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The Marshmallow Moment

If I'd known that a simple camping trip with a bag of marshmallows could reacquaint me with my own inner child and introduce me to an aspect of my son I'd never met before, I'd have done it long ago.

By Dana Joseph

Lake Texoma is glittering like obsidian in the starlight.

A cool breeze rustles through the oak trees surrounding our screened shelter. Around the glowing fire pit, we sit with stick-impaled marshmallows held over orange-blue embers. Three kids under 10, one mom and one aunt over 40, one overnight at Eisenhower State Park. At home we'd be parked in front of the TV, one more forgettable night in a blur of childhood that's going by too fast. But at 10 p.m. on this Friday night, we're slowing down, recharging our spirits in nature and making a memory that will last a lifetime.

I had almost forgotten the art of roasting a marshmallow. Somewhere in all the commuting, working and single parenting, I'd lost the wonder of really being in the moment. Making time for the simple things - like being outdoors with my son - had somehow become such a complicated undertaking. My little boy was on the cusp of his 8th birthday and still had never roasted a marshmallow with his mom.

Letting Go

It's an easy drive from Dallas to Sherman, then to Denison, where we are far enough north to start seeing Oklahoma plates mixing in with Texas ones. When highway signs proclaim the birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower in Denison, we know we are just a few miles away from the south end of Lake Texoma, where Eisenhower State Park perches on the rocky bluffs of the reservoir.

My friend Gael and I have loaded her niece and nephew and my son in her Isuzu, which is packed to the gills with food and gear. But what the heck; SUVs double as vehicular suitcases and backpacks, right? With the kids' legs propped on folded air mattresses and ice chests on the rear floorboards and fishing poles dangling above their heads, our camping entourage vaguely resembles the Joads. We keep the complaining and when-will-we-be-theres to a minimum by plying the kids with animal crackers. A half-bag down, the terrain changes, becoming greener and slightly rolling. Soon we spy the signs directing us to Eisenhower State Park. "Hurray, we're here!" choruses from the back. The sentiment echoes through the grownups, too, as we each slough off city stress and luxuriate in trees, water, fresh air and verdant expanses.

We pull up to the park entrance, pay a reasonable $22 for our screened shelter, hit the bathrooms and buy some firewood. Following the park map to shelter 29 in the Deer Haven section of the park, we enlist our charges to help carry the odd array of sleeping bags, backpacks and groceries into what will be our lake home for the next 24 hours.

Chores done, the transformation is immediate. Who needs Game Boys and CD players when woods beckon to be explored? Within minutes, an impromptu game dubbed "Adventure, Inc." is underway. It involves fantasy characters, sticks for swords and a lot of running and laughing. Gael and I busy ourselves with dinner preparation while the kids become superheroes spurred on by the setting sun, fresh air and plenty of space for their spirits and imaginations to roam free.

A V of birds winging south for the winter arcs through the twilight sky. They are too far away for my untrained eye to determine their species, but whatever they are, they send a shiver of reverence through me - and the kids.

"Hey, look at the birds!" Noah yells. A 9-year-old, 7-year-old, 5-year-old and two adults stand at rapt attention, eyes on the sky. How little we look up, it occurs to me, when we live in a city.

The birds pass over the lake and then beyond the trees and out of view, leaving the kids to their play and Gael and me to fix the victuals. A corner built-in shelf holds our foodstuffs. The picnic table in our screened shelter serves as both preparation surface and dining table. The fried chicken we brought means no cooking, except to fire up the little camp stove to heat a can of baked beans. Bottled water and lemonade, potato salad, tortilla chips and a thawing strawberry cheesecake round out the feast. And, of course, a bag of marshmallows for later...

Soaking Up the Scenery

We are sitting around what we all agree is a perfect campfire. We've killed the lights in our shelter, all the better to see the stars and the campfire. Gael is a master firestarter, having learned as a child spending summers outdoors around Lake Michigan. She needs lakes and oceans like some people need sunshine. So our spot here above the water is perfect, picturesque, restorative.

Wood smoke fills the air. It follows us everywhere when we try to reposition ourselves to avoid its pungent, burning attack on our eyes. Finally, we figure out a configuration around the fire that keeps the smoke at bay. We are waiting for the fire to burn down to marshmallow-readiness. Alternately mesmerized by the flame and the stars, we walk back and forth between our campfire and a dark place in the road where we can look up at the dark sky and the millions of pinpoints of light. The smell of the night is heady. Lake water, trees, clean country air, soil, fallen leaves, wood smoke. Even the young ones reach a state of profound appreciation - or fresh-air exhaustion.

We gaze at the sky. It is so full of stars we have difficulty finding the usual constellations. Even the dippers have slipped into a crowd of stars so thick that we almost give up. But then Gael spots the Seven Sisters. I try for Cassiopeia and Orion, but find myself mesmerized by the Milky Way, which I so rarely get to see because of city light pollution. Now it spills unmistakably across the middle of the sky above me like a gauzy silk scarf. We point it out to the kids, who crane their necks in what seems like genuine amazement. It is a universe so much more magical than that of their suburban existence, and the effect of watching them become enthralled is equally magical. Connection with nature brings connection with self - the outdoors is the most effective guru to guide you to this fundamental truth. Eisenhower State Park is doing a very nice job of it, so far.

