During the winter, we met every Tuesday night in the conference room of the First Methodist Church, and on the colder nights of December and January, the smell of the kerosene heater stung our nostrils and coated the inside of our skulls like thick black paint. We milled around in our starchy brown uniforms and bright red neckerchiefs like little soldiers waiting to be deployed while we were actually waiting for the scoutmaster to appear and give us the scout signal, which meant that we were to fall into ranks in our respective patrols.
I was in the Screaming Eagles, which I thought was an awesome — we used the word “awesome” a lot — patrol to be in, not only because of the obvious patriotic symbolism, but because the very idea of an actual screaming eagle seemed dangerous and thrilling. We were predatory and furious, soaring one minute, swooping down to snatch a goose from a pond the next minute. We were feared, but also celebrated and honored. And we had a cool patrol leader named Phil, who was laid back, but also knew his way around poison ivy and hatchets.
Once in a while, we would go camping, even in the winter, to prove our mettle and test the skills we had developed earning various merit badges, which adorned our sashes and made us stick out our narrow chests just that little bit extra as we marched down Main Street in the Christmas Parade every year.
I will confess that I was never the biggest fan of camping out in the winter to prove our mettle, regardless of the fact that my uncle’s goosedown sleeping bag — which I had inherited and which he had used during his days as a scout — had been tested to something like 20 below zero. On one of our excursions, the temperature actually did get down to 12 degrees. People were bringing their pets inside, and here we were stomping through the hard-frozen woods at dusk looking for the least crunchy patch of terrain to pitch our sad little pup tents and attempt a campfire.
It was so cold, that we tried doing everything with our gloves still on. Do you know how hard it is to pitch a tent, or operate an oil lamp, or cook up a little dinner on your Coleman stove with your gloves still on? We took them off, but within a minute or two our fingers were so numb that the net effect on our manual dexterity was the same, so we mostly kept them on and fumbled through, finally getting a fire big enough to thaw out our toes, which felt shrunken and remote in our boots. We would move our faces close enough to the crackling fire to get a little feeling and color back in them, and then quickly have to back off so that the acrid smoke did not choke us out.
We ate our beanie weanies and crackers, sandwiches, hot dogs, canned beef stew, and s’mores, and then drank hot chocolate and told ghost stories until we couldn’t stand it anymore. Even the stars seemed to shiver, and the trees groaned against a bitter wind.
“Good night, ladies,” said Phil, disappearing into his tent and then zipping it from the inside.
When I got home the next morning around 10 a.m., I took the hottest bath of my life, which lasted approximately four hours. I got so hot that I was forced to eat an entire box of Breyers French Vanilla Ice Cream when I got out, which made me so cold that I had to take another hot bath. I didn’t care. I was out of the woods, literally and figuratively. I had survived a camping trip in 12 degree weather.
I hadn’t slept more than a miserable hour or two. The rest of the night, I listened to the wind howl and batter our tents. I kept trying to find a place to put my face inside the sleeping bag where I could still breathe. When my face was not submerged completely, I felt like Mr. Potato Head, with ears and a nose that were so frozen that they felt detachable, as if they might actually fall off my head at any minute and be lost in the annihilating darkness, against which my wimpy little flashlight registered barely a protest.
I could still feel my face continuing to thaw out like a package of hamburger well up into the next day. I might go camping again someday, but never in the winter, not for any merit badge, not for anything or anyone.
And now, 35 years later, my son is trying out the scouts. His troop meets in the Methodist Church every Monday night, where the boys mill around in their starchy uniforms like little soldiers waiting to be deployed …. uh oh.