Red Squirrel’s Indian Summer (Part 1)

Indian GuidesDad and I milled about in the Grand Union parking lot wearing matching brown leather vests and feathered headbands. Also matching were our expressions of dread.

We were members of Indian Guides, a father/son organization sponsored by the YMCA. When we first joined the group we didn’t know what to expect, but we safely assumed that it would involve hanging out in nature and respectfully acknowledging Native American culture. I was fine with this prospect. I liked nature; I spent the better part of the previous summer building – and endlessly repairing – a fort in the woods behind my house. I appreciated Indians, too; my fourth grade social studies teacher spent half the year teaching us about the Lenae Lenape Tribe.

A little Native American appreciation can a long way, however. Chief Grey Hawk, a doughy middle-aged man whose bald head glimmered like a strand of Christmas lights, had lots of appreciation to offer. According to him, there was no limit to one’s level of Native American appreciation.

No limit at all.

Chief Grey Hawk’s sentiments were earnest and honorable, of course. They were also  boring. In one of our weekly meetings we spent a half hour appreciating an arrowhead.

He could barely contain himself. “Isn’t it amazing, Red Squirrel?” (My Indian Guides name was Red Squirrel.) “What you’re holding in your hands was used hundreds of years ago to hunt game! Just imagine it!”

I did. And for the remaining 29 minutes I imagined I was playing Atari.

A quick scan around the table indicated that I wasn’t the only young brave yearning to earn a high score in Yars Revenge. As one, the boys stared at their hands as if by doing so something interesting might appear there. Even Grey Hawk’s son, Red Robin, could barely stay awake.

Not all of our meetings were dull. Some of them highlighted our incompetence. One Saturday the chief drove the tribe to a wooded area in the middle of nowhere. This was a “trailblazing exercise,” he explained.

His plan was stunning in its reckless simplicity. He would drop off each father and son pair in a different, lonely area of the woods and provide vague directions to a distant meet-up point. Navigating by compass, we would try to find our way.

Once the entire tribe finally assembled at this location, we would, I assume, look at another arrowhead

I always liked walking in the woods. But the woods behind my house was in the middle of a suburb. No matter how far I walked, I was never more than 100 yards from some form of civilization: a house, a street, or a 7-11 dumpster. When Dad and I got out of the chief’s station wagon, there was nothing but trees in every direction for as far as the eye could see. The vastness of our surroundings sent a chill down my spine. The chief’s car disappeared down the dirt road, leaving Dad and me to fend for ourselves.

We’re doomed, I thought.

“Alright, you heard him,” Dad nodded. “A half mile northwest. Let’s go.” Dad had a way about him that made even the most difficult tasks sound easy.

Dad also had a way about him that made difficult tasks much more difficult. We hadn’t stumbled around in the woods for 20 minutes before he dropped my brand new compass in a river.

As I watched it blurble into the brownish murk, I heard my mother repeat her familiar bon mot: “If we were a pioneer family, we’d be dead in an hour.”

It’s hard to figure out where northwest is when you don’t have a compass. We tried navigating by sun. We both vaguely remembered something about moss facing north on tree trunks. (Or was it south? East maybe?) I suggested walking in a direction that “seemed right.” After Dad tripped for the fourth time on a hidden tree root, his cool demeanor, usually so impenetrable, fell away. It was replaced with a mumbling, grumbling running commentary with a common refrain: “What in the hell are we doing out here?”

We yelled for help. Eventually Gray Hawk found us.

The chief beamed. “Tall Oak!” (Dad’s Indian Guides name was Tall Oak.) “There you are! Thank goodness I was here or you might not have been found!”

Dad eyes turned into two malevolent slits. “If we weren’t here, I wouldn’t need finding.”

Dad was grateful when I faked the stomach flu to get out of the Indian Guides annual camping trip — but such insubordination came at a price; Chief Grey Hawk suddenly took a personal interest in making sure Dad and I planned to march with the tribe in the town’s Memorial Day Parade.

“We are all counting on you, Tall Oak,” Chief Grey Hawk intoned.

As the chief said this, the other dads and their sons nodded gravely in agreement. They had all gone on the camping trip. They had all endured Grey Hawk for 48 straight hours. The expressions on their faces indicated it was a waking nightmare.

Marching in the parade was the least we could do.

