Tuesday, September 2, 2014
When I think of the sounds of a summer camping trip, what come to mind are cicadas and tree frogs, a campfire crackling, the wind in boughs, the trickling of a brook, and—perhaps—the pop and fizz of a meteorite blazing through the darkness.
So as our family made its way down Flatbush Avenue one recent evening, past wailing fire trucks and honking airport vans and teenagers peddling “ice cold water, water, water” from traffic islands, we didn’t expect to find any of these at the end of the road, which in our case was literally the end of this particular cross-Brooklyn thoroughfare: Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport and former naval air station, now home to aviation sports and, incongruously, the only campground in the five boroughs.
We checked in at a trailer, where a National Park Service ranger told us about all the amenities available just beyond our campfire ring. If we got bored of stargazing, Floyd Bennett Field features a video arcade with a food court, rock climbing, and an ice-skating rink. “The police dogs patrol the campsite between 11 and midnight,” she warned us, and gave us a number for the park police that we could call on our cell phones at any hour if “anything, anything at all” made us “uncomfortable.” We bought a bundle of logs for ten dollars and rolled our suitcase into the campground.
Our campsite, spacious by city-apartment standards, was at the edge of a clearing and ringed by about five other campsites. Setting up our tent, I unearthed a nickel bag of marijuana and a pair of women’s thong underwear. On our left was a group of twentysomethings sharing a bag of Snappea Crisps and checking their iPhones. On our right was a family from Chelsea who had made it here by public transportation, carrying all their gear in a backpack. Across the clearing was a multigenerational family barbecuing and lounging in chairs with cup-holders built into the arms.
As dusk settled, the Chelsea family produced a soccer ball, and the children in our area raced around the clearing. Their shouts and volleys met the tapping of tent stakes, the snap of twigs being broken for campfires, the roar of low-flying jumbo jets on the flight path to JFK, and crickets in the surrounding shrubbery. As night fell, fireflies emerged, and the children tried to catch them in hands sticky with roasted marshmallow. Someone came around with a box of sparklers.
Soon after dark, the campground grew quiet, except for the occasional sounds of tent zippers or the hiss of a campfire log settling. Around 2 a.m., some were awakened by the pulse of techno music. The Chelsea family summoned the park police, who identified the culprit as a party boat in Jamaica Bay—outside their jurisdiction. Around 4 a.m., the music faded and was replaced by the crickets and the breeze, only to be superimposed around dawn by the whirring of what sounded like model-plane propellers. A drive after breakfast revealed not only a group of aviation enthusiasts tinkering with their model planes, but a bicycle race and, abutting the wall of an old hangar, a bounce castle.
Despite the many temptations of Floyd Bennett Field, we sped off down the runway/road, pretending we were in a plane taking off, the cracks in the tarmac bumping beneath our tires, in pursuit of a Starbucks, located not five minutes away within the Kings Plaza Shopping Center. Iced Americano in hand, we U-turned for Rockaway Beach, where we jumped in the waves as airplanes droned overhead.