Several weeks after I joined the Boy Scouts, Mr. Brown, our Scoutmaster, announced that we were going to go on our first week-end camping trip at the Boy Scout camp in Big Bear. My first camping trip under the stars taught me another life lesson–that things are not always what they seem to be.
As you might imagine, the moment Mr. Brown announced a camping trip, all of us boys in the troop were really excited. We immediately started preparing for the trip with extensive practice in starting fires by rubbing sticks together, learning the basics of astronomy, like how to use the Big Dipper constellation to find the North star, and of course practicing how to tie all those crazy knots that we were supposed to know as boy scouts.
The only kid who didn’t seem to care was Danny Betances. Danny, you’ll recall, was the tough kid that ridiculed me for listening to classical music. From the beginning Danny made sure that everyone in the troop knew how bored he was with Mr. Brown’s efforts inspire us to live by the boy scout code. When Mr. Brown announced our camping trip, Danny just sneered. By now Danny no longer made fun of me as long as I kept out of his way. But he never let anyone forget that he was still the toughest kid in our class.
“This Boy Scout bullshit is for sissies,” he told me later that night as we walked home after our scout meeting.
“Well then why are you in troop?” I asked him. “Why don’t you just drop out?”
“Nah, I ain’t got nothing else to do,” he replied. “But when my brother gets out of the joint, he said he’s going to take me camping and then I won’t need no Boy Scouts.”
This was news to me, that Danny’s older brother was in jail. I wanted to find out more but was still afraid of Dannys’ temper. I always had the feeling that he could go off and do something crazy any moment. Like kick my butt, for example. But I was really curious so I took a chance.
“What’d your brother do?”
“He didn’t do nothing. But the cops said he stole a car. So they arrested him. He’s supposed to come out of the joint next year.”
“Wow,” I said. “Tough break, man.”
“He’s cool, he’s no sissy. He just sucks it up. He’s not afraid of anybody or anything. I’m going to be like when I grow up. Maybe I’ll steal a car.”
I didn’t say anything more and we walked on in silence. All the time I was thinking. Wow, poor Danny has some issues alright.
When I told my mom about the upcoming camping trip, she had a cow. “No, mijo,” I’m afraid you can’t go. Two nights away from home? And what if you start to smell, or if your make-up comes off, or they see you drooling at night. It’s too dangerous! They’ll find out you’re really dead.”
“‘Ama!” I said, “I’ll be careful. I’ll make sure to use plenty of deodorant and to watch my make-up at all times. Come on, mom, I really wanna go! I want to be a Boy Scout just like the other boys!”
Of course, eventually she gave in. “Okay, mijo, you can go. But remember you’re not like the other boys. You have to be very careful that no one finds out about you. Okay?”
“Right mom,.” I said, “I’ll be super careful!”
A week later Troop 22 left Los Angeles on a Friday afternoon, all us boys jammed into three SUVs and the church min-van. The parents of some of the other kids had volunteered to drop us off and pick us up on Sunday afternoon. We’d be at Big Bear for two nights and two full days.
That first night was really cool. We sat around a campfire and sang songs. Mr. Brown taught us a song he remembered from his childhood in England called, “Green Grow The Rushes Oh.” Mr. Brown also explained the names of some of the constellations in the sky. I had never seen so many stars!
That night we all slept in sleeping bags laid out around the campfire. When no one was watching, I made sure to dose myself with extra deodorant before I went to bed and the next morning I got up real early, while the other kids were still sleeping. I pretended I needed to take a pee, but instead I applied my body make-up behind a tree where no one could see.
After breakfast Mr. Brown took us to on a hike and we ended up by mid morning at a stream that flowed over and through huge white boulders. When we got to the stream, the other boys located a shallow pool of water and immediately jumped in and started splashing about. Everyone jumped in except for me and Danny Betances. Danny just sat down on a rock and looked at the other kids splashing about with that sneer on his face, as if saying that the other kids were sissies for playing in the stream.
As much as I wanted to jump in the water, I knew I couldn’t risk having my make-up wash off and reveal that I was a zombie. I told Mr. Brown that I might be catching a cold and that my mom didn’t want me to get wet. He was cool with that. “Just don’t go too far away from us,” he said.
After a while, Mr. Brown divided the boys into two groups and they started a game of capture the flag in the pool of water they had found. I noticed that Danny Betances was no longer sitting on his rock.
I decided to go upstream, jumping from rock to rock and avoiding falling in and getting myself wet. After a while I could no longer hear the other boys splashing and yelling and soon I was walking along a part of th stream where it was rally quiet and beautiful. I sat down by the stream for a while and just appreciated the sound of the rushing water and the birds singing in the trees.
And then I heard it.
It was a strange high pitched, almost yodeling sound. Then I recognized it: it was the sound that Tarzan makes when he calls out to the animals in the jungle. But who was making that sound? Then I heard someone shouting. The shouting came from up stream. I decided to investigate.
I careful jumped from rock to rock in the stream until I came to a large outcrop of huge boulders that blocked my view of anything upstream. I had to climb over the rocks, one by one, until I made my way to the very top of the jumble. As I peered over the top rock, I stopped in my tracks. Below, waist deep in a pool of water, was Danny Betances.
“Tarzan, we must stop the hunters,” Danny said to an imaginary person. “They are killing the elephants!”
“Yes,” Danny replied, in a different voice, “Me Tarzan, and I rule here! Let’s get through this swamp! Look out, there’s an alligator!”
Danny Betances began to splash about in the pool of water as if he was fighting off an imaginary alligator attack. At that moment I realized that Danny Betances was a kid just like me. With his own fantasies. At school he always put on his sneer, he had to prove to everyone that he was the toughest kid in our class. But here, with no one watching, he could be a kid once again.
I realized that if I busted him, he’d probably beat me up. So I backed down the rocks. Retreated about fifty feet back along the stream. And then started walking back upstream, calling out Danny’s name real loudly, so he’d be sure to hear me.
By the time I returned to jumble of rocks, I saw Danny sitting on the top rock, looking down at me. The sneer was back. He had returned to being the toughest kid ever.
“Hey, punk, what’s up?”
“Nothing, just exploring. Hey, you’re wet, did you jump into the water?”
“Nah, I slipped and fell into the stream,” he lied. “Stupid rocks are slippery. Come on let’s get back to the troop. This stream is bullshit!”
Copyright 2012 Lazaro De La Tierra and Barrio Dog Productions, inc.