Of Boy Scouts and Bodies

In Doug’s opinion, the Boy Scouts of America was about as lame an organization as one could possibly belong to.  In his father’s opinion, it was the greatest. Thus, regrettably, Doug was an unwilling member for much of his childhood. 

To be fair, it wasn’t all bad. Doug enjoyed camping and loved being out of the city and in the woods. What never sat well with him was the organization’s peculiar emphasis on what it considered outstanding moral behavior and its utter fixation on various merit patches which, upon completion of certain assigned tasks, would be stitched to the uniform of the kid forced to earn them.

Admittedly, some of the patches, such as Archery and Kayaking, were pretty cool. The overwhelming majority, though, were pretty ridiculous. For example, there were such gems as Citizenship in the Community, Personal Fitness, American Heritage, Crime Prevention, and Family Life, among others, that they were all expected to earn. There was even one for playing the bugle. In fact, there were so many patches that, after no more room remained on the shirt itself, they were stitched on a sash the kids had to wear draped across their chests.

Most of the dozen kids of Troop 21 wore their patches with pride, considering them, quite literally, badges of honor. For Nick and a select few others, though, they were a source of considerable embarrassment, signifying nothing more than a willingness to play by the rules and be a good scout. In other words, to be a tremendous dork.

Each troop had at least one designated Scout Leader, usually one of the kids’ dads. In Nick’s case, there were a few fathers who filled this role, one of which was his own. These men, like their kids, had varying degrees of enthusiasm for the organization. Some urged the kids to stick closely to the Official Guidebook and vigorously pursue the merit patches. Others became Scout Leaders simply to take advantage of all-expense paid camping trips where they could get away from their wives, get drunk, and go fishing for a weekend every month. 

Nick’s dad fit somewhere in between the two extremes. He didn’t drink, but he did love to fish and shoot the shit with the other men. An avid outdoorsman, he generally led the kids in acquiring patches for activities like archery, hiking, and canoeing. The less adventurous (and less fit) fathers took the helm when it came to helping the kids earn those patches related to more sedentary pursuits; such as honing the skills it takes to be a good member of the community or developing outstanding penmanship.

Sometimes, though, Doug’s old man enjoyed creating his own unique brand of merit patch, one well beyond the bounds of what the Boy Scouts of America would ever officially sanction. Rather than putting the boys through tests of endurance or feats of strength, what the kids of Troop 21 were subjected to at the hands of Doug’s father generally involved being the subject of a prank of some kind, meant, ostensibly, to teach them a life lesson. So it was that, deep in the woods and repeatedly throughout the night, the scouts would awaken to recorded tapes of wild animals while, simultaneously, their tents might be vigorously shaken, as if by a hungry bear. Doug wasn’t always sure what kind of life lesson such shenanigans were supposed to teach them, other than perhaps how to function on little sleep. 

On one particular trip, though, Doug’s father really outdid himself, orchestrating something that would prove far more instructive, if not outright traumatic, to every single member of Troop 21 than any of his previous efforts had ever been.

The camping trip in question was, from the outset, different than any previous outings. The biggest change was the location itself. The boys had always pitched their tents deep in the woods, off the trails and as far from any people as possible. This time, though, they made camp in the foothills outside the city of Oakdale. At best, it was rural. By no stretch could it be considered wild. Even telephone poles could be seen dotting the horizon in three directions, along with strings of barbed wire fencing and a handful of abandoned mining shacks that had somehow managed to remain standing after weathering the elements for the better part of a century. As far as Doug was concerned, this did not qualify as a legitimate camping spot. According to his strict standards, if any sign of civilization remained visible, no matter how old or modern, it ceased to become a camping trip and became instead nothing more than a glorified overnight picnic.

Even the lake was fake. Rather than being the termination of a network of mountain streams, it had instead been created by a nearby reservoir.  Still, fake or not, due to the intense heat and lack of trees to provide cover from the scorching sun, it had still generated a fair amount of excitement among the kids. Unfortunately, said excitement was quickly extinguished after the boys tramped down to the shore with their swim trunks, fishing poles, and tackle boxes, only to be greeted by a sign jutting out of the yellow grass informing them the water was unsafe to swim or fish in. This meant the rest of the day would be spent divided up into groups earning stupid merit patches. Doug tried not to dwell on how much fun his non-scouting friends were likely having, tearing around the neighborhood on their BMXs while he remained stuck out in a parched and toxic wasteland with nothing to do but stupid group activities. But, alas, such was his fate. He resigned himself to it and spent the better part of the early afternoon working on his knots.

