“I knew better,” I muttered, flipping the sun visor down. When I was in college, I lived in West Terre Haute. Every morning, I drove east into the sunrise, and every evening I drove west into the sunset. I promised myself that I would live east of my work. Hah, that didn’t last.
So here I was, heading into a dazzling sunset; the scattered clouds aflame with reds and yellows. Yes, it was beautiful, but it hurt my eyes. To make matters worse, I was running late. I had a tight project deadline and needed to get some work done, so I ducked out of camp after breakfast. I told Derrell that I’d be back for supper, but I was late. I knew he wouldn’t mind, but still, the assistant Scout Master should be at summer camp.
By the time I pulled into the parking lot, it was dark; even the moon was late. I gathered my load – snacks, and sundries for the camp, and waited for my eyes to adjust. At camp, I tried to walk without a flashlight, relying on my eyes and memory. As my eyes acclimated the camp road appeared; a faint ghostly path. I picked up my load and headed off. It was typical summer camp weather, hot and humid. Every evening there was a chance of thunderstorms. However, tonight was clear.
I followed the road past the mess hall, which rumbled with the chaos of boys hanging out. In my mind’s eye, I could see them goofing off, eating candy bars and drinking soda. The air freshened as I walked deeper into the woods. Overhead, the cicadas sang their finale. In the lake, the frogs warmed up for the second act. A mosquito circled my head, then there were two, then three.
“Great time to forget the bug spray,” I muttered, absently swatting at the beasts. I had planned to put some on before I left the parking lot, but I forgot. Angry with myself I pressed on. During the day I would take the trail. It was shorter. At night, I took the longer way and followed the faint gray of the road. Overhead the night sky was freckled with stars. That’s why I liked to walk without a light, to see the stars.
I passed several campsites. The boys were goofing off at the mess hall, so they were deserted, save for a few leaders. It was a lovely night, but would be the last one of the week; a big storm was heading our way, as usual.
Preoccupied with the evening sky, I missed my turnoff and found myself in front of an impressive entry arch. An elaborate bit of pioneering that marked the campsite of a Troop from Evansville.
“Dang it,” I exclaimed. “Too far.”
I backtracked to our entry, which was simple, almost primitive by comparison. That was our trademark. We ran a laid-back troop. With only a handful of boys, we had to keep it simple. I stepped through the arch, and made my way down the short path, into thick woods. The trail grew dark, but I knew the way, so I kept going. It was eerily still. Over by the dining fly, the fire was dying, but the Coleman stove softly hummed. Good, Derrell had the coffee on, but he usually had the lantern lit by this time, so I wondered what was up.
The leaders’ tents were to the right, with the scouts’ to the left. Everything was dark and still. Carefully I made my way to the table under the dining fly. I dropped my load, figuring that I’d stow the snacks later. The ‘sceeters were getting fierce, so my first concern was to find the bug spray. We kept a can on the table, so I felt for it in the dark.
“There it is,” I said to myself.
“Dave, don’t turn on the light.” I jumped, startled by Derrell’s whisper. “S-h-h-h, over here.”
Turning, I spied the glow of his cigarette; he was sitting in a folding chair facing the boys’ tents. I walked over and squatted next to him.
“What’s up?” I whispered. Derrell loved to play tricks on the boys, so I figured he was up to something.
“Watch that tent,” he whispered, lighting a new cigarette.
“What am I looking for?”
“Just watch.” His laughing eyes reflected the glow from his lighter. I squatted and watched. There were a half dozen wall tents in the scout area. These were provided by the camp, so they were old and faded. Simple canvas tents, little changed from those you see in civil war photos. Two posts holding a ridge beam. Draped over the beam, the canvas was pulled to the side and staked down with ropes. The wall and end flaps hung loose, secured with ties and an occasional tent stake. Each held two bunks. Since the tents had no floors, they were placed on wooden pallets. To get some breeze, we kept the end flaps open. Some scouts would also tie up the sides. They were just basic shelter, no more, no less.
Anyway, Derrell and I watched and watched and watched. In time, he finished his cigarette and poked the butt into his pop can. Our eyes never left the tents. Suddenly he grabbed my arm.
“There,” he barely whispered, pointing to the tent on the left.
One of the tent flaps wiggled, it twitched, and a small head popped out, looked side to side and then popped back in.
“Is that a—” I gasped.
“Shush.” We waited a bit longer, and then a raccoon crawled out. In its mouth, it proudly carried a candy bar. After another brief look around it waddling into the woods.
“He’s been here awhile,” Derrell laughed. “He checked out every tent, but it looks like he finally found some pogey bait.” Pogey bait was the term we used for candy or snacks. I think it came from the Marines. Anyway, the critter had found a prize.
“Who’s tent?” I laughed. With our small troop, we had two empty tents, and I was not sure which scout was in which tent.
“Sam’s; he insisted on a tent to himself,” Darrell chuckled. “We’ve told them, and told them – keep food out of the tents, but you know Sam.”
Yes, I knew Sam. He was a good kid, but he tended to skirt the rules; rules like no food in the tents. Food attracted wildlife, and we certainly didn’t want critters in the tents. That was our first rule. It was also the one most ignored.
“Shall we check the damage?” I asked, figuring that the ‘coon tore up the place.
“No, let’s just see what Sam does,” Derrell laughed. Sam tended toward the dramatic, so we looked forward to his reaction. Scout Leaders have a strange sense of humor. We lit the lantern and played some cards. By our third or fourth hand, the boys began to trickle into camp. Sam wandered in last, walking straight past the table toward his tent.
Stifling our laughter, we waited. Sam’s tent began to shake, as he muttered and tossed his gear around. Eventually, he came out and searched the ground around his tent, and finally stomped over to the table. He was mad.
“Who’s been in my stuff?” he yelled.
“What stuff?” Derrell asked.
“Just my stuff,” Sam replied. “Somebody’s been in my stuff.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Some’s gone, that’s all.” Sam shrugged.
“What’s gone?” Derrell asked, suppressing a grin.
“Just some stuff.”
I grabbed the lantern and headed toward the tent. “Well let’s search for it. What’s missing.”
“Never mind,” Sam stammered. He stomped back to his tent. We kept our mouths closed, waiting for the next act.
“Okay, lights out,” Derrell proclaimed. “Check the list to see who has kitchen duty in the morning, and remember, no food in the tents! Put it in the coolers. I saw a raccoon earlier.”
The boys headed off while Derrell and I stayed at the table – waiting. Sam went into Alex and Joel’s tent. In a few minutes, they were moving Sam’s bunk and gear into their tent.
“What’s up?” Derrell asked.
“Nothing, we just want to play cards for a while,” Sam replied.
“Remember no food in the tents,” Derrell yelled again. Soon we heard them rearranging cots and gear, and then we heard them arguing.
“Not in my tent,” I heard Alex say, and then things got quiet, but we could still hear whispering. A few minutes later, Sam slouched over to our table. In his hands he held a small nylon gear bag – it was in tatters.
“Can I put this in the cooler?” he asked.
The tattered bag was too much, Derrell and I lost it. The site echoed with hysterical laughter. Suffice it to say, that it was a teachable moment. One you just can’t pass up.
That ‘ole raccoon was good for several more laughs – the boys tried to snare it. The sly critter was too smart. It just stole their bait. I don’t believe they had any idea what they would do if they actually caught the raccoon – or heaven forbid a skunk.
As far as I know, Sam never kept food in his tent again.
That night the bad weather rolled in, but that’s story for another day.
David L Dahl.
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