Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This Week: Ponca State Park, Nebraska

Volleyball has always been a HUGE part of my life. My biggest heartbreak was losing in the semi-finals of the Nebraska State Volleyball tournament in 1985. I met the man of my dreams on a volleyball court in Aspen, Colorado (see January 2010 post). I still play. I’ve been playing on a city-rec women’s indoor team every Wednesday night for the last 16 YEARS and across two states no less. I even have a quirky volleyball hobby. When I travel, I’m always looking for outdoor volleyball nets, even if I have no intention of playing. I’ve turned this hobby into a collection of photos called Ugly Volleyball Nets posted on Facebook. The start of this obsession can be traced back to Labor Day weekend 1980.

My mom took my brother and I on a camping weekend with about several other families to Ponca State Park, Nebraska, on the Nebraska-South Dakota boarder. Ponca State Park was right on the Missouri River. We traveled there in the giant black pickup truck owned by a friend of my mom’s along with her 10-year old-son. My mom and her friend worked together and we were joining several other families that make an annual pilgrimage to Ponca on their powerboats. By highway, our trip was only one hour, however, the boat travelers would be on the river between four to five hours. We met another family that had driven to the state park with their boat and we all motored down river to the campsite together.

When we got there, a little before noon Saturday, the other families who had come by boat were also just arriving. The water travelers had left in the wee hours of the morning and formed quite a caravan up the Missouri river with seven or eight motorboats. Now those boats were lined neatly in row tethered to trees on the shore. Families set up their tents and some men built a brick fire pit. The campsite was sandy earth with skinny Aspen trees everywhere, but not so thick you couldn’t put up your tent. The trees grew right up to the edge of the river. All the kids ran around, in and out of the water and underfoot. Some of the campers were working on the most important part of the campsite, the outhouse! One of the things the regular campers had learned was the forest at Ponca wasn’t very thick so you had to wander quite a distance to get some privacy. The campers created an outhouse by wrapping several nearby trees in black plastic complete with a door flap, then placing a large plastic bucket lined with a trash bag inside and several rolls of toilet paper. They even made two, men’s and women’s. Not exactly the Ritz, but it beat the alternative.

The five of us, mom, me, my brother, her friend and her son shared one large tent and after setting it up, we kids set out to play. Some adults had discovered a large sandbar a few feet from shore and they put a volleyball net on it. A bunch of us, including my friend Anne, set up on one side and the two adults on the other and we batted that ball back and forth for the rest of the day. Because we were in ankle-deep water, Anne and I flung ourselves after the ball and didn’t worry about getting hurt. We played until the sun went down. The only breaks we took were for dinner or when a barge went by. The adults told us the barges created undertows on the river that could suck people under without warning so we had to get out of the river completely until they were gone.

On Sunday, I played volleyball some more. I was digging volleyballs left and right and my mom’s friend, said, “Hey, she’s really good.” And I was; I can’t explain it, but I just knew where the ball was going to be before it got there. My mom’s friend said I should try out for the volleyball team and with school starting next week and I would. But for now, it was fun just running around the sandbar. While some of the other kids went swimming, waterskiing or tubing, I just kept playing volleyball. An occasional parent who got tired of sitting around would come down and play for a while and the kids came and went every five minutes, so sometimes we had ten people on a side, but other times we only had two or three. I was the constant. I don’t remember doing anything else the whole weekend.

By Sunday evening, we had worn that sandbar so far down the water flowed past our knees and it was too difficult to run so the adults took the net down. By dusk those of us still awake sat around the camp fire listening to the adults tell stories and jokes. Most of the families that took this trip were members of the Tekamah Volunteer Fire Department and it was quite the fraternity. They had interesting stories to tell, like the dangerous stunts they pulled when they were young followed by “don’t you try that, kids.” Most of their stories were too raunchy for this 12-year-old to hear or understand, but I still enjoyed it. I remembered them as fun-loving, drink-beer-until-you-fall-asleep-not-fall-down people just happy to be together with their families on a warm Labor Day weekend. Soon all of the younger kids and a few of their parents had turned in. Those that camped in their motorboats had zipped up their canvas covers for the night. My brother and my mom’s friend’s son had already gone to sleep in our tent.

Once the twilight was gone, I lost all track of time. It seemed later than it actually was because the sky was so dark. I heard crickets in the woods and smelled the Off bug repellent people had sprayed for the mosquitoes. I remember this one fireman we had dubbed “Keeper of the Fire” because he never left his folding chair by the fire pit that whole weekend. With a Schlitz beer in one hand and fire stoker in the other, he made it his job to look after the campfire. He enlisted the help of all of us kids to gather wood for him so he wouldn’t have to leave that chair. Our other chore was to hand him a full Schiltz and recycle the empty when he asked. He had the funniest stories. At what seemed to me the middle of the night my mom said it was time for me to go to sleep. I didn’t want to because when I woke up, the three-day weekend would be over. As I lay in my sleeping bag at the other end of camp, I couldn’t hear the Keeper of the Fire’s voice anymore, but every time I drifted off to sleep I was re-awakened by uproarious laughter.

On Monday, it was a quiet drive home and a little sad. School started tomorrow. I didn’t want to go. I wanted one more day on the sandbar.

Ponca State Park
Missouri River Relief - This Saturday, April 30, is the Omaha/Council Bluffs Clean Up and the following Saturday, May 7, is the Siouxland Clean Up encompassing three states, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, in South Sioux City, Nebraska.
Schlitz - I couldn't resist.