You can think of Boy Scout camp as one of those innocent, happy experiences of childhood. Or you can bunk down for a week with Troop 162.
"Welcome to the latrine," said Will Knapp. He was the guide assigned to introduce 18 newly arrived Boy Scouts from Troop 162 in Arlington to the many splendors of the Goshen Scout Camps.
"Yeah, let's all crowd in there," said one of 162's wise guys. He was trying to be sarcastic, but actually everybody did crowd into the latrine. They marveled at the primitive privy, which featured two toilet seats mounted right next to each other, perhaps in the hope that the scouts could practice their famous buddy system even in their most private moments. After all, a scout is friendly. Also trustworthy, loyal, helpful, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Just the kind of person you'd want sitting next to you in a two-seater latrine.
Knapp held up a scrub brush and a jug full of a pungent liquid he called de-germ. "The latrine has to be cleaned every day," he said. "You scrub the walls, you scrub the seats, and then you hose it down."
He did not specifically instruct the scouts to remove the toilet paper before hosing the place down. Perhaps he thought that went without saying. As it turned out, alas, it didn't.
Knapp continued his guided tour of the camp. He marched Troop 162 over to the rifle range and the archery range and the waterfront and the nature center and the nature trail and Campfire Hill. At Campfire Hill, he was just beginning to tell a historical anecdote when suddenly two scouts started fighting. Tony Rivenbark and John Ingles, both 12, were rolling around the grass in angry but ineffective combat until the other guys pulled them apart.
When order was restored, Chris Hardin, 16, the troop's senior patrol leader, interviewed the combatants in order to discover the root cause of the problem, which turned out to be the fact that Tony had shoved onion grass up John's nose.
Amazing: These scouts had just arrived at camp and already they'd learned to identify wild plants and put them to practical use in adolescent males' favorite form of social intercourse, which is torturing each other.
The first Boy Scout summer camp in history was held in 1907 when Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the British war hero who founded the scouting movement, took 22 scouts to Brownsea Island off the coast of England. For a week, the scouts lived in tents, cooked their own food, studied nature and sang around their nightly campfires.
Since then, tens of millions of Boy Scouts have enjoyed -- or, in some cases, merely endured -- a very similar regimen in camps all over the world. There are 4.3 million Boy Scouts in America today, and the vast majority of them attend scout camp at least once. After that, they join the ranks of millions of veterans of Boy Scout camps, who, as they get older, occasionally pause to recall scenes from their camp experience -- the day they shot a .22 for the first time; or the day they wove a lopsided basket that only a mother could love; or the day they swamped the canoe and nearly drowned; or the night they crawled into the sleeping bag only to find that their so-called friends had put a snake in there; or the night they were so homesick they cried, hiding their face in their pillow so it wouldn't be seen by their tentmate, who was hiding his face and crying; or the sleepless night they spent alone on a mountain with only the clothes on their back, a pocketknife and two damp matches; or the night they got caught with an illicit six-pack of beer and were unceremoniously ushered out of the Boy Scouts and into a wider world where they found that the ability to weave a basket and make a fire with just two damp matches did not prove to be quite as crucial as the scoutmaster had insinuated they'd be.
In short, Boy Scout camp is one of those formative experiences that play an important role in the creation of the American male psyche, such as it is.
The Goshen Scout Camps -- 4,000 acres nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, near the little town of Goshen, Va. -- consists of six camps built around a man-made lake. Every summer, more than 7,000 scouts and 1,500 scout leaders, most of them from the Washington area, spend a week there. Capt. Charles Bittenbring III has been taking Troop 162 to Goshen since they opened the place back in 1967, and he took them again this year, during the last week in June, when he turned 70.
The Captain is a retired civil engineer, a former Navy captain and a living legend at Goshen, where one of the flagpoles carries a plaque honoring him. Slim, bald and bespectacled, he is a dead ringer for Henry Miller, the guy who wrote Tropic of Cancer and other naughty books containing vivid descriptions of the kind of natural acts that are never mentioned in the Boy Scout Handbook. The Captain volunteered to be a scoutmaster in the early '60s, when his son was a scout, and he just never quit. "I believe in the principles of it," he says. "They are, in essence, what this country is all about." Although, he quickly adds, some of our Founding Fathers were not exactly Boy Scouts. Like those street rowdies who dumped the tea in Boston Harbor.
