Tony and Leonard giggled in the back the bus the whole way up from South Paterson to the camp, making rude remarks in my direction nobody thought funny but them.
If Mr. Wilson, the scoutmaster, heard any of it, he showed no sign.
He most likely tolerated it because he didn’t like me very much, and wondered what the hell a boy like me was doing on this bus on a weekend trip with his troop when the place I ought to be was jail.
Maybe he thought winter camp would teach me a lesson overnight stays in the local jail had not been able to.
This after all was winter camp – hardly the stuff of the faint-hearted. Very few of the summer campers even made the effort – even if their parents agreed.
Winter camp was all work, and little play – no swimming the lake (the lake was frozen), no songs around the camp fire (we’d be lucky to even stay warm or find fuel), no softball, soccer, or chasing fireflies.
We would hike up to near the top of the mountain, set up camp near the wooden lean-tos, and then practice all that stuff we were supposed to have learned when earning merit badges about tracking, and wood craft.
Not I paid any attention to any of that anyway. And Mr. Wilson knew that better than anybody.
I had not real business being up in this part of the world. I was a street kid from Paterson who thought threes were ornaments that someone stuck near the curb to make sidewalks look pretty, and saw mangy dogs and half dead cats were wild life – although I had seen a raccoon rooting through trash cans once, and even saw a possum crossing in front of my uncle’s house one night.
I had come because I couldn’t stand being at home any more and hearing my uncle lecture me about how I ought to shape up or ship out, and how I was likely to turn out no good if didn’t. And so when Mr. Wilson asked who wanted to go to camp, I raised my hand.
Tom and Leonard hated me more than they hated anybody, which was saying a lot. They were always picking on me because they knew nobody else would stop them, a dastardly duo as ripe with fraud as I was, but much more dishonest about it. They were always pulling something on someone and often as not me.
And even though I generally stayed out of their way, this time I thought I’d keep an eye on them. I hated the idea that they might get away with something. They cheated at everything. And though I cheated, too, somehow it was different with them, and I vowed to not let them win.
Maybe I was just trying to prove other people wrong – especially my uncle – about me not being good at anything.
I knew I had to be good for something, even if it ultimately was being good at being no good.
Cold, I learned when we got off the bus and started to hike up to the camp ground, is different in the country than in the city, and unlike most of the other scouts, I hadn’t quite dressed right. So my teeth chattered the whole time and more when we got there and found that there wasn’t a warm hearth waiting, but these odd little wooden structures that looked a cross between a tent and a tiny cabin, only with one wall missing, and bunks inside with only springs. We were to roll out our sleeping bags on these springs – and since I had brought only two very thin blankets, I knew I would freeze.
Fortunately, each of these lean-tos had its own little fire place in front of the open wall, in which we were expected to start a fire – the warmth of which would make up for the heavy chill and the expected snow storm everybody had been talking about the whole drive up from Paterson.
Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson said we had to go out and find fuel – the four scouts of each lean-to finding enough firewood to keep them warm. And because Mr. Wilson didn’t particularly like or trust me, he assigned me, Ralph and Frank from our lean-to to also collect wood for a common pile that he and other scouts could draw on if their own supply ran out.
“I wouldn’t want anybody to freeze to death over night,” he said sternly, exaggerating the danger. Or was he?
Flecks of snow had already started to touch my face, and the air felt heavy with the threat of more.
Armed with our small hatchets, we all set out into the woods to find our share of wood.
“Only chop dead trees,” Mr. Wilson yelled after us. “We don’t need no green wood. It won’t burn right.”
Fortunately, we had plenty of fallen trees to work with. This wasn’t the city. Mother Nature had a way of clearing out its riffraff in order to make space for strong new trees.
Ralph and Frank worked hard, and made me feel guilty enough to work hard, too, until we had a nice pile – too big to cart back to camp in less than a dozen trips.
We were real proud, and marched back into camp with our first load like heroes, and felt even better when we saw that most of the other campers hadn’t done nearly as well as we had, and were content to eek it out through the night with a handful of twigs and such. Many were already on their bunks, staring up at the sky and the heavier snow that had started to fall.
Ralph, Frank and I dumped our first load near Mr. Wilson’s lean-to, trying to impress him.
He didn’t look impressed and only grunted.
“It won’t be enough to last the night,” he said.
“We cut a lot,” I argued, drawing his stern gaze.
“But not enough, I’ll bet.”
We want back to collect more from our
stash, hoping to impress him the next time.
But when we got back to the place where we had stacked our cuttings, everything was gone but for a few twigs.
Ralph and Frank looked around scared, mumbling something about ghosts or wolves.
“Wolves don’t take wood,” I said. “But I know a couple of rats that might have.”
I was thinking of Tony and Leonard, who I had seen glaring at us when we came in with our first load. The ground was soggy from the first fall of snow, so we couldn’t actually make out footprints. At least, Ralph and Frank couldn’t.
