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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Running the Gauntlet and Other Fun Camping Traditions

(c) 2012 by Tom King
Excerpted from my upcoming book "Swimming Lessons"

When I was a young camper at dear old Lone Star Camp, we had this one cabin we all hated.  CABIN 9.  They had a counselor named Chris who ran the cabin like the a German POW camp. Counselor Chris had his boys out doing pushups in the dirt at 6:30 am. They could raise AND lower the flag perfectly and they always got a green flag on cabin inspection. By the end of the week Chris had made men out of the boys in Cabin 9.  Every one of them were able to endure the belt line gauntlet without flinching. 
Now, the belt line was a sadistic little exercise in unit discipline thought up by some frustrated counselor who always wanted to be a drill instructor for the marines, but couldn’t because Adventists are conscientious objectors. That year, Counselor Chris, a would-be stormtrooper himself, decided that there was entirely too much undisciplined farting during campfire. Resolving to stop it, he threatened that any boy expelling gas in an audible manner during services would have to run the belt line when they got back to the cabin – and no giggling about it either!
As near as I can tell, the belt line concept derived from our Pathfinder Indian Lore honor class. It wasn’t part of the official requirements for the honor, but for years, counselors who had been watching too many cowboy shows on late night television had been teaching kids about “the gauntlet”.  We’d all seen it on TV.  It was portrayed, probably inaccurately, as some sort of native American test of manhood, as I remember. Anyway, the malefactor was required to run between two rows of his peers as each took a shot at his backside with their belts. It was painful, often resulting in spectacular bruises that would have got someone put in jail for child abuse nowadays. Apparently it wasn't much of a deterrent to crime, flagrant or flatulent.
In invoking the belt line, Chris had run out his big guns. He should have consulted the cook first.  Thursday was Mexican food night at good old Lone Star that year. Seventy plus kids ingested gallons of beans and cheese about an hour before campfire. The stage was set; the band in place.
Let the music begin.
Campfire was a disaster that night. They used to love to tell us scary mission stories about anacondas that swallowed people whole and pulled entire canoes beneath the murky Amazon. Then they’d point out across the lake to remind us that all those little black heads you could see sticking up out of the moonlit water were deadly snakes. At night it seemed like thousands of snakes were out there lurking, waiting for their dinner and there weren’t enough campers to go around. It did keep us out of the water at night. It was odd, but in the daylight, it never occurred to us to wonder where all those snakes had gone. We just jumped in the water, blithely indifferent to all that lurking death under the water.
Later, as a staff member, I was to learn that the snake head story was, in fact, a shameless lie. A reliable pastor and amateur herpetologist informed me that the stationary heads were harmless turtles coming up for a bit of air. Only the moving little black heads belonged to snakes and snakes don’t like to swim around large splashy things and seldom bite underwater. Having obtained that vital bit of knowledge, we were able to safely take up group skinny-dipping when we grew up to be staffers, without fear of losing important body parts to marauding anacondas. Who says learning isn’t fun!
By about halfway into the anaconda story, the beans had begun their magical work and the guys in Chris’s cabin had inflated until they were half again their normal circumference. The rest of us had been venting fairly regularly throughout the evening so we weren’t in any physical discomfort. But we knew about the belt line threat and sadistic fiends that we were, amused ourselves by trying to make one of the guys from Cabin 9 start laughing. Boys just can’t resist trying to nudge the inevitable along a little. I mean, Cabin 9 had won the cabin inspection contest every day all week long. With it's white glove cleanliness and it's stone and twig front walkway, they showed us all up at flag ceremonies. They were the first ones done with KP after meals and their lights went out every night promptly at 9:30.  And they were smug about it!
When the rest of our counselors could be roused from their collective stupors, all we got from them was, “Why can’t you be like the boys in Cabin 9?” This was clearly a case where institutional mismanagement was responsible for the chaos that followed. Ironically, it was the good Counselor Chris that fired the first shot of what was to be a memorable barrage. If you’ve seen the campfire scene in Mel Brooks’ movie “Blazing Saddles” you have an idea of what happened.
“Stinky” McDonald, an unfortunate young man with vicious allergies to virtually anything edible was perched on the bench directly in front of the boys from Cabin 9. He’d been entertaining us all evening with melodious little squeaks that had been increasing in frequency since the lighting of the campfire. After 45 minutes of Stinky’s aromatic recital, the collective stoicism of the Cabin 9 boys had begun to crumble. Finally, Stinky released a tuneful little number that sounded just like the opening bars to House of the Rising Sun. The whole bench behind him gave a little lurch.
Cabin Captain Harold Stubbins emitted a brief snort and Counselor Chris lost it. In trying not to giggle himself, Chris tightened his stomach muscles with unfortunate results. It was one of those that starts small. He’d have been all right and might have passed it off as a squeaky shoe or loose board in the pew, but at the first little “brrrrrrpt” the entire bench erupted in laughter.
The resulting concussion from the blast that followed knocked kids off their benches four rows back. Once it got started, the thing spread like a chain reaction down the bench. It was frightening in its intensity - like Vesuvius going off on Pompeii. Fortunately, Sam, the camp director, a man of inestimable good sense, wisely brought the proceedings to a quick close. The entire camp stumbled off down the trail toward the cabins, laughing so hard they could hardly see in the dim moonlight.
Justice was served that night as satisfactorily as few of us had ever seen it served before. Counselor Chris, his manhood in question was the first one down the belt line that night. Some of the kids from nearby cabins came over to help out, making it one of the most formidable belt lines in Lone Star Camp history. That incident led to the abolition of belt lines as a form of punishment at camp. A good thing too to my way of thinking!
 Just one man's opinion,
      Tom King

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