Monday, February 18, 2008

The Ordeal: a memoir

A little over a week ago, I wrote about being "tapped-out" for the Order of the Arrow. If you've not read that piece, you might want to check it out first. All this happened back in the summer of 1970.
The week after the ordeal, I was sitting at the kitchen table, scratching my bug bites while telling Mom all I’d endured. I thought for sure she’d be impressed with her macho 13 year old son, but I was mistaken. I don’t recall if she used the word fool, but that was essentially what she called me for having allowed myself to endure a day of hard work on meager rations and without the ability to talk back. “You did all that for a patch and a white sash with a red arrow embroidered on it?” she asked. Mom had a way to put me in my place and I was knocked off, cold-turkey, the high I’d been riding the past several days.

A few weekends after the tap-out, I was back at Camp Tom Upchurch for the ordeal. I didn’t know much about what to expect. In addition to our scout uniforms, we we’d been told to bring work clothes and sturdy shoes. As the camp was over two hours from my house, I rode up with other scouts. There were about thirty of us, mostly kids but a few adult leaders, who had been tapped out for the ordeal. After dinner in the dining hall, we were told to stow our gear and to report to the campfire circle with only a pocket knife, a poncho and a blanket. We knew we’d be spending the night in the woods, so we all doused ourselves with bug spray before heading to the campfire. I don’t remember much of the ceremony, except that when we arrived, we were greeted by older boys who were already members of the Order of the Arrow. They all were dressed like Indians. I remember a flaming arrow being shot into the lake and the chief reappearing. He gave us instructions about the ordeal we had to endure. How we were to spend the night alone, how we needed to maintain silence for the next 24 hours, and how we needed to carve an arrow that we’d wear around our neck. We were told that if we talked, a notch would be made in our arrow and if we got three notches, our arrow would be broken and we’d not pass the ordeal. I had been worrying all along about not passing the ordeal.

After giving us our instruction, we were lined up. In our left-hands we carried our poncho and blanket. We placed our right hands upon the shoulder of the scout in front of us. In front and back of the line were Indian braves carrying torches. We were led down a two track road toward the rifle range. To the right of the road, the land rose and was covered with pines and wiregrass. To the left, the land dropped off into a swamp, with thick vegetation. As we moved down the road, I could tell there was a lot of running around behind us, in each direction. Then, the guy behind me dropped his hand from my shoulder and I felt him being whisked away. I was next. Two braves grabbed me and led me to the left, down next to the swamp. There they sat me in a dry spot and told me that they’d be back for me in the morning. It was a moonless night. I looked at the stars as I listened to the mosquitoes buzz and the frogs sing. I thought about carving the arrow, but decided it wasn’t a bright idea to attempt to do that in the dark, so I spread out my poncho and wrapped myself in my scratchy wool blanket in an attempt avoid the mosquitoes. Surprisingly, I quickly fell asleep.

Something moved nearby, waking me up. “Was it an animal?” I worried. I opened the blade of my pocketknife and laid still, clutching the knife and looking around. My eyes had become somewhat adjusted, but the vegetation was so thick that I couldn’t make out what it was. Then a twig snapped and I turned and saw another scout, testing branches, obviously trying to find wood for his arrow. We looked at each other but didn’t speak and in the darkness, I couldn’t recognize him. He had been placed about fifty feet from me, and without saying a word went back to where his poncho and blanket were lying. Lying back down, I watched the stars and battled the mosquitoes for a few minutes. The bug repellant was no longer working. I rolled up in my blanket and, despite the heat and bugs, somehowe fell back asleep.

When I woke the next time, the stars had faded away and there was enough light that I could orient myself. Mosquitoes were still buzzing. I knew I needed to carve and arrow before they came to retrieve us, so I looked around for suitable wood. Nearby, I found an old stump from a longleaf pine, its inners filled with lighter-wood. I broke off a chunk and began to work shape it in the form of an arrow that was approximately four inches long. Such wood splits easily and has a nice sheen from the resin it contains, but the wood is hard and therefore difficult to carve. I worked with it and even though my arrow wasn’t the best looking one in camp, it had a nice rich golden color and, because of the way the wood splits, was probably the sharpest arrow around. This wasn’t a particularly good thing since the arrow had to dangle from my neck.

I barely had enough time to fashion the arrow before being rousted up and led with others back to the main part of camp. We were told to sit down under a tree beside the dining hall, where we were given a carton of milk and a fried egg between two pieces of bread for breakfast. We sat for the longest time and after eating. I used my time to shape my stick into more of an arrow and to scratch my numerous mosquito bites. Then, we were assigned to work groups. As the smallest kid in the group, it was my fate to be assigned to the group with the toughest task.

Our taskmaster had our group jump in the back of a truck and drove us to a sandpit beyond the rifle range. Our job was to load sand onto the bed of a truck and haul it to the waterfront where we filled in several gullies. Another group was there constructing dams in these gullies to help hold the sand in place. As the morning wore on and the sun rose higher, the temperature climbed. We kept making signs of wanting water to our task master, an older scout who was probably sixteen, kept saying that we’d have a water break later and pushed up hard. At least mosquitoes were leaving us alone. When he finally did let us drink, we gulped water down at an unhealthy rate that several guys got sick. After a morning of hauling sand, we were led back to the same site where we’d eaten breakfast for our lunch. Large containers of bug juice (watered-down Kool-Aid) were sitting on a table and we could drink all we wanted. For lunch, we were provided with a bologna sandwich. As it was with the egg at breakfast, it was just a piece of bologna between two pieces of bread, no mustard, mayonnaise, or cheese. I ate my sandwich hurriedly and laid down, closing my eyes knowing that before too long I’d be back working a shovel.

