Circa May, 2015
The boys and I were just about done with the long slog out to the state park for the cub scout campout. More than the usual chatter came from the back seat. This was no doubt partly related to the anticipation of running amuck in the woods for two days. It may also have had something to do with the fact that the last gas station stop involved the procurement of Mountain Dew for all involved. Not everything I do is perfect.
This particular state park was not the first choice of the scouts, or even the second. The first choice, a scenic spot set along a beautiful lake, was closed due to flooding caused by a massive wave of thunderstorms. The campout was then rescheduled to take place at a slightly more swampy park also about three hours away. The swampy park announced two days prior to the rescheduled date that they too were indefinitely closed due to damage caused by all of the continuing storms. The park service then transferred our reservations to this relatively unknown park located in the red-neck hinterlands of the Texas/Louisiana border.
With the chattering continuing behind me, I drove down the park road that led to the ranger station. This part of the world, which was known for trees and meth labs (not in that order) was so laden with foliage that there were few actual views (the few spots that could offer a vista were typically obstructed by billboards advising against the dangers of meth). It wad odd, therefore, to see a wide swath of relatively open land in the distance featuring a structure that looked bigger than a football stadium.
I didn’t have time to ponder the structure before I arrived at the ranger station and, knuckleheads in tow, went through the lengthy check-in process.
We were early compared to many of the other scouts and therefore had our pick of the locations that the pack leader secured for our group when he came out with his son the night before. We were supposed to camp alongside the others in our boys’ particular den, but since our eldest was in the 3rd grade (the Wolves) while our youngest was in 1st (the Tigers) we had a variety of options.
The pack leader’s son is also in the Wolves den, and we wound up a few sites down from them. One of the big no-no’s on a scout outing was the presence of video games. There was no surer way to bring an outdoor event involving boys to a standstill than to insert an iPad in the mix. Despite this edict, my eldest immediately to hang out with the pack leader’s son, and his iPad, in their tent.
My younger offspring and I fumbled through the steps we’d done many times before and managed to produce a tent that was able to stand under its own power. I was distracted by the disappearance of #1 son, as well as the continuing need to tell #2 son to stop standing on top of the almost-erected tent. I eventually took a step back to admire our progress and noted that all of the undergrowth covering the site was ominously familiar. Yes, I was standing shin deep in a thick layer of poison ivy. This particular bit of flora and I had a long history. Some people are allergic to poison ivy. I envied those people.
My great-grandparents had once burned a patch of it in their yard and wound up hospitalized because the smoke conveyed the rash to their lungs, eyes and ears. I carried this tradition a bit further and found that even thinking about poison ivy immediately ferried it to my brain.
I pointed out the greenery to my youngest. “Do you know what this is?”
#2 son stared at me blankly.
“This is poison ivy. We’re standing in a huge patch of poison ivy.”
#2 son looked down at his bare, dirty feet nestled amongst the poison ivy. I’d repeatedly told him to keep his shoes on but this advice, like most, had gone by the wayside. #2 son bent down to get a closer look. “Can we make a poison ivy bomb?”
I had no idea what a poison ivy bomb is, and how my warning had turned into a diabolical plan, but this was definitely not on the agenda. “No. Don’t touch it — and go put on your shoes!”
I was rewarded with a dubious look and continued refusal to wear shoes, but he eventually agreed to help me move the tent to a spot within our site that’s only inhabited, not infested, with poison ivy. Other scouts began to arrive and pitch their respective tents. All of the campsites had the same issue with poison ivy, and all of the scouts dutifully ignored the instructions of their respective fathers as they ran through the greenery.
Several other Tiger fathers and I eventually gave in to the relief that is giving up and turned our attentions towards the construction of a campfire. The fire quickly caught and began billowing smoke, which shifted directions at regular intervals, defying any attempt by those assembled around it to avoid its assault.
Nothing attracts young boys like fire, and the Tigers soon swarmed the area, doing their best to ignore all admonitions regarding proximity to a fire. A subset of the Tigers eventually grew weary of ignoring the adults and turned their attention towards the creation of a fort. The fort was a whimsical structure created via branches dug out of the woods and balanced against one another. Those Tigers not already engaged in the fort building vacated the fire and began searching for even more branches. It was collectively agreed that the Tigers had to defend their creation against the scourge that was the Wolves.
Several hours passed. Emotions ran high amongst the Tigers. Several incursions by the Wolves had been thwarted, but damage had been done. Fortunately no one had been hit directly in the face with a branch in this vigorous defense, but minor injuries appeared inevitable — particularly after the Wolves orchestrated a clever diversion and then swooped in to utterly destroy the Tiger base.
A few of the other fathers and I were then cajoled into assisting with the rebuilding efforts. It had been a long day for the dads, however, so we made one last attempt to be adults and were pleased when we brokered a truce which resulted in the construction of a joint Tiger/Wolf fort at a nearby location deeper in the woods. The scouts agreed that this fort would be mutually defended against perhaps the greatest menace of all: teenagers.
This fresh partnership of these traditional enemies appeared to be on solid ground. No one emerged from the woods with a welt on their face or a branch sticking out of their body. There was only the steady stream of young voices collaborating on the new fort accompanied by the cracking of branches as they were positioned into more desirable locations.
