Okay, so I do recall a few things. I remember when I sliced my pointer finger open with a pocket knife while I attempted to whittle a Scottish terrier out of a bar of soap. I remember wiping out on the jagged asphalt during the go-cart races. And I remember, after a fundraiser, Scout Leader Barnes slipping on icy steps and gashing the left side of his face on the frozen top layer of snow. Perhaps the only achievement badges I earned were those that represented bodily harm: the bloody finger, the brush-burned torso, and the horrified eyes. Wait! I was victorious in the DuBoistown-Nisbet Cub Scout checker tournament; my opponent still owed me two king pieces when I jumped his final pawn. THAT is my sole fond memory of "obeying the law of the pack," as the motto goes.
I don't know, exactly, why I wasn't hyped to be a Cub Scout. I was somewhat of an outdoorsman in my youth—I enjoyed hiking in the Appalachians behind my boyhood home, and fishing the local streams with my grandfather, and camping in the Tiagahton Forest with my buddies. I suppose I was adverse to the structure. Also, come to think of it, our troupe's meetings were exclusively indoors. We learned to pitch a tent while cooped-up in the local fire hall basement, next to the boiler room. Ah, the great underground, block-windowed, asbestos-tiled, indoors!
I also hated the fucking stupid yellow scarf.
My inner adventurer perked when our fearless leader (he wasn't really fearless—I think he was a claims adjuster, or something) Scout Master Barnes, announced a three day, two night sojourn to Camp Karoondinha. Camp Karoondinha is "The Land of Shining Waters," nestled in the foothills of Mifflinburg, PA. Finally, the pack was leaving the fire hall basement and heading into the great outdoors. I gathered a weekend's worth of my most outdoor-sy possessions: compass, map of the Appalachians, and Swiss army knife (I WISHED it was one with the spoon), and loading them into the plastic duffel bag I got free with a specific number of Kellogg’s proofs of purchase. Next thing I know, the pack is unloading Scout Leader Barnes' minivan and gathering amongst a thick canopy of lush deciduous trees. The untainted breeze wafted the pure scent of pine into our nostrils, which had, after so many troupe meetings, sucked in more dust and mold spores than the EPA would deem suitable.
Hawks cawing and circling above, the snap of a distant branch that was likely caused by an unseen whitetail deer, the startling menace of an 18-wheeler's horn reverberating from the major interstate not far from camp…we were finally outside.
Yes, we were now in the heart of God’s country. But a true survivalist would’ve scoffed at the conveniences: pre-pitched tents, a modern bathroom, a ranger’s office with electricity, etc. Bear Grylls would’ve likened it to a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, albeit one with raccoon scat dotting the woodland floor.
The first half-day of camp was comprised of relatively standard camping fare for the pre-adolescent uninitiated: unrolling sleeping backs, cooking a sausage and grit dinner over the pre-built fire pit, and generally running amuck without regard for the true beauty of the natural habitat in which we were immersed. Before long, night had fallen and the pack had gathered in a circle around the fire pit under the bulbous radiant moon.
Duh, of course we did. The cliché is realized.
To further the cliché the fireside chats quickly became a carousal of ghost stories. One camper after another told the scary story his grandfather told him the Halloween prior, or he'd heard on the playground, or at a sleepover, or whatnot. But a kid rarely possesses the narration skills to truly spook an audience, even when said audience is a bunch of pubescent sons of sub-suburban soccer moms. After the umpteenth telling of the ol' "hook hanging from the car door" urban legend the troupe leader cleared his throat, which snagged his pack's attention. "Quiet kids," he said. "Enough silly stories. I need to tell you something that may save your life this weekend…Hey, stop making fart sounds and pay attention, Biff. You all need listen up or you may DIE." The fire roared and the moon flickered when he said "die." (Not really, but I'd add those effects if I were directing the movie version). "Not long ago, a small plane crashed deep in the woods not far from this campsite. The pilot, who was alone on the flight, survived. But his arm was trapped underneath a crushed part of the cockpit. He screamed and yelled for help, but no one came. Fearing he would die, and understanding that his only chance at survival was to escape the wreckage, he pulled out the axe he'd kept in the cockpit and chopped off the arm that was trapped. He had freed himself. Days later, a search party found the downed plane. They also found the pilot's severed arm and a trail of dried blood leading into the woods. The pilot, however, was never seen again. Legend has it that he still lurks about these very woods at night, still carrying his ax, and seeking someone with an arm that might fit onto his own mutilated shoulder. And when he finds that perfect arm he's going to chop it off and replace the one he had to leave behind in the plane crash. Camp Karoondinha is full of campers this weekend. I'm sure the, ah, bloody stump pilot will be out looking for a match. I wouldn't go out wandering in the woods if I were you. You might just come back to camp with a BLOODY STUMP YOURSELF. (The fire would rage again).
