This was it; this was the grand acknowledgement of the first steps of manhood for our scout troop! This was much like the acknowledgement of a Jewish boy becoming a man granted by a Bar Mitzvah or a young African tribesman killing his first lion. This was a pilgrimage to the Canadian boundary waters for a canoe trip. It marked the end of my 8th grade year. I was 12.
My Dad, though he was unable to go, invested heavily in my preparation…he had coached me and bought me my own paddle. And we had marked it with black electrical tape to identify it like the war paint on the spear of a young Indian brave preparing for his first battle. Dad gave me his favorite fishing rod and some of his favorite spinner baits and advised me on just how to use them. He took me on a local lake to give me additional canoe practice.
The day of departure finally arrived and “little Bill” as I was called by a coach at school showed up with sleeping bag, fishing gear, new paddle and all the clothes and gear I needed to canoe for 5 days in the boundary waters. There were no roads or ranger stations anywhere close. No phones. “No safety nets,” just a bus full of teenage boys and a few adult leaders out on remote lakes. We were excited but a little apprehensive that we would be staying in groups of 3 and each group was in a different campsite on a different island every night. We would be making a large 25 mile loop through lakes and portages. We would pack everything in with our canoes: food, tents, supplies… set up camp every night and paddle and hike every day. We would cook the fish we caught over a fire and eat it. We did have other food in case the fishing was slow. What I did not know was the first manhood challenge I would face was not in the wilderness lakes of the U.S. Canadian border, but on the bus ride there.
This hopeful little boy could hardly carry his pack to the bus. Spindly little legs with knobby knees wobbled with the weight of all the gear. After a word of goodbye to the parents we hopped on the bus for the longest ride any of us had ever taken… From Knoxville, Tennessee to Ely, Minnesota. We jumped on and selected our seats, but “little Bill” was kind of hyper. He could be annoying sometimes, but for the most part fun and fun loving. Little Bill was standing in the seat and walked up and down the aisles for several hours.
We stopped for dinner and we all returned with soft drinks and snacks. I finally calmed down a bit. I was so small I could lie down in the overhead luggage rack. So, I decided this would be a good place to get quiet and rest. This was another bigger boy’s opportunity to do what he did best…be the bully… This boy was called Bud by his friends. He was always the life of the party, but at someone else’s expense. And it was too easy this time. He saw his prey in the luggage rack. He bit off a little piece of napkin and loaded his blowgun otherwise known as a McDonald’s straw. McDonald’s straws were the best because they were stiffer and longer than those from other restaurants, so the spit filled paper projectile would exit the barrel at a stinging velocity. Bud took aim and BAM, it hit my face and stuck there. I frowned and wiped it off as his “buddies” laughed. He saw that he was winning attention and more laughs so he continued, grinning at me with an insolent smirk each time he bit off a piece of napkin to reload. I asked him to stop, but he was in the zone. He wasn’t stopping.
All my life there had been a teacher or leader to step in to protect “little Bill” and I had gotten pretty good at self-preservation by working the bully protection angle from authority figures. But we were in the back of the bus and the leaders were all up in the front. So, as I waited for a deliverer, a rescuer, none came. And it became clear that Bud wasn’t going to stop even after the laughter had subsided. He was now just antagonizing me, spit wad after spit wad. I had learned in Sunday School to turn the other cheek, but I didn’t have any cheeks left to turn. So, the next time he looked down to grab his napkin, I sprang from the luggage rack like a kamikaze flying squirrel right on top of his head. I had landed a good shot, but I hadn’t really thought through my next move. I just knew I didn’t want to be his victim the whole trip. So, Bud, outweighing me by a good 40 pounds quickly threw me off his head and into the seat… and just as he had raised his hand to throw a punch, the Troop Leader grabbed his arm and stopped him. He separated us and we both calmed down.
Apparently the counter attack was enough to change this bully’s perception of me as the easy target. The rest of the trip and other trips after, Bud left me alone, for the most part. He even tried, in his own way to make me an ally.
The trip was awesome. We all camped, canoed, fished, cooked and had a great time. We had earned our stripes; we had earned our single feather as recognition of the first steps toward manhood. And I had learned that sometimes, regardless of your size, you have to resist a bully when you are disrespected.
Looking back now, I am sure there were other more peaceful ways to deal with this aggression, but as a pre-teen, it was the only solution I could come up with, but it seemed to work. A man's deepest desire is for respect and this had earned me just a bit from a young man who had little respect for anyone. It was a life-changing trip in spite of this bit of adolescent tomfoolery. It was sort of a defining moment for me as a young man and fortunately was one of very few physical confrontations this undersized young man had to face. I learned how to "survive" on my own and with some other scouts.