Sometimes the urge to say what’s on my mind can get me into big trouble.
- Likely epitaph for Robert Hruzek
(hopefully a long time from now!)
OK, for those of you who’ve spent any time at all here at the Zone, that statement above will come as no surprise whatsoever. The trouble, though, is that knowin’ that little datum doesn’t always prevent me from, well, saying stuff anyway.
See, the thing is, what with this brand spankin’ new year and all, I really racked the ol’ brain to come up with a post that would sorta capture the essence, the nub of the gist, the je ne se quois for 2010. (In case you don’t know, je ne se quois is French for “duh”.) And finally it hit me (sound of dull thud) – this year, it’s gonna be all about words.
Therefore, I’m declaring the year 2010 to be the Year of the Words. An attorney friend of mine keeps reminding me, “words are important” (a heckuva understatement if there ever was one), so this first post of the year is going to be all about, well, carefully considering everything you say.
And trust me; this is experience talkin’.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s Summer Camp
Never was the importance of thinking about your words more true than one time back in 1978, when I was a counselor at a children’s summer camp deep in the woods of East Texas, smack in the middle of Huntsville State Park.
The way this camp worked, see, is parents would drop off their kids each Sunday afternoon (about 125 or so boys and girls, aged 8-12), then pick ‘em up again the following Saturday morning. Then this process was repeated with a different set of families for seven weeks in a row.
So far as I know, we always had the same number of pickups as drop-offs, so I guess in the large scheme of things you would consider our efforts a success. Still, every week produced its own set of unusual “situations” that had to be dealt with, plus a few challenges that spanned the entire summer.
One of those “all summer long” challenges, for instance, centered around breakfast, of all things. See, every morning we trooped our campers into the dining hall for their morning supply of energy. With the full days we routinely planned for the kids, their energetic little bodies needed to be well loaded with fuel. And what a breakfast it was!
Every morning’s menu was different. One day it was a selection of cold cereals, milk (plain and chocolate), about a billion kinds of muffins, assorted juices, etc. Another day it was scrambled eggs, bacon and assorted toast (including my favorite: cinnamon raisin bread).
Best of all, the food was, like, amazingly good, too, and there was always plenty for all. No one ever left the breakfast table hungry, that’s for sure. I’ll tell ya; those sweet ladies who cooked for us every day really outdid themselves.
Except, that is, on Wednesdays. See, on Wednesdays we had (sound of terrified scream) oatmeal.
Wednesday’s Child is Full of Woe
Now, I just want to go on record as sayin’ I personally have nothing – nothing against a big ol’ steamin’ bowl of oatmeal! Especially when topped by a thick pat of rich butter, maybe a little brown sugar, and a handful of fresh blueberries. I’ll tell ya; that’s something that really hits the spot with little ol’ me!
The problem, as it turned out, was an incident that had happened several years before. See, the thing was… well, they sorta accidentally, um, burned the oatmeal. Oh, not so you could tell by lookin’ at it, mind you. But when tasted, you could tell it was definitely “off spec”, if you follow me.
I don’t know about you, friends, but if you’ve never had the, er, joy of slapping a spoonful of burned oatmeal onto your taste buds, well Bubba, you simply ain’t lived! It sorta brings to mind that horrible, acrid smell of popcorn that’s been overcooked and burned by a microwave oven. You know how that awful odor kinda lingers in the air… well, it ain’t something you’ll ever forget, that’s for sure.
Nothing Travels Faster Than a Rumor
The thing was, quite a few of these kids had attended camp year after year, with the inevitable result that word had gotten out about the infamous Day They Burned The Oatmeal. So by the time Wednesday rolled around, well, you can guess can’t ya? Yup; even though it had happened several years previously (and had never happened since) the very sight of a big ol’ bowl of oatmeal on the breakfast table was enough to cause every kid in the building to run screaming into the woods.
To be sure, we heroically tried everything to head it off at the pass, so to speak. The staff heaped our own bowls with gobs of oatmeal, loading ‘em up with as many tasty extras as we could find. We loudly proclaimed the virtues of the stuff. One guy tried lathering his with gummi bears, but alas, to no avail. We even tried contests and other incentives. Alas, it was all for naught. It seemed nothing could overcome the dire tales of disaster and woe already passed down to the younger children by The Grapevine.
I mean, it was bad enough the kids had blown this thing all out of whack. But the stories! By then they’d pretty much reached, well, epic proportions. “Whatever you do, don’t eat the oatmeal,” they’d say. “It’ll make you grow a third eye right in the middle of your forehead!” Or, “Don’t eat the oatmeal; you’ll never ever have children.” (That one was for the girls.) And then there was my personal favorite: “Don’t eat the oatmeal, it’ll turn you into a blood-sucking zombie!”
But even more serious, since there was always so much oatmeal left over, it caused the cooks to waste perfectly good food. (You’d think they would’ve taken the hint and prepared less – but I guess hope always springs eternal, y’know?) Leftover food was definitely not a good thing, though. As with any camp, money – and the wise use thereof – was always a primary issue.
Lightning Storms on the Brain
Finally, the Camp Director had had enough. Determined to resolve the situation once and for all, he called for a Council of War later that evening after all the kids had gone to bed and settled down for the night. We left our Assistants in charge of the various cabins and gathered in the dining hall with the Director and the cooks.
“OK, you all know the problem,” he began without preamble. “Let’s brainstorm some ideas on how to solve it.”
Within minutes, quite a few ideas had been proposed. The most popular was kinda obvious: serve something else. Unfortunately this simply wouldn’t do – for a couple of reasons. First of all, the food for the entire summer had already been purchased. There were no funds for an alternative breakfast; somehow they would just have to make do.
