It was the middle of the night and all I saw was confusion. My tentmate was awake and frantically packing his gear. As he started dragging his pack and sleeping bag and himself out of the tent, I inquired what the hell was going on? He pointed his flashlight to the center seam of the tent. To avoid having to cut wood for tent poles, we had lashed one end of the lean-to to a tree.
Two rows of neatly marching giant ants were navigating from the high side of the tent to the lower one. I grabbed my gear and followed him out. The night was cool and peaceful. The other guys heard the commotion and 20 heads popped out of tents sideways like a platoon of drunk gophers. Without a tent we used the Northern New Mexico sky as a shelter. With the crisis averted, we arranged our sleeping bags about 30 feet apart and climbed in.
The night air was cool, so I pulled my head inside my bag to keep my really big ears warm. As I started to drift off I heard someone snickering outside, walking around my sleeping bag trying to be quiet and not quiet at the same time. I said nothing. I was the youngest of the 40 Boys Scouts that had trekked cross county in an old school bus to spend 10 days in Cimarron, New Mexico at the Philmont Scout Ranch. The other guys took great joy in pranking me, and most of the time I took it with a sigh and a sour look.
This was different. The snickering soon turned to grunts. Deep guttural grunts mixed with heavy breathing and the plodding of very heavy footfalls. I was scared and thought it best to stay as quiet and still as possible. I heard muffled laughter coming from the gopher tents.
But when something big and hard started to poke me around my belly I stiffened like a board, completely unsure of what to do next. So I continued to do nothing. While the entire misadventure only lasted five minutes, I’m sure it was five times that long, maybe 50.
The panic exhausted me and as I heard the footsteps plod off into the night, exhaustion took over and I fell sound asleep. At least my tormentors had the good sense to not wake me in the morning. When I finally pushed my head out of the bag, the camp was bustling with activity – scouts gathering firewood, preparing breakfast, packing up for the next hike. My tentmate came up and filled in the missing pieces. When the other guys saw me pop my head in like a submarine taking a deep dive, they gathered a bunch of sugar packets, cracked them open and sprinkled them over the center of my sleeping bag.
This quickly attracted a local black bear, a big fucker, who then proceeded to use me as a feeding trough. Fear was good that night. It helped me stay quiet and still and alive. The attitude of the adults guiding us was ‘no harm, no foul’ – so we all had a good laugh and moved on. Crisis averted.
Stewart was a nice guy, my tentmate. Being 16, he took me under his wing like a younger brother. Being a Jehovah’s Witness, he put a full court press on to convert me before the end of the three weeks.
I was 13, and before my mother trundled me off to the bus waiting for us on South Main St. at 5 a.m., she prodded my father to give me ‘the talk’. He told me “Gary, there are good girls and there are bad girls.” He then opened a copy of Life magazine to an ad for a lady’s bathing suit. The woman was quite pretty, but to a 13 year-old, nothing special. He drew my attention to her thigh gap and said: “This is the kind of girl you want.” That was the end of ‘the talk’.
It was high adventure crossing the U.S. in June of 1962. We stayed at Army bases, sleeping in the barracks and eating with the soldiers in the mess halls. We were all awestruck to be among these young men. Only a few years earlier we were playing cowboys and Indians or soldiers on secret missions. Now we were there, among them. Being a wimp in high school and on this trip had a profound effect on me, one that I would not recognize until about 11 year later when I arrived in California to start my life anew. Being lousy at sports, unwilling to fight back when taunted, and unable to stand on my own two feet when mildly insulted all came to a screeching halt when I walked into the karate Dojo and embarked on a 40 year long odyssey of learning to fight hard and fast. I really had no regrets and still don’t.
The adventures as a youth were formative and had a way of hardening me over the years. The Boy Scouts was a big part of that. Our clothing and supplies at the time were primitive, so we had to do the best we could with what we had. Staying warm and dry were the two fundamental priorities, and the winter camping trip we took tested our mettle to the extreme.
The snow was over three feet deep and we had to pound it down with our feet so we could drive our tent pegs into the frozen ground. Marvin had big feet and was brimming with enthusiasm, so he took the lead. We got the tent up within an hour and decided to stuff three of us into the two-man shelter. Our intent was to use our body heat to stay warm. I dug a trough to lay in, and had Ira and Marvin lay partly over me so we could triangulate whatever body warmth we had. The temperature dipped to -15 that night, and the three of us did what we could to stay warm. The concept of layered clothing with air pockets between the layers was still 20+ years away, so while we did almost everything wrong, we managed to stay warm anyway.
When the dozen of us arose at sunrise the next morning and began to light our cooking fires, a wonderful thing happened. The ambient temperature had risen to 0 and we all felt positively over dressed. To a one, we stripped down to the waist, and had breakfast with nothing covering our upper bodies. An overwhelming sense of giddiness pervaded the camp. We had not only survived a potential crisis, we thrived on it!
Sometimes though, a crisis has so much gravity attached to it that everyone in the vicinity is sucked into its vortex, and whether you survive intact has very little to do with any strength you may have been able to muster at such a young age. This hit us full bore at Camp Acahela one summer. Me and Ira and Marvin and Neil were pretty much inseparable at the time. We occupied the same four man tent every summer we made the trek to Boy Scout camp. Ira’s cousin Michael was there too, nearby enough that he was never excluded from the events.
It was a quiet afternoon, maybe a Saturday. There was a lull in our activities, so we gathered around our tent to listen to the radio. As music segued into news, an alarming story came across the air as we sat there listening; a story that froze the moment forever, that added a stamp of finality to our lives that could not be undone. There had been a fatal car accident in Kingston that afternoon. A man had a heart attack while driving and plowed into another car.
That man was Michael’s father, and he was there in the tent to listen to his death being described over the radio. The air turned leaden, too thick to move, walk, or speak. A counselor arrived quickly, packed Michael up and took him home. I don’t recall if he ever returned to camp that summer. While we understood the seriousness of the situation, none of us could articulate anything useful at that age. Life and death are simply words from different pages of the dictionary until one or the other bears down like a speeding train that can’t be avoided.
After the death of his father, Michael became a more devout Jew, and I believe it was this event that catapulted him forward to eventually becoming a rabbi.
There is nothing about the aging process that equips us to confront and handle death any better than a distraught teenager. The pain and despair are always the same. Even when you can see it coming, when you can almost track it to the minute, it neither makes it easier nor more understandable. This is ultimately the nature of love – the inability to relinquish that love, to let go of those we care for. The grief is bottomless, the loss wrenches a bit of our own soul into the grave with those we lose.
Sometimes a crisis is insurmountable. Sometimes there is no way out. We muddle along as best we can, until the day we become someone else’s irreconcilable loss.