I was with a large group of men I didn’t know. We were not allowed to speak to one another. Several of them confided in me anyway.
I was inducted into Scouting’s honor society, the Order of the Arrow, this weekend. Selection is based on one’s commitment to service, brotherhood, and cheerfulness.
There were two hundred youth and adults being inducted. Another hundred or so were there to cheer them on and help with the service projects.
I was the only female present.
Our weekend was divided into a series of experiences to comprise “The Ordeal,” or induction. During the Ordeal, we were asked not to speak to one another, yet my ears were filled with the quiet voices of struggling men.
Pulling the Bowstrings
On Friday night, we were asked to meet in the Firebowl with minimal sleeping gear: tarp, sleeping bag, rain gear. We waited in silence until we were led down a torchlit path to a small clearing in which four young adults, dressed in pseudo-Native American costumes, spoke of why we had been chosen for the honor society. Their speeches included the request that we always aim our own personal arrows high, that we always try to fly straight and true to ourselves.
A large bow was then passed around and we all took turns taking a pull. Everyone else grasped the bow with their left hands and pulled with their right.
When I received the bow, I grasped it with my right hand and shifted my feet shoulder-width apart. Straightened my torso, turned my head, and pulled back with my left arm, back straight. My left hand grazed my jaw, and I exhaled gently as I released the bowstring.
As I turned to pass the bow to the next person, a voice whispered into my ear.
“I’m left-handed too, but my form isn’t as good as yours. Huh — I don’t know if I’m going to make it through this thing or not.”
I turned and looked into the eyes of the man who had whispered to me. I didn’t speak, but did lift my eyebrows in reply, thinking to myself, “Dude, what do you want?”
Sleeping in a Field of Men
After the bow had been passed, we walked through the woods for about half a mile. My arms ached from carrying my gear and I was grateful for the sliver of moon lighting our way.
We arrived to a small field and spread out. After standing in silence for what felt like fifteen minutes, we all finally started to set up our sleeping areas. The night was filled with the crackle of tarps being unfolded and smoothed out.
Under the cover of the tarps rustling, the man setting up to my left whispered, “I didn’t bring a proper tarp for this, did you? I’m not ready for this.”
When I simply responded by pointing to my own perfectly obvious tarp, he continued, “I can’t believe that you’re a woman and that you’re doing this kind of thing.” He paused. “I’m not looking forward to waking up in a wet sleeping bag.”
I shrugged, nodded, and turned away. Wondered if this whole vow of silence thing was going to be too much for the men.
The Stars and the Birds
I awoke in the middle of the night and peeked out from underneath my tarp. The sky was a dazzling splash of stars sprinkled through the inky darkness and I smiled. “At last,” I thought to myself. I had left our home in Ontario a month before and I missed seeing the night sky. I fell back to sleep contentedly, glad to have seen the night sky without the usual light pollution.
I awoke to a gray dawn and the singing of birds in the trees surrounding our meadow. I lay still for a few moments, savoring the bird calls and responses, the weak morning light.
When I sat up, a voice to my right whispered, “Good morning, how did you sleep? My back is really sore.”
I turned to see small blue eyes at the top of a face nearly obscured by a thick auburn beard. I smiled slightly and shrugged. My back felt just fine, thanks. I turned away, my eye caught by a tiny goldfinch flying across the meadow.
Fear of Loneliness
After a silent and very small breakfast, we were divided into work crews. I was placed with Dan, Robert, and Eddie and we were told to clean the ceiling fans in several of the buildings. The fans in the mess hall could only be reached by a rolling scaffold and we took turns climbing it and wiping off the thick fur of dust on each fan’s blade.
The guys said they were going to suspend their vow of silence and talk while they were working, but I said I was going to try to be silent.
While I was on the scaffold, the three men below laughed uproariously as they tried to outdo each other with funny lines from their favorite movies. Lines from Caddyshack. Blues Brothers. Anchorman. I rinsed my rag in the bucket and smiled when their imitations were spot-on.
After my turn, Robert climbed up the scaffold, Eddie went to his truck to try to find a screwdriver, and I found myself standing with Dan.
He said, “It’s kind of weird to be with somebody who isn’t talking, but I’m not a quiet guy. I guess I’ll just talk anyways, okay?”
I smiled slightly and nodded.
Dan told me about the ages and interests of his children. Where he worked. That his wife had breast cancer.
When he got to that part, I lifted my eyebrows and cocked my head.
He saw my look and said, “Oh yeah, she’s doing great. It’s all really great.”
I nodded and waited for him to continue.
He shifted his gaze to the windows behind me. Took his phone out of his pocket. Looked at the screen.
“You know, it’s not that great, actually. She’s trying all this weird stuff with growing her own broccoli and making smoothies out of it. I think she knows she’s not going to make it and is trying to make…I don’t even know…trying to make health nut, magic potions she read about online.”
I shifted uncomfortably and nodded.
“She does a lot of weird stuff.”
I smiled slightly.
