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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Cramped Quarters

Patrick F. Mcmanus

After regaining power, we Inland Northwest residents can now sit back and contemplate the horror stories we’ll be able to tell about Ice Storm ‘96.

But nothing any of us endured likely could match the hardships dreamed up by humor writer Patrick F. McManus. As a Christmas gift to our readers, McManus agreed to let us reprint his story “Two-Man-Tent Fever.”

The hard times are over, folks. It’s time to laugh again.

Fenton Quagmire was telling me recently about the weekend he had just suffered through at his lakeside retreat.

“Rained the whole time, and I didn’t get outside once,” he said. “By Sunday I had a case of the cabin fever like you wouldn’t believe!”

Wouldn’t believe? Why, I could barely keep from doubling over in a paroxysm of mirth! I happen to know that Quagmire’s “cabin” is a three-bedroom, shag-carpeted, TV-ed and hot-tubbed villa overlooking a stretch of sandy beach that sells per linear foot at the same rate as strung pearls. Obviously, what Quagmire had experienced was nothing more than villa fever, which compares to cabin fever as the sniffles to double pneumonia.

True cabin fever requires a true cabin, four buckling walls, a leaky roof, a warped floor, a door and a few windows. Furnishings consist of something less than the bare necessities. Wall decorations, while permitted, should not be such as to arouse any visual interest whatsoever. (The old Great Northern Railroad calendar with the mountain goat on it is about right.) A wood stove, preferably one made from a steel barrel, provides the heat, and also the only excitement, when its rusty tin pipe sets fire to the roof. That’s your basic true cabin.

When I was six, we lived for a year in just such a cabin. My father speculated that it had been built by a man who didn’t know his adz from his elbow, or words to that effect. The shake roof looked as if it had been dealt out by an inebriated poker player during a sneezing fit. Proper alignment of one log over another was so rare as to suggest coincidence, if not divine intervention. The man who rented the cabin to us, apparently a buff of local history, boasted that it had been built toward the end of the last century. “Which end?” Dad asked him.

Within a short while after we moved in, Dad had the cabin whipped into shape, a shape that might now be regarded as unfit for human habitation but which in those days would generally have been thought of as unfit for human habitation. After hammering in the last nail, Dad unscrewed the cap from a quart of his home brew, took a deep swig, and told my mother, “This is as good as it gets!” I have, of course, recreated the quote, but it captures the proper note of pessimism.

One might suppose that a family of four would be miserable living in a tiny, sagging log cabin in the middle of an Idaho wilderness, and one would be right. My mother and sister accepted our situation philosophically and cried only on alternate days. Dad arose early each morning and went off in search of “suitable work,” by which he meant work that paid anything at all. I spent my time morosely digging away at the chinking between the logs, not realizing that the resulting cracks would let all the cold out.

One day in the middle of January, Mom looked up from her bowl of gruel at breakfast, as we jokingly referred to it, and announced. “Well, we’ve finally hit rock bottom. Things just can’t get any worse.” We soon discovered that Mom lacked the gift of prophecy.

Within hours, the mercury was rattling about like a dried pea in the bulb of the thermometer, and the wind came blasting out of the north. Strangely, Dad seemed delighted by the onset of a blizzard. Even now, four decades later, I can still see him bending over, rubbing a hole in the window frost with his fist and peering out at the billowing snow.

“Let her blow!” he shouted.

“We’ve got plenty of firewood and enough grub to last out until spring if we have to!gosh, we’ll just make some fudge, pop corn and play Monopoly until she blows herself out! It’ll be like a little adventure, like we’re shipwrecked!”

The rest of the family was instantly perked up by his enthusiasm and defiance of the blizzard. Mom stated making fudge and popping corn, while my sister and I rushed to set up the Monopoly game.

The blizzard lasted nearly two weeks, give or take a century.the third day my sister and I were forbidden even to mention Monopoly, fudge or popcorn. And Dad no longer regarded the blizzard as a little adventure.

“Why are you making that noise with your nose!” he would snarl at me.

“I’m just breathing.”

“Well, stop it!”

“Whose idea was that calendar!” he’d snap at my mother.

“What’s wrong with it, dear?”

“That stupid mountain goat watches every move I make, that’s what! Look how its eyes follow me!”

A day or two later, as Dad himself admitted at the time, he became irritable.

Shortly after that, he came down with cabin fever.

Spending several days trapped in close quarters with a person who had cabin fever toughened me up a lot psychologically. A couple of years later, when I saw the movie “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” I thought it was a comedy. At the peak of his cabin fever, Dad could have played both leads in the film simultaneously and sent audiences screaming into the streets.

The only good thing about cabin fever is that it vanishes the instant the victim is released from enforced confinement. When the county snowplow finally opened the road and came rumbling into our yard, Dad strolled out to greet and thank the driver.

“Snowed in fer a spell, weren’t ya?” the driver said. “Bet you got yerself a good case of the cabin fever.”