For this year's trip, the Captain recruited his buddy, Bob Watkins, to serve as assistant scoutmaster. Mr. Watkins, who is 65 and retired from the office supply business, is a gray-haired Virginian with a sly smile and a magnificent belly that makes him look like a man shoplifting a watermelon. He got involved with Troop 162 in the early '70s when his son was a member. Back then, the Captain didn't like Mr. Watkins. "To tell you the truth, I couldn't stand him," he says. "He just irritated me."
The problem was a clash of personalities. The Captain is a gung-ho guy who likes to bound out of bed at dawn and wake everybody up with a rousing chorus of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!" Mr. Watkins, on the other hand, is a sardonic fellow who limps out of bed emitting a cacophony of smoker's coughs and a stream of comic complaints about how wretched the morning is. The Captain is a thoughtful man who talks about how he hopes to "help boys grow into good men." Mr. Watkins likes to look around the camp, flash his sly grin and say, "You know, it sure would be nice out here if there weren't all these scouts around."
Over the years, as the two men became friends, they honed their differences into a series of impromptu vaudeville routines. This year, it began right after they arrived at Goshen, when Mr. Watkins asked the Captain what time they'd be getting up in the morning.
"6:20," the Captain said.
"6:20!" Mr. Watkins bellowed in a voice full of mock horror.
"You ask a question and I answer it, and you yell at me," the Captain replied.
Mr. Watkins feigned outrage. "I came here for a vacation," he grumbled, "and he's got us getting up at 6:20 in the morning."
"He's always griping," the Captain replied. "That's why I bring him along: He keeps me on my toes."
Amazing: These scoutmasters had just arrived at camp and already they were grousing like an old married couple.
The official Boy Scout motto is, as everybody knows, "Be Prepared." But being prepared means different things to different scouts.
To Mr. Watkins, it meant bringing along enough packs of Lucky Strikes to survive seven days marooned far from any purveyor of nicotine.
To the Captain, it meant bringing a pickup truck packed full of everything that Troop 162 could possibly need in any crisis it could possibly meet -- shovels, rakes, picks, a post-hole digger, a digging bar, folding chairs, plastic tarps, a portable propane stove, three coolers, extra mess kits, extra axes and dozens of extra merit badge books.
To the scouts of Troop 162, "Be Prepared" meant bringing many crucial personal items not mentioned in the Boy Scout Handbook. Andrew Dean, 13, brought 10 packs of gum along with a funky gray fedora and a pair of $30 sunglasses so he'd look cool while he chewed. He also brought a "Revenger" sound-effects machine, which produced, at the push of a button, the sounds of machine-gun fire, exploding grenades and a "death ray." Tony Rivenbark brought a battery-powered "Zonar Burglar Alarm," which emitted weird high-pitched wails when anybody walked in front of his tent. Carlos Hester, 12, brought a big, round battery-operated game called "Simon," which required that the player push various beeping buttons in the correct order or the machine would mock him with a sound that resembled electronic flatulence.
Several scouts brought boom boxes and cassette tapes that included songs titled "Dead Puppies," "Frozen Embryos" and "Parents Just Don't Understand." Some also brought reading matter -- Utterly Gross Jokes III, Truly Tasteless Jokes VI and a book called Everything Men Know About Romance, which consists entirely of blank pages.
One young scout, who shall remain nameless -- The Washington Post does not print the names of juvenile offenders -- swiped a stack of Playboy magazines from his father's collection, smuggled them into camp and sold them for $5 apiece. This is the kind of enterprising activity that could earn a boy a capitalism merit badge, complete with a picture of Daddy Warbucks lighting a fat cigar, except that no such badge exists. Instead, the scout earned a pile of money, which he carted to the camp trading post, where he traded it for so much ice cream, soda and candy that he ended up getting sick to his stomach and spending long periods of time in the latrine, where the toilet paper was, alas, soaked because his fellow scouts had neglected to remove it before hosing the place out.
By then, toilet paper had become a kind of fetish item. Scoutmasters -- compelled to eat food cooked by 12-year-olds and thus a tad nervous about intestinal ailments -- were hoarding it. Early on, the Captain instructed Mr. Watkins to keep at least six rolls on hand at all times. And one scoutmaster actually strolled into the nightly camp-wide flag-lowering ceremony with three rolls arrayed prominently on his six-foot-long walking stick, the way Indians used to hang scalps on their lances.
