Thursday, June 12, 2008

In Sorrow for Four Boy Scouts

An elegy is a mournful remembrance, usually a poem, which expresses sorrow for death, quite often the deaths of the young and innocent. I'm not much of a poet, but would like to express here my sorrow over the deaths of four young Boy Scouts, the trauma of their loss to their friends and families, and the loss of these fine young men to their communities and society at large.

Years ago, as the single mother of two boys (and a girl), and worried that my sons would not have enough "guy stuff" in their lives, I decided to enroll my sons in the Boy Scouts. My oldest son was first. Over the years he went to summer camp, eventually making it to Lenhok'sin High Adventure camp at Goshen Scout Reservation, Philmont Scout Reservation (which any Scout will tell you is their Mecca) and with his younger brother to the Northern Tier High Adventure camp, at which they made a canoe and portaging expedition for some ten days through the Canadian wilderness down the Manigotagan River.

As a former Girl Scout and avid camper and general outdoorsy type I welcomed the opportunity to become an assistant leader. I went on many campouts and hikes and other activities, eventually attending seven summer camps over the years, and gained insight into adolescent boys which I wished I'd had as an adolescent girl, and a great deal of admiration both for the dedicated men who are real dads and spend real time with their boys, and for the boys themselves. They weren't all little angels. Some of them were downright troublesome from this criminal lawyer's point of view, but the good always outweighed the bad, and during the course of my Scout career I met many young men whom I could see would grow to be the backbone and stalwarts of their families and communities. I grew fond of many of them and still wonder at times how they are doing.

Accordingly, it was with shock and sadness that I heard of the loss of these young men. I've sent my sons to high adventure camp, praying that all I would see when they came back would be a few bug bites, a sunburn, and a bruise or two from the highly physical nature of some of the activities. On the other hand, I know from experience that sending your child into the woods for an adventure may result in harm. Adventure is impossible without some danger, and it's this aspect which can be very frightening. I well remember my older son coming home from a "shakedown cruise" through the Shenandoah in preparation for the rigors of Philmont. He'd had an encounter with a bear one night that scared the stuffing out of him - but he went back out a couple of weeks later. At Philmont, which is in New Mexico, he was on a bare mountain trail with a lightning storm blew up and lightning struck only a few yards from where he was. Only the quick thinking of the guide in hustling the boys away from their exposed equipment before the strike saved their lives. In Canada, my younger son was in a canoe that was sucked into a strong undertow. He and the guide and another boy were forced to jump out of the canoe before going over a 12 foot waterfall, after which he was sucked into a hydraulic for what seemed to be forever but was probably under a minute. All the things in his pockets were sucked out and lost, and the boy with him actually lost his pants. The only injuries to my son were deep abrasions and bruises on his legs. They took months to heal completely. In the photo above you can see the damage to the canoe. It looks as if it got hit by a rock and pried open with a can opener. Shocking to think that my son endured the same forces which so twisted and damaged reinforced aluminum.

At Dulles Airport I met the gaze of the Assistant Scoutmaster leading the group as he told me with horror of my son's near-death experience, and recounted with equal horror how hard it would have been to break the news of HIS son's death to his wife, as his son was the other boy in the canoe. He was filled with remorse for something that was not his fault and beyond his control and which had in the end caused no lasting harm. It's a hard thing, being responsible for the safety of other people's children beside your own. Even going to regular summer camp every year saw me make at least one hospital trip each time with kids who'd suffered concussions, sprained a limb, cut themselves, were stung by bees, and sometimes kids just being drama queens. They ran the gamut, and every time something happened there was that painful moment of having to pick up a phone and tell a parent over 100 miles away that his kid was in the hospital or had been injured in some way. It's hard.

So why send your son (or daughter - girls go to the same adventure camps as the boys) to a place where he or she might be harmed? Because they could be harmed just as well at home and you can't spend your life being afraid to go anywhere or afraid to let your child go anywhere for fear some harm might befall that child. And sometimes, it is with such adversity that our often over-protected sons and daughters rise to meet the challenge and astound us with their response. Along with telling me of my younger son's near death the leader told me with admiration of my older son's response to the emergency. As soon as it became clear that his brother was going to go over the falls another leader yelled at my older son to try to portage his canoe over land and put in below the falls in anticipation that his brother might be knocked unconscious and need to be fished from the river. My older son, who is not very big, paddled quickly to shore, pulled the canoe out of the water and on to his shoulders, and ran through the brush, dragging a hapless dad who'd agreed to come on the trip at the last minute and who could barely keep up with a focused 16 year old determined to rescue his younger brother. He bulled his way through the underbrush and put in downstream many yards away. All he knew was that he needed to save his brother. Since then, my two boys, who are about as different as night and day, are very close. They look out for each other.

There are news reports that the quick response of the Scouts at the camp and their leaders saved lives. Everyone did what they could to deal with the situation, and you can believe that this was a maturing and life-changing experience for the young men at this camp. They will carry scars, but many will also carry the knowledge that they rose to a challenge and prevailed as best they could. Many of them have learned first hand the nature of loss, the value of friendship, the fragility of life.

But still ... still ... you think your kid's going away for an adventure, not to his death. You send him off to camp and think of how he'll learn new things and grow and spend time with his friends and come home with talk of pranks, contests, and sometimes off-color jokes. You await his return, sunburned, bug-bit, and exuberant at having spent a little time at a place where he has a degree of independence and expectations to meet and challenges to overcome. You do not expect to lose him. And if you are the leader it's a heavy weight you carry. You go to camp, usually accompanying your own child, and you take on the obligation to care for the others. You've been through training and talked with your fellow leaders about the what-ifs: what if Johnny, who's allergic to bees, gets stung by a bee; what if Harold, who's got ADD, forgets to take his meds; what if Sam, whose parents are locked in a bitter divorce battle, gets depressed or acts out against the other boys; what if, what if, what if?

I'm sorry this is such a long essay, but something about this terrible tragedy sparked in me the nightmare I always pushed aside during those years. The nightmare possibilities became real for these boys and their families, and the pain of their loss is a palpable thing. So take a minute and think about these young men and their families and feel the sorrow of their loss.

1 comment:

Glenn Verdult said...

Hello i am Glenn Verdult

I enjoy reading your articles

I am looking forward to read more..