Counting Down, From 9…

The Cast: A hatchet (useful), Myself (not so much).

I felt it hit the bone. The blade had not come down where I expected.

Some time ago I wrote about how I had once stuck my hand to an ax. That was unpleasant. Not horrible. Just, unpleasant. Years later, I would chop my finger off. That was horrible.

After my first four years working at Thunder Ridge, I held the position of Commissioner. It’s not an easy job. Basically, you’re the morale officer for everyone—campers and staff, alike. The hours are long, you put in a ton of energy, and you have to be happy like, all of the time. I’m not a happy camper by nature. I’m an ‘I’m here’ kinda guy. Not depressing, not exuberant, just here. It can come off as unpleasant, sometimes. Hey, my grandparent name isn’t Grumps for no reason.

At any rate, the summer camping season always has a Rain Week. Yup, you read that correctly. A rain week. There is a week where it rains, almost every day (if not every day), almost all day (if not all day). It can get cold and very wet. I know that second part is kind of a no-brainer. Duh, rain. It should be wet. Well, yes, it should. But not everyone realizes that when you’re in the mountains for a week, drying out is harder to do than you would like. Especially, when the only place to hang up your wet stuff to dry is outside, in the rain.

Rain week happened every year. At about the same time every year. It was a natural cycle. So, what’s the big deal? Nothing really. Except, well, I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Let me add some important information: Thursdays. Thursdays were the days where the Boy Scouts have small campfire programs before the final Friday night Closing Campfire.

On those Thursday nights, the entire camp would divide up into three groups—one for each Commissioner (there were three of us. you can’t expect one Commissioner to run the entire camp). At these smaller campfires, members from each campsite would perform a song, a skit, and a short run-on bit. Then, the Commissioner’s job is to pick some of those songs, skits, and run-on bits, and put together a program for Friday night. It’s a lot of fun. The Scouts sing, dance, laugh, play, and come together for one final night of fun and frivolity. It’s a great time. I wasn’t ready for it.

For me, the rain week, Thursday night, and an upset stomach decided to join forces and attempt to take me down. It was working.

Even if not feeling well, the Commissioner still has to be energetic and happy—it’s part of the job (a really, really sucky part of the job). Earlier in the afternoon, my tummy had felt as if it must, no… needed, yes, needed to be full of unrest. I knew the evening was not going to go well. And, just to add a little more ‘fun’ into the mix, my wife asked if I could take our oldest one (Sarah) with me for the evening. Cindy had a lot of work to do and with our other child still very young, she needed her hands as free as possible. While I was not all that happy about it (my stomach was the reason), I still did it.

See, to be more specific, I was having one of those issues where every move threatened the stability of my internal structural integrity. I just didn’t have time to deal with it (and there was not enough Pepto Bismol on the planet to help anyway). I had to prepare for my Thursday evening’s campfire, watch over my daughter (only a few years old), keep my insides inside, stay warm and dry—because it was raining and cold, and do it all in a few minutes. No problem.

With my little one in tow, I headed toward my campfire location. It would have been faster to carry her, but, the exertion of holding her would have caused everything in me to run its course right through me. Oh, effort… You sometimes cruel mistress… Fortunately, vomiting wasn’t an option. Unfortunately, there was only one other option. So, on the two of us walked. Slowly.

1) The main lodge. 2) My campfire bowl. You can see the logs used for seats and the two spots where the fires would be. 3) Our “Boom Box” where all of our combustible chemicals (gasoline and such) were kept.

Once at the campfire location, seeing all the wet and mud, I knew I had to have fire. Without actual fires, the Scouts’ energy and enthusiasm would not exist. Without that, it would be a difficult evening. I needed fire. I had to have fire. But, with all the rain from the week, there wasn’t enough dry wood in the nearby woodpile—or anywhere on the mountain—to light a spark, let alone an actual fire. What to do?

Having had plenty of outdoor experience, I knew how to make things burn. In fact, during my interview for the same summer camp—four years prior—when asked what my skills were, I said, “I can kill, burn stuff, and blow things up.” The two interviewers looked at each other, then to me, and said, “You’re hired.” I can make things burn. I have skills.

See, the trick isn’t to get a big thing to burn. The trick is to get a bunch of small things burning. They can then dry out medium things, and then those can start to burn. The medium things, in turn, can then get the big things to dry out and burn. I just needed to get enough dry small things together to start the whole thing. So, that’s what I began to do. However, as a Boy Scout, I knew I had to be prepared. This had to work. Not, hopefully work. So, I took precautions.

Fortunately for me, my location was near the main lodge. I took my daughter by the hand and wandered back to it. They had large, wide rolls of aluminum foil. I would need them for my plan.

The trek back and forth was adding more strain to my intestinal fortitude. And, having been down this road before, I knew how bad it could be. I just needed to hang on for a few more hours—it wasn’t going to be easy.

After dropping off the foil, I headed to collect the next two components for my fire plan. It was slow going. My insides wanted outside. The strain of carrying supplies was not helping. My little girl could only move so fast, and she was starting to get cold. I just need more time that I didn’t have. No big deal. I was only about to soil myself in the worst way. Plus, as an added bonus, all the stress of trying to make all this work only added to the building internal pressures that threatened to put me in a bad way.