We are halfway between our starlight post and our campfire seats when we hear a frightening noise. It sounds like an animal in the camp - 'possum, skunk, raccoon? Before we can think what to do, I feel a wet nose that belongs to - thank God - a big dog. Not far behind what turns out to be a beautiful retriever comes the sound of its owner helloing our camp. Some college boys from down around Dallas introduce themselves and Zoë. Zoë makes the rounds, lapping up the petting and our slobbering attention.

Our new acquaintances head back to their shelter for a late dinner after a day of powerboating. Across the way, a father and son ready themselves for some night fishing by the light of a big citronella candle. Another neighbor on our country road of screened shelters is softly playing Cajun music. Out of the dark and the accordion melodies comes a lanky Louisianan who introduces himself as Dickey. A laconic guy, he just hangs out quietly checking out our fire. Finally, I break the comfortable silence: "The kids are mesmerized by the fire," I say.

"Who isn't?" Dickey says. "I could watch it all night. You've got your choice: Look down at the fire or up at the stars. Pretty nice choice."

That's what I love about everyone who's out here tonight. We have narrowed our choices down to this, and we are loving every minute of the simplicity.

Later tonight, after the kids are tucked under blankets on air mattresses, Gael and I will become one with the fire. We'll talk into the night about her recovery from breast cancer, my recovery from a bad marriage. The decayed fabric of my old camp chair will split in two, sending me to the ground with a dramatic thud and some serious laughter. In the morning, Gael will start another fire and Dickey will bring over more wood when he sees our effort sputtering. We will get it roaring and boil water for coffee and tea. Once the breakfast tacos and hash browns have been cooked and eaten, the kids will tend the fire compulsively and make it the centerpiece of a game that has something to do with a plot to save the world by finding diamonds.

The kids next door - delivered by Primera Asamblea de Dios church vans - will be up early walking in the woods and fishing. We will take the kids and the fishing poles down to the pier and come back not much later, having found choppy water and fire ants. We'll talk with a couple who just moved back to the Texoma area from San Diego. He's here to fish - bass, stripers, bream, crappie - and celebrate his fortysomething birthday. It won't matter to him that the water is choppy and the fish aren't biting. He's just happy to be back in Texas on a lake at a park that his wife declares "has everything."

The kids will be amazed by an impressive yellow-and-black spider in a web backlit by the sun and a walking stick on the window frame of our shelter. We will fold up camp and pack up the cars by the 2 p.m. checkout and head for the nature trail with its great views of the lake and then to the protected swimming cove. There, we'll snack on cheddar-cheese popcorn and soak up the scenery, watching sailboats glide by the backdrop of tree-lined bluffs. We will wade out in the clean water with the kids and swim. On the beach, we'll follow migrating monarch butterflies that have alighted on the sand in numbers that make us all giddy. The sky will be slightly overcast; our moods will be sunny.

But that is tomorrow, and a full day it will be.

For the moment, we're around the perfect fire sharing a perfect moment with my son and Gael's niece and nephew. It's the moment we've been waiting for: We survey our fire and pronounce it ready. Now we can get down to the business of roasting marshmallows.

Passing the Torch

We have whittled our sticks on the ends, sterilized them in the fire and studded them with marshmallows. My son seems so grown-up working the logs on the fire so that the oxygen keeps the embers glowing. He shepherds his 5-year-old friend, making sure he doesn't get too close, and plays the young gentleman with Gael's slightly older niece, making sure she is out of the wood smoke as she begins the roasting ritual.

But when he puts his marshmallow - what will be the first roasted marshmallow of his young life - into the fire ring, he is such a little boy. In the firelight, I see his little face so full of wonder and delight it brings tears to my eyes. He is 4-foot-4 tonight. Much too soon, he will tower over me. But at this moment, he is still my little boy, browning a marshmallow. "Turn it so that it gets light brown all over," I tell him. "Don't let it catch on fire. It will turn black and you won't be able to eat it. And don't let it get too melty and droopy or it will fall off your stick." He takes it all in as if I am giving him important life training.

He gets his marshmallow just right and then points the stick at me. At first I think he's offering it to me to eat, but then I realize he's asking me to pull it off for him. He'll do the next one himself, without help. This one, though, is a mother-and-son moment. I pull his marshmallow off his stick, and he pops open his mouth like a little bird - Noah, my little boy, who won't be needing Mom for stuff like this much longer.

My mother always said that if she had known that the last time my brother crawled up on her lap would be the final time, she would have paid close attention and savored it. In my heart, I know what this marshmallow moment is. On the other side of this, my son will be less of a little boy and more of a young man. As rites of passage go, it's pretty subtle, but the emotion and meaning of this moment are, to me, as deep as that lake out there. As much as I want to see him grow up and roast marshmallows around a campfire with his own children someday, I am not ready to lose this little boy. Still, I tell myself, if I really pay attention now, I will always have this memory.

