Every once in a while I find myself remembering just how similar we are to our primate relatives; how, when the trappings of modernity are removed from our dextrous fingers we regress to our most primal of behaviors with nary a glance backwards. You don’t even need to travel to a different continent to explore indigenous tribes or venture out with an anthropology researcher intent on dissecting human behavior. You just need to go camping.
Preferably with a large group of young boys.
When my husband decided to join Adventure Guides with our seven year old, I said, great. Once a month camping adventures with just dads and sons, how sweet. He came back from the first trip, an oceanfront camping adventure with 1000 of their closest friends, the closest to shell shocked I have ever seen him, and this includes the first time he met my extended family.
We had timed our joining just so, as the very next trip was the annual wrap up at which mothers and sisters were also invited. “Hooray!” said my husband, son, and daughter. “We can all sleep in a tent in one big puppy pile!” I tried my best to smile encouragingly, but inside I knew this was one of those take one for the team moments.
Kinda like that.
My first hint that this was not going to go according to plan was the fact that despite the fact that mothers were invited, the vast majority of them demurred. Of the 10 or so families from our tribe, the only women were me, the leader’s wife, and one other woman who pulled up in an RV with a full kitchen and the only fruit to make it onto the campsite.
Eight Million Boys With Guns
The way Adventure Guides works is, you have your little ‘tribe’ that sticks together, but on trips the 10+ tribes in your nation all show up to camp at the same time and
enjoy camaraderie get their first lesson in saber rattling. In short, there were roughly eight million (gauging this solely on sound pollution) little boys thrown together in this remote wilderness location. You touch down, and while you are setting up your tent your child begins their slow re-enactment of Lord of the Flies by disappearing into a throng of squirt gun wielding savages for the next three hours. By the end of the first day, at least ten percent are naked except for mud. My daughter hides in the car.
The newer fathers worry at first. “Where’s Tyler?” they ask. Everyone else shrugs. “He’ll turn up,” the fathers say, then go back to cooking meat (which is, along with chips, the sole foods brought to this weekend event.) Tyler does turn up eventually, three hours later with a skinned shin, one shoe, and some green gooey substance on his face. This is how it goes all weekend.
The Red Tenting
Like other chimpanzee communities, while venturing out from your tribe is tolerated to a certain extent where resources are not at risk, there is a certain level of tribal warfare bound to happen when boundaries are at stake. In this case, this was played out over a game of Laser Tag.
“It’s all in good fun,” says the crew-cut leader of our competing manpanzee tribe , comprised of 50 beefy 10 year olds wearing warpaint. Our tribe, consisting of 15 six year olds, bravely gets into position. The referee blows his whistle. I start humming “The Rains of Castamere.”
“KILL THEM!” yells Crew Cut, who had now revealed himself to be the reincarnation of Walder Frey, and within two minutes our tribe is massacred. No mercy. There are no survivors. They are sprawled across the field in various levels of snot-nosed distress, grass stains spreading like green blood. At Grandma’s house back home, Brody howls.
I am watching this testosterone laden display of aggression with horror from the safety of a far away picnic table. I now know how Jane Goodall must have felt the first time she saw a chimpanzee eat the young of another tribe. My friend with the RV silently offers me a Bloody Mary (it was a virgin one, I swear), which I down in one gulp.
You can always count on the medicine man
It’s a miracle there are not more severe traumas at events like this, where kids run around in the pitch black fencing with marshmallow forks, a fact I attribute to sheer luck and the number of surgeons who attend this event. I was awoken at 6:30 the next morning by a boy on the far side of camp yelling “DaaAAAAaaaaaD! Some kid’s hurt real bad!” Bummer for that kid.
It wasn’t even 7 am.
About 30 seconds later, my daughter pokes her head in the tent to inform me that it was my son who was hurt real bad, and the adult on scene requested we come over with our car.
I zip over to find my son screaming on the side of the road, attended by one general practitioner and one surgeon who inform me he is not dying but did manage to fall off his bike and tear a decent sized V-shaped flap of skin off his inner thigh in some strange bike accident that to this day no one can accurately reconstruct.
“If you took him to an ER,” the surgeon said, “they would put in a few stitches.” He shrugged. “But if you don’t, it’s not in an area where a kid can’t have a scar.” So in addition to great memories my son is now permanently branded with a “V” on his groin to remind him of this strange and bizarre rite of manhood, the “suck it up you’re on a man-trip” scar. To their credit, these doctors were not of our tribe, reassuring me that even in the vast wilds of tribal warfare, you can always count on the Medicine Man to put politics aside when life is in danger. Or at least when life screams like it is.
To sum up: ‘Character Building’ is a loosely defined excuse to justify death by dodgeball, laser massacres, and benign negligence. Got it.
The reason moms aren’t invited but once a year, I am told, is because of the stress and panic these events bring on in mothers. It’s true. Just ask Catelyn Stark. (sorry, I really am done with Game of Thrones references now.)
Over the course of my career, people have asked me lots of questions I once couldn’t answer.
- Why didn’t you become a pediatrician?
- Isn’t being a veterinarian stressful?
- What drives you to go to remote places like Tanzania and Nicaragua?
I can now answer them all with confidence.
- This trip
- Not as much as watching that Laser Tag massacre
- Peace and quiet
Sue W. says
“In the wilds of Tanzania, chimpanzee alpha males are known to herd juveniles into a circle, surround them, and pelt them with figs. OK they don’t.”
Guffaw! My new favorite thing to say – “OK they don’t.”
A genius piece of writing(!), and all terribly true.
Dr. V says
It was, terribly, terribly true. LOL
I agree with Sue, a genius piece of writing. Kind of reminds me of my first experience with Tiger Scouts – we thought our son might be slow or damaged until we saw all the other 4-5 year olds running around with snot on their face, their hands in their pants and answering every question put to them with “huh?” It was nice to finally truly know that our son was normal! Great story Doc – and I’m betting next time you opt to stay home, reading on the couch with Brody at your feet and drink (virgin) Bloody Mary’s with your daughter!!!
Dr. V says
So I guess this is a guy thing. No one else seemed surprised by the goings on. 😉
Susan Montgomery says
This is brilliant! and you were very brave to go on that trip.
Dr. V says
Brave or perhaps misinformed as to what I was signing up for.
Katie D says
Awesome post! So funny!
Dr. V says
Thank you Katie!
That’s me that first picture!! Well my hair is brown and I don’t have quite so many lines, but it’s me. Thank you, I am howling with laughter. So why I have never camped in a tent with a lot of guys! Poor Brody would have been in 7th heaven.
Dr. V says
I realllllly wanted to bring him! Dogs were allowed on the campground but not with this particular group.
I finished the college teaching semester a little earlier than my daughter’s 3rd grade class. I don’t usually get to volunteer, and since this was a time that I actually could, I signed my name to the little slip that said I would “man” the football throw for field day. Of course that day it was 108 outside…I signed up for the last shift, and by then the kids were sweaty and nasty. I have 3 daughters, even one who is an athlete, but I have never smelled ANYTHING like those sweaty little boys. ACK!!!! Next time I’m signing up for the cakewalk!! 😉
Dr. V says
Ooooooh, that sounds terrible. I tried not to smell anyone.
I relate. My eye opening was being a chaperone to a soccer team of 17 year old boys in Las Vegas for a tournament. In time, I’ll be able to talk about it.