So we went back to camp to complain to Mr. Wilson, by which time the snow was coming down heavily.
Mr. Wilson didn’t believe me when I told him someone had stolen our wood.
“This is going to be a rough night,” he said. “We’re going to need plenty of wood to keep everybody warm. And if you three are too lazy to do your share, then you’ll have to do without wood.”
“But we did cut a lot,” I said.
Mr. Wilson had stopped listening.
By this time, Ralph and Frank were totally discouraged. We were already wet and cold, and not in the mood to go out into the snowy woods to find more wood to cut, especially after we’d already cut so much already.
Most the campers had modest fires lighted, using their little wood sparingly. But not Leonard and Tony. They had a heavy blaze going, and had made a number of new friends who asked if they could sleep in their lean to for the night, even if they had to sleep on the floor.
I was pissed. I could hear my uncle adding to Mr. Wilson’s anger.
I wandered off into the woods, the way I often wandered out into the streets when things got too bad at home. But it was different here. I carried my uncle’s voice in my head, telling me what a screw up I was.
I was almost out of sight of camp when I heard someone coming and slipped behind a tree trunk as I watched the giggling Leonard and Tony rushing by. There giggled as they hurried, and so took no notice of my footprints in the snow and soon marred them with their own, leaving an unmistakable trail easy for me to follow.
And I followed it, they way I might have a fire engine or a police car in the city, just to see what they were up to. Before long, they stopped in front of a small cave where Leonard handed out pieces of chopped wood for Tony to take. Both were laughing about all the fire wood they had when nobody else had any, more than enough to last the night and even into the morning, and how they would be warm and nobody else would be.
Being as lazy as they tended to be, they took far less away with them than I had carried back earlier by myself, and so when they were gone and I took a peek in the cave, I saw a sizeable amount left of what Ralph, Frank and I had had cut earlier, all still dry.
Where the next idea came from, I can’t say. Maybe it was just because Mr. Wilson and my uncle were right about me. Maybe I differed from Leonard and Tony only by degree, or that I could be different and chose not to be – and so in some ways, I was worse in Mr. Wilson’s eyes than those two who had to be what they were born to be.
I could have argued with Mr. Wilson all night about my not knowing what I was born to be and so I had to accept whatever I was, but I knew he believed differently.
I decided to steal the fire wood back. But I needed to be cleverer than they were in relocating it. In the snow, I could not walk without leaving a trail, except along this stony ridge that ran along the top of their cave.
That’s what I did. I took bundle after bundle and climbed the slick stones to the top and then along it, and eventually found another small gave twenty five yards from the first, and after many trips, emptied their cave, except for one last, which I hauled back along the trail Tony and Leonard had taken back to the camp.
Ralph and Frank looked surprised when I got there. But not nearly so surprised as Tony and Leonard.
But I was too weary to care. I had worked more moving that pile than I had in helping cut the wood in the first place, or doing anything in my life until then, and all I wanted to do was line down on the bunk with my two thin blankets and sleep through what was turning into the blizzard everyone had feared.
Drifts of snow grew outside our little circle of light.
But sleep would not come, we had wood thanks to my last trip, but many of the other campers, who had gathered mostly twigs, did not.
By this time, Leonard and Tony had discovered the theft, having burned their bundle off quickly and made yet one more trip back to their now empty cave.
Other campers came to our lean to as they had previously gone to theirs, but Ralph and Frank being Ralph and Frank, let those who could fit on the floor of our lean to do so for free rather than taking offerings of food or future debt the way Leonard and Tony had earlier.
But even our supply, as frugal as we were in using it, could not hope to last the night.
This meant one of us (meaning me) had to get back to the second cave to get more, And this mean, I had to avoid being followed by Leonard and Tony – which was nearly impossible because I could not help but leave a trail in the ever mounting snow.
So the best I could think of was the lead them astray, taking a longer way around, up and down, through gullies and such until I either created a trail too complex for them to follow or one that discouraged them.
I never thought I would create one so complex that I would both lose and discourage myself, but I did.
I was under dressed, wearing a cloth jacket better suited to a cool autumn rain rather than a deep frost. My teeth chattered, and my hands – for lack of gloves – looked a little blue. I kept wondering why I didn’t own a winter coat or gloves or more than a think sailor like knitted hat that barely covered the tops of my ears.
But when I realized I had lost myself, I wondered less about the cold and more about how I could possibly get back.
And for some reason I thought even about how tragic it would be if all the fires went out back at the camp, a silly thought, I thought at that moment, since I was out in the middle of real wilderness – alone, a street kid who knew the ins and outs of Paterson, but had no clue as to what to do with this godforsaken mountain and the blizzard that wailed around it.
Why should I care about the other scouts freezing, when it was more than a little likely I was going to freeze first with no one to care whether I lived or died?
