1:00 PM Sunday July 24th, 1993
“You guys gonna finally beat Troop 669 this year?”
Dad peeks at me through the rear view mirror of our oh so stylish 1988 Buick station wagon. I’d love to add here that our car has the added panache of wood paneling, but it had fallen/peeled off long ago.
“Did I ever tell you that in my day we were one out, one out, away from beating them?”
“You would’ve won too, if that stupid camp counselor hadn’t called that kid safe at first,” I say, fighting the very strong urge to roll my eyes.
“The throw beat him by at least four steps.” We say this simultaneously, cracking each other up.
Mom sighs and just roll her eyes. Mom never really says much on these drives to drop me off at camp. She always gets too choked up. Even now, when I’m 17 years old. Something about how I’d always be her baby and the house is too quiet when I’m gone. Blah blah blah. Hurl.
I used to dread the journey through the twisty rural Pennsylvania back roads to Camp Mountain Run. It wasn’t so much that I was going to miss my parents, but I guess that was part of it. They really are good parents, as far as parents go. More of it, in my young days especially, was the unknown. Would the camp counselors be nice? Would our scout leader be nice? Would I be able to survive a week without my Nintendo Entertainment System? The princess wasn’t going to save herself, that’s for sure.
“Well the throw did beat him,” says Dad, peeking back again. “Would’ve been the third out. Instead, their best guy came up and hit a home run off of us. Man, it would’ve been nice to have Troop 57’s name on that plaque just one time.”
“Yeah, Dad,” I say, watching the evergreen trees out the car window. “Maybe we can score a run on them this year.”
Scouts from all over the Northeast come to Camp Mountain Run: from Delaware, from New York State, and in the case of Troop 669, from Philly. There were of course guys from plain old rural Pennsylvania as well, but nobody gave us much notice. The attention was always on Troop 669 and their dominance of the camp-wide wiffleball tournament.
The prevailing rumor was that Troop 669 recruits kids to their troop based solely on their wiffle ball playing skills. A kid I talked to from another troop swore to me that a particularly brutal but athletic kid from his older brother’s school was being sent to some juvie detention center but somehow wound up with Troop 669 instead.
I’ve never a solid explanation why a wiffleball tournament was such a big deal at a scout camp, and if you try to explain it to somebody who had never been to Camp Mountain Run you’d probably at most be greeted with a shrug or just plain laughed at. But those that have been to camp understand. The winning troop gets their name of a plaque that is displayed right at the front of the Mess Hall, choice of campsite for the next summer, and a pretty big discount on their camp admission fees.
I should mention here that Camp Mountain Run isn’t some sports camp for jocks. In fact, you could say it’s the exact opposite. Camp Mountain Run is a camp for scouts, you know, like camping, building fires, tying knots, not getting girlfriends (in my case at least). I should also mention here that yep, I’m 17 and still in scouts.
I really have no idea why I’m still in scouts. It’s certainly not because I’m trying to achieve some top rank or something. Never really cared for the badges either. I guess it’s because I was never one to quit anything, whether it be band, or sports, or scouting.
Actually, that’s not the reason either. The reason I’m still in scouting is because of Camp Mountain Run. It is awesome.
One glorious summer week a year we go to go to this place and forget about everything else. We get away from the jocks (except for Troop 669 but I’ll explain about them later), the summer chores , and the nightly scheduled summer activities, and get to achieve near total independence from our parents. To just exist in the woods, on our time, making our own decisions.
It’s gonna be double sweet this year because this year we were the oldest in the troop. It was our turn to assign the campsite duties. We get to choose the biggest and newest tent. And most of all, we won’t have to deal with the kids in the troop older than us.
“It’s too bad Marky and Jeff are in college this year isn’t it?” says Mom, as if she were reading my mind. “They were such good scouts.”
“Yeah too bad,” I say, doing my best to stifle my sarcasm. “We’ll sure miss them.”
