At my church back in Huntsville there's a story that everyone likes totell. It's the story of the weekend that, as the church newsletterwould later report, "only the chickens survived."
It all begins like this: our scoutmaster was the ex-military type. Heliked doing things the Army way and treated us boys like troops. I wasfourteen at the time and, like so many others, was only at scoutsbecause my parents made me.
Our scoutmaster planned a camping trip for the first weekend in October andthat Friday after school all twelve of us met at the church with ourgear. We didn't leave the church until about 4:30 because, as usual, BJwas late.
BJ was always late. The year before when we had gone to Florida to gofishing he had been two hours late! We almost left without him thattime. We were never sure whether he intended to be late or whether itwas truly an accident. Either way BJ had never arrived for anything ontime. Sean claimed that BJ's house must be in a different time zone,but we told him that just couldn't be so. BJ lived two streets behindSean.
Once BJ arrived we all piled into the scoutmaster's old blue van and off wewent. The van was cramped and warm inside, but full of boyish chatter.Everyone was talking about what he had brought to burn in the fire:Barbie dolls, Matchbox cars, Happy Meal toys, an assortment of boxes,plastic coke bottles, lighter fluid, etc. The greatest excitement ofthe weekend was going to be seeing what happened when Sean put his"glow sticks" into the fire. We were a fire hazard waiting to happen.Our favorite saying was, "only we can start forest fires."
At 5:30 we finally arrived at the campsite. It wasn't really a campsite,but more of a cow pasture surrounded by woods; the smell of dampnessand cow manure filled the air.
The sun sets around 6:30 in early October so we only had an hour to set upcamp. Usually that would be plenty of time, but this wasn't an ordinarycamping trip, as was evident from the two caged chickens obliviouslypecking about in Jeremy, the assistant scoutmaster's, truck. We wereall too busy talking about the "fire" to even think about the chickensin the truck. Jeremy's family lived on a farm, so we assumed he hadjust forgotten to take the chickens out.
The van stopped and we all started to unload the van. About five minuteslater Sean asked the question we had all been to busy to ask.
"Where's the tents? All I see here's a pile u' tarps. Did y'uh forget the tents?"
"No son. We're going to make our own tents just like in the handbook.Everyone grab a tarp!"
All of our eyes bulged out of our heads, but no one said anything. No onewanted to face the scoutmaster.
The tarps were in the back of the scoutmaster's van. They were old, smeltfunny, and had the coloring of something out of the 70s. This was notgoing to be fun. With our scout-books in hand, we all grabbed a tarpand headed off into the nearby woods to find a prime spot for a shelter.
I started to make a semblance of a shelter out of my tarp. It was goingpretty well and then, after twenty minutes of heavy concentration on myown shelter, I looked behind me. I must have been completely zoned outbecause what was behind me was nothing like the mess of individualshelters I had seen a few minutes before.
I don't know who thought of it first but somewhere between the van andthe woods someone decided that if one tarp was good then two or threetarps were even better. A city of interconnecting tarps covered an areaof three cubic meters! Ropes went in every direction pointing to thesky; this was a mess. The structure was ugly browns and oranges with afew specks of blue mixed in. It didn't look like it should even bestanding.
Around the structure seven proud boys stood in awe of their amazing work. Afew of the other boys were still working on some final last touches tothe compound. I overheard someone speaking of a skylight in the mainroom. They asked me to join them so they could build a dinning room,but from previous camping experiences, such as Sean's shaving cream andaxe incidence, I knew better.
See, a few years before this when I was twelve we had gone camping justoutside of Huntsville. It wasn't a long camping trip just a"one-nighter". Anyways, that night as everyone else slept Sean (whom weall called "nature-boy") wondered around the campsite trying to feedthe animals our food. He ended up luring a rabid skunk just outside ofthe scoutmaster's tent. The skunk got scared and sprayed thescoutmaster's tent. Needless to say when the scoutmaster woke up he wasnot very satisfied with Sean. Sean spent the rest of the night tryingto redeem himself by finding the skunk again so he could kill it withhis axe and shaving cream. The next morning when we all woke up therewas Sean asleep by the fire with his axe and the campsite wascompletely covered in shaving cream. It was a mess to clean up.
After I had refused to join their compound I returned to making some lastminute touch ups on my tent. I looked up, I could see clouds formingbehind the setting sun. This was not a good sign.
By the time I finished my shelter the other boys had already started asmall fire and were beginning to build the fire up so we could beginour ritualistic burning of the empty Pringles can filled with leaves.See it is tradition in Troop 76 that before anything else is cooked onthe fire that the troop must eat a whole can of Pringles and then fillthe can with leaves. Once the can is filled to the brim with leaves weput the lid back on the can and toss it into the fire and watch itburn. The fire was now ready for cooking dinner.