With the benefit of both hindsight and maturity, I should've recognized this grisly story as impromptu bullshit fear-mongering designed to simply scare curious or mischievous campers into not straying into the woods and facing threats much more likely than ax-wielding ghosts— like black bears and the distinct prospects of getting lost in the vast Pennsylvania woodlands. The should-have-been-obvious reasons for disbelief are aplenty. First of all, I imagined the pilot as a burly lumberjack-type. Thus, Scout Leader Barnes himself owned the only appendage suitable to compliment the pilot's size requirements. How laughable would a barrel-chested brute look if he had one strapping arm, and another befitting a squirrelly 9-year-old? Furthermore, the dismembered pilot would've needed to survive the blood loss, and somehow manage in the unforgiving woods for several years armed with only an ax—and perhaps a little Cub Scout know-how. Never mind that he apparently decided to nest with the wildlife like the Unabomber, rather than hike to the nearest highway and seek a ride to the ER. Lastly, why would Scout Leader Barnes allow us to stay a weekend at Camp Karoondinha when he knew a rural Jack the Ripper was roaming about? The woodlands were London alleys, and we were prostitutes.
Despite the overlooked surefire signs that the scout leader’s story was nothing but B horror movie fodder, we naïve Cub Scouts immediately thought of ourselves as targets. After storytelling time concluded with the collective pants-pissing of about two dozen scouts, we finished our S’mores with chattering teeth, doused our fire, and schlepped to our tents. Yep, we were sitting ducks; it was just a matter of who “got the ax.”
Todd, my tent-mate, and I spent the first night in our sleeping bags assuring ourselves ad nauseam that our arms would remain intact with our torsos for the duration of the trip. We had some cause for hope. Most significantly, the law of probability dictated that neither of US would LIKELY be the pilot’s victim—someone, perhaps, but neither of us. But if either of us were chosen to be sampled, so to speak, surely we would notice the pilot approaching long before he could pounce. I felt strongly about my changes of outrunning a one-armed man hauling a cumbersome ax. Besides, if Todd and I were to stand back-to-back all weekend—think Forrest Gump and Bubba in the jungles of Vietnam—our surveillance would gain us the advantage. Those thoughts were comforting enough to allow us to begin to drift into slumber…until Todd brought up a good point, “What if he sneaks into our tent while we’re sleeping?” Oh shit!
I spent the next hours of the slog to sunrise either tossing and turning, or in a half-sleep state in which gruesome images appeared and vanished in my reeling mind like a flickering fever dream. But I was rattled back to reality when a shrill scream—that of a boy—blitzed the pre-dawn air. I sprang up in my bed Jack-In-The-Box style, eyes bulging, but recoiled just as quickly under the feeble security of my thin tattered sheets. I was too scared to ask Todd's opinion of what the scream meant. I didn't need to, actually. The pilot was trying on a brand new arm.
The next morning began as inauspiciously as the previous night had ended. After exchanging a few silent hours of petrified glances with Todd amid the muted glow of an early morning sun, Scout Leader Barnes rang the breakfast bell. What we happened upon along the short trek to the fire pit confirmed, or, re-confirmed, what me and Todd had already concluded. The flap to Biff's tent was wide open. His bed had been stripped and the bags and toiletries that normally accompanied occupancy were missing. We surveyed the other scouts lingering about the plates of scrambled eggs and sausages on the picnic table—Biff was gone!
My nerves instantly ran amuck upon this realization. Biff and I were never friends. In fact, I didn’t even know him particularly well. But now, poor Biff was dead. Murdered by a bloodthirsty ghost! His parents must be crushed. Scout Leader Barnes was just sitting on a rock, munching on greasy bacon. He seemed quite collected…eerily collected.
How can he hide his shock? Why aren’t we piling back in his minivan and scurrying home? Wait. Where are the police? Where are the investigators collecting evidence and writing down quotes? Crap! The Cub Scouts of America are sweeping the tragedy under the rug! Scout Master Barnes must've yanked the bloody sheets off Biff's bed to hide the fact that his friggin' arm was chopped off. Biff's camping gear was removed to erase any traces of his existence. His name surely has been erased from Camp Karoondinha's attendance records. Why? Is this a calculated effort by the Cub Scouts of America to protect a wholesome image? Did they honestly not foresee this tragedy, the ghost story come to life, and now feel the irrepressible need to avert the headline "Scout Master's Tongue in Granny Knots as Camper Slaughtered?" Either way, does the Cub Scouts of America think tank presume that Biff's fellow scouts would simply forget he was a part of the pack?
