By Adam Katz
For this month’s Big Think, the theme is “Things that go Bump in the Night.” Enjoy!
It was a weekend camping trip with the Boy Scouts. Yes, I was a Boy Scout for a couple of years. The autumn leaves were fresh and crisp—mostly oak with some maple and ash and some other shapes besides. Sitting on the ground, we were all staring intently at some curious bit of nature while the guide stood behind us and explained. I always loved these moments. I grew up in the era in which the Boy Scouts collectively boasted: “No to the three G’s: Gays, Girls, and the Godless.” And yes, my growing awareness concerning homophobia was among the reasons I left the scouts early on. But in that moment I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was looking at this beautiful patch of nature, listening to this guide lecture on about it, and there was nowhere else on earth I would rather have been sitting at that moment. Nothing else on earth I would rather have been doing.
But then I woke up.
Sometimes when you have that vivid a dream, it takes a moment to distinguish what is real from what is not. I found myself looking around trying to see what matched up with what. I looked down. I was kneeling on dry autumn leaves. Check. Maybe I just dozed off for a moment? I looked around to see if my friends were still listening—wait. Where were they? Piles of leaves. The odd lichen-covered stone. A tree-stump, grown grey with age. Was all that was left of them. Now I really started to panic. My breathing got short and hard. I turned with pleading eyes to the guide who just a moment ago had been saying—what had he been saying?
Nothing. He hadn’t said anything. A rake for keeping the fire-pit tidy was leaning in the crook between two tree-branches. For a moment, my eyes, desperate to grasp hold of some version of reality that made sense, saw a man holding the rake. Perhaps idly toying with it as we discussed the wonders of the surrounding woods. But as hard as I tried, any human form standing behind me, leaning against that tree, holding that rake, just… drifted away. Like dropping a handful of sand or pebbles in a swift-flowing stream.
The campsite consisted of identical high-roofed tents that had been set up on wooden platforms. Each tent had two entrances and two cots, burlap sleeping surfaces stretched across wooden frames; except for one tent. Artie’s tent had a hard cot—like a low table—and a soft cot. I knew now I had been stumbling around the campsite in my sleep. Crap! What if I had tripped? I hadn’t, but what if I had? But I was sure I hadn’t wandered far. So I dashed into the nearest tent. “Joe!” I cried. “Joe!” That was my tent-mate for the weekend.
He didn’t wake up at first. I called again
“It’s Artie,” he said. But it was Joe’s voice, wasn’t it? “Very funny, Joe,” I retorted, and then moved to sink back into my cot—but was met with the hard surface of that low table. I had almost enough presence of mind to realize how much worse that would have been if I had blundered into a different cot and sat down on a living, sleeping person. I might have hurt him. I might have woken everyone up.
“I. Um. I’m sorry, Artie. Sorry I woke you.”
I stumbled back out. There was a real mist on the ground. Which tent was mine? The problem with these platform-tents was that they all looked the same. My sense of direction has never been great. But I thought I remembered where we were in relation to the fire-pit, and so I plunged ahead.
“Joe?” I cried when I got there. “Joe?”
I woke him up but I wasn’t taking any chances. There he was. There I was. There was the feel of my sleeping bag (though I guess a lot of sleeping bags felt like mine did, more or less. There was my backpack wedged under the cot, just visible in the predawn gloaming.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relieved.
In a work of fiction, we could go through at least one more cycle. In the first cycle, I didn’t recognize the dream. In the second cycle, I didn’t recognize Artie. The story begs for a third reversal in which Joe says: “come a little closer” in a voice that isn’t quite Joe’s and then reaches out to me with a clawed hand that isn’t quite Joe’s and says—.
Well, but isn’t it just like life to let you down?
And yet, what had I dreamed? I had essentially dreamed that I was in the wrong place. That where I thought I was… I wasn’t. And that proved true. A few months later, I wanted to try oil-painting, and my mom said I could take on that activity if I dropped another. Karate went. But a few months after that, I found that Boy Scouts just weren’t as fulfilling anymore. I couldn’t make myself care about the merit badges. I knew how to tie a bowline and a sheep-shank (still do, in fact). So the only thing I was going there to do was hang out with my friends. But I could do that anyway. So Boy Scouting went. The only time I looked back, it was when I learned that Jay, one of the assistant Scoutmasters, had been forced out of my troop on a bogus charge because he was gay. It wasn’t any of my scoutmasters who did it. Someone from outside of the troop must have known and must have made it their business to take him down. Jay, with whom even at the age of 13 or 14 I shared a love of opera and winter sports and intense discussion about life’s mysteries. What kind of monster would take him from us?
It occurs to me this is why we keep coming back to the horror genre; why we’ve collectively watched so many freakish and fantastical movies, during the pandemic in particular. Jump scares can be downright comforting next to the real problems we face. If you went through the Boy Scouts and that experience made you a better person, a more capable person, and above all a more inclusive and empathetic person, it is not my place to take that away from you. To each their own.
But as for me, despite no longer being a Boy Scout, I have continued to follow their news with interest. And I have seen the real horror. The National Council has spent my whole life trying to shame queer Boy Scouts and scoutmasters out of existence, to the irreparable harm of of the queer people in question, but also of the young men who have learned that kind of hate from their supposed mentors. And meanwhile, they have swept case after case of child molestation under the rug in order not to tarnish the good name of the organization. And yet those those cases have come out of the woodwork one by one, along with the tired (and factually indefensible) attempts to lump the child-molesters the organization protected in with the decent and law abiding queer people the organization shunted out onto the street.
I am reliably informed that, now that the Mormon church is no longer involved with the organization, the horrors I have just described are receding into history. I wish them well on their new path, if they truly are on a new path, which I hope they are.
But next to such cruelty, such uncertainty, my little somnambulatory freak-out seems almost quaint, doesn’t it?