We normally camp at Assateague State Park, but in the summer of 2016 we camped at Assateague Island National Seashore. We arrived on a Sunday and spread out over the two beachfront campsites we had reserved. Behind us to our south was one of the most dysfunctional families ever to assemble on the campground. Highlights included many violent, drunken, profanity-laced verbal brawls and throw-downs, glasses of a potent blue punch, a young child named after a popular amoral television dwarf, and one family member mounting and briefly riding an Assateague pony at the water’s edge.
Directly behind us, though, a woman and her dog (a big, lovable hound) were setting up camp, and it was not going well. She had bought what was billed by Coleman as an “instant tent,” the idea being that you took it out of the bag, added a cross-pole at the top, lifted and voila! You have a tent. Except this one didn’t.
She struggled for a couple of hours, to no avail. I dragged my brother-in-law over to see if we could help her out, but nothing seemed to fit. Finally she said was going to drive into town, and when she got back, she would throw mosquito netting over the picnic table, and she and her dog would spend the night there. She left the tent in a heap and drove off into the approaching twilight.
I did not think this was a good idea, sleeping under a table, so after we got our campsites in order, I dragged my brother-in-law back over to her tent to see if we could find what we were missing. Eventually we figured that that the two supports that the cross-pole was supposed to slide into, one at each end, were facing out and away from each other instead of facing in and toward each other. The only way the pole would work under that set-up was if it went completely around the planet first. So we took the tent apart and put it back together with everything facing the right way, set it up, brought her sleeping gear inside, and set her camp chair outside the front door, ready for her return.
When she got back long after sunset, she couldn’t have been more surprised and happy. She and her hound slept well that night. The next morning they joined us at our site for some lovely conversation. Then she thanked us, and they they headed home.
A few days later, two Park Rangers approached us. I recognized them, and they probably recognized me. The day before, our then 12-year-old and his friend who he brought camping went out biking and ended up at the Assateague General Store. Somehow they ended up leaving separately. Our 12-year-old—let’s call him James—followed someone he assumed was his friend back into the park. His friend turned left toward Ocean City.
When James rolled into the campsite without his friend, we began a frantic, stress-filled search for him. It was not pretty, and not fun. We looked everywhere between the general store and the park. No luck. Long story short, some guys in town for a golf tournament saw a very upset child pushing his bike along 611 and assumed he was running away from home. They pulled over, told him to hop in (yes yes, I know, I know), threw his bike in the back of the truck, and drove him back to the park. They left him with the two Rangers who were coming into our campsite.
They brought us a package, which had been delivered to the main park office with instructions to deliver it to the people with the pennants strung among their tents. The package was from the woman we had helped. Inside was a beautiful, heartfelt, really sweet letter of thanks and proclamation citing us for our good deed. And along with the proclamation were magic sticks.
She had made one set for each of us, each stick hand-painted, and paired and wrapped in a glittering fabric. A tag tied around the set told us these were “… magic sticks, so you may always have a child-like heart.”
Assateague is at its heart a place of wonder, but even there suspicion can threaten to replace compassion and a good deed can be hard to find. But not then, not there. We were there to help our neighbor just as others have done for us (thank you at least twice over, Ken Heath). It’s just what you do. Magic sticks are a sweet reminder of what Assateague is really all about. It’s both a place of solitary reflection and contentment, and at the same time a deeply communal place that seems to defy the real and imagined differences that divide people off-island.
The URL in neighbor’s note belongs to a website that is decidedly not affiliated with any political party or representatives, or any other like-sounding website or organization. It’s not MAGA. Instead, it is “a welcome mat, inviting inclusion of faith-based Americans of every race, nationality and faith, to be good citizens to one another, in a country which stands for truth, justice and the value of a single human being.”
I guess that’s it. On Assateague, it seems perfectly natural to be good citizens to one another. Oh, and the Rangers confirmed my thoughts about her sleeping under the table. Even under mosquito netting, they said, out there on the sand she and her dog would have been eaten alive.