By Mike Toolan
“Did any of you guys grab my sweatshirt?”
The birds were singing beautiful songs in the trees surrounding the gravel parking lot and the sun was shining in the position it normally would on a Friday in April at 7 o’clock in the evening. By all accounts, at least by those in the same parking lot, we were in for a beautiful evening. Or so we thought.
“Nope! Did you leave it back home?”
“I better not have! I can’t camp outside, in the woods, without a sleeping bag, a tent, and a sweatshirt!”
It turns out, I was pretty lucky. My stalwart scoutmaster had come prepared, as scouts are supposed to, with extras of just about everything, including sweatshirts.
As we all filed into the grand lodge of the camp, the sun began to dip down and the clouds began to crawl in our direction. I could feel a light breeze and a rise in the humidity. This was going to be an interesting night.
. . .
Flag saluting, recitation and general ceremony aside, that evening wasn’t bad. “My” sweatshirt was warm (fleece lined in fact), the fire was huge, the s’mores were plentiful, and I was put in the survival group with two of my good friends.
“Scouts come forward to receive your supplies!”
We all lined up, single file, only to be handed an 8’x10’ tarpaulin and 20-ish feet of rope (finally, knots!). The single file line was then broken into sections of preassigned groups that were sent into the woods to find their assigned camp plots. It started drizzling.
. . .
It started raining.
The best spot I could find was at the base of a tall tree at the far edge of our plot. It only had three large roots, eight medium to large sized sharp rocks, 20+ smaller yet still present rocks, and what looked to be a small, rained out anthill. With the rope coiled in my pocket and the tarp wrapped around me like a caterpillar’s cocoon, I tried to sleep. It started pouring.
Luckily, it only poured for about half of an hour, and it only rained for an hour or so after that, and the drizzle did its best to lull me into a dream state. Whatever critters were also taking refuge in my tarp though, didn’t give a shit if I slept or not, as long as they were dry and intact.
The two or so hours of sleep I managed to get that night did wonders for my appetite, so when the camp counselors came around to hand out breakfast at six in the morning, I was prepared to bribe them for extra grub. Then I remembered my possessions consisted of some rope, a soggy outfit, and a tarp. I, along with the others in my group, received one raw egg and one match.
I’ll spare you the boring details of how we lit a fire with wet sticks and cooked our raw eggs without any cookware, because we didn’t, and when I ate my egg, it was still raw. And I was still starving.
. . .
“No, you can’t use the chainsaw.”
“No, you can’t use the handsaw.”
“No, you can’t use the chainsaw.”
I was getting hangry (hungry+angry) now. And did I mention that it was raining again? Three hours into this forced labor situation and I had eaten one raw egg. The egg wasn’t bothering me, the lack of any other nutrition was. The only thing keeping me going was the promise of a feast for the history books.
. . .
This was our weekend induction into The Order of the Arrow, a national honors society for the Boy Scouts of America. They had chosen us, the cream of the crop so to speak, to be honored among all in our various troops and to represent them as the thriftiest, the kindest, the most prepared, and the most helpful.
The only catch was; we had to spend a night in the woods with very limited supplies and endure the following day’s labors with little to no sustenance. To an adult, this is character building, it’s a test to see if maybe we actually learned something from our weekly meetings, and it’s a test of our fortitude. To us, it was another weekend camping trip, the best part of scouting in my opinion; a reason to play around outside with your friends and not have to worry about showering or cleaning up after ourselves.
Expectations on both sides were a bit skewed I guess. The adults wanted us to learn through hard work and self denial. We wanted to play outside and light fires. What actually ended up happening was that we did what the adults had planned, but kept our mindset and seemingly learned nothing from the experience, at least immediately.
. . .
Eight hours in and I have never lifted and dragged more tree branches in my entire life, let alone on an empty stomach. I was beginning to think this was a slavery camp and that this feast was all a hoax. I was eyeing the meaty arm of a fellow scout about the time that somebody grabbed my attention.
“Do you think anyone would notice if we hide in the woods and show up to the feast later?”
Idiot. Slave drivers always know where their slaves are.
. . .
The moment had finally arrived. After a solid ten hours of work, I had developed an appetite that could absorb the galaxy like a black hole, but now we were lined up outside of the lodge awaiting some sort of ceremony.
“AtteeeennnnnnnTION! Scouts! Fall in!”
We lined up by troop, and collectively awaited the bestowing of our sashes. After what felt like an eternity we entered, single file, into the lodge, where heavenly aromas wafted in one nostril and out the other.
Trays of lasagna, homemade pizza (not a frozen impersonation), hamburgers, hot dogs, sausage and peppers, fried chicken and probably a salad. It wasn’t healthy by any stretch of the imagination but I was in heaven. I feasted on the buffet like the king of a thousand lands.
After such a long, arduous day in the rain, the warmth of the lodge around us and the food within us made us forget the suffering of the last 24 hours. We relaxed, we ate, we joked around, we yawned, we ate some more, and we talked about anything other than all the work we just did. It was done. We had done what we came to do, and all, adults and scouts alike, were satisfied. And I assumed I’d never have to experience this again.
. . .
The lessons learned that weekend were lost on me for years. There was no reason for me to be that hungry ever again. Food is everywhere and at any time I could reach for just about anything my heart desired. During the process of growing up since then, I never had to worry about food, and I never really had to work all that hard. I had the one thing I needed to avoid all of that: privilege.
These days, it is painfully clear that as a 26 year old college student, food may be ubiquitous, but it’s not free. In fact, it’s more expensive than I ever could have imagined. All I knew was that every weekend, my parents went to the grocery store and came back with things that filled my belly. And sure they went to work, but that was to pay for the house, the cars, our schooling and clothing; but food couldn’t have been expensive enough to warrant all that much work.
Now I work three jobs totaling 25 hours a week, go to school full time, commute for roughly 12 hours a week, and have no time or money leftover for food. What happened? I know I need food. Next to water and air, it’s the most important part of being alive.
What I realize now, whether or not it was the lesson that was supposed to be imparted upon me that weekend, is that that was the first time I would experience what millions of people experience every day. At the time I didn’t like it, and I don’t like it now, but I understand it, and I understand that I’m still incredibly privileged. Learning how much I have to work for the things I need and want has taught me to value them more. Every time I get a home cooked dinner, it’s like I’m reliving that feast all over again. I try to savor it the same way, but with a little added perspective.