Marky and Jeff were pretty much the worst. Sure, they turned on the charm when the adults were around, earning the first Chief badges in the troop since my Dad was a scout. When the adults weren’t around, which was way more often than you think, you better watch out.
The first day of camp, as soon as the parents went home, they’d go from bunk to bunk, confiscating everybody’s best food under threat of a beating. Talk back to them and they’d team up on you. And those were just the things you could control. Sometimes they’d get you randomly, just for the fun of it and for no other reason.
“Don’t give the young guys too hard of a time,” says Dad, using his best Dad voice. I guess Dad knew more about what happens at camp than I thought. “This is the last year for a number of you guys and you don’t want to scare the new guys away. You want there to be a troop here when you have kids of your own, right?”
“Dad, I know,” I say, with a sigh. We’ll take it easy on them”. And I wasn’t lying. We had lived through Marky and Jeff and their gang. I did not want to be like them. Not that I don’t plan on taking advantage of our seniority a little bit, at least.
And before I knew it we were at the stop sign across from the farm that seemed to always put down a fresh layer of manure just in time for us to drive through on the way to camp. Dad turned left and it was only about a quarter of a mile to Camp Mountain Run. My stomach tightens just a bit, obviously a remnant of memories of nervous times before.
Dad pulls the car into the dirt parking lot on the right and I seriously contemplate asking them to just leave my bags and go, no need to accompany me to the campsite. I’ve been here enough times that I could find my way in my sleep to good old Crow’s Nest, the unofficial campsite of Troop 57 for the seven years I’ve been attending camp. I look at Mom and decide otherwise, because I can see the water in her eyes. I can’t even imagine what she’s going to do when I go off to college next year.
Dad and I are unpack the trunk, he grabs my smaller bag and I grab my Adidas duffle bag. Mom grabs my sleeping bag and pillow, hugging them close to her tiny frame. I turn and take a step towards camp and am blindsided, knocked to the ground, my only warning a crackling, maniacal voice: “squeeeee”.
I roll myself over, nudging the large, hairy, bearded owner of the “squeeee” off of my body. “What’s up Brian?”
“The moon, the clouds, birds?” Brian replies, knowing full well what I meant but also knowing how much it annoys me when he applies his “logic” to things I say. And it also annoys me that I know this and am still annoyed.
“Hello Brian,” says Dad, helping my best friend to his feet, leaving me to fend for myself. “Keeping yourself out of trouble this summer?”
“Hi Mr. Lambros!” replies Brian, stumbling to his feet. “Getting into trouble is not logical.”
They both crack up, and I discreetly looking around, to make sure nobody heard this terribly nerdy display. I mean, the chance is slim, but what if some camper had a hot older sister helping them get dropped off at camp? Such Star Trek references would ruin whatever tiny chance I had.
Nope. Nobody else in the parking lot but a few scouts from other troops and their parents.
“Anybody else here?” I say, wanting to change the subject for my own sanity at least. Not that I had a problem with Star Trek. I just didn’t have the energy to discuss it with Brian at the moment. Plus, Star Wars is better anyway.
“I haven’t seen anybody,” says Brian, shaking his head. “It’s pretty early, though.”
“We might as well get registered and check in the troop,” I say, starting toward the registration building.
“We’ll wait for you here,” says Dad, nodding to Mom. “Brian, where is your camping gear? We’ll watch it for you.”
“Thanks,” says Brian. “It’s over there.” He points to a large garbage bag mostly likely slung without a care under a large pine tree.
We’re nearly out of the parking lot when a black Camero, music blasting, dust flying, tears in front of us, skidding to a stop twenty feet away. Troop 669 jerks. I know it even before I see their varsity jackets.
“Watch where you’re walking,” says the older one, closing the distance between us. “I don’t need any nerd guts on my windshield.”
Brian mumbles a response in Klingon, and I grab his arm and try to drag him away.
“What’d he say to you?” says the other, only slightly smaller guy. “Are you gonna let him mock you like that?”