And so we stood in the Grand Union parking lot with the tribe — wedged between the Knights of Columbus and the Ramapo High School sousaphone section — waiting for our turn to go. Dad and I both knew that marching in this parade was going to be difficult and painful for us. I was born with a gimpy foot. Dad never fully recovered from a long ago injury when he shattered both of his legs.

This parade was going to be a Bataan Death March.

We waited and waited. The sun pounded us all into submission. It was so hot the tar used to fill in the parking lot’s cracks began to bubble. To pass the time, a few of the young braves and I sat on our haunches and poked the goo with a stick. Dad watched us do this without comment for a while before heading off to chat with the other Indian Guides fathers.

Dad was a gregarious fellow who took delight in boisterously holding court with other guys. Whenever I looked up from the tar, however, I noticed that this conversation was different. Dad had formed a hushed, conspiratorial huddle. Chief Grey Hawk was safely out of earshot.

The parade was predictably awful. I barely made it a tenth of a mile before my orthopedic shoes made my feet throb. By the half-mile mark I couldn’t walk another step. Dad and I broke off from the procession and found a shady spot on the wide porch of Miller’s Pharmacy.

I sighed with a sense of relief I had never known before or since. Indian Guides was awful, but it was over. It was finally over.

As if reading my thoughts, Dad leaned over and patted my back. “We’re going to give it one more year,” he said.

“What?! Why?!”

Tall Oak held up a reassuring hand. “I have a feeling things will get better.”

Before I could respond, Dad put his hands together for a cluster of marching Girl Scouts. Dad is the loudest clapper I know. “Hey, it’s Troop 27!” he bellowed. “That’s my favorite troop!”

In response, a beaming Troop 27 threw handfuls of Jolly Ranchers in our direction.


58 Replies to “Red Squirrel’s Indian Summer (Part 1)”

  1. I endured Campfire Girls back when it was only for girls. I never had to march in a parade but my embarrassment of turning in my required knitted booties for some charitable organization was demoralizing because a) they were crocheted b)perfect c)obviously not rendered by the fumbling fingers of a fifth grade girl. Yea-Mom had saved the day and it only hammered in the point that I was different. Mike, my mother is German. Perfect booties were a must. You know what I’m talking about. I take it your kiddo wasn’t required to join anything that required name changes or vests?

    1. As the son of a German, I understand this all too well.

      My boy did a year in Cub Scouts, but didn’t cotton to it. Because of my job’s hours, Ellen accompanied him to the meetings. More importantly, Ellen who accompanied him on the camping trip.

      1. My boy certainly didn’t mind it. And, as I slept in my cozy bed in my air conditioned room while they were camping in 90-something degree weather, I didn’t mind it either.

        Ellen minded.

  2. Loved what your mom said about being a pioneer…lucky for me, I had just swallowed my tea!

    I had always been envious of those who got to participate in scouting as I never did. Seeing your pots and cricket’s comment…I am beginning to see how fortunate it was that I never went. Though I always thought the book and ideas in them were outstanding and incorporated them into school lesson plans. We skipped the badges part but did all the other fun stuff.

    1. Mom has never minced words. She calls ’em as she sees ’em — and she always sees ’em.

      And I agree with you, the principles behind organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are wonderful. As for becoming a member…well, that’s an acquired taste.

      1. We also had tents that were on wooden platforms and we slept on cots. Girl Scouts was quite civilized. The one weekend where we did have to rough it out was w/the YMCA. We had to build our own tents and the best part was watching my sister finish building her tent, and then watching it all tumble to the ground when she found a spider in the tent and couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Hysterical. I still chuckle when I think about it. 🙂

  3. I feel for you. Did you really hang in for another year? o_O
    Personally, I never like organized clubs. At eight I barely lasted a few weeks with the Brownies and that’s BEFORE Girl Guides.

  4. Good tale. I was in the Girl Guides for a short amount of time, about a year I think, it wasn’t really for me though – I hadn’t thought about it before but maybe it’s not a favoured thing for introverts as there’s a lot of doing lots of things with other people, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t keen. I did enjoy the one camping trip I went on with them though. I look forward to year 2 (yours, not mine!).

  5. I used to pretend I was a Beagle scout. I even asked for (and more surprisingly got) one of those big sargents hats like Snoopy always wore for Christmas. Dangling modifier. Sigh.

  6. Great start, Red Squirrel. I’m looking forward to part two when Tall Oak and his young brave take matters into their own hands. We’ll find out if your mother’s dire warning was prophetic. 🙂 The only thing I remember about Girl Scouts was gluing pine cones to pieces of driftwood. So much for wilderness survival.