Another idea was disguise it with more toppings – more fruit; more sugar, M&M’s, snails, whatever. Unfortunately, that one wasn’t working too well. No amount of fruit could hide the fact that it was, y’know oatmeal, and too much sugar was, well, pretty unhealthy, to say the least. As for the M&M’s and snails… well, never mind.
After about 20 minutes, we managed to narrow it down to two possibilities: One was, call the kids’ homes and have their parents make the kids eat it. Unfortunately, there were too many parents to easily reach, and cell phones hadn’t yet been invented. So scratch that one as too impractical. Besides, we kinda wanted to handle this one internally, if you know what I mean.
The other idea was to find a way to stop those ridiculous stories. To which the following question then applies: Have you ever tried to stop a rumor?
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
Yep; that’s about the size of it. Here we were, the best and brightest of the entire camp organization (at least, we liked to think so), and this was the best we could do. Pretty sad, I’ll tell ya. Nevertheless, we all decided there might be some merit in that last suggestion, so we concentrated on it for a while.
As I heard idea after idea (not to mention some pretty profound silences), that’s when it began to happen – the apparent gravity of the situation seemed to give rise within me to say something silly, just to lighten the mood. Now please understand, this was serious; it was a genuine problem that needed a genuine solution, no mistake about it. But I just couldn’t help it – inside I was doing my best to stifle the ingrown chuckle that was steadily sneaking up on me. There we were, wrestling with the ramifications of serving oatmeal for breakfast. I mean, fer cryin’ out loud!
But I knew; if I were to say the thing that was desperately trying to break out into the light of day, it would not only ruin what little headway we’d made, but it might possibly irritate the Director or, even worse, the cooks. And believe me, the last thing I wanted to do was get them mad at me!
Still, it kept on building up inside me, ready to burst out into the open like a grape in a microwave. I squirmed and squiggled, got up and then sat down again, tried to count to 100 backwards, but alas, nothing helped. Finally, as everyone else was in the midst of trying to figure out ways to keep those stupid stories from spreading around, and I couldn’t stand it anymore and the following fateful words escaped my lips:
“Well, you could always threaten to glue their mouths shut with the oatmeal!”
I’m tellin’ ya; you could probably have dropped a live hand grenade – without the pin – in our midst with less effect. There was at least a full minute of shocked silence while everyone sorta looked up, then down, then pretty much everywhere except at me. The Director had a stunned look on his face, then quickly turned to look at the cooks to see what their reaction would be.
I think everyone sorta “braced for impact” as we awaited the Head Cook’s no-doubt righteously indignant reaction. And I distinctly remember thinkin’ to myself, “Self, we’re a long way from civilization; I wonder if they’ll ever find my body?”
Great Moments in History
For a moment, all she could do was stare at me with wide-eyed incredulous disbelief. Inwardly, I cringed, waiting for the boom to be lowered upon my unprotected head. But then… a miracle!
She suddenly put her head back and began laughing so loud, and so hard, she very nearly fell off the stool! You’ve heard of folks laughing with their entire body, right? Well, she did that, and before long every one of us was rolling on the floor with gales of laughter I’d swear (if my Momma hadn’t taught me not to) you could’ve heard in Dallas!
It was one of those genuinely memorable moments, y’know? We all laughed, tears in our eyes, for about 15 minutes until finally the Director raised his hands for silence. “You know what?” he told us. “I was reading in my Bible this morning from Proverbs, and I saw something that definitely applies here.” He opened his Bible up to chapter 11, verse 14 and read this verse: “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”
“I want to thank you for coming tonight to help us resolve this unusual and strangely thorny challenge we’re facing. Although I’m not sure we’ve quite solved it yet, it gives me great comfort to know that with the multitude of Counselors we have here tonight,” – and here he looked straight at me, and with a big smile, no less – “well, it’s good to know you guys are on the case!”
The Proof is in the Pudding Oatmeal
To tell you the truth, although I can’t remember if we ever did solve that “thorny little problem”, I look back on that event with a great deal of nostalgia. Besides, for the rest of that summer we were stuck with the oatmeal anyway, so what the hey, right? The cooks continued to serve oatmeal every Wednesday and, at least as far as I know, nobody turned into a zombie or grew another eye or anything.
That was the last summer I spent as a Counselor (no, I wasn’t barred from returning, smarty pants; I just got too busy after that), so I don’t know if they still serve oatmeal on occasion. My guess? Probably not. Sometimes ya just gotta bow to the inevitable, y’know?
But as I look back on that memory, I still can’t believe I said what I did. I mean, c’mon! What if those fine ladies who slaved over a hot stove all day to feed us incredible food had been angry instead of tickled by what I’d said? What if the Director hadn’t been the kind-hearted understanding fellow he was? What if my careless words had hurt some feelings? It was a risky thing I’d done, and to tell you the truth, I hadn’t really thought it through.
Still, I like to think I’ve matured a bit since that day, y’know? After all, not every situation can be rescued with laughter – nor is it appropriate to do so. Oh, with enough time and distance humor may come to the fore anyway. But that’s not always the case as a given situation is happening.
I admit it; I was pretty lucky that day. If the other folks hadn’t been who they were, things might have turned out very differently. Come to think of it, they might not have ever found my body! My name would have become the stuff of legends, whispered around campfires as yours truly, The Wandering Dutchman of Summer Camp, would still be wandering around that lonely, isolated camp on damp misty nights, forever doomed to search for that elusive perfect bowl of oatmeal…
Anyhoo, this story and thought seemed like an appropriate one with which to begin this brand shiny new year, y’know? The lesson is this: Be aware of your words! After all, if you can’t learn that, you just might not make it to next year, if you get my meanin’! I’m just sayin’.
Happy New Year, y’all!