I see my Dad creep toward us, no doubt wanting to help, and no doubt about to wreck our reputation before we’ve had a chance to even earn it.
“No I’m not,” says big guy number one. “They’re dead.”
Both guys sprint toward us. Brian takes some type of fighting stance, pounding his chest with a closed fist. I take a less, offensive stance. Okay, I take a step away and behind Brian.
Before they get to us, however, Dad is in between. “A Scout does not fight another,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to get expelled the first day, now would you?”
<--Write the rest of the exchange here-->
As we are entering Ed is walking out, shaking his head. “This sucks,” he says, loud enough for all to hear. We got screwed.
Ed was the brains of our group. He was about 6 months older than Brian and I, and an absolute brain. He also had a bit of a rebellious streak in him the last few years. When he was upset, he didn’t care who knew it, even if it was an adult.
“What’s up?” I say, shaking my head at Brian to pre-empt the whole “things that are in the sky” response from earlier. Now was not the time for puns.
“They stuck us in Blackhawk,” say Ed, spitting out the words as if it were the most despicable sentence he had ever say. “Friggin’ Blackhawk.”
“But they can’t,” I say, stunned. “Crow’s Nest. We’ve always been there, since even when my Dad was a scout.”
“They did it,” say Ed, pacing. “They told me we just don’t have as many scouts as we used to. They say we’re better suited for Blackhawk.”
“What a bunch of crap,” I say. “Blackhawk is a mud hole.”
I decide I’m gonna go in, but take a more diplomatic approach to it. Play good cop to Ed’s bad cop. I figure they’re adults and surely listen to reason. I mean Troop 57 has been in Crow’s Nest for thirty years.
I’m nearly knocked to the ground as I open the door to the registration door.
“If I hear one more thing about it I’m refunding your troop’s money and sending you home.”
An adult in a scout uniform, face red, is dragging Slugger, Ed’s little brother, by the shirt collar, his feet barely touching the ground. Slugger’s face is even redder, and I can tell he’s about to test the “one more thing about it I’m refunding your troop’s money and sending you home” rule.
Reading the look on Ed’s face (it looks like he’s transferred his anger from the campsite situation to his brother) I step in, covering Slugger’s mouth with one hand and patting the guy in the scout uniform on the back. “We’ll take it from here sir,” I say. “Not another word about it. We feel lucky to be in Blackhawk.”
“Right. Uh that’s good then,” says the guy, looking confused at how calm I am. Works every time. Adults never expect us ‘kids’ to show any kind of logic or calmness. “Have a good week of camping.”
“Yes sir,” I say, leading Slugger away and back towards the parking lot. “Thank you again.”
When we are out of ear shot I uncover Slugger’s mouth.
“This sucks,” he says, starting back in the direction of the registration building. “I’ll drop that guy. I’m gonna..”
Out of nowhere, harsh in its brutality, and without a word of warning, Ed rushes past me and clotheslines Slugger to the ground. Absolutely flattens him.
Now, if I didn’t know Ed, or Slugger I might have tried to step in to help Slugger. I mean, Ed was pretty much my size but Slugger while only three years younger, is quite a bit smaller than his brother. However, we’ve all known each other long enough to know that when Slugger hits that meltdown point the only way to stop it is to jar him out of it. Something Ed has gotten quite good at.
Brian extends a hand to help Slugger to his feet.
Slugger shakes the invisible cobwebs off his head, then calm, like during a prayer at church, says, “They told me the move to Blackhawk isn’t just for this year. They told me it’s permanent.”
“Well,” I say, like nothing just happened, “it looks like we’ll have to win the wiffle ball tournament this year.”
“I’m gonna stop in there and have a word with them. Straighten this whole thing out.”
Dad doesn’t look angry, so much as determined. He really thinks he’s gonna be able to talk them into changing their minds. But I saw the guy, and more than that, I saw Slugger’s epic flipout. Whatever weight my Dad’s Chief badge might have with the people in change would never be able to counteract the fact that they would not want to seem weak or as caving in to such disrespect for a camper.
