By Tim McGrath
In my student days, school must have been seen by those in charge as a way to keep us busy, off the streets, and out of our mom’s hair for a good chunk of the day. I think many of us got through fairly well in spite of being made to read out loud in front of class, memorize just about everything (“This could be on the test!”), and be required to: “ Keep an eye on the length of those sideburns, mister!” What really got us charged up, though, were the teachers that got a kick out of being, well…, teachers. The truly great ones I had showed real interest in us, and they kept us engaged. No small task. Don’t remember much about the author’s purpose in writing To Kill a Mockingbird, but I do remember how that particular teacher kept us on the edge of our seats by telling her own stories: she was a natural storyteller. Had a few like that, and I’m fortunate to have had them as an influence in those early years.
In my teacher days, I attempted to keep the tradition alive. Storytelling was a perfect way to lighten the moment, make a point, have a little fun, exaggerate, BS, set the stage, and, some days, just goof off. I’ve had the good fortune to be reminded by former students how much they enjoyed the stories. Me too.
This one’s for you, Charlie….
Part 1: The Night Before
Mr. Franklin’s brown Ford Fairlane station wagon bounced its way over the rutted two-track as we slowly made our way to the campsite. “Well, scouts, we’re just about at our site. Mr. Bogard and the rest of the boys are not far behind. We’ve gone over this, so every scout knows his job in getting camp ship-shape before nightfall. No flagging on the job, either, or I’ll be on you. Scouts are prepared.”
As the Fairlane groaned its way to our site, it was clear this was going to be something big. Sprawled across the vast estate of the Boy Scout camp were other troops doing the same as us. It was the first big campout of the season, and scouts from all across West Michigan had descended on this spot. Tents quickly went up, makeshift chow tables assembled, cooking fires set ablaze: a beehive of industrious Scouts in action.
“Let’s get busy, scouts; everyone fall out and get Troop 1234’s camp squared away. We’ll show these other boys how we do things.” All the pre-trip planning and practice came to life. Each scout knew exactly what to do, and in a matter of minutes the enormous green canvas tent was up. The carload of scouts with Mr. Bogard appeared, they all hopped to it and, as if by magic, the site was prepared and ready for scouting action.
“Let’s get some ‘ssert rustled up fellas. You all had something to eat at home, so we’ll just top it off with Fluffernutter samiches and a root beer before hitting the racks. That oughta just about do it, don’t you think?” Mr. Franklin chuckled to himself; he loved being in charge. “Chuck, you, Dale, and Clark get that fire ready. You’ve got to be sitting around a roaring campfire to enjoy Fluffernutters and root beer. Might even have time to roast a few weiners if we feel like it. Just be careful by that fire, boys. We don’t want any of you three roasting your own weiners. Wouldn’t know what to tell your mothers when we get back home.” All of us in earshot of Mr. Franklin fell about the place laughing and grimacing: not a pretty image, but a fine example of twelve-year-old boy humor.
White bread, marshmallow crème, peanut butter, sliced bananas: the recipe for the perfect Fluffernutter sandwich. We scouts knew what to do, and in no time, all of us were sitting around the campfire enjoying the Fluffernutters and washing down the sticky mess with gallons of root beer.
“Top notch work, scouts. Everyone pitched in, knew his job, and got camp all tucked away in fine fashion. Before we hit the hay, how’s about a story? I’ve got one called ‘The Golden Bell’. It’s scary, so hold onto your shorts.” All eyes were on Mr. Franklin as he wove a tale of his grandfather living alone somewhere on the prairie in a one room shack. One day, as he was working outside the shack, he discovered a tiny golden bell stuck in the branches of a small bush. He plucked it out and, kept it because of its unusual beauty. As the story unfolds one dark night, an unknown force or creature stealthily invades the grandfather’s shack; first from the outside in a quiet but insistent voice: ‘Who’s got my golden bell? Who’s got my golden bell?’ Realizing the voice isn’t merely the wind playing tricks on him, the grandfather picks up the bell and hides with it in a corner of the shack. Soon, the voice is inside the shack and coming closer, repeating in that menacing whisper: ‘Who’s got my golden bell?’
Closer and closer it gets until the hot breath of the…thing is breathing on the side of the grandfather’s face. When the tension couldn’t be any greater, Mr. Franklin paused momentarily, then shouted: “YOU’VE GOT IT!” We all jumped clear out of our shoes. Some of the boys actually began gasping – it was hilarious.