The remainder of the day consisted of standard camping and/or Cub Scout stuff, less the permeating immense fear that I may be violently murdered under the cloak of night in the vacuum of the Central Pennsylvania wilderness, and the nefarious Fraternal Order of the Cub Scouts of America would wipe away all traces of my untimely demise and order Scout Master Barnes to simply tell my parents “I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs. Bower, but Matt went down to the creek to skip rocks, and never came back. Damn, this is always the hardest part of the job.”
Beyond earshot of the scout master—preferably behind a tree or the outhouse—pack members exchanged whispers concerning the events of the preceding night. Everyone had heard Biff scream. Everyone had noticed Biff’s absence. Everyone took note of the mysterious state of Biff’s tent. And everyone was convinced that he was a goner.
I handled a potentially deadly weapon for the first time that afternoon. A ranger employed by the camp (read: lackey ordered by the Fraternal Order of the Cub Scouts of America) gave a crash course on proper use of a bow and arrow, and instructed me to take aim at a hail bale 50 feet away. I placed the tip of my left sneaker at the white chalk line in the grass, and raised the bow. I somehow mustered the strength in my scrawny upper body to gradually pull the string back while the arrow’s shaft was clenched between my fingers. The tension in the string was quickly draining the energy from my quivering arm. I squinted and measured the target straight ahead. In my mind, the hail bail was the psychotic pilot, sharpening his ax. He didn’t know I was there. He didn’t know I had him in my crosshairs. In that moment, I felt completely in control. The tension in the string and the ache in my biceps and shoulder assured me the arrow possessed sufficient potential energy to split a man’s eyebrows from across a field. I whimpered slightly when the ache became a throb. The pilot heard me and peered up; the sparks jumping from the grindstone framed his sneer. His eyes said “Look. Fresh meat.” I released the tension. My thoughts were on the tip of the arrow as it careened mercilessly toward its target. The pilot’s maddened eyes trailed the arrow as it whooshed three feet above his head. Then he turned back to me, grinned, and the spinning grindstone stopped. The blade was sharp enough now. And I was meat, indeed.
I awoke Sunday morning—the final day of camp—accompanied by a sense of relief. I hadn't been slaughtered overnight. Neither had Todd. Moreover, no midnight screams had awakened us.
The pact gathered for a final hearty breakfast prepared by Scout Master Barnes over the open fire. Nothing else seemed amiss. No tents were suddenly and mysteriously empty. No one was unaccounted for. My fellow scouts certainly seemed more carefree than the prior morning. Todd was back to his sophomoric quips, and others were playfully tussling. I sensed that everyone was thankful that today we'd return to the safe doldrums of a retreat to the proverbial grit. I know I was. But that didn't mean I was prepared to allow Scout Master Barnes to escape the veiling of Biff's terrible fate without a suitable explanation.
While our leader sat beside the withering fire and munched on a piece of toast, I gradually and deliberately approached him within his peripheral view. I was hoping he'd peer up and ask me what was on my mind before I'd have to tap him on the shoulder and initiate an extremely uncomfortable conversation. Frankly, I think he did notice me slowly approaching—fidgeting hands behind my back—but he refused to acknowledge me until the lingering awkwardness of a silent looming nine-year-old forced him to speak. “Hi Matt,” he said. “Ready to go home?”
“Yes,” I answered. I stared at his bobbing moustache as he chewed his bacon. “I’m ready.”
“Did you have fun?”
“Will you come back again with the pack next year?”
I didn’t respond at first. Instead, I stared at my feet. “Scout Master Barnes? I have a question. What happened to…” I could hear food squishing between his teeth. “What happened to Biff? Is he dead?”
Scout Master Barnes’ eyes widened, and a grin overcame his face. “Why? Do you think his arm was chopped off?”
My heart didn’t skip a beat. Nor did it quicken. But I’m pretty sure it turned white and coughed air bubbles into my veins.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Hah. Biff didn’t get his arm chopped off, son. No, no. But it’s not much better. He tried going into the bathroom in the dark and his dang wiener got caught in his zipper. That’s the scream you heard. Shook him up but good.” By this time, several members of the pack had gathered nearby.
“His poor mom had to come and pick him up before you guys woke up. Biff’s fine. He’ll just have an ice pack on his crotch for few days.” Scout Master Barnes erupted into an obscene belly laugh...the dick. “You guys thought the pilot got him, didn’t you. That’s rich! Time to gather your gear boys. The minivan leaves soon.”
I still love the outdoors, much more than any moldy basement. And, yes, I have zero fond memories of my days as a Cub Scout, bar the checkers tournament. But I did learn one thing while camping—always take your flashlight to the pisser.