  7. Tried posting, and my post didn’t appear. Will try again. Great story. I was a Brownie and Girl Scout around 50 years ago. It was fun and exciting and I loved the weeks at summer camp. My daughter’s experience in the 90s was very different and she found it boring. She preferred horseback riding and 4-H.

  8. I’m dying to know what plan your father hatched, along with the other parents. Do tell! I’m so glad you weren’t lost in the woods forever. We would never have had the chance to read about it.

    I was never a Girl Scout or Brownie, but I “did” one year in 4-H, where I wanted to show sheep like my brother but was told I could only grow vegetables because I was too small to handle a sheep in the show ring. My piddly carrots and radishes paled in comparison to others presented at the annual fair. So it wasn’t a surprise when I received a white 3rd place ribbon, the lowest ranking. My parents stopped being 4-H leaders the next year, so that was it for me. One of my brother’s 4-H friends is now a multi-cagillionaire, having invented a way to precision plant all sorts of agricultural crops. Some of us are born winners. Some of us aren’t.

    1. It sounds like you have a few unresolved issues, Jilanne. Perhaps you need to work it out by raising a small flock sheep in your San Francisco home.

      If that’s too much work, you can always get a smallish pig to herd them, like in that movie.

      And with that shepherding job taken care of, you can then fulfill Shakespeare’s dream of staging an all-cow production of Othello. I’m told that Guernseys are very good at memorizing iambic pentameter.

      1. Actually, Holsteins or Brown Swiss have a much higher intellectual capacity. They can rock any soliloquy typed up by the Click, Clack, Moo Gang. As for the sheep, I’m thinking goats. You don’t have to coif them into a square block and douse them with powder to make them look pretty.

      2. As you know, I am very pro-goat (proat?) so I support the switch.

        Holsteins and Brown Swiss, unfortunately, are divas. Stick with Guernseys or Jerseys if you don’t want any backstage drama.

  9. I can see you in the woods, turning around helplessly. Did you ever get your compass replaced? For me it was a year of Brownies and then a year of Girl Scouts. I have lots of badges on my sleeve thingy–still have it–but cannot remember much of either year. I do remember a Brownie bicycle parade, or rather after the parade, when my dad drove behind me as I rode home. Girl Scout camping was at the downtown YMCA. I still remember the chlorine-filled air and the sleeping bags on the basketball court. We never did camp outdoors, or I have dismissed it from my memories, which is highly likely. Never returned for year two. Organized group activities has never been fun for me.

    1. Nope on the compass. I had it for about three days before giving it up to the river and I never got a new one. Not that I needed it, really.

      Indian Guides didn’t have patches. When we accomplished something we got a feather, but everyone seemed a little hazy on which tasks were feather-worthy. Also, the feathers weren’t special-looking, just white.

      I could’ve saved myself a lot of trouble if I had only assaulted a swan.

  10. Red Squirrel seems a perfect Indian Guide name for you, oh lover of four-footed woodsy animals like mice and gerbils and other wild and ferocious creatures. I’m hoping in Part 2, you make your squirrel pals proud. I laughed out loud in your post. Ah, yes, team sports in the wild with clueless men and boys. Compass be damned. My parents made me be a part of the Brownie clan. Hated it. Especially the brown uniform. The only redeeming part of it was the s’mores. Maybe you’ll have s’mores in Part 2?

    1. I have no complaints about my Indian name. You may call me Red Squirrel if you wish.

      As I reflect back on my childhood, it seems like the bulk of my father/son bonding experiences include some sort of vaguely life-threatening fiasco. Good times!

      As to your other point, I never understood Brownie uniforms. Such cute little kids deserve a similarly cute uniform, not a potato sack with patches!

  11. Omg, Red Squirrel, this is the most hilarious nightmare I’ve read about. I love stories that just don’t get better before the end, although I’m glad to know you made it out of the woods and to summer’s end and survived whatever godawful excursions happened the next year to finally tell us the tale. This needs to go in a magazine next.

  12. The Indian names were killing me throughout this…too funny! I was never in Girl Scouts, but I was involved in Kare Youth League. It was basically a daycare/summer camp with religious undertones. I loved the sports, dancing, camping, and art activities, but I always got kicked out of the religion classes for insubordination. 😉

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