Below freezing, actually. And I’m outside, in the Georgia mountains, peeing off a cliff. Later, my frantic parents will tell me that today is the coldest night on record in 50 years. Right now, though, I can’t stop shaking.
I totter down the slope toward camp, and am nearly frozen in place by a few frigid wind gusts. Passing the cold fire-pit, I duck down into the tent I share with my two fellow scouts, Jack and Dillon. Two breath clouds filtering from nearly enclosed sleeping bags are the only evidence of where exactly they’re laying.
Now that I’ve voided the only warmth in my body, I envision myself dying of hypothermia like this kid I saw on an Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode, haunting people like he did, whispering ghoulishly, “I’m colllld.”
But before that vision’s realized, a warm light emanates outside the tent. Maybe I did die up there on the hill, hand frozen to dick.
Jesus, is that you?
Nope. Not unless Jesus is a ginger.
Gary, another scout, has thrown some toilet paper onto the fire-pit’s pitiful embers. Like blood to sharks, the fleeting heat beckons everyone’s frigid bodies.
Everyone extends numbed limbs. No one speaks; we just watch the paper wad curl into a charred ball and disappear. And like the embers’ heat, the momentary glimmers of hope we saw in each others’ eyes soon fade until there’s only darkness.
Something’s got to change. We’re not prepared.
At dawn, Troop Leader Barstow tells us to line up. He has a plan.
But before he gets to the point, Dillon—tall as an elm tree at age ten—sways and falls backward, laid flat by the cold. Leaves gust around him as he lands, and we all just stare in stunned silence.
While Barstow and the older scouts help Dillon up and keep him conscious, I step behind a large oak tree and cry. But before I fall back in line, I wipe away the tears and snot with my toboggan-wrapped hand.
When I get back to the group, I hear something about backtracking down one of the trails. Before I know it, camp’s deconstructed and we’re humping it down a mountain trail.
But I only see the sheer drop-offs on either side. The sight of them makes me grab my abdomen, bruised from crashing down a steep slope and through a rotted tree trunk during last night’s Capture the Flag.
I stare ahead. Everyone’s exhausted, but we slowly amble on.
And here I thought that time I was nearly drowned by a rapidly sinking, swamped boat while trying to earn my Rowing merit badge was bad.
We reach a rushing stream that we never passed on our way in. So much for backtracking. But at least I now know I’m not the only one who barely skated by on my Orienteering badge. Then again, that’s not really comforting right now, especially when my feet are submerged up to my ankles in hypothermia-inducing stream water. Nathan, Bartow’s second in command, has us trudge across the stream, and then back through it to the original trail. I’m scared to look at my feet. Surely, there’re only stumps left.
If only I’d actually learned something from earning my Wilderness Survival badge. Well, other than never leave your only food source—a rotisserie chicken from the local Piggly Wiggly—with the scout who has a glandular issue. Suffice it to say, as he sat stuffed with chicken and the rest of us fought over the accompanying soy sauce packets, there was nearly a remake of Lord of the Flies. And another thing: sucking on rabbit-tobacco buds is nothing like cigarettes, and it’s no substitute for food.
Where was I?
After a ridiculously long, painful trek down every possible trail, we finally emerge into a campground—a real one, with an actual picnic table.
Sleep-deprived, cold, and hungry, I have no idea how much time passes before I see an absolutely beautiful sight: a navy blue Chevy Caprice slowly pulling into the clearing where we all sit collapsed over our backpacking supplies.
Soon, we’re piling into the back of the heated car and gorging ourselves on Almond Joys.
We’re that much closer to home.
Drinking coffee and mentally scrawling this recollection in my head, I have to smile at Laurel.
“As an organization, Scouts is just creepy. Like Santa Claus. I mean, when you think about it, who’d send their kid into the wilderness with someone who’s basically a stranger with a guidebook? It’s like putting your child up on some costumed stranger’s lap.”
I choke on my mocha.
“And that’s not even touching the anti-gay sentiments,” Arielle adds.
It’s true. Boy Scouts’ religious-infused credos and honor codes have an underlying subtext: I will be a good, God-fearing Christian man with a wife and at least two kids.
Okay, maybe not the two kids, but definitely a wife. And I’m not being paranoid. I think the popcorn’s Kool-Aid-infused.
Even after our troop’s close call with death, as we gathered in the same cramped room in the local Methodist church and recited the Scout Pledge, there was still that collective emphasis on the line “I will be…morally straight…”
Never mind that we almost all died, just as long as we were all saved, forthright, God-fearing lads who liked the Girl Scouts in that way.
Maybe they were prepared to die like that. I sure wasn’t.
So, while they rattled off The Oath, The Pledge, The Allegiance to God and Country, I synced along with them, but was really thinking about how badly I wanted to earn my Woodworking badge with a particular Eagle Scout.
Maybe, just maybe, he’d be as morally straight as me. Or, maybe not.
Either way, I’d be prepared.