Around lunchtime, after Doug had tied about as many knots as he could tolerate, he became aware his father had run off somewhere. In fact, he couldn’t recall the last time he’d even seen him. Sometime around breakfast, maybe, not too long after he and the other boys had strolled down to the toxic lake. He approached two of the Scout leaders, who were busy playing cards over an ice chest and guzzling beer under the scant shade of a dead tree. He asked the men if they’d seen his dad and received an indifferent shrug in response, followed, strangely, by conspiratorial looks and soft laughter, as if they were in on some private joke Doug wasn’t privy to. Not curious enough to push the issue and see what was so damned funny, he wandered off toward the cluster of tents to retrieve a crossword puzzle he had wisely stowed in his pack in the event of boredom precisely such as this.

About thirty or so minutes later, inside the hot shade of his tent, sprawled out on a sleeping bag, Doug was interrupted from his puzzle by a shirtless man with a jiggling gut who ran into their camp, hollering about some terrible accident he had just witnessed. All the boys, along with the Scout Leaders, dropped whatever it was they had been doing and approached this strange man, clustering around him in a semi-circle. Doug looked around to see if his father had returned but didn’t spot him. Where the hell did he go?

The strange man was doubled over, hands resting on his knees, breath coming out in raspy bursts, as if he’d just finished running a marathon. Though, judging by his flabby belly and stumpy legs, he probably could have traveled as little as a few hundred yards and experienced the same level of fatigue. One of the Scout Leaders, a pale and thin ghost of a man named Craig who seemed to have a perpetual case of the sniffles, stepped forward and rested his bony hand on the man’s thick greasy shoulder and offered him a pull from a canteen. The man snatched it and tipped it up to the sky, letting the cool water splash into his mouth and over his face. His Adam’s Apple bobbed up and down like the head of a little bird as he quenched his thirst. He emptied the last bit all over the sweaty and thinning hair sticking to his scalp. Tossing the canteen on the ground, he shook his head like a dog to get the water from his eyes, his big meaty jowls swinging to and fro, out of sync with the rest of his face. After taking a few more moments to regain his composure, he turned to face the nearest adult, but his eyes seemed to be addressing everybody.

“Been an accident,” he said.

Scout Leader Craig sniffled and asked: “What kind of accident?”

The fat man fingered his hairy belly button and, somewhat dramatically, slowly turned his head, passing his eyes over every last one of them, men and boys alike. “A bad kind,” he said. “Really, really bad.” He then looked pointedly at Craig, as if expecting him to say something. When no reply was forthcoming, he shook his head and snapped: “Found some guy. He was dead as shit.”

A collective gasp erupted from all the scouts. Then, immediately, everyone began to speak at once. Craig tried to maintain order but was largely ignored. Suddenly, Doug’s father returned from wherever he had been, breaking through the circle of boys and stepping straight up to the fat man. Craig, looking mightily relieved, melted back into the crowd.

“This accident, you witnessed it?” demanded Doug’s father, his shiny badge clipped to his belt for all to see.

“I didn’t witness nothin,’ the man replied. “Was just out walkin’ around, came across the body.”

“So you were out and about, minding your business, and just stumble across a corpse. Is that what you’re saying?”

The man lowered his gaze. “I never said nothin’ about stumblin’.”

Doug’s father sighed. “It’s a figure of speech.”

The man knotted his brows. “Figure of what?”

“Never mind about that. Now, are you certain, absolutely certain, that this guy you saw is  dead?” Doug’s father asked.

The man peered at his interrogator with a question in his eyes, as if he thought it might be a trick question or maybe there was a right and wrong answer. “I dunno, he looked dead to me,” he finally mumbled.

“Take me to this man,” Doug’s father demanded.