“Please don’t, Dad,” I say, lifting my bags. “They said they are gonna kick us out if we mention it again. Let’s just let it go, so you guys can get home and enjoy me being gone.”
I immediately regret saying that as I catch my parents sharing a glance or whatever. Hurl.
We (Brian, Slugger, my parents, and I) follow the dirt road up past the infirmary and the Trading Post on our way towards Blackhawk. I keep an eye on Slugger, but it seems as though he’s made peace with us losing Crow’s Nest, just like the rest of us.
It wasn’t even like Crow’s Nest was the best campsite at Camp Mountain Run. But it was home. We knew it so well. The perfectly flat clearing not far from it that served as our home run derby field. The secret path that shaved a good five minutes off our walk to the Mess Hall, guaranteeing us the table closest to the grub every time. And who could forget the Latrine we all invariably have to visit not long after our yearly slice-eating record-breaking pizza Thursday, as we drowned our sorrows having witnessed Troop 669 winning yet another wiffle ball championship. Crow’s Nest had memories.
“I bet this is how the crew felt when they switched from Enterprise 1701 to Enterprise 1701-A,” says Brian, as we begin the last leg of our journey. “But you know what? They still had great adventures in that new starship.”
“That’s absolutely right,” says my Dad, with way too much enthusiasm. On long time ago I nicely asked him to not encourage Brian when he got so geeky, but he never listened. Mom grabs me and gives me a squeeze. “We’re gonna miss you Benny,” she says. Well, maybe my absence won’t be all hurl worthy my-worst-nightmare stuff. Maybe it will also be Dad nerding out on Mom, the thought of which makes me laugh.
Not that I don’t notice where we’re walking during all of this, because I do and make sure Slugger is still in control, because I notice that he notices where we are: just outside Mohawk campsite, aka just outside Troop 669’s campsite, aka just outside the campsite that overlooks our new campsite from the hill above.
Mohawk really was a campsite like no other. It was the most recent built campsite, for one, so it was properly graded to drain the inevitable rain water away (and coincidentally downhill toward Blackhawk). It had a real modern Latrine, with a cement and not dirt floor and plumbing rather than a metal toilet with just a hole in the ground underneath.
Then there were the tents. Wealthy parents of Troop 669 campers had donated a lot of stuff over the years to Camp Mountain Run to make sure their sweet little robo-jocks were comfy during their week at camp. The rest of us got decent, yet old, green canvas tents with hard-steel military style cots for beds, which while functional, still were tents with the usual heat and water leakage issues. Not so for Troop 669 in Mohawk. What they had were less tents and more like tent-shaped mini-cabins.
Pretty much everybody at camp has heard the rumor that these tents were not only structurally superior but also wired for electricity and furnished with TVs and DVD players. This had never been confirmed, however, because nobody could stand being around anybody from Troop 669 long enough to see what they tents looked like.
I hold my breath, hoping and yes praying, that nobody from Troop 669 makes a remark as we make our way down the hill to our camp. I hope that just maybe the site of my parents with us will give them pause.
“Hey,” I hear, from one of the tents. “Isn’t that the little kid that charged the mound on you last year, Johnny?”
“Yeah, it is. He tried to bite my ankle but wasn’t big enough to reach.”
My next prayer is that somehow Slugger didn’t hear the reference to last year’s incident in which Slugger’s temper caused our forfeit, but from the changing color of his face I know he has. And Ed isn’t here to clothesline him back to sanity.
“Don’t worry about it, man,” I say. “We’re gonna take ‘em down this year.”
“I’ll take em’ down right now,” he says.
Slugger take a step toward them but stops along with the rest of us as we hear a rustling in the brush, then an explosion of water. Then a few seconds, then another. The guys from Troop 669 scatter, in search of the source. When they’re gone, we all crack up. Well, Brian, Slugger, and I crack up, my parents don’t know what’s going on. But we do. Ed had broken out the water balloon launcher already.