The noise of the boys in the woods was muted in part by the ongoing operations of the giant coal power generation plant on the other side of the lake (the large structure I’d seen on the way in). The plant produced a low hum 24/7, interrupted only by the blast of monstrous horns at shift changes and to announce the arrival of yet another train-load of coal. There was a reason that this park had availability. We were camping next to Mordor — assuming that Mordor was also overrun with poison ivy.
About an hour into this new partnership #1 son emerged from the woods. He wore his back-park with the built-in camelback for a nearly endless supply of water. He also wore a frown that teetered on the edge of a full-blown melt-down.
He fought back tears as he approached the other fathers and I huddled around the smoky fire and choked out, “Daddy. I’m banished.”
I waved my hand in a futile effort to disperse the campfire smoke that once again decided to blow my direction. “What do you mean banished?”
Tears leaked out of #1 son’s. “They elected Him ruler, and he said his first act was to banish me.”
Were it not for the tears, I would’ve laughed (and there were a few uncontrolled snickers from the dad contingent). A large group of boys, some of whom are two years older than #2 son, just held an impromptu election in the woods and elected him King. Based on his first act it was fair to say that absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely.
“I think he’s just kidding man. Go on back to your friends.”
“He’s not kidding Daddy. And if I go back they’ll rub the poison sticks on me again.”
“The King is having them pour water on the end of a stick and then rub it in poison ivy.”
It’s not the bomb he initially dreamed of, but #2 son had indeed weaponized the poison ivy. #1 son, dejected and defeated, wobbled on unsteady legs as a slow dribble of water gently leaked from the hose in his backpack that connects to the camel back.
I cupped my hands together and cried out for the presence of #2 son, or as he was now known, the King.
All noise in the woods stopped for a second or so as my words were evaluated. The King did not emerge, and the cracking of branches and whispering began anew. I repeated my request, and after a few seconds, the King emerged from the foliage with a long stick flanked by a couple of followers also holding long sticks.
“Did you banish your brother?”
The King looked off into the distance as if he was hearing something considerably more interesting from another, more distant location. His loyal followers looked to him for guidance. #1 son, still standing beside me, scratched at one arm, and then the other.
The King looked at me as if he could see me for the first time. “What?”
“Can you please un-banish your brother?”
The King mulled my request, looking to his lieutenants for their reaction, which was non-committal at best. Everyone wanted to see what the King thought before they offered an opinion.
“He’s being mean to people Daddy.”
#1 son immediately jumped in to defend his honor, “I’m not doing anything Daddy! They’re the ones poking me with their poison sticks.”
“Did you really make poison sticks?”
The King stared down at the end of the long stick in his hand with a mixture of pride and desire. His henchman did the same. “Yes Daddy.” He then turned to me, one ruler conversing to another, lesser ruler, “But we only use them for defense.”
“I thought the Tigers and Wolves were on the same team now?”
The King shrugged. Part of the burden of being a leader was making the tough decisions. This was not a particularly hard decision and my questions to him just undermined by already questionable status as royalty.
“Please un-banish him and let him play with you guys.”
The King used both hands to grip the end of the stick and pointed it at #1 sons face. “He’d better not mess up our fort.”
I looked to #1 son. “Well?”
“What, Daddy, I promise! I didn’t do anything.”
I studied his face and recalled that one of #1 son’s favorite games was something I’d previously called, “let’s laugh at the weakest.” #1 son stood about a foot taller than many of the Tigers. He wasn’t really mean, he definitely enjoyed his stature in comparison to his brother.
“I don’t want to hear about you pushing any of the Tigers around.”
“Daddy, I won’t!”
Another long trail of smoke poured over me as I wagged my finger at all involved, completely obscuring me from all those I purported to scold. I pushed on and conveyed the last bit of wisdom I had. “Be good. Get along, and knock it off.”
The King, clearly displeased with this outcome, mumbled something to that effect. He turned and began to disappear back in to the woods.
“And gentlemen? Please leave the poison sticks.”
The King whirled, indignant. “I promise I won’t rub anyone with it.”
I stared at him until he added, “Anymore.”
“Come on. You don’t need a stick covered in poison ivy.”
The King stared at me, and his brother, who triumphantly pushed his way past the King to go back to the woods. The King dropped his stick and tuned back around, clearly irked. He and and followers stomped off, but as I turned to rejoin the other dads I saw his dirty arm emerge from the brush to retrieve his weapon.
The dads settled back in around the fire and continued to breathe in large amounts of smoke, which I fervently hoped had no traces of poison ivy. The scouts eventually wore themselves out on the fort front and returned to the campfire demanding nets for fire flies — only to succumb to the disappointing reality that the fire flies were actually the safety lights on the power plant.
By Sunday afternoon the war was over and we’d returned home to find that I, and #1 son, were both covered in poison ivy. The King was rash-free, which did nothing for the peace process. I slept a lot better Sunday night, mainly because I wasn’t on the ground between two warring parties, but also because of the relative darkness and silence ironically provided by the night sky in our part of Houston — which did not have a thoroughly lit, coal-powered power plant located across the street.