In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.
On the hills above the river, in among the trees, flies the flag of Camp Mitigwa waving in the breeze. The 33 members of Boy Scout Troop 137, of which I am one, stand in a line that is perpendicular to the pole from which the Camp Mitigwa, American, Canadian, and Boy Scout flags wave. Parallel to the line we form are eleven other lines of troops. Each scout in every line stands proudly erect with both eyes on the waving flag and right arm angled in salute.
When the opening ceremony ends, we the trustworthy, loyal, and helpful scouts of the third session first day of summer camp stand at ease. Hands on hips, I listen intently as the camp director welcomes us to Mitigwa and lays out the schedule for the next six days. “Reveille at 6:00, raising the colors at 6:30, lowering them at 7:00, and at 9:00, taps,” he says. Then offers up the schedule for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Pretending to listen, I dream about camp food—bacon, beans, brownies, wieners, and greasy potatoes. That dream ends when the director highlights the activities—canoeing, knot tying, swimming, orienteering, survival skills, and forestry—the week ahead affords us.
Getting bored with all this talk, I fidget while the director introduces the camp staff, warns us about snakes, and encourages us to be friendly, courteous, and kind for the next six days. His admonishments to be clean and practice good hygiene—tooth brushing, a shower, and a visit to the latrine every day—evoke approving nods from the parents standing nearby. When, finally, the director says, “Scouts dismissed” we rush to parents for hugs, tearful goodbyes, spending money, and an obligatory request to be obedient. As Dad and the other parents drive off, my cheerful compatriots and I reverently do the math—seven days, five dollars.
We spend the remainder of the day, except for meals, at our campsite. I put up my tent, unroll and fluff my sleeping bag, and hang my extra uniform. We organize work groups to hoist flags and banners, stack wood, and sharpen knives and hatchets. The 33 boys of Troop 137 are in heaven on earth.
As dusk arrives, the greasy camp food meals and large serving of exercise push me toward the latrines. Of which, our campsite has three, two-seaters. Each latrine sits atop a nine-foot deep, six by four foot pit. All appear modestly clean, adequately ventilated, and reasonably well lit by the sun.
Nonetheless, the very thought of what happens in the latrines, the frequency with which it happens, and the number of people who makes it happen all makes this city boy a bit queasy. With a shove from nature, into the left latrine I go. Slam! Instantly, the door shuts. I struggle to maneuver around in the small space, unzip my zipper, lower my pants, lift the lid…and for some curiously reason, I glance—great God above why am I doing this—past the toilet seat and into the pit.
Much to my surprise, there, atop the disgust and discharge, sits a wallet. At that moment, Nature recalls her call. Pants and zipper, up they come. Out the door, I scurry back to the campsite. Too embarrassed—why did I look down there—to tell anyone about the wallet, to my tent I go.
Day 2 begins with reveille and ends with taps. In between I give no thought to the wallet. Why should I when I can canoe, tie knots, and orienteer instead. I obediently partake of three greasy meals, buy a thrifty afternoon snack (25-cents), and make one stop at the latrine (the right one, the left I avoid). Day 3 is great fun. I swim, learn about surviving in the woods, buy another thrifty snack (25-cents) and a craft kit (2-dollars), eat greasy food, and visit the latrine once (the center one). The day of fun ends, when at campfire, two boys mention “the wallet in the latrine”. Oh, I wish they had not reminded me about that disgusting thing in the revolting hole. Day 4 everywhere—the campsite, dining hall, swimming pool, and lake—people are talking about the wallet in the latrine. Speculation runs rampant that the wallet contains “ten, perhaps twenty dollars”.
On Day 5, things go from bad to worse. During breakfast—bacon, fried eggs, and greasy potatoes—two troop members complain about having no money. At morning crafts, three members, knowing I am thrifty, ask me one at a time for money. Three times, I cheerfully say, “No way.” After lunch, a fellow troop member who asks me for money gets my cheeriest, “No way.” Later, back at the campsite, I see the latrine has more visitors than it has had all previous days combined. Visits that neither Nature nor greasy food are prompting.
Day 6, while hurriedly eating breakfast—pancakes, sausages, and greasy potatoes—I notice that no one asks me for money. During morning crafts and snack time, not a single request for money. At lunch, between bites of a ham and cheese sandwich and scoops of lime Jell-O with shriveled bananas, I hear the story.
It unfolds in menu-like pieces. First, is a tasty morsel about desperate times requiring desperate measures, flashlights, and a late night escapade. Next, a tidbit about holding ankles, arms reaching downward, and the probing of putrid depths. Then, the main course is served—loose socks, a failing grip, and a ghastly PLOP. Followed by a scream, a disgusting rescue, and a long shower with lots of soap. This story explains why the “spend thrifts” are silent today. They know that the thrifty are not enticed by an empty wallet.
On this trip to Heartland the wallet in the latrine memory greets me. It is a powerful reminder that, while mottos, pomp, and handbooks may teach me about values such as thrift and cheerfulness, only experience can teach me what has genuine value. It is these teachings—not the bugle calls and campfire songs—that will get me through when the unexpected confronts me.
Looking more deeply at my experiences at Camp Mitigwa, I see that life’s gifts seldom come in neat packages with pretty bows. Often, her best gifts are messy, smelly, and disgusting. However, if I am able to think on my feet, willing to be uncomfortable, and brave enough to look to the unexpected, then I am prepared to courteously and cheerfully accept the best gifts that life offers me. Sometimes life’s greatest treasures are found in the most unlikely places.
Note: This is the 14th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.