Picture a ten-year-old boy chubby in the appropriate places, uniformed, blindfolded, with a compass hung round his neck, a Swiss Army knife tucked into his belt, and a meticulously folded topo map tucked into his pocket. He is wearing a knapsack, which has been packed by his father and contains a canteen, a small bag of preparable foods, a first aid kit, a space blanket, and a book of matches. Picture this boy being led for a matter of miles into thick forest away from any trails or roads, and being abandoned there, somewhere in the middle of things, to make his way to a “rally point” highlighted by his father on the map. Hold that picture in your mind.
* * * * *
In Scouting, I had reached the WEBELOS plateau. (WEBELOS is an acronym standing for WE’ll BE LOyal Scouts, which should rightly appear in caps, and be pronounced either as We·bah·los, or We·blows, depending on regional predilections and/or the level of speaker maturation.) The WEBELOS badge comes after the Tiger Cub, Bobcat, Wolf, and Bear badges and is represented by the fleur-de-lis (French for lily flower, though to me it always looked more like a piece of corn mid-shuck—decidedly gay either way).
The Scout motto is “Be Prepared” and to this supposed end I spent many an afternoon in the cafeteria of my Grammar school constructing diamond shaped birdhouses and playing basketball in a Navy Blue uniform, a yellow and blue neckerchief affixed to my throat with a gold brooch, and the WEBELOS colors flapping from my right arm: an epaulet boasting red, green, and yellow streamers to which I could affix my many earned activity pins, such as the Craftsman, the Artist, the Communicator, and the Aquanaut.
Never as a Scout had I done anything resembling an outdoor activity; about the only cool thing I was ever a part of was the Pine Wood Derby—a yearly event in which participants made racecars out of a basic kit involving a block of pine wood, four plastic wheels, and four nails to act as axles. But by the fourth grade, having lost the Derby each year to some four-eyed dweeb whose father worked for NASA (and thus had access to space-age materials with which to soup-up his car), I decided I had had enough of Scouting, wanted to quit, and brought this to the attention of my parents.
My father, who for his part had a history with the Scouts, having reached the rank of Order of the Arrow (the Scouting equivalent of an 8th degree black belt), was not pleased, and yet after some consideration decided that I would be allowed to quit the Scouts, but only after I had adequately demonstrated my “preparedness.” Thinking I had already done this, I offered as evidence the bounty of pins weighing down my WEBELOS epaulet, but with a haughty scoff he indicated this was not proof enough. Then what was? Early one cool October morning my father woke me, told me to get dressed in my Scout uniform, and to meet him out in the car.
* * * * *
In the car when his father had asked him if he knew how to use a compass and to read a map, the boy assured his father that, yes, he did, not wanting to disappoint and figuring he could fake his way through later on while his dad did most of the work. Yes, in the car, the boy had even been excited, as the prospect of finding a remote location on a map with nothing but the aid of a few tools, his wits, and (most importantly) his father, seemed like a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon; as a bonus, having completed this activity, he would be allowed to quit the Scouts before it started to do any real damage to him socially, and furthermore, he could probably even get a bubblegum flavored ice cream cone on the way back home. But he had never expected to be doing this alone, and he was no longer excited.
In early October it is not as warm as one would hope if they are going to be spending the night under the stars, and this is the first thing the boy considers after removing his blindfold—realizing that he is hopelessly unprepared for this eventuality.
Then, strategizing—map and compass all but useless to him—the boy had thought about staying in place, for surely after a time his father would have to come looking for him, and if he hadn’t moved he would be much easier to find. Then again, if he hadn’t moved, his father would know that he hadn’t even tried to find the rally point, which might hurt his chances on at least two fronts: quitting Scouts, and getting an ice cream cone. No, truly the best option would be to make some headway, but to leave clues that could either get him back to the drop point, or would help anyone on a search of the area locate him more easily.
The boy realized that climbing uphill would give him a better sense of the landscape and so help him locate where he was on the map, and where he might need to be going. He might even get lucky and see an orange flag, or his father off in the distance with a thermos, waiting for him, at the ready with some hot chocolate. But the boy didn’t want to hike uphill when it was so much easier to hike down, and if he hiked down, he might get to some water, and this would be more fun to play in while he waited for his father to come find him, since he clearly was not going to find the rally point except by dumb luck, and if he was only acting on luck, it was just as reasonable to assume that his father would have put the rally point along the water to make his own wait more interesting. So this is what he did.
Before setting off the boy decided it would be best to have a hiking stick to help along, mostly because he liked to use his Swiss Army knife to whittle things, and because he liked the purpose this lent to his mission. Finding a stick of somewhat appropriate size he whittled enough of it away to provide a nice smooth hand hold, and removed the bumpy branch nubs down the length of the stick which otherwise might have scraped at his legs as he progressed. Instead of using the branch as a hiking stick the boy went back and forth between using it to scrape a line in the dirt to indicate his path, as a tool to pick-up leaves (as he had seen men in orange jumpsuits pick up garbage along the highway), and as a sword to fight off imaginary foes.
After some time the boy grew somewhat tired, and a mite peckish, and took a seat down in the dirt, back propped against a tree to root through his knapsack. But a small bag of dried beans and another of corn was all he could find within the bag, that, in any way, resembled food. Thinking these hard to consume without a beak, the boy gave a frustrated sigh, and cursed his father. Using his Swiss Army knife to make more of a pronounced point on his hiking stick, the boy thought that if he could use his dried goods to entice a Squirrel or a Rabbit to come within range, he might be able to spear it, and then roast it over a fire, but fifteen minutes passed and no such game had appeared before the boy gave up this pursuit, and continued on with his original goal of finding some source of water. If he was going to hunt for his food he decided he liked fish better anyway.
The boy was more successful on this tack, for, as he had hoped, when the hill gave way to level ground it was in the from of a streambed, and this stream as it meandered opened up into a nice creek, and here the boy situated himself, on a nice big rock jutting out into the water, with the warm sun on his face.
* * * * *
I’m telling the story so I guess you know I didn’t die out in the woods, and knowing that, further specifics of the tale are perhaps not so important. A kid gets lost in the woods, finds himself beside some water, and eventually is found. The only lingering question you might have is whether or not I got to quit the Scouts. I did, but perhaps only because I never saw my father again.
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Portland Fiction Project
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