashlights and pocketknives.
But halfway there, I realized we had forgotten the single most important piece of equipment for a successful foray into the wilderness: marshmallows.
Fortunately, quick thinking on my part saved our expedition from certain failure. I navigated our party to the nearest supermarket; then, with marshmallows and weenies added to our supplies, we pressed on.
We arrived at the park, a two-hour drive east of Tampa, by late afternoon. A friendly ranger greeted us and I asked for the wildest, most primitive campsite.
"It's the boy's first time," I said with a wink. "We want to give him a good taste of the woods."
As I filled out the necessary paperwork, next of kin, etc., Tyler's eyes locked on the tusks of a wild boar whose stuffed head hung on the wall.
"The woods are full of them but don't worry," I said, showing him my Swiss Army knife, the blade carefully honed to a razor edge.
We found our campsite nestled in the pines. We quickly pitched our tent and then suffered our first casualty — Dad's finger, a wound that would obviously require one, maybe even two Band-Aids.
As Dad went off in search of first aid, I gave Tyler his first meal in the wilderness.
"Can I open the can of soup, please, please," he pleaded. "I want to use the army Swiss knife."
Ten minutes later, the soup was open. By the time Dad returned, Tyler had consumed all the lukewarm broth. Now it was time for the search. So pocketknives in hand, we set out to look for the perfect marshmallow stick.
Now 6-year-olds can be trying at times. Maybe that's why science gave us Nintendo, to keep them busy while we adults can do important things. But there's no need for Gameboy out here. There's enough sticks out here to keep an army of the little rascals busy for weeks.
Darkness fell, and Tyler's attention turned to the fire. His first marshmallow was perfect, the crust a delicate light brown. But his technique steadily deteriorated with each marshmallow toasted, until the last one was nothing more than a flaming black mass.
This meant bedtime was near, so we set out on the obligatory night hike, which performs two important functions. First, a night hike will usually tire the little camper out. But more importantly, night hikes present the perfect opportunity to play with your flashlight.
Halfway through our trek, something scurried across our path. It was like nothing I'd seen before, large and bushy, more plant than animal.
"Tree creature," I deduced.
Then I saw that the bush beast was on a leash. Actually, it was more like a piece of kite string. And it led to a couple of teen-age boys hiding behind a tree.
"Tree creature," they laughed. "Tree creature."
That was about as much excitement as we could handle, so we headed back to camp. It didn't take long until the fire's temptation became too much for Tyler. Playing with sticks, he scattered some ash on the borrowed camping equipment.
So it was into the tent for The Talk With Dad.
I listened as father and son discussed the perils of playing with fire. They talked, then whispered, then giggled and laughed.
Soon the moon rose up over the pine trees. By now the tent was silent. Then came the gentle sound of a child's snore.
I peaked inside, and the tired camper was asleep. His head rested on his father's chest and I could tell by his smile that his dreams had come true.