We continue on our way. Just before we arrive, Brian let’s out a loud caw-caw sound, which to my Mom and Dad is probably just Brian being Brian, but to Ed in Blackhawk is a warning to stash the large water balloon launching hand-held rubber band. There is silence and then a caw-caw in return.
Ed is waiting when we arrive, sitting on a green canvas folding chair near the fire ring in the center of the campsite, wearing an oversize flannel button-down shirt, a pair of old jeans, and a faded green Korean war Army hard helmet. Dangling from his lips is a pink gum cigar. Stone Temple Pilots blares from his boombox.
“Looks like you have everything under control here Eddy,” says my Dad, with a salute. Yep, Dad still calls him Eddy from way back when he was “Eddys’” third grade teacher.
“Yes sir, Mr. L” says Ed, returning the salute. “Don’t worry, I’ll make a soldier out of your son by the end of the week.”
“That’s what we’re hoping,” says Dad, slapping me on the back. “Well, let’s get you situated here Benny so we can get going. Your mother and I have a hot date tonight.”
“Over here looks fine, what do you think, Brian?” I say, motioning to a tent near the latrine. It was pretty much the worst spot actually, but I had already noticed a bunch of the young guys had claimed the best spots. That would certainly change, once all the parents were gone. I itch my nose with my middle finger in Ed’s direction, because he most likely shepherded the little kids into the best spots just to mess with us. He returns my gesture.
I make a good show of setting up my bunk and unpacking my stuff, without really unpacking anything. Just enough for Mom to feel like she’s helped.
“Well,” she says, avoiding eye contact, which isn’t that hard any more as I’ve grown nearly a foot taller than her. “You look like you’re all set. You have a nice week Benny.”
I can tell she wants to give me a kiss but also knows it will embarrass me, and so I lean over and give her a kiss on the cheek and then a hug. “I will”
“Don’t burn anything down,” Dad says, slapping me on the back.
“I promise nothing,” I reply, punching him in the shoulder.
“Bring it in,” said Ed, once the last of the parent’s had departed, the younger camper’s families sticking around a bit longer than those of us veterans of the camp. “Let’s see who we’ve got, this year.”
There has been quite a bit of influx of new kids this year I can tell as they clumsily gather around Ed’s spot at the center of the camp. Most of the faces are familiar from our weekly scout meetings in the church basement, but you never know who will have signed up for camp on a whim. I particularly hope this year for some younger kid in the midst of an unforeseen growth spurt and some yet undiscovered baseball talent, the type of kid good enough to give us a chance against Troop 669, yet not self-aware enough to know of our jock-repellant team.
Judging from what I see before me, though, I don’t have much hope.
We’ve got the kid who seems to never be wearing a shirt or shoes, no matter the setting of environment, and always is climbing stuff. We call him Captain Caveman.
Then there’s the kid who is always hungry, and is always eating something, even though he always is forgetting to bring food of his own. Grub is his name.
Southie is a kid who inexplicably talks with a New England accent and is always yammering on about South Boston, even though as far as we know the kid hasn’t even been outside Pennsylvania in his life. He’s the one most likely to find his underwear run up the flagpole before the week is done.
Next we have the really tall kid (grown spurt wish met) who seems unable to take more than a few steps without tripping to the ground. He trips so much I call him Traveller.
Of the new kids group, Styles is the one that looks like he’d have a chance to be athletic, but he almost never gets involved with any of our attempts to play sports. He’s too busy being way too overdressed for the woods, going so far as to put that crusty gel stuff in his hair to make it all shiny and crunchy.
Quartermaster is the new of the new kids and I’ve barely heard him utter a word in all the months he’s been attending scout meetings. He certainly has a lof of tools with him at all times, though. From shovels to hatchets to rakes, to anything else you could ever want on a camping trip, and several things you really wouldn’t want too. I approached him at a meeting a month or so back, asking if I could borrow a pencil. So he tells me, “What do I look like, the quartermaster.” So that became his name.