“That’s what’s called a jump tale, fellas. Really made you jump, didn’t I? Wish you could’ve seen the looks on your faces when I hollered. Some of you better check your pants, if you know what I mean. Well, that’s enough for tonight, men; time for some shut-eye. We’ve got a full day tomorrow, so we’ll be up with the chickens. Let’s get this fire doused properly and call it a day.”
The tent we called home was a monstrosity: what Mr. Franklin called “Army Surplus”. Apparently, something soldiers used during what he called “The Big One”.
“Alright men, let’s form a fire line and get all our gear stowed sharp quick.” Like a fine piece of machinery each of us kicked in, and just like that, sleeping bags and pillows were piled up in one end of the green cavern. And, soon after that, each boy had staked out his space.
“Hey, it stinks in here,” Tommy Blanford yelled out. “It smells like my grandma.” General sniffing all around, and murmurs of agreement.
“Yeah, it does sorta smell like old people,” from one corner. “Naw it doesn’t, it smells like our dog pen when my brother doesn’t clean up the turds like he’s supposed to,” from somewhere in the middle.
“Quiet down, gentlemen. It’s just a little musty from being stored away for so long; nothing to worry about. Let’s get some shut-eye. Tomorrow gets here early.”
The sounds of fourteen bodies shuffling around, getting settled in: the rasping armpit noises, snickering, and goofiness of twelve-year-old boys in a tent away from home were gradually replaced with the even breathing of scouts falling off to sleep.
Soon, the deep quiet was broken by the snuffly snortling of Mr. Franklin and the gargly wheezes of Mr. Bogard. Back and forth it went: a sleeper’s concerto. It was clear the others were waking. Sounds of frustration and disgust could be heard from all corners of our canvas cocoon.
“Dad, Mr. Bogard, stop snoring. We can’t sleep!” Timmy Franklin hissed at our leaders. He must have given each a shove, because the din finally stopped, and was slowly replaced with quiet peaceful breathing. Uninterrupted silence filled the tent. There was only the occasional snortle from the grownups. All was well.
Our reverie didn’t last, however. A more insidious element crept into the tent.
From Mr. Franklin’s sleeping bag came a sonorous blast, extraordinary in its volume, followed by two more expulsions in rapid-fire succession. Several of us woke with a start wondering if we’d heard what we thought we’d heard. In response, a particularly drawn out eruption cast all doubt aside: Mr. Franklin was farting. And, it quickly became a world - class effort. But that, of course wasn’t the worst. The tent slowly filled with a noxious sulfurous wave that billowed and capered around us. The only escape was to hide out inside the sleeping bags, and hope the end came soon. It was clear Mr. Bogard was suffering with the rest of us.
“John, wake up.” Mr. Bogard yelled. “You’re killing us in here; you’ve got to stop!”
The happily sleeping Mr. Franklin woke with a mumbled apology.
“Sorry boys, it must be the Fluffernutters. Always happens when I eat those buggers. Hope the worst is over. Now let’s get some shut eye.” Easy for him to say. All of us lay waiting…, waiting…, waiting...; wondering when the next rasping expulsion would cut short our slumber. Mercifully, it never came. That was the last we heard until….
“Hey, wake up!” Steve Simmons screeched. “It’s raining in here, and there’s water coming in the door!” When we were awake enough to make sense of the yelling, it was clear he was onto something. This wasn’t another Mr. Franklin moment; it was a massive thunderstorm. Water poured down the walls, dripped from the ceiling, and rolled in through the door. Outside, lightning flashed, thunder crashed, and the storm raged on. We lay huddled together in what was becoming a stinking, soggy quagmire. All we could do was hang on and wait it out. As we lay there, voices cried out: “My sleeping bag’s soaked!” From another: ”My shoes are full of water!” Everything we owned was drenched. Much to everyone’s credit, however, no one panicked. We were mostly calm Scouts, prepared to the end. Surprisingly, Mr. Franklin didn’t say much until it was clear the storm was winding down, and a thin gray light peeked into the tent.
“Well, that was something, fellas, glad it’s over. Up and at ‘em, boys: daylight in the swamp. We’ve got a lot of clean up to do before chow. Everybody grab your gear, haul it out and spread it out on the ground. Hey, lookee over there, lads, the sun’s coming up. That and the breeze picking up’ll get things dried out soon enough. That’s a good sign. Looks like we’ve got one fine day ahead of us….”
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