At about that time someone, probably Sean, got up the nerve to ask whatthe chickens were for. We had all been secretly wondering why Jeremystill had the chickens in his truck, but we didn't want to leave thefire to go ask.
"Ever killed your own lunch, boys?" was the scoutmaster's reply.
We looked at teach other in horror. This was definitely not what we hadexpected, but morale was still good. We still had a whole night beforewe had to worry about the chickens. The chickens could be heard in thedistance still randomly pecking the cage floor. Jeremy got up to feedthe chickens their "last meal." Then it began to rain.
At first it was only a drizzle, nothing too bad. We all went into ourshelters. From my "tent," a few feet away, I could hear the other boyscongratulating themselves on a job well done. Their shelter was workingand I wished that I were a part of it.
For the next thirty or forty minutes I continued to hear laughter andchatter in the compound a few feet away from my "tent." I longed to bein there with them playing card games such as "twenty-one" or EgyptianRat Screw. The rain began to pick up pace. After awhile I heard themrustling outside their tent. I assumed that they were trying to makerepairs because when I heard them go back into the tent Sean yelled,"I've found some cups to catch the rain!" Nothing would interfere withtheir card games, not even this rain.
I sat alone in my "tent" looking out the door watching the fire slowlydie. "I guess there will be no supper tonight," I told myself. Mystomach growled at the thought. I took a Pop-Tart out of my backpackand slowly ate it. It was 7:30; I got into my sleeping bag and tried tosleep.
The rain continued into the night and slowly their massive tarp structurebegan to weaken. Now, as I slept, I was glad that I hadn't been a partof their tarp compound. Though I was uncomfortable and bored in myshelter, I was dry.
At nine o'clock I heard several chilling screams over the sound of thecold, pouring rain. I quickly jerked up and looked out my door to seewhat was up. The structure had collapsed on them in their sleep. Ismiled and watched as they tried to crawl out from underneath theirheavy structure. As they crawled out I heard random cries of, "Get offme you fag!" "Owww! That hurt!" and "How do we get out of this dangthing?"
They all finally ran out and tried to rebuild their structure, but to noavail. The rain was just too hard. The ropes were too wet and swollento be tied into even the simplest knot.
To show off his excellent military skills our scoutmaster had built a hugeshelter with his tarp. Both he and Jeremy were asleep there. After afew minutes of standing in the freezing rain the other boys one-by-onecrawled over to the scoutmaster's tent and got inside. The scoutmaster wasn't very pleased, but he didn't want to get out in the rain and tryto salvage their structure so he sucked it up and said they could allstay the night in his shelter.
Through the night my "tent" had slowly begun to leak and parts of mysleeping bag were now damp. I was miserable, but overall better offthan my friends had been. But, by 9:30 my shelter had become unbearable. I abandoned my shelter and went to join my friends in thescoutmaster's tent.Once we were all in the scoutmaster's shelter we sat there in silencefor over thirty minutes. We were all cold, hungry, and miserable. ThenSean shifted his weight on whatever he was sitting on and we heard acrinkle.
"Hey what's that?" asked BJ.
"I don't know. I'll look."
Sean lifted up the bag he was sitting on and made the greatest discoveryknown to man. It was a Wal-Mart bag full of "real" foods like friedchicken, chips, candy, and coke!
"Pringles! Chicken! You've been holding out on us!"
"Now boys," said the scoutmaster, "it was only for emergencies."
We knew better. The scoutmaster hadn't really planed on eating the chickenthe next day. He was going to sneak in some Wal-Mart chicken forhimself in its place.The twelve of us devoured the Pringles, fried chicken, and the othercontents of the bag within a matter of minutes. It was 10:30 by thistime and the rain showed no signal of letting up.
I don't know whether it was because we had discovered that he wasn't allthat tough in reality or whether he actually cared about how much wewere suffering, but at 10:45 that night we packed up in the rain andheaded back to the church. We were all very happy to be leaving.
That night we slept in the hallways of our tiny church building. Aroundtwelve o'clock we had to run two laps around the building because Seanand BJ wouldn't stop talking; they're always getting us in trouble. Thescoutmaster said that maybe a few laps would make us ready for bed; itdid. We locked Sean and BJ in the scout-closet at the end of the halland told them to shut-up and go to sleep. All was quiet. Sleep filledthe building.
The next morning we all woke up around 7:00 and packed all of our stuff up.Right before we were about the leave we remembered that Sean and BJwere still in the closet. I ran and let them out; not that it mattered,they were still fast asleep. By 8:30 everyone was safe at home tellinghis parents about the adventurous night.
I learned a lot of things that weekend; the only thing you can depend onis yourself, and being large in number doesn't necessarily make you right. Most of all I learned that out of everything we went through that night, even with all of our military and scout training, only thechickens made it through unscathed. They were brought back to the farm the very next morning, safe and sound, still pecking at the bottoms oftheir cages.