Around this time two summers ago, I was packing to go to Boy Scout camp.
Not that I camp out. I am far too big a fan of beds, indoor plumbing and air conditioning; less so of bugs and bears. The last time I'd camped was during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Roughing it? A hotel with no room service.
But parenthood leads people to do odd things. When my son's Scout troop issued a call for adults to help supervise, I took the week off from work, bought mosquito netting and packed my duffel.
My husband made a lot of Private Benjamin jokes.
I kept telling myself that this was no different than chaperoning the second-grade trip to the zoo: Parents do it not because they love caged animals or want to count kids' noses or want someone else's child to smear peanut butter on the backseat of their car. They do it because, as parents, this is what you do. This would be a week without electronic gizmos, a week of back to nature. I would be enabling my son to work toward his archery merit badge while doing my part for the troop (for all those overnights I'd skipped) and being a good mom.
What was I thinking?
The Scout motto says, "Be Prepared," and I vowed I would be. I had enough bug repellent for a month's stay and enough batteries to light up the Empire State Building. Up we went to Camp Kunatah at Ten Mile River, the gorgeous Scout camp in Noplace, N.Y.
This was adolescent boy heaven: You get to make fires, you get to be dirty, and you get to urinate outside. People want you to shoot arrows, you can play flashlight games with your lean-to buddies after lights-out, and you can study animal poop up close. The guys roar when you belch.
Some of the other troop adults, who'd been coming to Scout camp for a decade, explained the rules. Your job is to get the kids to do the work and their activities and travel in pairs. If you don't like what's served, make a PBJ sandwich. Never bring so much as a wrapper into the campsite. In case of a crisis with the boys, there's a paramedic on duty. In case of crisis with a large critter, there's a ranger who's armed.
As a mom, I got my own platform tent. I bug-sprayed it, a useless task. The daddy longlegs convention wasn't bothered. I was terrified. I'd long justified my irrational fear of insects by saying they can be outside, but I don't want them in my home. Now, I was outside and this campsite visited by people for six weeks a year was their home.
I doused myself first with a natural mosquito repellent, followed by a kiddie insect repellent and, in desperation, slathered enough DEET on me to pickle an equatorial nation. I hated the way I smelled, but it didn't deter the bugs. I twitched at every mosquito, every spider, each ant and regularly brushed myself down.
Every morning, I smiled weakly as every grown-up said he (or she, as I was not the only mom at camp) had the most restful night, lulled to sleep by the night sounds. But I was exhausted from sleeping with one eye open. Every rustling of leaves startled me, and then I watched for bears or wolves or insects until I crashed. Just before dawn, I awoke to a herd of chipmunks racing through my tent.
When I was asked to deal with a tick, I couldn't let the kids see me shake and took deep breaths so I wouldn't faint. I yanked it off the Scout (bravely), flung it (in fear) and told him to wash that spot off (mom expertise).
One of my roles was to make sure "our" latrine got cleaned daily. Boys volunteered for every campsite job except that, citing the funky odor and the mutant insects that lived in its dark crevices. One morning, as I stood guard to ensure the boy du jour did his latrine duty, I watched him spray, just like you're supposed to, with the pine-smelling stuff. But when he hosed, he hosed everything. That included our leave-no-trace latrine paper, which pouffed into a soggy monster-size wad the consistency of gum. We had a learning experience in planning: We scavenged tissues and made pit stops at "borrowed" latrines until the supply room reopened after dinner.
The boys laughed when they saw me take my hairdryer to the only indoor women's bathroom with a shower and when I shrieked as a bear roamed within 100 feet of our campsite. But they insisted that I take a turn with them learning to fire a shotgun and showed me their knot tricks.
I made it through almost the whole week but got the flu and fled. At home, in a real bed in a house with screens, I suddenly missed camp, even the hockey-puck pancakes.
Back at work, I didn't feel so bad after a lawyer told me he tried to do a camping event with his son, but couldn't get past the lack of creature comforts and the plethora of creatures. After one night, he retreated to a motel.
My 13-year-old got the archery merit badge that was his camp goal.
My mosquito netting? Haven't used it since.
The Scout mug that the boys gave me? Use it every day.