That afternoon, our taskmaster continued to be stingy with the water breaks. At one point several of us got so thirsty that when unloading the sand into the ravines by the lake, we ran out into the water and wet our shirts as well as cupped out hands and gulped water lake water. Later, our task master stopped the truck at the camp trading post and brought himself a coke with ice. He drank it in front of us, making slurping sounds and then poured the ice out on the ground, taunting us while trying to get us to talk. This was observed by an adult leader who called the boy over and had what appeared to be a serious conversation with him. Thereafter, we were provided frequent water breaks and there was no more hazing.

Our afternoon ended at about 4 PM. We were still on silence, but told to go get cleaned up and to put our uniforms on. We showered, first with water, then with calamine lotion, then dressed and spent a few hours resting. At 6 PM, we were called to the dining hall where we were served a feast prepared. Still, we were not allowed to talk, but we consumed some of the best food I’d ever eaten at camp. Much of what happened after dinner is now a blur. I was tired and it was so mystical, unlike anything I’d experienced. We were again led out into the woods in a single file, with a hand on the scout in front of us, to a secret fire ring located deep in the swamps. When we got there, a fire was already blazing and behind it was the Chief. He welcomed us, had us sit down and told us the legend of the Order of the Arrow. He then gave us a secret sign and handshake and we were presented with our sashes and our patches. We’d passed the ordeal. I was proud of the fact that I gotten through without having a single notch in my arrow; however I can’t say that I didn’t talk during the day, we just made sure we talked away from the taskmasters and others in charge of the ordeal. After the ceremony deep in the woods, we all made our way back to the dining hall where a cracker barrel was waiting. No longer on silence, we talked about our experience as we ate crackers with cheese and sausage and drank plenty of bug juice. I was now an Arrowman and would be on a high for the next several days, until that morning when I told my mother about my experience.


  1. Great story! There is a lesson here about making work seem like a desirable thing to youngsters . . . and why fraternities still draw a large class of pledges!

  2. I am glad that you passed the ordeal with no notches on your arrow, Sage. But as I read, all I could think about was how dangerous it was to leave boys in the woods. I sure hope there were leaders around to keep you all safe.

  3. I am so glad you're around to tell this story, and that movies like "Friday the 13th" and "The Blair Witch Project" weren't around back then.

    No wonder you love nature so much; you experienced more of it as a boy than many men I know.

    That's quite an accomplishment for a small boy, and your mother should've been proud.

  4. I liked this story and my humor got the best of me with "A few weeks after the tap out"! :D Quite an ordeal!

  5. Wow, your mom was really supportive, huh?

  6. Diane, OA was the closest thing to a fraternity that I joined... I worked full time through my undergrad years.

    Kenju, I think we were safe, there weren't any dangerous animals around and we were on scout property with adults making sure nothing bad happened.

    Scarlet, I think deep down she probably was proud. She also thought my hiking the Appalachian Trail was a stupid idea but when I'd completed it she said she was proud of me and glad I did it (even though she also said it looked like I had AIDS because I was so skinny)

    Michael, thanks.

    Diesel, My mom was Southern--she knew how to instill humility and guilt in her youngin's.

  7. “You did all that for a patch and a white sash with a red arrow embroidered on it?” ...What did Napoleon say about having enough ribbon?

    Well said in your comment over at my place.
    Good story, thanks.

  8. The rest of your OA story is just the same except for the timing. Our camp did the day of work at the camp with all the other boyscouts in attendence so you had 50 times more people trying to get you to talk and get a notch.

    The OA ceremony must be detailed out in some scout master manual.

  9. App, What did Napoleon say?

    Ed, some of the groups had easy assignments like take down the tents and fold them up--it was at the end of the camping season

    Pat, thanks!

  10. My thoughts on all this was much like your mother's. Boys are odd creatures.

  11. I have to say the first time I looked at the picture in this post I saw a slice of pizza.

    Oh and i have a little something about Einstein on my blog :)

  12. Were you able to appreciate the silence at that age? It's rare to be with others and not talk. I once visited a Trappist monastery, in my early twenties, and found the vow of silence a profound thing. It was so unusual and meaningful to be with others in a silence that wasn't awkward.

  13. Murf, you women need to learn to let us enjoy a bit the fantasy of a world where Indians still roam and on has to pass an ordeal to prove himself

    Mistress, I'll be over to learn about Einstein, now I want some pizza

    Paul, I don't think so, but I've hiked for days on end without seeing a soul and you really get to appreciate silence then... I've always wanted to try a Trappist monastery for about a week.

  14. Wow.

    What exactly was it they were hoping to teach ya'll? How to be a soldier later on in life?

    That said, how heartbreaking it must have been to be so proud of your accomplishments and have your Mom respond like that!