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

Turning to Craig, Doug’s father ordered him to gather the boys and make sure their canteens were full, they were all going on an impromptu field trip. This caused considerable excitement among the boys, some of whom were chomping at the bit at the chance to potentially see an actual human corpse, and others who were terrified at the prospect. Doug himself was somewhere in the middle of these extremes; he was curious enough about seeing what this was all about but not terribly enthusiastic about actually looking at a dead man.

Turning to Craig, Doug’s father ordered him to gather the boys and make sure their canteens were full, they were all going on an impromptu field trip. This caused considerable excitement among the boys, some of whom were chomping at the bit at the chance to potentially see an actual human corpse, and others who were terrified at the prospect. Doug himself was somewhere in the middle of these extremes; he was curious enough about seeing what this was all about but not terribly enthusiastic about actually looking at a dead man. 

A few years earlier he had seen a dead person in a funeral home, some old lady, a family friend he hardly knew named Pearl. She had just looked asleep except prettier, without the gaping and snoring mouth, gasping, or drooling old people usually do after they go to bed. He remembered having to suppress the urge to poke her forehead with his finger.

This, though, would be far different than some dolled up old lady. This was an accident. The body would be raw, untouched by anything or anyone except maybe the flies. There might be blood, puke, poop, or whatever kinds of disgusting stuff comes out of a person’s body when they die. None of this was Doug at all interested to see. What he was curious to discover, though, was just how this man had managed to die. From what he could see, there wasn’t much around to cause deadly accidents. But, then again, he wasn’t an expert on such things like his dad was.

Doug’s father insisted they depart immediately. If the man was still alive he might yet be saved. If not, the evidence was deteriorating the longer it was exposed to the elements. Though this meant postponing dinner, nobody dared argue. Canteens strapped across their chests and bouncing on their hips, the group set out at a brisk trot, sun in their eyes, across the hot dead grass.

Within thirty minutes or so, the land began to rise. Cresting a few hills, they descended into a valley that didn’t look like it contained much besides a few head of cattle seeking shelter from the unforgiving sun in the shadow cast by what appeared to be a utility shed of some sort. It was near this that the fat man stopped, wiping the sweat from his brow. “There,” he said, pointing off beyond the shed toward the center of the valley.

Doug squinted against the lowering sun. At first, he could see nothing. The heat made everything in the distance dance and shimmer, making it impossible to see anything clearly. Eventually, though, he was able to make out a small protuberance jutting out of the landscape. As they drew closer, it resolved itself into an old well, cobbled together with old rocks.

When they were within a dozen feet or so Doug’s father instructed the boys to stay back. He approached the lip of the well accompanied only by the sweaty fat man who had led them there. He peered over the edge and, for a few moments that seemed an eternity, finally turned back to face the group.

   “Gather round, boys,” Doug’s father said. A few brave scouts stepped forward. Most, though, primarily the ones who had been so courageous at the beginning, remained where they were, staring at their shoes.

Doug’s father tried again. “Come on, kids. You’re wasting time. This man might still be breathing.”

Most of the kids still hung back but Doug and a few others shuffled forward to the edge of the well and took a peek.  Like everything around this wasteland, the well itself was dry and long abandoned. It took Doug’s eyes a moment to adjust to the deep shadows of the shaft. The first thing he could make out was a bunch of trash. People had apparently been using this hole in the ground as a makeshift garbage dump. It was filled with discarded pieces of lumber of various shapes and sizes, along with several strands of rusty barbed wire and yellowed newspaper. Among all this debris, though, lying face up with his back arched at an unnatural angle, Doug saw a man of about thirty or so wedged in among the scraps of lumber. Coils of barbed wire were wrapped loosely around one arm and an ankle. His neck was craned back so his face angled up in their direction. Though his eyes were closed it still felt as if he were staring at them all, judging them. There was an ample amount of blood streaked on his face and arms. What little clothes he wore were torn to rags and filthy with caked dust.

After the initial horror had passed, one of the boys made a little cough and raised his hand, as if he were back in the classroom with a question. “Yes?” Doug’s father said.

The kid, a usually cocky little bastard named Mario, lowered his arm and, taking a moment to find his voice, asked, “Is he…you know…”

Doug’s father took a step forward. “Dead? Is he dead?”

Mario swallowed, nodded, and then slowly retreated back into the cluster of boys yet to come forward.

