The notice read, "The Cub Scouts want you as a leader."
Vainly I protested I'd be an unfit den mother. I knew no woodlore and even got lost on D.C. streets when too many "no left turn" signs rendered me directionless. Somehow I doubted that marking my path into the forest with crumbs from hot dog buns would do me or my charges any more good than it had Hansel and Gretel.
My husband, an excellent outdoorsman, promised to go along on all woodsy activities, knowing that it would be easier to accompany us from the start than to beat the bushes later for Mama Bear and her lost Cubs.
My other objections were quickly dismissed. After all, my recruiters said, I might be lacking in outdoor skills but I possessed other basic qualifications, including arts and crafts expertise. Who knows, they said, I might come up with innovative projects that didn't require collecting used toilet-paper rolls and Popsicle sticks.
And hadn't I said I'd wanted to learn more about the outdoors? Reluctantly, I agreed to give den motherhood a try.
Washington's typical heat and humidity attended my initiation. Meeting at a school in Vienna, we carpooled a score of Scouts and their families to the Riverbend Nature Center near Great Falls, Virginia. It was a long, low ranch house built into the side of the mountain, secluded and appealing. Shortly after arriving, I heard a hubbub and noticed an excited group of children surrounding a ranger. He was holding a fivefoot blacksnake that he'd picked up from the lawn in front of the main building. "This is a harmless blacksnake," he told the children. "He's big but he won't hurt you. Anyone want to hold him?"
Anyone? Everyone but me clamored for the privilege. I knew I was being foolish and reacting from some gut-level Eve emotion, but snake-handling gave me the creeps. And this time my fears weren't entirely groundless.
The snake, displeased at being passed around like a piece of Silly String, lashed out and bit a child. The child's mother I was replacing, who was along to "break me in." Smiling through clenched teeth, she said, "Mustn't let a little incident like this put a fear of reptiles into the children's minds." Under her breath she added, "I've got to call the pediatrician the moment we get home!"
The injury was scarcely more than a scratch, but it became a status symbol coveted by the rest of the children. How they wished they'd been bitten, if only to have something to brag about.
After first aid, the Cubmaster led the way to a picnic area down by the river. My Cubs scooted down the steep trail, jumped across a gully and took off along a footpath near the water's edge. I followed, feeling nearly as agile as they and every bit as entranced with the ancient trees that tilted at crazy angles along the shoreline.
The children grabbed their lunches and perched apelike in the trees, or squatted on the rocks jutting out alongside the trail, enjoying their food and the scenery. Soon a shadow fell over the idyllic scene. Black clouds blew in from the north and thunder rumbled over the watery sounds of Great Falls, out of sight downriver.
As we prepared to leave, hastily assembling the children for a headcount, the sky opened. Adults snatched up younger children and pelted for the trail, while the remaining parents tried to intersperse themselves with the rest of the youngsters, hurrying them on.
The dusty ground became a mud puddle and my Doctor Scholl's sandals turned into wooden skates. Finally, I pulled them off and ran barefooted. Through the downpour, I saw the tail end of the group miss the trailmarker and head downriver toward the falls. I prayed for help. Where was Paper Bear when I needed him? He'd run on ahead, carrying our three-year-old daughter.
Afraid to chase after the strays, but just as afraid to leave them without doing something, I was saved by the Cubmaster, who came running up from behind.Shouting over the roaring of the river and the rain, I explained what had happened. He took off downriver.
I continued, panting and puffing, along the trail. But when I reached the gully we'd traversed so easily on the way down, I found an impasse. A bottleneck had formed, mostly younger chidren who couldn't climb the slippery bank.
I decided to give it a try and made a running jump, only to find myself sliding slowly back down the slope, mud squishing through my toes. Finally one stalwart man backed off, made a flying leap and snagged a sapling. Hanging on to the perilously bending tree with one hand, he extended his other as a lifeline, and we rappeled our way across the obstacle.
When we arrived back at the center, most of the party stood under the eaves and in doorways, resembling a bunch of Gilligan's Island rejects. My own appearance was less than chic -- not so much Paris in look as Parris Island. My husband appeared maddeningly tidy in his drip-dry apparel, while our daughter snuggled safely in his arms. But our sons? Where were our two Cubs?
Just as I was gearing up for a good worry, I spied them straggling up the trail. They'd been among the lost contingent rescued by the Cubmaster.
Although my weak knees and frazzled nerves sent out go home signals, we couldn't leave yet. Home? When the Scouts hadn't inspected the exhibits within the center?
Leaving most of the group enthralled in finding flying squirrels in their dark habitat, I sneaked away to the ladies' room to do a few repairs. I had hardly begun when one of my younger charges thumped on the door and begged, "Please, let me in. I've got to go -- quick?"
I explained that the men's room was down the hall, but he said, "Oh, I can't go there. There's this big thing in the bathtub. I'm scared."
Deciding I'd better check this out, I escorted my cross-legged Cub to the men's room. He was right. There was a big thing in the bathtub -- a giant snapping turtle that looked as fierce as a sci-fi monster as it poked its head out from the rocks and greenery.
I surrendered to the Monster of the Men's Room and led the boy back to the women's facilities, then stood guard at the door while he took care of nature's call, unhampered by the fear of losing any exposed parts of his anatomy.
As the afternoon progressed, I relaxed and began to enjoy the outing. I even began to overcome my fear of snakes, watching as the children handled a big kingsnake and a black ratsnake. A ranger explained that the snakes were flicking out their tongues not as a menacing gesture, but as a sensing device to make up for their poor eyesight.
Finally, we headed for home. The Scouts emphatically declared this was one of their best outings ever. Since it was only my first, I couldn't make any comparisons, but I decide I'd better enroll in a course in Transcendental Meditation. I had a feeling I needed to develop a little more outward cool and inner peace.
And in the years that followed, I did. I've been reborn and revitalized and, as I sally forth on new adventures, I live by the Scout motto: Always Be Prepared!