Mike and Jacob and the waterlogged watch existed in 1974, a small and relatively safe time and place, particularly if you were a nine-year-old American boy living in an old western Pennsylvania mining town. Adults, of course, had plenty of concerns. Newspapers declared that Earth’s resources were running scarce. Paper, oil, gas, water, and energy shortages were a part of life. The boys had heard their fathers swear about Watergate, Nixon, and the cost of energy.

But neither boy knew anything about these adult matters. Even if they did, they wouldn’t have cared, as long as the paper shortage didn’t affect the newest series of Topps baseball cards from rolling off the presses or delay the latest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. They sang along to radio tunes like CSNY’s “Ohio” and The Beatles “Revolution,” neither knowing nor caring if the lyrics had any deep meaning. Instead, they traded cards and comics, and tried to squeeze money out of adults in their lives.

Overall, it was a terrific time during which it was okay to be a kid–when there were few rules beyond “brush your teeth before bed” and “ready up your room.” Bright metallic bicycles with colorful streamers and oversized banana seats with hidden compartments for storing candy and chewing gum were the norm. Each October they bought boxed Halloween costumes: hot plastic masks and uncomfortably warm polyester clothes. They walked door to door, sweating in their costumes and demanding tricks or treats. There were no extra-curricular activities, no music lessons or soccer teams. Saturday mornings were six-hour blocks of animated fun with Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny, Speed Buggy, Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids.

Chores included walking to the corner store to purchase a pack of smokes for Dad or a dozen eggs for Mom. Weekly allowances, measured in nickels and dimes, were spent there too, on trading cards, bubble gum, and candy bars. Royal Crown Cola and Cherokee Red were downed by the gallon.

Pennsylvania summers are often characterized by heat and humidity. And while 1974 was no exception, the evenings almost always felt cool and comfortable. Lightning storms happened often but, to the boys, were no different than a fireworks display.

A huge stretch of time from June 16 to September 5 was spent in cut-off denim shorts or swim trunks, tee shirts, and Keds sneakers.

Mike Dietrich and Jacob Hopewell were neighbors and best pals, and as far as they could remember, they had spent every summer together. For them, waterproof watches aside, every summer was like a huge chicken to be plucked, stuffed, and roasted. They liked the same things: baloney and cheese sandwiches with the new spicy-brown kind of mustard, Looney Toons, super-hero and western comic books, Bazooka Joe bubble gum, Lost in Space and Twilight Zone, camping, bicycles, Hot Wheels, the Hardy Boys, and especially big, round quarters. A boy holding fifty cents had the world in his hands.

Of course camping, especially for kids like Mike and Jacob who lacked a proper camping tent, was actually a front-porch sleepover. It was just as fun, although being tentless was nothing to brag about.

“It’s completely unfair. I swear we’re the only kids in town without a tent to sleep in,” Mike whined.

“Pretty sure we’re not the only kids in town without a tent.”

“It would be sweet to sleep in a tent once in a while.”

“I don’t know. I kind of like the porch,” Jacob said. “Nothing much to set up, a sky full of stars, and plenty of room.”

“Yeah, and blinding sunlight at 7:00 a.m. And mosquito bites. And our moms can see us. We need privacy.”

“I guess. But where are we going to get a tent? Even a pup tent is expensive.”

Mike scoured the ads in his comic books for tent offers or contests. Jacob’s money was on James.

James and Jacob were brothers. A full 16 years older than Jacob, James had enlisted in the army reserve during the Vietnam War. James was never called into full active duty, but he received the same gear as the troops who were sent into combat. He served one weekend per month, and two weeks per summer. In December 1973 he was discharged with honors and given his bundle of military gear as a souvenir. On the afternoon following James’s final return from the New Scranton military base, Jacob rooted through everything in sight. The big pile of military goodies stretched across the living room floor.

“Can I keep this?” he asked, clutching the Army-issue sleeping bag.

“Take whatever you want. I’d just as soon not see any of it again,” James said, and turned his attention to Barbara Eden’s exposed midriff on I Dream of Jeanie.

Jacob grinned, ecstatic to show Mike his find. His mom was less thrilled by her youngest son’s interest in the weathered government-issue sleeping bag.

“Why do you want that old thing? Looks like it should go in the trash to me. Yours is a lot nicer.”

“No, Mom, this is good, see, because it looks different and not like a dumb folded-over kid’s bag. It’s like GI Joe’s sleeping bag. And it kind of looks like the cocoon Mothman on Chiller Theater had, and it covers you from head to toe, so even Bigfoot won’t see me in it!”

“It doesn’t look to me like it’s going to protect anyone from Bigfoot. You watch out for him. And I hope you haven’t been sneaking out of bed at night to watch scary movies.”

“Nah, I just saw it listed in the TV paper is all,” Jacob lied. “Anyway, you have to admit it’s well made. I could sleep out in the woods in a rainstorm and never get wet.”

“That’s not going to happen. You and Mike can camp on the porch as usual, but no woods, Army bag or not. There’s Bigfoot and worse in those woods. Maybe this bag’s not such a good idea.”

Jacob was so desperate to impress upon his mom a love for his newfound gear that he donated his old sleeping bag to the church relief fund. However, when spring arrived and sleepover time began, Jacob started to reconsider his act of charity.

“What’s the matter with you?” Mike asked, as Jacob squirmed out of his sleep gear on a sunny Saturday morning in May. “You look awful.”

“Couldn’t sleep. Something in this stupid sleeping bag poked at me all night long. It was like trying to sleep on a rose bush.”

“You should have hung onto your old sleeping bag ‘til after you tested this one.”

“I know, but my mom was going to chuck this one. Ow! My neck is killing me!”

“What we need is a tent,” Mike said.

“Cripes, this darn bag is hot!” Jacob whined. “Want to switch?”

“Nope! I don’t know why you ever got rid of your old bag in the first place. Was nothing wrong with it.”



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