Monday, March 20, 2006

Call My Bluff

In the summer of 1975, my family moved to a new town. About a month or two after school began, a cousin and my mother coerced me into joining the local Brownies. I had no desire to be with a weird group of people who discussed kindling with a passion comparable to a career arsonist, but being as though I was 9 years old I really had no choice in the matter. According to them, I was going to make new friends and enjoy myself. Right.

After a couple of meetings, a weekend camping trip was on the horizon. 2 days away from home, in the woods, with strangers - anxiety was too soft of a word to describe the feelings that were storming in my stomach.

One afternoon a letter from the leader, listing the equipment and/or supplies I would need, was sent to my mother. As if we were on a scavenger hunt, we hurriedly collected everything on the list, the most odd item being a swimming cap. Swimming cap? Who was I, Esther Williams? Was I going to learn water ballet? It was November for God’s sake! We packed and repacked until everything fit into that military-style duffle bag, which bent my back as easily as a paperclip when it hung from my shoulders.

That dreaded Saturday morning had arrived. My mom drove me to the drop off point and as I exited the truck, I noticed everyone else had a knapsack-type backpack across her shoulders. Why in the hell do I have all of this shit and she only has a daypack?!

As it turned out, my mother and I failed to understand the letter and what I had packed were supplies intended for an entire year – not stuff to be brought for a weekend trip. We unloaded crap into the back of our truck like a dumpster diver tosses out aluminum cans seconds before the garbage truck gets there. That was embarrassing moment number one. The second moment arrived faster than I’d hoped - 3 seconds later.

Because I was a new member I hadn’t yet been issued the standard uniform, so I wasn’t dressed like everyone else and what made matters even worse, I had worn navy blue knit/polyester-high-water-pants from West Brothers department store – similar to Wal-Mart - to complement my white pullover shirt filled with light blue roses. My mom wasn’t in favor of jeans on girls but the strange looks let me know I wasn’t exactly dressed appropriately for the occasion. Although my duffle bag was no longer heavy, my heart seemed to weigh a ton. Still, I got into the van and rode away with the others.

The campgrounds were located in a place called St. Francisville, situated amid tall pines and red dirt bluffs. Cabins were spread out and large group buildings scattered here and there. Fear set in at that point. The rest of the trip has been locked away in the deep recesses for decades, however, there is one event that stands out – like a girl in polyester pants in the woods - and refuses to be suppressed.

A dirt trail snaked the sides of a 50 to 100 ft bluff down to a dry riverbed at the bottom. The leaders allowed us to follow the trail and go play but told us when we heard the whistle blow to rendezvous back at the main building as soon as possible. A group of us headed out, exploring and climbing trees and dunes, having a good time until the moment came when the whistle blew.

For some reason the other girls thought this was equivalent to the Kentucky Derby’s bugle call and took off without looking back. I, being younger and smaller, was left behind to eat their dust. Panic set in and I couldn’t find the trailhead. The whistle blasts and my pounding heart competed for my ears’ attention - my heart winning the loudest sound award. I then decided to do what any sensible 9 year old would do: cry and panic.

Looking around helplessly, I stood before the daunting red clay bluff and sized it up until my face was parallel with the sky. After a deep breath, one foot kicked into the side and then the other until I found myself steadily scaling the wall – grabbing exposed, twisted tree roots and tightening my grip on jutting rocks or anything I could get a hold of.

If any adult would’ve seen this display, I’m sure it would’ve started an all out recovery mission, complete with rescue helicopters and news choppers filling the skies.

The more the whistle blew, the faster and harder I climbed, sniffling all the way to the top. I only looked down once - long enough to gain enough determination not to die that day and get back to where I belonged.

Raising myself with my arms, I scooted my hips to the edge and clutched at grass and sand with my fingers - legs dangling - while I elbowed my way over the top and back onto flat ground. Standing up, I dusted my now holey-kneed pants off and ran, like every horror movie villain known to Hollywood was chasing me, toward the voices that called my name.

Sunday evening I made it back home safe and sound and obviously lived to tell the tale, but come Monday morning, I was no longer in the Brownies. Yes, my swim cap was retired before it was ever worn. Although my membership was short-lived, there was a valuable lesson to be learned in ingenuity, fast running, and never being left behind.

That period in my life prepared me, more than I ever thought it could, for when I joined the US Air Force years later. Came in pretty handy during any given sale at the mall, too. My success in the Air Force was great and I look forward to the bullshit sessions at the V.A. Home, when I’m old and grey and swapping stories about the old military days with the other vets.

Something tells me, though, my stories will always start off with, “Aw, that’s nothing - - back when I was 9…”


Blogger JohnB said...

That age is when the REAL stuff happens...everything that follows is just a whisper, a mere fragment of what heaven might be; to some at least.

6:01 PM, March 21, 2006  
Blogger OnMyWatch said...

you're so right.

thanks for taking the time to read it. :)

6:16 PM, March 21, 2006  

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