It was an impressive display of conspicuous wealth, and yet another reminder that "Be Prepared" means different things to different scouts.
On the first morning in camp, the Captain woke everybody up by singing about what a beautiful day it was, and Mr. Watkins stumbled out of bed, grumbling about what a rotten night he'd had, because the springs in his cot were shot and left him dangling like a tree sloth.
The men were sitting in lawn chairs -- the captain shaving with a battery-powered razor and Mr. Watkins treating his smoker's cough with a Lucky Strike -- when Matt Nunez marched by, returning from the commissary with a backpack full of eggs and milk and bread, the raw materials for the day's breakfast.
"There's Nunez," the Captain called out, "and he looks good, except he doesn't have his scout socks on."
Matt, 13, ignored the remark, but Mr. Watkins didn't. "Fussy, fussy, fussy," he said. "That's why I wear long pants -- so he won't talk about my socks."
It was a thrice-daily ritual: The scoutmasters sat waiting while each of Troop 162's three six-member patrols -- the Antelopes, the Hawks and the Eagles -- built its own fire in a concrete fireplace, cooked its food on an iron grill, set its picnic table and heated up two big buckets of wash water. When a patrol was ready, it dispatched a messenger to cordially invite one of the scoutmasters to eat.
It was a good system for two reasons: It forced the scouts to cook their own food, and it enabled the scoutmasters to avoid watching. Eating food cooked by 12-year-olds is bad enough, but watching them cook it is pure torture.
Sitting in their lawn chairs, far from the food preparation, the Captain and Mr. Watkins managed to miss many appetite-suppressing culinary atrocities: The Hawks dropping their entire ration of ham into the dirt. The Antelopes spraying insect repellent on their firewood in an effort to get it to light more easily. The Eagles putting an empty aerosol can in the campfire. Two Hawks giving a sanitizer tablet -- a chlorine pill used to sterilize rinse water -- to Matt Nunez and telling him it was a SweeTart. Richard Brooks, 16, cutting his finger on the lid of a can and bleeding into the shortening. Claudie Erazo, 12, slicing his finger and bleeding on the carrots. And Brian Riley, 14, patrol leader of the Hawks, demonstrating what he called "the Goshen way to sterilize" by picking up a dirty spatula and wiping it on the equally dirty butt of his shorts.
Sitting in lawn chairs enabled the Captain and Mr. Watkins to remain blissfully ignorant, but it had its drawbacks too. Sometimes it seemed as if the food would never be ready, and Mr. Watkins would start banging his spoon on his mess kit the way angry prisoners do in old movies. Once, the Captain decided to pass the time by taking out a copy of the menu from his daughter's restaurant in San Diego: Angel-hair pasta with scallops saute'ed in pesto . . . Lobster and crabmeat pizza . . . Lamb sausage pizza . . . Fettuccine with prosciutto, radicchio, Stilton cheese, thyme, sage and grapes . . .
"Read that to yourself," Mr. Watkins grumbled. "I'm gonna be eating hard scrambled eggs and cold hash pretty soon."
"I want to go home," the kid said, sobbing.
He'd been stricken by a disease that is rampant at Goshen -- homesickness. It's an ailment that strikes without warning and causes headache, heartache, nausea and extremely watery eyes. Several hours earlier, the kid, who shall remain nameless -- The Post does not print the names of juvenile homesickness victims -- was out there working on merit badges in riflery, rowing, swimming and cooking. Now, however, he was sitting and sobbing over a letter he was trying to write to his mother.
"You don't want to send your mother a tear-stained letter now, do you?" the Captain asked.
"I don't care," the kid said.
The poor kid, who was only 11, had it bad. The Captain tried every trick he'd learned in a quarter-century of treating homesickness, but nothing helped. Finally, he decided to go to the leader's lounge and call the kid's mom. Of course, he didn't bring the kid: As every scoutmaster knows, the worst thing you can do with a homesick scout is let him talk to his parents.
So the Captain left the kid with Mr. Watkins, who was supposed to keep him busy until the Captain got back. Mr. Watkins started telling stories. Five minutes went by. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Where was the Captain?
He was standing in line, while a homesick scoutmaster jabbered to his wife.