Back at my campfire site, I used the foil to make six large bowls—three for each of the two campfire locations that flanked the Boy Scouts seating area. Then I placed lots of dried frayed rope (one of the two previously mentioned needed components) into the bowls, as well as small bits of tree bark and twigs. I just needed to add some slightly larger bits of wood before I added the bigger logs. This is where things went from bad to worse.

As I began to break apart the larger sticks, it required only a small amount of strain on my part, however, that quickly began to aggravate my already tense situation. Every exertion threatened total excretion. That little bit of extra strain also made my head feel like it was going to explode. As well as adding pressures in my gut, which didn’t need any more. Fine. I’m only snapping twigs, but, whatever! So, I just grabbed my hatchet and used it to snap the small kindling bits. This was easier. All I had to do was hold the stick in one hand, the hatchet in the other, and let the weight of the hatchet fall down and break the stick. Easy. I would be done in no time. Then, I got to an trident-like stick…

This stick was long, had the perfect thickness (about a half-inch diameter), was mostly dry (surprisingly), and had a tall main shaft with two branches just opposite each other. Okay, it was more like a cross than a trident, but still. I needed to cut off the side branches to add the kindling for the firepits. But, they wouldn’t snap off. Letting the hatchet fall on them wasn’t working either—the stick was too sticky (that’s not how sticky works, I know). This one required effort. If I hit too hard, the bits would go flying off (it had happened to others already), and I couldn’t afford that. I needed every bit of dry wood I could muster. So, I formed a new plan.

I stood the cross/trident stick on one end, held one side branch with my left hand, then I placed the blade of the hatchet along the main body and began. I would raise the blade up to the top of the stick then bring it down. The main body of the stick acted as a guard for my left hand and fingers. If I kept the blade on the right side I would get no injury. I didn’t get a lot of force, but I would get no injury. I really did think this through. All the digits on my left hand were away from the main body, fingers tucked in (a skill I learned from working in a kitchen), hatchet blade on the right of the guard/main shaft. It was working.

With each blow, I was chipping away at the branch, but I needed the process to go faster. I needed to hit just a little harder. I brought the blade up and brought it down, hard. A little too hard. And, on the wrong side of the main shaft. Somehow—and to this day, as I have replayed that exact moment over and over again, I have not figured this out—the hatchet blade, while centered on the main shaft (to avoid the very thing that happened), had managed to move to the left side and the blade was now embedded in my left index finger. The blood oozed. The cold kept it from running too freely. And, the rain was washing it clean. Adventure!

It’s kinda funny, other accidents and close-calls that I have had were always in slow motion. Not this one. There was a ‘WHACK’ and it was all over.

I had felt the blade hit the bone. This was a new level of pain. We had a nurse, and I trusted her completely (she was very competent and skilled), but I didn’t have time to search her out. I only had about ten minutes before bodies were going to start arriving for the event I was preparing for. Also, the last thing I wanted to do was worry my little girl—or get stitches right then. She was only a few feet away, playing in the wet grasses, blissfully unaware of the bloody mess her father had just made. I had to take care of this myself, right now. Utility belt time.

If you are unaware, I am Batman. I was wearing my custom-crafted utility belt (as per the “Be Prepared” Scout idea), and in it, I had a tube of superglue gel. This I used to make field-butterfly-stitches across the wound, a few at first, to pull the opening together, then more and more ‘stitches’ so seal the deal, as it were. No more bleeding, but now, I just had to worry about an infection from the glue. Joy… I could deal with that, later. I had to finish preparations.

With everything now in place for the fire, I was ready. Scouts were arriving. Rain was still coming down. Those kids needed some magic. So, I gave it to them. Within each aluminum foil bowl I had made, I had not only added piles of shredded rope, but, copious amounts of white gas (if you are unfamiliar with it, maybe read here or here. it’s awesome stuff). All I had to do was drop a match. The flames were instant and warm. The whole thing did exactly what I had planned it to do. The rope and small wood bits helped to wick the white gas. As the fires burned, it dried out the medium wood, then it burned. This helped dry out the larger wood and it burned also. Everything went just fine. And, the rain helped put out the fire when we were done with it.

After it was all over, my wife’s job was also completed and she could, once again, look after both our children while I took care of what I had desperately been needing to. Wet, cold, and in an outhouse…

Eventually, all that nonsense was finished and I just needed to seek out medical attention. I explained to her what had occurred, how I had ‘sewn it up’, and how much I was not looking forward to her having to rip off the superglue so that she could sew me up with needle and thread. She just smiled at me and informed me of what some might consider a little known fact. Apparently, superglue has a history of medical use, and so no need for me to worry about infection. And, while she was concerned that I had almost lopped off my finger, she was impressed with the quality of my single-handed-self-stitching.

It’s smaller now and starting to fade, but every time I see the scar I’m reminded of when I cut my finger off. Well, almost.

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