He shrugged, “Yeah, it’s okay. Well, no, it’s not. I am afraid she’s going to die. And I’m just scared of being alone again. I don’t like to be alone and I don’t want to raise the kids by myself. I’m already lonely with her being in treatments and then sleeping so much afterward.”
I shook my head and felt uncomfortable.
“Yeah, that’s it, I guess.” He paused. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I told you all of that. Sorry about that. I should just stick with the movie lines or something, right?”
Before I could reply (or not), Eddie came back, waving the screwdriver. “I wasn’t able to find a Philips, but I have this flathead!”
Dan laughed heartily and said, “All right, let’s try it out!” He cut his eyes over to me for a moment. Turned away.
That Shooting Haunts Me
After cleaning the ceiling fans, we were tasked with helping to clean up the brush around the grounds. Another crew had trimmed the hedges surrounding the parking lot and Robert and I had to load the trimmings into a tractor that hauled them to a nearby chipper.
Between loads, Robert shared that he usually wasn’t off on the weekends because he was a Chicago cop. I nodded and raised my eyebrows.
“You know, the thing is how much is hanging over my head. I work thirteen-hour shifts nearly every day. And, yeah, the overtime is good money, but it’s not enough. And I should be glad to be working those shifts again, but I’m not. I was just cleared for a shooting that happened two years ago. I had to wait two years for them to investigate it and figure out that I did the right thing discharging my weapon. Two years.”
My eyes widened.
“It was tough. That shooting has haunted me for two years. I can still see the guy’s eyes going dull while he died. I didn’t want to shoot him, but I had no choice. Waiting that long for someone to tell me it wasn’t my fault was just as bad as knowing I killed a man.”
I frowned and shook my head.
He turned away, “Well, I guess folks would say it’s what the white cops deserve, right? We’re all just bad guys who don’t care about people. All I can do now is drive by the gangbangers on the corners. We’re not supposed to shoo them away now.”
He paused for a long moment.
“I don’t even know why I wanted to come back after the shooting. This job is too much. I shouldn’t have to be afraid to do my job.”
The tractor pulled up. Robert laughed dryly. “Never mind. Who wants to hear about a cop who wishes he wasn’t hated by everyone?”
I touched his shoulder, but he shook his head. Bent over and grabbed a pile of branches.
I’m Afraid of Those People
After a long day of scant nourishment and hard labor, we were formally inducted into the Order of the Arrow and were finally permitted to speak. The ceremony was followed by a hearty feast and I found myself sitting next to Peter, who shared that his stepmother, like me, had been a foreign language teacher. She taught in a school with similar student demographics to mine: low income, almost entirely minority, low standardized test scores.
“Yeah, but she had to retire after only twenty-eight years of service. By the end, it was too hard there for her. The kids were mean and intimidating to everyone. They would mess with her while she was on the stairs. Stuff like deliberately blocking her when she was going upstairs or bump her hard when she had her arms full of stuff.”
I frowned. “That’s such a shame. Sometimes kids growing up in poverty act out because they themselves don’t feel well.”
Peter scoffed. “I don’t see what that has to do with it. Those kids were just mean. I’m sorry, but black folks out there just aren’t raising their kids properly. I’m not saying that about all of them, but a lot of them…they’re just not good at parenting.”
I took a deep breath and pressed my fork into my mashed potatoes. Felt frustrated by the usual “those people” tirade of ignorance.
After a moment, I replied, “This probably has nothing to do with judging whether or not people are good parents. This is what growing up in poverty looks like. If you had an untreated toothache day after day, you might be a jerk too. Or if your stomach was upset because you only had access to junk food, you might be rude to other people. Or if you were scared to go home, it might be easier to get a detention so that you could stay in the building for a couple more hours. Sometimes it’s not what it seems.”
He took a bite of chicken. Chewed. Just when I thought he wasn’t going to reply, he quietly said, “I guess I don’t know about any of that. The truth is that my stepmom retired because she was afraid of those people.”
A group of youth passed our table, laughing loudly.
He continued, “She’s afraid of those people and I am too. I just can’t relate to any of their stuff. I don’t know how else to view them. They seem violent and out of control.”
I put my fork down. “That’s a hard thing to admit, but it seems like you’re pretty self-aware. The best way to overcome a fear like this is to try to get to know people personally.” I gestured to the tables around us. A mixture of white and brown faces talked and laughed. “You know, listen to folks and see what you have in common.”
He nodded and said dubiously, “Yeah, maybe. I just know what she told me about and how much bad stuff there is on the news. It’s a lot.”
I looked down at my tray, suddenly exhausted. I had heard so much pain and self-doubt from these men around me. I wished I could step back and return to not having to reply to any of them. Hearing their secret fears for a mere weekend, silently absorbing their vulnerabilities, was exhausting.
I looked out across the eating area at the hundreds of young and older men sitting together. I wondered why they couldn’t confide so easily in each other. I thought of my own three sons.
What had changed for men? And when?
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