I'm sure that you're all acquainted with the ideal of an American Boy Scout camp. Lotsa kids, age 11-18, marching around in uniforms. Dining halls, singalongs, merit badges, all that. It's true enough. I certainly have been acquainted with troops like that. But that wasn't us.
We thought of ourselves as the Delta House of Boy Scout troops. My Scout buddies turned into my drinking buddies. I learned how to shoot guns, throw knives, swear like a sailor, sing dirty drinking songs, and jury-rig model rocket engines to remotely start bonfires. Every summer, we would descend on Camp Sinoquipe, a small Boy Scout camp in the Pennsylvania mountains, and make the next week unholy hell for the military and wiener troops there. We were probably the only Jews they saw in person for most of the year, and certainly the only Boy Scout troop with a finely developed sense of irony. We were connaisseurs of Monty Python, of The Simpsons, of Animal House, of Beavis and Butthead, and of all of those other humorous trappings of pop culture.
Something that many people aren't aware of in Boy Scouting, however, is the existence of High Adventure camps. These are like normal camps, except that they have minimum age restrictions and are by and large more interesting. You might backpack through the mountains for a week, experience wilderness survival in horrible snowy places (the kind where the Yeti population is kept down by the 600-mph winds), and so forth. Our troop was particularly attached to the Florida Seabase, a lovely little venue in the Florida Keys.
A troop staying at Seabase chooses between several "adventures." We, being the burliest of manly men, had chosen Out Island Adventure for our time there. This is what's called the "suicidal" adventure. While other troops were learning how to manage a small sailboat or SCUBA dive, we were to be stranded on a desert island.
If you had been in our troop for any length of time, you would hear stories from the older Scouts about the last time that we had gone to Seabase, how Big Munson Island, where we would be staying, was practically a tropical paradise, if you could ignore the horribly poisonous plants and total lack of fresh water. We were told of a veritable Ewok village in the trees, composed of hammocks and rope bridges put in place by troops that had already been there. We were told of the time that it flooded, and everybody just got into kayaks to get around the island. We were told about the troop being on a plane to Florida that was half nuns and half Scouts, and the merry hell that occurred there. It had the aura of everything that had made Vietnam romantic to some people: sure, it was hell, but it was a strangely beautiful hell. And if you been there, man, you had been there. And nobody could take that from you.
We arrived in Florida psyched for a crazy, fun week. For the first several days, we would prepare and get a taste of what other Adventures were like. We would then be put into kayaks with enough water and food for three days and sent off in the direction of Big Munson with our guides. I don't remember their real names. One of them disappeared after about two days because of a family emergency; the other we monikered Captain Dude, to reflect his surfer attitude. Never mind the fact that he was from North Dakota or something. He was Captain Dude.
But before we would meet Captain Dude, we had to get to Seabase. This involved us all piling into a bus and driving along the highway system connecting the Florida Keys. Rickety is a word which came to mind, as were dangerous, help, and m'aidez. Many of the bridges that we saw out the windows were partially collapsed into the water. Apparently they were of just enough historic value not to be torn down by people, but not enough to be preserved. This was when we were told, that we could see MacGuyver's mansion out of the window. It was not made out of toothpicks.
Since we were a bunch of guys from much further up the coast, one of our Scoutmasters decided that this would be a great time to start whining for Key Lime pie. He whined so hard that we eventually pulled the bus over at some dive just so he could get a slice of pie. We were late to Seabase. Eventually he came to regret being the first joke in this story.
The next couple days were a blast. Up early, and then off to adventure. One day we spent learning to snorkel and kayak; we also went lobster hunting. This didn't work so well — it's kind of hard to catch a living animal using nothing but fifteen minutes' training, a small bag, and a "tickling stick." So far as I can tell, the idea was to somehow get the bag behind the lobster and poke him into it. This would have worked, given a much larger bag, an accomplice, a two-dimensional space to work in, a lot of luck, and a very, very stupid lobster. These things we did not have. I believe my ticklin' stick is still somewhere at the bottom of the water, where I javelined it in a fit of frustration.
Another day we went out to sea for some semi-deep sea fishing. If I ever become a vegetarian, this will be why. Here's how it works: you catch yourself a large fish, and get it onto the deck of the boat. Then you punch it in the head until it dies. By the time we were done, the entire inner surface of the boat was pretty much covered in blood. It's not something you think about when you see advertisements for fish sticks on television. This was also the day that we were out swimming, about 20 miles from land, when some huge sharks began to swim with us. Nothing happened; it turns out that sharks are actually pretty friendly. This was also the day that we nearly got ourselves arrested when some genius shouted to the Coast Guard,
It's okay! We're not illegal aliens!