“Naw,” Dad said. “It wasn’t bad. We just made fudge and popped corn and played a few games of Monop…Monop…played a few games.”

“Well, you certainly seem normal enough,” the driver said. Then he pointed to Mom, Sis, and me. “That your family?”

It seemed like an odd question, but I suppose the driver wondered why a normal man like my father would have a family consisting of three white-haired gnomes.

There are numerous kinds of fever brought on by the boredom of enforced confinement over long periods. I myself have contracted some of the lesser strains - coldwater-flat fever, mobile-home fever and split-level fever, to name but a few. I have never been able to afford the more exotic and expensive fevers, like those of my wealthy friend Quagmire. In addition to his villa fever, he will occasionally run a continent fever, one of the symptoms of which is the sensation that the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines are closing in on him. The treatment, as I understand it, is to take two aspirin and a Caribbean cruise.

Of all such fevers, by far the most deadly is two-man-tent fever, which, in its severity, surpasses even the cabin variety.

I had the opportunity of studying two-man-tent fever close-up a few years ago, when Parker Whitney and I spent nearly 20 hours in his tiny tent waiting for a storm to blow over. Parker is a calm, quiet chap normally and it was terrible to see him go to pieces the way he did, after the fever overtook him.

For a while, during the first few hours of the storm, we were entertained by the prospect that we might momentarily be using the tent as a hang glider. After the wind died down to a modest gale, we were able to devote our whole attention to the rippling of the orange rip-stop nylon that enveloped us. Fascinating as this was, its power to distract was limited to a few hours.then, I was formulating a geological theory that a major earth fault lay directly beneath, and crossed at right angles to, my half-inch thick ensolite pad. While several of my more adventuresome vertebrae were testing this theory, I gradually became aware that Parker was beginning to exhibit certain signs of neurotic behavior.

“I hate to ask this, old chap,” I said, kindly enough, “but would you mind not chewing that gum quite so loud?”

Parker replied with uncharacteristic snappishness, “For the 14th time, I’m not chewing gum!”

Mild hallucination is one of the early symptoms of two-man-tent fever. Not only did Parker fail to realize that he was chomping and popping his gum in a hideous manner, he clearly was of the impression that I had mentioned the matter to him numerous times previously. Since hallucinations do not yield readily to logical argument, I thought that confronting him with the empirical evidence might work. Unfortunately, Parker was now in the grip of paranoia and responded to my effort by shouting out that I had “gone mad.” I suppose he was referring to the manner in which I had grabbed him by the nose and chin and forced his mouth open, a maneuver that proved ineffective, since he had somehow managed to hide the gum from my vision and probing thumb, possibly by lodging it behind his tonsils. Such deception, I might add, is not at all unusual among victims of two-man-tent fever.

Parker remained quiet for some time, although I could tell from the look in his eyes that the paranoia was tightening its hold on him, and I began to wonder if my life might not be in danger. I warned him not to try anything.

“Why don’t you get some sleep?” Parker replied. “Just try to get some sleep!”

“Ha” I said, not without a trace of sarcasm. “Do you really think I’m going to fall for that old one?”

I twisted around in my bag and propped up on an elbow so I could watch Parker more closely. It was easy to see that the two-man-tent fever was taking its toll on him. He was pale and trembling, and stared back at me with wide, unblinking eyes. He looked pitiful, even though posing no less a threat to my life.

Then, as if our situation were not perilous enough already, I noticed that Parker had dandruff. Under normal circumstances, I can take dandruff or leave it alone, but not in a two-man-tent. It wasn’t the unsightly appearance of the dandruff that bothered me, but the little plip plip plip sounds it made falling on his sleeping bag. I soon deduced that Parker had contrived this irritation for the sole purpose of annoying me, a sort of Chinese dandruff torture, although I hadn’t realized until then that Parker was Chinese. Informing him that I was on to his little game, I told Parker to get his dandruff under control or suffer the consequences. Not surprisingly, he denied any knowledge of his dandruff or its activities. I therefore retaliated by doing my impression of Richard Widmark’s maniacal laugh every time I heard a plip. Parker countered by doing his impression of a man paralyzed by fear. It wasn’t that good, as impressions go, but I withheld criticism of the poor devil’s performance, since it seemed to take his mind off the fever.

At the first break in the storm, Parker shot out of the tent, stuffed his gear into his pack, and took off down the trail, leaving me with the chore of folding up the tent and policing camp. Before I was finished, a ranger came riding up the trail on a horse. We exchanged pleasantries, and I asked him if he had happened to pass my partner on the trail.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Is he a whitehaired gnome?”

No doubt about it, two-man-tent fever can take a lot out of a person.

MEMO: From “Never Sniff a Gift Fish” by Patrick F. McManus, 1983 by Patrick F. McManus. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt & Co. Inc.

From “Never Sniff a Gift Fish” by Patrick F. McManus, 1983 by Patrick F. McManus. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt & Co. Inc.

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