The new guys are not a very intimidating looking bunch, and to be honest most of them got on my nerves, at least when I was with them at meetings during the year. I suppose if I had to choose a favorite, it would be Captain Caveman. He was good for a laugh now and then at least.
That leaves the rest of us: Brian, Ed, Slugger, and myself. Slugger is a pretty good hitter for his size and will catch anything hit in his direction. He has an athletic ability far out of proportion to his physical appearance and reputation. Ed didn’t have his younger brother’s power hitting, but was fast enough to be pretty much a sure bet for a single so long as he put the ball in play. Brian made a good catcher for the team. No more and no less. Myself, I could throw a mean wiffle ball curve ball.
“Alright, listen up,” says Ed, removing the bubble gum cigar from his mouth, snubbing it out on the ground like the real deal. “Here are the rules of the camp. Only gonna say them once. Everybody has to sign up to take three merit badges.”
The new kids all groan. Ed holds his hand in the air, the sign for silence.
“Whether you earn them is up to you,” Ed continues, “but remember your mom is gonna ask you about what you did this week when she picks your butt up on Saturday. She’s not gonna ask me.”
Several of the campers groan at this, knowing it to be true.
“Furthermore, Troop 669 is located in that campsite right above us. Mohawk. They are the enemy. Don’t trust them and in fact we will be instituting a system in which we keep a guy back here at all times to watch our stuff. Speaking of stuff, all you young guys need to get your stuff out of the tents.”
There is another groan, and Ed raises his hand again.
“Don’t look at me like that, you guys are lucky to have us. Back in our day, the older kids kicked our tails for just looking at them funny. Half of us weren’t even allowed to sleep in a tent our first week of camp, we had to build lean-tos. Us old guys have earned the right of first dibs. We’ll even help you move your things.”
“All food must be hung from the trees at night. Find some rope and ask one of us if you don’t know what you are doing. Don’t come crying to me if some raccoon eats the snacks your mommy packed for you for the week.”
“We will be playing home run derby tomorrow. No excuses. We need to see what we’ve got.”
“And finally, dinner is at the mess hall in an hour. Save your voices because first night they always have the Old MacDonald competition.”
Styles starts to laugh, and I see Ed’s eye twitch. I take a step in between, just in case. Styles must have seen what I saw, though, because he quickly suppresses his grin.
“That’s it ladies,” says Ed, clapping his hands together, reaching in his pocket for another bubble gum cigar. “See you back here in 45 minutes.”
“This sucks,” I hear Styles say, starting to walk away. “I don’t need this crap.” The other new campers follow.
Seems we might have a mini rebellion on our hands. What worries me more, however, is that it seems Ed has become a bit unhinged by his newfound power.
“Benny she smiled at you,” says Brian, not so quietly in my ear.
We’re in the food line at the mess hall, having just received our serving of mashed potatoes. The she Brian is referring to is a girl about our age, wearing a staff t-shirt and khaki scout shorts, who is serving those said potatoes.
“Shut up,” she did not, I say, motioning to Brian to continue back to our table.
The mess hall is a long log cabin style building on the outside, with a high cathedral style ceiling inside. The front doors open to twenty to thirty cafeteria style folding tables. At one end of the building hangs an enormous moose head (I swear these things are included with these types of buildings, I’ve never seen one without) above a fireplace I’ve never seen them use.
Separating the main dining area from the kitchen is a diner style counter I’ve also never seen them use. In front of that counter they set up four additional folding tables perpendicular to our tables. This is where four to six camp staff, depending on the meal, serve our meals onto aging cafeteria trays. The food isn’t so bad, which makes it unfortunate that there are no seconds allowed.
Styles walks through the line and tries hitting on her. Captain Caveman is sent out until he puts on a shirt.
At the Mess hall. Singing old macdonald, another one of those things that wouldn’t make any sense to an outsider, but was vitally important at camp. Sees the girl in the lunch line.