Finally, after 20 minutes, Mr. Watkins's stories lost their holding power and the kid headed toward the phone. He arrived just as the Captain hung up.
"What did she say?" he asked.
"She said you ought to stay," the Captain told him.
Amazingly, that seemed to satisfy the kid, and the two of them headed back toward camp. On the way, the Captain casually suggested that maybe the kid should sign up for leather craft so he could make a wallet for his mom.
That was a big mistake. At the mere mention of his mother, the kid started crying again. This time it was so bad that the Captain finally gave up. In 24 years, he'd never lost a scout to homesickness, but it looked as if his streak was up. In despair, he decided to do what every scoutmaster knows he should never do: let the kid call his mom.
He was crying when he took the phone, but after a few words from his mother he stopped. All symptoms of homesickness vanished, and he later went on to win a merit badge in riflery, which is no easy feat.
The Captain was stunned. "I don't know what you told him," he said to the kid's mom, "but whatever it was, it worked."
Most adult human beings can successfully inhale and exhale almost indefinitely without raising much of a ruckus, but adolescent males have a biological need to periodically clear out their lungs with an ear-splitting yell. The Boy Scouts, in their infinite wisdom, channel this phenomenon into cheers.
At Troop 162's meals, each patrol would hustle to finish preparations first so they could rush through Grace and then bellow in unison:
We are table number one!
Number one! Number one!
We are table number one!
Where is number two?
This would be followed by the ceremonial screaming of the patrol's official cheer. Which went like this:
Two! Four! Six! Eight!
Who is really, really great?
H! A! W! K!
Hawks are here for every day!
E! A! G!
L! E! S!
We're the best!
Unfortunately, Troop 162 did not have an official troop cheer. Most of the other 11 troops did, and every night they hollered them out as they marched to the official flag-lowering ceremony. It got a little embarrassing for Troop 162 to be strolling casually down the road, just chatting and giggling, while Troop 150 of Annandale marched by in close-order military formation, bellowing out its bizarre and complex cheer:
A rum sick! A bum sick!
A nanny cat! A so fat rat!
Johnny get your bah-zoo!
Sis boom bah!
We're 150! Rah!
Obviously, Troop 162 needed a cheer of its own. But not something as baroque and, let's face it, nonsensical, as Troop 150's Dadaesque dit- ty. No, Troop 162 wanted a cheer that was a clear, concise rendering of the troop's philosophical underpinnings.
So two of the patrol leaders, Chris Hardin and Brian Riley, huddled in fevered collaboration and finally produced a cheer that rang with the classic rhythms of that great American poet, Anonymous, the guy who wrote all those verses that begin, Roses are red, violets are blue. It went like this:
We are brave!
We are true!
We're the scouts
Okay, maybe it doesn't have the exuberant lyricism of Troop 150's cheer. But it is a lot easier to remember.
The scouts were screwing up, and the Captain was mad. He summoned them to a meeting and launched into a lecture that enumerated their endless transgressions:
Their meals were late. Their wash water was lukewarm. Their food boxes were filthy. Their tents were "rats' nests." They weren't gathering enough firewood, and when they did get some, they were chopping it in a manner likely to result in missing fingers and bloody feet. During the day, too many of them were hanging around in their tents goofing off instead of going out earning merit badges. And at night, when they were supposed to be sleeping, they were out raiding each other's tents. That's right. There was no sense in denying it. He'd seen it himself as he stood in the darkness, silently watching.
"It's only you who can make a difference," the Captain said, and then he went into the same speech he'd given at the campfire the previous night, the one about how stars and planets and trees don't have free will but human beings do, and how their actions are their own responsibility, and how Troop 162 could leave Goshen with a pile of merit badges or go home with papers that said NWD, which stands for "No Work Done."
Then he got philosophical and reminded them of the Boy Scout Oath and the Boy Scout Law and the Boy Scouts' long-standing tradition of helping others. "Do you do a good turn daily?" he asked. "Do you even think about it? I don't want to get on that subject because I could go on for an hour."
Which he couldn't do right then because it was time for the camp-wide flag-lowering ceremony. And so the scouts marched down to the flagpole, looking suitably chastened. When they arrived, they lined up quietly, too dejected even to misbehave, and they stood there listening halfheartedly as the camp commissioner started praising the troop he was about to name "Honor Troop of the Day." It was a troop with a terrific campsite, he said, a troop that really worked hard, a troop just bursting with scout spirit.
