Although I’d been a Cub Scout, I never took part with much enthusiasm. When I was in sixth grade, Dad joined the Scout troop at church as assistant scout master. Mom told me this one morning before school. Against my better judgment, I told her that I also wanted to join. Why on earth did I say that? I decided to make the effort to take part in something Dad enjoyed.
The next spring, I prepared for my first camping trip: packing my clothes in a backpack along with my scout manual, a flashlight, mess kit, and poncho in case of rain. Dad bought a waterproof ground cloth to place under my sleeping bag. He drove two other scouts and me to the trailhead in New Hampshire where we met the rest of the troop. After parking the car, Dad helped the three of us put on our backpacks. We leaned against the car for support while he tightened the straps and tied our sleeping bags on top. A full canteen, a compass, and a Swiss army knife hung from clips on my belt, creating a metallic undertone of anticipation.
When Dad finished cinching the straps on my backpack, I stepped away from the car. Before I could react, the weight of the backpack pulled me flat onto my back. The breath was knocked out of me. I was like a beetle that had flipped over, its legs wriggling in the air. The other Scouts couldn’t stop laughing at my futile attempts to stand. They didn’t help me up, afraid if they did the weight of their own packs would shift and they’d also end up on the ground. I suffered a burning humiliation. Today I laugh at my backward flip, but at the time, I was helpless, almost in tears, and furious with my father.
Dad helped me up. I leaned forward far enough to support the pack on my back until I gained my balance. I dreaded the hike to the campsite when at any moment I risked stumbling over tree roots and rocks. But, for the moment, I was thankful I was no longer the center of attention. Nevertheless, the fear that I might fall on the trail only fed my anger toward my father. I couldn’t forgive him. Why didn’t he wait until I was ready?
That weekend I earned my cooking badge. Dad suggested I prepare spaghetti with meat sauce for dinner. I’d cooked this meal at home and could easily make it over a campfire for three other scouts and myself. I collected twigs and branches to start a fire and filled the cooking pot with water. I chopped an onion and a green pepper to brown in the skillet, adding the hamburger five minutes later. After draining the fat, I poured diced tomatoes and tomato sauce into the skillet and moved it to simmer at the back of the fire. When the water boiled, I added a box of spaghetti.
All this time, a younger scout, kneeling beside the campfire, watched everything I did. He acted impressed, but he was also hungry. He collected more wood to keep the water boiling. With a moment to relax until the spaghetti was ready, I looked up, surprised to find dark clouds crowding overhead across the lake. The pine trees, swaying back and forth in the wind, creaked and showered us with needles. I picked a few needles from the sauce and covered the pan.
Another scout sauntered over. “That stuff smells good.” He stood hunched over, his hands in his pockets. Another guest for dinner. “It’s going to rain, you know.”
The boy tending the fire held out his hand. “Yup. It’s already started.”
The skies opened. The rain hissed on the embers, sending up clouds of steam. I grabbed the skillet and carried it under the tarp Dad had suspended over the picnic table. I ran back to the campfire and tested a strand of spaghetti. “Another couple of minutes.”
The tarp snapped in the wind like a sail threatening to rip and fly away. The support poles bent back and forth, pulling at the ropes around the stakes anchored in the ground. Except for our group, the campsite was deserted, with most of the scouts sheltering in their tents. Three older boys, bare chested, with towels over their heads, ran up from the lake with life preservers and paddles. Smelling the food, they changed direction and headed toward us. I served them plates of sauce and Dad carried over the pot of spaghetti.
The rain pummeled the tarp bulging above our heads. We took turns poking the center of the bulge with a paddle and cheered when the water cascaded onto the ground. The weather turned raw and, by the end of the meal, we shivered in our wet uniforms. Dad put the dishes into the spaghetti pot to soak.
Before I could follow the other scouts and dry off, Dad grabbed my arm. “You did an excellent job, Mark.” I laughed with surprise realizing that indeed I had. I caught up with the scouts splashing across the field to the lodge for the evening program. I found a place to sit beside the fire whose warmth enveloped me. No longer shivering, I relaxed, feeling competent and confident. I had succeeded in the eyes of my father. I’d also risen in the esteem of the other scouts who were telling their friends about the fantastic dinner they’d eaten. My beetle flip of the previous day was forgotten.
Later that evening, the scout master approached me. “I heard you cooked an excellent spaghetti dinner this evening.”
“I’ve signed the paper for your cooking badge. Congratulations.”
At that moment I felt part of the troop for the first time. It is also one of my fondest memories of my father.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish