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Everyone's a youngster on this camping trip

Attention Campers! A three-generation campout was held at Lake Kissimmee State Park this month.

We arrived at noon at the front gate and while I checked in, our son George with daughters Barbara, 7, and Autumn Rain, 5, walked across the road into the palmettos. Scrub jays flew down, lighting on the girls' heads and upheld hands.

Barbara was filled with awe. "I just can't believe it! I can't believe a bird sat on my hand!"

The wonder of the natural world continued all weekend. Raccoons rummaged at night and snored under the van. Armadillos nosed the terrain busily, and Barbara found a perfect snakeskin to take to school for Show and Tell. And, of course, the caterpillar convention was in full swing. (Autumn pronounced it "callerpitter.")

After dark, our friends arrived. I met Jan Johnson 20 years ago on a six-week college tour to Spain. She was 19 then and I was 46. We've been friends ever since. Now married to accountant Chad Johnson, she is the publicist at River Ranch near Lake Wales. Their children _ Caitlin, 7; Erin, 5; Connor, 3 _ parallel our grandchildren.

It was fun to watch the children at first encounter. Although they know each other, they stood still and stared at one another while the grown-ups hugged each other. Then the children simply started to yell and run around the campsite, suddenly best friends. Autumn and Erin decided to be sisters and spent the weekend holding hands and sitting in the same chair. Barbara and Caitlin were buddies, too, but cowboy-booted Connor tramped around on his own.

Pa did most of the cooking, bringing a good red bean soup, which he prepared at home earlier in the week.

At dawn the next morning, I woke to bird calls. Looking sleepily out of the van, I saw son George who is an environmental biologist for HDR, a Tampa firm. He was up and dressed, standing as he often does, hands on hips, looking up into the trees. "Hear that?" he said to the girls, still in their tent. "That's a barred owl." Then a whippoorwill. A catbird flew over. Young crows called their single note.

Later, children used looped vines for a swing, explored, talked and giggled, needing no toys, just each other and the forest. George shared information on an environmental speaker for Jan's resort. Chad celebrated his 40th birthday and observed that his life is moving in a different direction than he might have thought 10 years ago.

Gramma and Pa went for a walk and then sat outdoors reading. Pa took a nap. Five-year-old Erin borrowed a billed cap that belonged to George. It is sky blue and has a printed collection of different kinds of bird poop in white. She wore it bill forward, bill backward or sideways. The colors were perfect for her sweet, smiling face.

In the evening, Pa cooked hot dogs, chicken wings, hamburgers and roasted ears of corn. I'm still learning about camping and found that bringing a green salad is pointless. Carrot and celery sticks are more popular.

Caitlin had cottage cheese instead of barbecued meat. She is a vegetarian and has been all of her seven years. She warned her sister, "That's a dead cow you're eating." This didn't bother Erin in the least.

After dinner, there were S'Mores around the campfire and then ghost stories. Barbara told a six-chapter story in her soft, intense voice, making it up as she went along. She added expressive eye and hand motions. It seems just last week Barbara was a babbling newborn and now suddenly has the English language completely under control, even nuances, wit and a perfect plot line.

The next morning, we somehow got all of our clutter back into the vehicles and then sat around the picnic table not wanting to leave. George gave Erin the blue-and-white hat to keep. Caitlin and Barbara will write to each other by e-mail. Jan will send a photo of the birds, and George will fax business information to her. We agreed to plan another weekend. What is this stuff about Generation Gap?

_ You can write to Niela Eliason c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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