“That’s an excellent question,” Doug’s father said. “All of you in the back, step on up here and let’s find out.”

Most of the kids just continued standing there, looking everywhere but at Doug’s father.

“Come on, now. Don’t be chickenshits. It’s not as if he’s gonna hurt you.”

The fear of being pegged as a coward trumped any lingering fear of seeing a dead body. The kids who had yet to do so finally mustered their courage and gathered around to take a look. One of the boys, a timid soft-spoken boy named Geoffrey, placed his hand over his mouth and began rapidly swallowing, clearly suppressing the urge to puke.

Doug’s father looked around at the children and threw up his hands in exasperation. “Well, any ideas?” he asked, as if he were no longer a cop and the kids were the grownups, the ones in charge. As for the other scout leaders, they remained unhelpful, standing mute a few dozen feet away. “Well?” he repeated, “Nobody has anything to say?”

“Maybe we should ask if he’s dead?” ventured Mario.

Doug’s father nodded. “Well, that’s a start,” he said, then stuck his head down into the well. “Can you hear me?” he hollered, his words bouncing eerily off the narrow walls. “If you can hear me, give me a sign. Wiggle a finger, anything.”

The man remained motionless. Doug was no expert, but he was fairly certain the guy was dead. It struck him odd that his father should have failed to also arrive at this conclusion. He was an expert on this stuff. That, combined with his strange behavior, like the way he was asking the kids for advice, was very unlike him.

The man remained motionless. Doug was no expert, but he was fairly certain the guy was dead. It struck him odd that his father should have failed to also arrive at this conclusion. He was an expert on this stuff. That, combined with his strange behavior, like the way he was asking the kids for advice, was very unlike him.

Doug’s father heaved a big sigh and turned to face the scouts. “Well, I guess he’s dead then,” he announced. “Guess there’s nothing left to do but pack it up and head back to camp. No point in letting it ruin our trip, am I right?” After several moments of indecision, the kids turned around and began to head back the way they had come.

“Hold on a second, god-damnit,” Doug’s father said, hands firmly planted on his hips in a gesture Doug knew only too well. “Get over here, boys. All of you.”

The scouts didn’t dare disobey. They all came forward and stood at the lip of the well. A hush descended upon the group. Nobody seemed to know what was expected of them, Doug least of all.

His father, eyes full of disappointment, looked over each one of them. The other Scout leaders, and even the fat man who had led them there, slowly shook their heads with disapproval. Leaning his head into the well, Doug’s father slapped the rocky lip with his palm. “Come on up, Gabe,” he said.

The corpse began to move. He removed the barbed wire from his arm and leg and then, grinning, began to climb up the criss-crossed pieces of lumber which it was now obvious had been wedged there for easy access into and out of the well. He swung a leg over the edge and, a moment later, was standing among them, brushing the dust from his torn jeans. “Well, that was fun,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm.

The fat man glanced at his watch. “Come on, Gabe. If we hurry we’ll catch the ass end of happy hour.” He turned to Doug’s father and clapped him on the shoulder. “You owe us one.” Then, without another word, the two men headed off toward the crest of the next hill, probably where they had parked their cars. 

After they’d gone, Doug’s father sat down on the edge of the well and, for a dramatic minute or so, said nothing. Finally, he looked up at the boys. “Not a single one of you, with the exception of Mario, so much as made a single suggestion.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The man in that well could very well have still been alive. Sure, he didn’t respond to my voice, but neither would you if you were unconscious. Nobody thought to climb down there and check for a pulse, see if there was an open wound in need of attention, any number of things. No one even suggested maybe finding a phone, calling the paramedics. No, you guys were just ready to pack it up and head back to camp, no questions asked.”

Doug thought this more than a little unfair but he kept his mouth shut, as did the other boys. The other scout leaders, now that the ruse was over, were relaxed and smiling as they smoked cigarettes and shared a soft bout of laughter. Obviously, they’d been in on the whole thing.

The troop trudged back to camp, the sun now at their backs. Unlike the trip out, no one spoke much. Doug knew his father had been trying, in his own way, to teach the kids some kind of lesson. But, try as he might, he was damned if he knew what it was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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