I put the marshmallow in his mouth and he closes his lips around the goo. His face shines with delight in the firelight. I etch everything into my mind and my heart - the breeze blowing, the water shining, the stars twinkling, the embers glowing, the trees embracing. And my baby boy smiling at me with utter love.

Getting There

Eisenhower State Park is located in Grayson County, northwest of Denison, on the shores of Lake Texoma. From Dallas, take U.S. Highway 75 north to exit 72, SH 91 North. Take Highway 91 to FM 1310 West and go 1.8 miles to the Park Road 20 entrance.

Facilities at the park include restrooms, showers and campsites with water, electricity and sewer service. There are picnic sites, three playground areas, a pavilion and a recreation hall that can be reserved. Campers also have access to a lighted fishing pier, fish-cleaning facilities, a launching ramp and a courtesy boat dock. The park also has a 10-acre mini-bike area and 4.5 miles of hiking and biking trails for beginner and intermediate riders.

Entrance fee is $1 per person; children 12 and under get in free. Campsites range from $10 to $22 per night. The park is open daily and the office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For information about the park, call (903) 465-1956 or visit Eisenhower State Park.

To reserve a campsite call (512) 389-8900 or go to Parks and click on "Make a Reservation."

Eisenhower Birthplace State Historic Site is located at 609 S. Lamar in Denison. It is open Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday and Monday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Call (903) 465-8908 for information about tours.

Seeds of Greatness

The Eisenhower Birthplace in the old railroad town of Denison includes a simple white house, green grounds, a picnic pavilion, a statue, a visitors' center. There's nothing showy about it - not unlike the man the historical site honors.

Gazing out from the front porch of the house, I see only some of what the Eisenhowers would have seen. Neighboring houses from the days when this was a busy railroad community were carted off decades ago. The old lines of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (Katy, MK&T) no longer run. No showy manicured gardens welcome the visitor. Park manager Kurt Kemp pulled out the former landscaping to prepare for a planting of vintage tulips and irises, part of a restoration aimed at returning the house to its look when David Eisenhower and his wife, Ida, rented it for $8 a month from 1888 to 1891.

David had come to Denison in 1888 to work for the railroad. He was an engine wiper in the Katy roundhouse, just a few blocks from the birthplace home, making $40 a month. He and Ida lived in the plain white-frame, two-story house with their sons, Arthur and Edgar. Dwight was born in the first-story bedroom on October 14, 1890.

On that day, Ida went into labor while David was at work. Their boarder, James Redmon - a fireman for the Katy railroad who paid $4 a month for room and board - ran down Main Street to get Dr. D.H. Bailey. Then he ran to the roundhouse and took David's place at work so he could go home to be with Ida. Dr. Bailey delivered David Dwight Eisenhower in this bedroom; Ida soon changed his name to Dwight David to prevent confusion between the two Davids.

Eisenhower himself did not know for years that he had been born in Denison. On his West Point application he put Tyler, Texas, as his birthplace, an error he corrected years later. Eisenhower couldn't have had any real memories of the place: he was, in fact, only 18 months old when his family left to return to Abilene, Kansas, which he - and history - considered his home. It was there that he went to high school and worked in the Belle Springs Creamery before going to West Point.

Eisenhower's West Point pedigree prepared him for military greatness. During World War II, he rose from near-obscurity as a lieutenant colonel in 1941 to five-star general in 1945, becoming supreme commander of the Allied Forces, keeping regular company and counsel with Winston Churchill and helping to orchestrate the invasion at Normandy. He came home to be elected the 34th president of the United States in 1952.

Even more than in the house and the stories, even more than in his paintings in the visitors' center (Churchill convinced Eisenhower to paint to relieve stress during the war), I find Dwight's presence to be somehow most palpable in a green ash tree that stands about 10 yards east of the back door of the house. The tree isn't old enough to have been growing here when Dwight was born; even so, it's called the Eisenhower green ash, and something about its towering stature, its roots in the Denison soil, speaks his name and conveys his greatness.

The American Forests' Famous and Historic Tree Project took seeds from this tree to grow Eisenhower green ashes and plant the first-generation offspring as memorials. A 20-foot-tall Eisenhower green ash was planted on the grounds of the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., to honor WWII veterans, especially those who fought in the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy. More were planted at Arlington National Cemetery as part of "Operation Silent Witness, A Pearl Harbor Remembrance" ceremony. The Eisenhower green ash is the official tree of the WWII Memorial.

I stand beneath the ash tree's canopy and contemplate some of the words that Dwight D. Eisenhower left the world, seeds of wisdom that deserve to grow like Eisenhower ash trees grow around the country: "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity."

"A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both."

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

"The only way to win World War III is to prevent it."

"The final battle against intolerance is to be fought not in the chambers of any legislature but in the hearts of men."

Words of wisdom, roots of strength, seeds of greatness. I found these at the Eisenhower Birthplace in Denison, Texas.

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