"And so," he said, reaching his stirring conclusion, "today the honor paddle goes to . . . Troop 162!!"
What? Huh? Did he say 162?
He did. The scouts of 162 snapped to life and started jumping up and down and cheering and eyeing their scoutmasters with glances that reeked of gloating.
The scoutmasters weren't so ecstatic. "I don't believe it!" Mr. Watkins said, shaking his head. "How much did the bribe cost us?"
"My God!" the Captain whispered. "After I give that lecture, this cuts the legs out from under me."
True to form, though, the Captain quickly found an uplifting lesson in this perplexing juxtaposition of events. "If you can screw up so much and win," he said, "just think what you can do if you put your mind to it!"
But the scouts didn't see it that way. One look in their eyes revealed that they'd gotten a whole different uplifting lesson: "If you can screw up so much and win honors anyway, why not screw up some more?" On Wednesday morning, the Captain woke everybody up even earlier than usual and Mr. Watkins got up even grumpier than usual.
It was all the Captain's fault. He'd booked the rifle range for a special "troop shoot" at 7 in the morning. Which meant a special troop breakfast too. Instead of scrambled eggs and sausage, which everybody else in camp was eating, they'd get some boxes of cold cereal to wolf down at the rifle range.
"I'd rather have scrambled eggs and sausage than cornflakes and shooting," Mr. Watkins grumbled.
Of course, scrambled eggs and sausage weren't the real issue. They were merely symbols of Mr. Watkins's malaise. He'd spent four days sleeping in a tent and eating dubious food and hanging around 24 hours a day with a pack of adolescent males, who are, as any former adolescent male (or female) knows, the lowest form of human life. And he'd been forced to do it all without even the solace of alcohol. For days he'd wanted a beer so bad that he smacked his lips thinking about it. But he couldn't have one. It was against the camp rules. And now he couldn't have scrambled eggs and sausage either. So when he saw the Captain come bounding into camp with a cache of cornflakes, he grumbled, "Here comes the slave driver."
The slave driver lined up the scouts, who were only slightly more excited about the troop shoot than Mr. Watkins was, and marched them down to the rifle range. There they were greeted by a rifle instructor who was obviously a graduate of the Screaming Drill Sergeant School of Pedagogy.
"WHAT KIND OF MORNING IS IT?" he bellowed.
The scouts stared silently back at him, dumbfounded.
"IT'S A GOSHEN MORNING!" he screamed.
"He's kind of strange," said Chris Hardin.
"I'M A CRAZY MAN!" the instructor bellowed.
The Crazy Man marched half the troop up to the firing platform and gave them rifles and ear protectors. They didn't really need the earmuffs because the guns were .22s and they made only slightly more noise than the snap, crackle and pop of the Rice Krispies eaten by the other half of the troop, who sat on benches, awaiting their turn.
The Crazy Man taught the scouts how to shoot safely, but nobody, alas, taught them how to eat safely. The cereal came in those little boxes that you're supposed to slice open and pour milk into, and Michael Hadary, 11, sliced his a bit too far, so when he poured the milk in, it dribbled out all over his leg. He got another box, and this time he put it into a bowl before pouring the milk in. "Now, I got smart," he said. Then he leaned forward, spilling the milk all over the scout in front of him.
After the shooters fired six rounds, they retrieved their paper targets and traded places with the eaters, who fired six rounds and then retrieved their paper targets. A few shooters had put bullets right into the bull's-eye, but most had hit the bull's ear or the bull's ankle or the bull's butt.
"Well, you might not have killed it," Mr. Watkins said, as he examined one target, "but you probably scared it to death."
As the troop marched back to the campsite, he sidled up to the Captain. "Now can we get scrambled eggs and sausage?" he asked.
In the dim light at the edge of the campfire, the scouts threw a blanket over Matt Nunez and then filled him in on the premise of the skit: He was in the desert, the burning hot desert, wrapped in a blanket, desperate to cool off. What would he take off first?
"My shirt," Matt said. And he took it off.
What next? they asked.
The boy was barreling toward total nudity when the Captain stepped in and said that was enough.