We also had the opportunity to go to Key West. I'd like to recommend Key West, if you haven't been. It's quite possibly the strangest place I've ever been to, and I go to Oberlin College (described as Hell on Earth by at least one conservative magazine). In Key West, you can see the house where Hemingway shot himself, now overrun by cats. They probably own it. It's also (I've been told) the closest point in the United States to Cuba, close enough that you could probably get in a boat and paddle there. The hoboes have signs saying
WILL TELL DIRTY JOKES FOR MONEY — I NEED BEER! (And their jokes are pretty good.) This is the town that has Margaritaville, where the sidewalk cafés have pot butts in the ashtrays, and where the streets run yellow with tequila. Ever single night, they have a street carnival. This is when the real crazies come out of the woodwork and run around town with their hands in each other's pants. This is when the people come out dressed like statues, and only move when you tip them. And yes, this is when I saw the guy dressed like a mid-1800s circus impresario (complete with top hat and cape) getting cats to leap off of pillars and through hoops.
It was around this time, as we prepared for our departure to Big Munson, that Captain Dude gave us a piece of wisdom that will echo in my mind until the day I die. I want to engrave it at the base of statues, write it in the sky, and write angry letters to the editor demanding to know why people don't say it any more. Here it is:
(Context won't help, so I won't provide it.)
The next day, we left for Big Munson. It was about five miles by kayak. We paired up and set out. Inevitably, everybody got in a canoe with a friend, and the older, stronger Scouts blasted ahead of the younger, punier Scouts. Every so often, we would have to stop and wait for stragglers. This was a good time to flip other people's kayaks, or maybe put on sunblock. Here's a fun fact about the Sun of Earth: It doesn't care about you. It would be perfectly happy to burn off your skin and give your bones cancer. It eats babies and stabs puppies. If you are in a kayak in the Florida Keys, failing to reapply sunblock constantly is a painful, yet fairly effective way to commit suicide. Luckily, we weren't idiots, and we made it to Big Munson with only a paltry collection of minor burns. This was about when we saw the waterspout. I don't know if you've ever seen one; it's one of those natural phenomena that they don't harp on in elementary school. Imagine a tornado at sea. Now imagine that because it's at sea, it's sucked up a lot of water and is shooting it out its top in an umbrella shape. Now picture this a small distance away from you. It's startlingly beautiful. It almost made up for the fact that the water was so low at this point that we were walking along the seabed and dragging the kayaks with us. If the spout had come near us, we would have be in for thirty-one flavors of unpleasant.
Have you ever heard of sargassum? It's this nasty weed that grows at the bottom of the sea. It smells horrible (think somewhere between sewage and sulfur), and has a habit of sucking the shoes off of your feet. This happened to me. It also happened that I stepped on something sharp immediately afterwards, carving a reasonably big hole in my foot. Have you seen Castaway? The part where Tom Hanks is still naïve, and gouges his leg open trying to swim to a boat? It was a little like that. The sea water didn't make it any better.
I think it was at this point that we realized that what we had heard about the island didn't really square with what was actually there. There was no Ewok village. This was an ickle bit disappointing, as we had spent the past five years hearing about how much fun it was to go up into the trees and stay there. Captain Dude explained that the village had blown down in a hurricane, something which happens fairly frequently in Florida. So we were going to be staying in tents.
Captain Dude sat us down and gave us some pointers about where the tents were, how to protect the food, a little about the island itself. Big Munson wasn't tiny, but hiking all the way around it took a couple of hours, even if you took breaks to look at scenery. Captain Dude also told us that we had an opportunity the likes of which we had never had before, so we should do something other than sit around, goof off, and play cards. We promptly ignored him.
Here's something else that's a little different in the Florida Keys: the mosquitoes. We came prepared, though. Having heard stories about nuclear mosquitoes that were impervious to everything short of the A-Bomb, we had gone to camping supply stores and bought the serious repellant. The stuff that's 90+% DEET. The stuff that comes in a tiny little bottle with more warnings on it than come with the average chemical weapons facility. The stuff where you waive legal anything if you use more than 1 droplet per limb. This stuff was useless. By the time I left Big Munson, I looked as if I had an advanced case of chicken pox, or perhaps bubonic plague.
