(James H.)– Boy Scout Summer Camp taught me the true meaning of “despair.” See, in my family, identifying as male apparently requires you to do three things before your 18th birthday: you must 1) vomit or cry in a Toys-R-Us parking lot 2) unintentionally assassinate your first pet, and 3) attain the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America.
I couldn’t emotionally process being denied Beyblades, so requirement #1 was a piece of cake, and I accidentally fulfilled requirement #2 by age ten (RIP Gandalf the Rat). Becoming an Eagle Scout, however, required more than rage puking in a parking lot or accidentally spraying Windex too close to my rodent cage. Beyond going to weekly troop meetings or memorizing the Scout Oath, Law, Slogan, and Motto, becoming an Eagle Scout absolutely required my going to Boy Scout Summer Camp.
The morning of your entry into this fucking nightmare realm begins at 4:30 a.m., meaning you have plenty of time to start your emotional breakdown before the sun rises. The five hours separating you and the Lost Valley Schoepe Scout Reservation are defined by a mild hysterical panic, kind of like that “will I or won’t I have diarrhea tonight?” gastrointestinal tango following a Val Chili Festival.
Two and a half hours in and you pass the point of no return on your trip, which is usually marked by some promised “fun” place that you’ll get to stop at on the way back, usually some shady go-kart place that specializes in damaging children. You quietly pray that brushfires will force the camp to close early this year.
But at last, you arrive. You spend the first hour choking back tears as your older boy camp counselor, often the proud owner of some bullshit nickname like “grizzly” or “plaid,” explains to you that at Scout Camp another human being can literally take away your right to use fire if you misbehave. Eventually, however, the panic fades, immediately to be replaced by the grim resignation of a child who knows he won’t be getting Beyblades today. You’re stuck here for the week, so you better just surrender yourself to it.
That was how the first day always went. Having two of my brothers there was always a plus, but since our troop had strict regulations against fun, we were never allowed to be in the same groups or patrols, meaning we each ended up with our own ragtag team of awkward pre-teens. Though he didn’t know it going in, my older brother’s tent-mate suffered from unbelievable screaming night terrors. My younger brother’s partner snuck in a PSP, and my bunk buddy wouldn’t shut up about Queens of the Stone Age and his stifling fear of alien abductions.
On the first day we’d pick what merit badges we wanted to work on over the coming week. See, you need a few very specific merit badges to attain Eagle, things like swimming, lifesaving, first aid, and camping. Beyond that, you get to pick a few random badges on your own. This means that we always avoided the more time-consuming elective badges and instead focused on important skills like basket weaving and fingerprinting.
Really, this part of scout camp was never that bad, and because my older brother and I got a late start in scouting, we were already too old for the “challenging” required badges too: there is something particularly ego-boosting about totally destroying the eleven year-old competition at poolside rescue techniques. It’s just like, there’s a bunch of tiny bodies struggling together to lift a single little guy out of the water, and then there’s these two giants in the same class just fucking throwing children to safety, one after another.
One summer, however, Scout Camp was forever transformed from the usual, anxiety-ridden orgy of pubescent misery into something much more sinister. In those seven days I was confronted for the first time with the cold abyss of a scout’s animal nature.
That fateful summer our scoutmaster had to go home for some emergency early in the week, leaving us with two random parents. Neither of them spoke English, and they weren’t particularly interested in protecting the lives of the children under their care. What’s more, our troop that year had just the right ratio of naïve, emotionally volatile homesick ten year-olds to ambiguously sociopathic sixteen year-olds, so as soon as the central authority figure disappeared, we quickly descended into some kind of no-holds-barred Lord of the Flies fever dream.
Keep in mind that there are over a dozen other troops at camp at the same time, which meant that we immediately became a kind of guerilla anarchist unit of pandemonium. In the week without adult leadership our troop managed to royally fuck up everything we set our hormonally imbalanced minds to. Take, for example, our first aid simulation wherein we so brutally mistreated our snakebite patient that the counselor insisted it had to be a deliberate murder. Whoops. Another evening before dinner, my little brother, the troop’s “Chaplain’s Aid,” was forced to give a spontaneous prayer in front of the entire camp. He tried to be inclusive and nondenominational, but he ended offering some incoherent, rambling plea for polytheism. One night our troop bought glowsticks and decided it would be fun to prance around in the darkness and whip them at each other. Of course some little kid got hurt, and of course he over reacted, situating the incident as part of some imagined blood feud with another scout. Naturally, the accused scout’s older brother stepped in to complicate things, and it was the three Hildebrand brothers, beacons of order in a collapsing world, who had to form a human wall of solidarity to prevent a 17 year-old versus 11 year-old smackdown. Literally everyone was crying. It was so bad that we had to gather all the glowsticks and transport them to an undisclosed location to avoid upsetting the children.
The summer’s crowing disaster, however, was what would eventually be deemed “The Polar Bears Incident,” wherein a member of our troop allegedly pulled a knife on another scout at the morning swim program, Polar Bears. We only found out about this when a crack team of chubby ten year-old bounty-hunting vigilantes appeared at our troop’s campsite to notify us of their pending investigation. They tried to get adults involved, but I honestly don’t think anyone cared at that point. Later, we boys launched our own internal troop investigation, but I’ll let sleeping dogs lie and just say that the accusation may or may not have been completely valid.
These high school experiences were on the whole formative and important, but individually so shitty and ridiculous that I’ve been pretty averse to any new outdoor adventures since I got Eagle. Still, as I walked through the forest to Farm Fest this weekend, the heat and the trees and my strong finals week desire to go home brought those scout memories flooding back. I realized, for the first time since coming here that the Pioneer Valley is actually pretty beautiful, and that it would be a shame to go another two years without doing even a little friendly exploring. Not every camping experience needs to end with a glow stick fiasco, or a shower stall knife fight, or my feeling like Piggy. So, when I get back from study abroad, maybe I’ll give Mother Nature a second chance.