In the wind, I heard my uncle’s voice mocking me, telling me once again just how little use I was to anybody or anything, not just here in the wilderness, but anywhere at any time. His voice was the echo of a ghost’s I knew I would have to live with the rest of my life.
This really pissed me off.
Life can’t be like that, over before it’s barely begun.
There has to be more than being trapped in my own life.
I kept thinking of Mr. Wilson and how he left Leonard and Tony get away with crap he yelled at me for, and how he said without saying it that I had a choice when they clearly didn’t. I had the ability to climb out of it and become something else, something better, and all I needed to do was do it.
I turned around and started to follow my own fading trail until I heard the squabbling voices ahead.
“This is stupid,” Tony complained. “I want to go back to the camp. We’ll freeze out here.”
“We’ll freeze back in camp if we don’t get the wood back,” Leonard growled.
“No we won’t. Mr. Wilson wouldn’t let that happen.”
“Mr. Wilson? What does that dumb fuck know? Don’t you get it? We need that wood. I’m not going to let that crazy kid show us up.”
“Is that all you’re worried about? Him showing you up?”
“No, it’s not all, but it’s enough.”
“Enough for us to freeze to death out here or worse?”
“What do you mean worse?” Leonard asked.
“I’ve heard talk that there are wild animals out here, bears and even wolves.”
This, of course, gave me an idea, and so I howled like a wolf.
“See!” the panicked Tony yelled. “I told you!”
The next thing I heard was their pounding feet in the snow as they ran the other way, and I slowly made my way back down to where they stood and followed their trail back to more familiar places. I stopped off in my hiding place for more wood, and brought another bundle to camp and divvied it up among the other scouts – even Leonard and Tony – as best as I could.
It wasn’t enough, of course, but it was something, and even Mr. Wilson seemed less hostile towards me, giving me an odd look and a nod of his head.
This went to my head a little – the way playing Santa Claus for local kids went to the head of my next door neighbor each year so I couldn’t just stop and bask in the glory, I needed to do more, and so when nobody was watching, I went back out into the midst of the storm to collect more wood.
But it was gone.
Not stolen this time. I had simply used up the supply and I realized that the few twigs I had left to bring back wouldn’t warm one lean-to let alone all the others.
Mr. Wilson was right. We had not cut enough, and my uncle was right, I would always come up short.
I could hear both their voices scolding me in the wind, along with the mocking laughter of Tony and Leonard, who won by default, by my not being good enough or bad enough or smart enough, and everything they said about me at school, about my being crazy or incompetent or untrustworthy became real inside of me.
I stopped thinking about anything, and dropped what little wood I had and walked in a daze, weaving through the drifts of snow, not in the way I had come, but in any way that seemed easiest so that before long the trail I made had faded and when I turned around, I had no way of finding my way back again, no voices of my taunting enemies, nothing but the vague sense of where I had been but not where I should be going, or even a clue as to how I could get back.
Then, I thought I saw some kind of trail at the bottle of a slope and I scrambled down to find nothing, and looked back up and realized, I cannot scramble up the slippery slope again.
And path I thought I saw was not a path at all, just some random roots of trees stretching out across the otherwise stony ground.
I wanted to blame my uncle for this, or even Mr. Wilson, but I could not. I could only blame myself, not for failing or even getting lost, but for letting what other people said – like Leonard and Tony – get to me.
Why should I care what anybody else thought about me?
What made their opinion any better than my own?
Somewhere in all this thinking, another thought struck me.
I remembered that our camp was near the top of a ridge, tucked just under the rise to avoid the worst of the wind and in most of my wandering (until this last stupid slide) I had climbed along the ridge towards even higher ground, the body of the mountain being to the east of where we’d camped.
I had no way of knowing which way was east or west, north or south, but up and down was easier, and so with the ridge to my right, I made my way in a more or less downward direction, not going straight down, but astride the ridge as it became lower.
I saw light before I heard the voices, and realized I had found my way back after all.
Striding in camp was a little like the scene from Tom Sawyer when he strode up the aisle of the church during his own funeral.
The place was in an uproar over my vanishing. Some had tried unsuccessfully to find me, going out as far as they dared into the storm, calling my name until they were hoarse.
Mr. Wilson had cornered Tony and Leonard, grilling them on the last time they had seen me, asking them to confess about what they had done. He was as shocked to see me as they were when I strode up to him.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wilson,” I said. “I went back to get more wood. But you were right. We never cut enough to last the whole night. I got lost trying to find my way back.”
“But you DID find your way back,” Mr. Wilson said.
“I suppose. But I’m sorry I worried you.”
“I’m not worried any more, boy,” Mr. Wilson said, clamping my shoulder with his big hand. “Go lay down. You must be tired. We’ll all go out and cut more fire wood in the morning.”
He then gave Leonard and Tony a stern look.
“And I mean all of us,” he said.