So they let Matt go and brought on the next victim, Mike Roschke, 11. They wrapped him in the blanket and told him he was in the burning desert and asked him what he'd take off.
"My shirt," he said. And he took it off.
What next? they asked.
"I don't get the point of this," Mike said. "It's stupid."
The point, of course, was to see which rookie scout would have the brains to take off the blanket. In this case, it turned out that the answer was: only John Ingles.
Every night, after the flag-lowering ceremony, the scouts of Troop 162 ignited a campfire (sometimes with the aid of lighter fluid, known to 162 as "miracle water") and proceeded to entertain each other. They sang "Oh! Susanna," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and that song about the grand old Duke of York, who marched 10,000 men up the hill and back down again, thus proving the incontrovertible fact that when you're up you're up, and when you're down you're down, and when you're only halfway up, you're neither up nor down.
They also did skits. Like the Important Papers skit, in which Farrell Kelly, 13, sat like a potentate in a lawn chair, calling for his lackeys to bring him the important papers, and then executing each lackey with a forefinger pistol because they were bringing him unimportant papers, until, finally, the last messenger brought him the truly important papers, which turned out to be -- you guessed it -- a roll of toilet paper.
"I've seen that one at least 150 times," said the Captain.
But the Captain had no right to complain. His skits were not exactly original either. He played Giuseppe, the world's stupidest Boy Scout, who ties a bow instead of a bowline, who befriends a skunk he thinks is a cat, and who brews tea out of poison ivy leaves.
One night, the Captain and Mr. Watkins actually had the audacity to tell this joke, which the Captain had filched from the current issue of Boys' Life:
Mr. Watkins: Do you have any athletes in your family?
The Captain: Yeah, my sister has been swimming for five years.
Mr. Watkins: Boy, she must be tired.
And every night, as the campfire faded into ash, the Captain told a story. Sometimes it was a ghost story, but more often it was something uplifting, like the story of the Boy Scout who just happened to be strolling past a burning building when he realized that only his hard-earned knowledge of knots could save the man trapped in the flames, which he then proceeded to do. These were not minimalist yarns: The Captain is not the kind of storyteller who allows any extraneous details to go unmentioned, or any blind alley in the narrative to go unexplored. Sometimes the tales seemed like soporific filibusters designed to render the scouts too sleepy to engage in any nocturnal mischief.
"Boy, does that guy love to talk," Mr. Watkins marveled one night. "Every time he gets up there, I wonder if we'll ever get him back down again."
After Thursday night's campfire, the scouts presented the Captain with a delicious chocolate birthday cake that the Antelopes had somehow managed to bake in a Dutch oven over their campfire that afternoon. The Captain was so touched that he permitted the scouts to stay up late to finish the reports they had to write for their merit badges, which were due at noon the next day. The Captain called this a "study session," but the scouts called it a "sugar party" because they fueled themselves with M&Ms, Sprite, Skittles and Atomic Fireballs in order to keep awake long enough to complete their work after they'd spent hours enjoying songs like "Dead Puppies," which went like this:
Aren't much fun.
When you call them,
They don't come.
"Awesome!" Chris Hardin said. "We should have sung this around the campfire."
Chris -- who had already attained the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest in scouting -- had to write a report in order to earn his Boy Scout lifesaving badge, but he was having trouble with the part about what equipment you're supposed to bring on a canoe trip. He'd hoped to copy it out of the merit badge book, but he couldn't find the answer in the book, and so he was forced to wing it. "How about sunglasses?" he asked. "We'd need sunglasses, right?"
Sans sunglasses, Chris led the Troop 162 team in the camp water carnival the next afternoon. His boys were not as fired up as the guys from Troop 439, who had painted 439 on their bare backs and chests and were jumping up and down as if they'd been drinking Gatorade spiked with testosterone. The boys from 162, by contrast, showed interest in competing only for seats in the shade.
The first event was the match race, a competition to see which six-man relay team could transport a match through the water fastest while keeping it dry enough to light. The secret of this event is to keep the match clamped in your mouth, which is usually drier than the lake. Unfortunately, one of 162's swimmers, Richard Brooks, felt a compelling need for oxygen, and when he opened his mouth to suck some in, the match floated away, either into the lake or down his gullet.
And that's pretty much the way it went all afternoon for Troop 162. In the egg toss, they dropped the egg. In "Carry the King," they dropped the king. And in the rowboat race, which was performed without paddles, the 162 boat drifted off course and appeared to be headed for the edge of the earth.
By that point, Troop 162's morale was sinking fast. It improved briefly when Tony Rivenbark appeared, carrying two six-packs of cold soda that he'd purchased at the trading post, but it plummeted again when Tony announced that he wouldn't let anybody drink any of it. He was serious too. The soda just sat there in the hot sun, glistening with beads of cold water that shimmered like jewels, mocking the scout's parched throats. They were tempted to swipe it, but they remembered that "a scout is trustworthy," so they just drifted back to camp instead.
Back there, as the sun went down and they realized that their last full day in camp was almost over, they started pondering the pleasures of home and hearth.
"I can't wait for the moment when I push the Power button on my Nintendo," said Carlos Hester.
Before they went home, though, Troop 162 still had one special job to do. Early in the week, the Captain had volunteered them for that night's ceremonial flag-lowering, and when he gave his now-famous shape-up lecture, he had made it perfectly clear that he did not want to be embarrassed by their performance.
So Chris Hardin picked a special color guard team -- himself, Brian Riley, Farrell Kelly, Richard Brooks and Thad Selden -- and then the Captain and Mr. Watkins drilled them in the fine art of flag lowering and flag folding. Then they got into their cleanest uniforms, which were about as clean as you'd expect after a week in the woods, and they marched to the flag pole to do their job.
They looked nervous standing there in front of 12 scout troops, almost as nervous as the Captain and Mr. Watkins looked. Lowering a flag doesn't sound particularly difficult, but there's always the possibility that you'll trip over your feet on your way to the flag and fall on your face in front of 280 scouts and their keepers, or, worse, the possibility that nervousness will transform your fingers into limp spaghetti and you'll drop Old Glory in the dirt.
But none of those catastrophes occurred, and the Troop 162 color guard successfully lowered and folded the flag flawlessly, enabling the Captain and Mr. Watkins to go back to the business of breathing, a bodily function they'd forgotten to perform during the ceremony.
"I had my fingers crossed," said Mr. Watkins. "I was praying the whole time."
The Captain slapped Chris on the back. "You did a good job," he said.
"Of course," Chris said, shrugging. "We're perfectionists." On Saturday morning, the Captain woke everybody up at 5:30 so they could pack up and catch their bus home. Needless to say, Mr. Watkins wasn't too happy about that.
"This is inhuman," he grumbled. "If I have to get up this early, I may as well get a job."
He was wandering in a fog of caffeine deprivation when Troop 150 came thundering up the road in tight marching formation, bellowing out their complicated cheer with military precision. "Oh, shut up," he said.
Meanwhile, the scouts of Troop 162 were straggling out of their tents, sleepy-eyed and hobbling under the burden of backpacks stuffed as fat as sofas. The scouts were learning a perplexing law of nature: The same stuff that fit into your pack on the way to camp never fits on the way home, even though you've lost at least one sock from each pair. The problem, scientists theorize, is that dirt molecules embedded in the fabric increase the volume required by each garment. Anyway, this phenomenon gave the scouts an opportunity to use their new-found knot-tying skills to strap stray items to the outside of the pack, along with the stuff they created in handicrafts, like footstools and lopsided baskets.
Some day, 20 years from now, these scouts will discover those lopsided baskets in their parents' attic, and the sight will release a flood of sensual memories of scout camp -- the gentle kick of a .22 rifle, the butterflies in the belly at the moment before the swim test, the smell of the latrine, the sound of machine-gun fire emanating from a Revenger sound effects machine, the taste of campfire stew burned to a crisp over an open fire or, worse, the taste of the sanitizer tablet that your buddy told you was a SweeTart.
These memories will come rushing back, and the former scouts will find themselves involuntarily mouthing a cheer they thought they'd forgotten:
Two! Four! Six! Eight!
Who is really, really great?
But that's 20 years from now, and this is now. The scouts are lounging around the flagpole in their last few minutes in camp, and Chris Hardin -- senior patrol leader, Eagle scout, captain of the color guard and author of the Antelopes cheer -- is leading them in a song that has not yet appeared in the official Boy Scout Songbook:
Aren't much fun.
When you call them,
They don't come.
"Awesome," he says.
"Awesome," they reply.