Another fun fact for you about the Florida Keys. Just about everything living there is endangered. Not because it's hunted into obscurity, or anything sensible like that. These animals just happened to have evolved only on about three islands. So naturally, they're endangered. They also have no natural predators, and consequently no fear of anything. So when my friend Calvin was passed out in a hammock after a hard day of sitting around, goofing off, and playing cards, a Key Deer sauntered up and started licking his feet. There was nothing he could do about this at all, if he didn't want to start breaking all sorts of laws and risk having Federal agents dropping from the sky from black helicopters.
Two of the trees on the island are the friendly Gumbolimbo and the not-so-friendly Poisonwood. A story goes that the last time our troop had been at Seabase, one of the Scouts had said goodbye to the friendly Gumbolimbo trees on the last day.
Goodbye, friendly Gumbolimbo tree! he said.
I love you!, he said, giving a Poisonwood tree a huge hug. He was promptly hospitalized, as the poison began to spread and give him horrible rashes all over his body.
As I mentioned earlier, we theoretically brought all of our food and water with us on a spare kayak that we took turns pulling. This wasn't entirely true; we were motorboated some more water after a day or two on the island. However, we weren't nearly so lucky with the food. One of those crafty Key Deer managed to smash in the door on our food locker in the night and make off with most of our bread. We were thus reduced to begging bread from other troops on the island. It was like something out of your average mid-1950s propaganda film about how terrible things are in the Soviet Union, except without the funny little fur hats.
We had activities during our time there. Hikes, snorkeling, the like. One night, half the troop went out to try nighttime fishing, while the other half (myself included) secretly stayed back, made cherry cobbler, smoked cigars, and listened to our Scoutmaster (a former Marine; see Scoutmaster Bob's Fraternity Story) expound on how the moon landings were faked. Another day, we went lobster fishing again, which worked out slightly better than the last time: my friend and mentor Max caught a lobster, and roasted it that night. Max is a hero, a minor god, and many other fine things. If he ever runs for major political office, my advice is to vote for him.
On our last night before leaving, we did something that I will probably never do again in my life. We slept out on the beach, under the stars. This was probably one of the most singularly happy experiences I have had in my life. It was a clear, starry night. Being as I am from just outside a major city, I relish any stars I can see. We were easily dozens of miles from the nearest minor city, and even further from the nearest major city. I have never seen so many stars, and I don't think I will again until after the nuclear war. It was also the night of a meteor shower. Before I fell asleep, I saw a huge meteor burn its way across the sky. It was like something out of a cheesy romantic movie.
Two hours later, I was still awake, and battling the mosquitoes.
We kayaked back to land the next day. Out of sheer luck, I was paired with Captain Dude. It turns out that if you put a really strong person at the front of a kayak, it doesn't really matter if you have a scrawny 15-year-old at the back. The ride back just zipped by. I don't think that 6 miles of physical exertion has ever been so pleasant. I've also never been so happy to sleep on a cot in a room full of snoring people, at least until some yutz decided to leave a bucket full of fish right next to the air conditioning intake for the building. (The troop later adapted this into a great prank on the groundskeeper of the Pennsylvania camp.)
I first suspected something was wrong when I got in the shower after getting back. Spending 3 days on a tropical island where water is too precious to actually drink it leaves you feeling a little dirty. You also feel a little itchy if you've spent a fair amount of those 3 days getting attacked by mosquitoes and bathing in salt water. However, the shower, instead of being the great, cleansing experience it should have been, was a little taste of hell. Lukewarm water is generally a mild sort of liquid. This wasn't.
It turned out that I had forgotten to reapply sunblock during the trip back. This was understandable, as I had been very excited by the prospect of getting back to civilization. However, I cannot reasonably recommend the experience of having a horrible sunburn over much of your body. I had a ring of blisters at the point where the tops of my shoes stopped. These I had to drain with a sterilized pocketknife. (First Aid merit badge to the rescue!) Not being able to go outside without my skin feeling like it was about to peel off was also tops.
I was also given the dubious honor of getting to clean out the coolers that we had brought with us to the island. I'm not sure when, but at some point, something must have died in the coolers. I opened them to find thousands of maggots writhing over the inside of the coolers. I don't believe that there is enough bleach and hosewater available in the world to make me trust a cooler again.
The next day, we went home.
Am I glad I went there? Yes. I do not regret a second of it. Should you go there? Yes. It's a life-changing experience. Would I go back again?
No. I think that I could only tarnish my memories by going back.
However, the voices will always echo in my head: