THE GIRL SCOUTS SAVED MY LIFE


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“Would you like to buy some cookies, Mister?”

I turned to see the girl scout. She was about eleven years old, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a dark green shirt and khaki pants. A light green sash decorated with pins and medals was draped across her chest. She smiled up at me, showing braces. She stood behind a table loaded with boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I stopped at the table and examined the boxes.

“Do you like cookies?” I said.

Her smile broadened.

“Everybody likes Girl Scout cookies,” she said. “Want to buy some?”

“What’s your favorite kind of cookie?” I said.

She looked down at the boxes of cookies on the table.

“I like thin mints the best. But they’re all really good. My mom likes the Samoans.”

“Samoans?” I said.

“Yeah,” the girl scout answered, “the kind with chocolate and coconut in them.”

I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet.

“A box of thin mints, then,” I said, handing her the money, “and a box of Samoans.”

The girl scout took the twenty-dollar bill, picked up a box of thin mints and a box of Samoas, which are delicious, unlike Samoans, the natives of the Samoan islands, who are delightful people, but do not taste very good. She held them out to me. I shook my head.

“They’re not for me,” I said. “They’re for you. And you can keep the change.”

She stared down at the twenty-dollar bill and the boxes of cookies in her hands. Her eyes grew wide.

“Really, Mister?” She said. “But why?”

“Really,” I said, smiling down at her. “And if you must know the reason, it’s because I never did say thank you.”

“Thank you to me?” She said. She looked confused. “Thanks for what?”

“I owe all the Girl Scouts a thank you,” I said. “You don’t know it, but a long time ago, long before you were even born, the Girl Scouts saved my life.”

I was seventeen years old when it happened. The church I attended had an annual campout, and my friend, Sean, a petty officer in the navy, a young man with a light complexion and a military regulation haircut, talked me into going. I threw the only camping gear I had, an old green army sleeping bag with a broken zipper, into the back seat of Sean’s little blue car.

“Is that all you’re bringing?” Sean said, looking at my sleeping bag. “You don’t have a tent?”

“No,” I said, “who needs a tent?”

“You’re going to need one, knucklehead” he said. “It’s cold in the mountains. You should at least bring a jacket.”

“I’ll manage,” I said. “It’s like eighty degrees outside.”

“Okay,” Sean said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

We headed to the campground located in the mountains east of San Diego. The church had reserved about half of the campsites, and we were greeted by familiar faces. The campground was surrounded by hundreds of tall oak trees. Sean drove slowly, following the small asphalt road winding through the campground, passing church members near recreational vehicles and tents. Some rode bicycles, others busied their selves cooking over barbecue grills or putting up tents. They waved at us as we drove by, and we waved back. We passed the campsite of a group of girl scouts, all in matching green uniforms, scurrying in every direction, erecting tents, preparing a fire ring, setting up lawn chairs, all under the supervision of a brunette woman in her early thirties. I paid them little attention.

Sean parked at a campsite and began setting up his tent. He worked meticulously, paying attention to every detail, carefully hammering the tent stakes, evenly spaced, into the rich, dark earth, inserting the tent poles, raising the small, green tent to a perfectly formed A-frame. He unrolled his sleeping bag and laid it neatly out on the tent floor. He gathered stones and built a fire ring, digging a hole in the center of the ring to contain the fire. He removed firewood from the trunk of his car and stacked it in neat rows next to the fire ring. Finally, he hung an electric lantern on a small pole near the entrance to his tent.

I grabbed my sleeping bag with the broken zipper from Sean’s car, and threw it on the ground next to the fire ring. Done. Sean grinned at me, shaking his head. I guess you could say we were opposites.

The day was warm and pleasant, lulling me into a false sense of security. Who needed a tent in San Diego, after all? But as night fell, so did the temperatures. Sean built a fire, and I huddled next to it. Campers from the church group roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire and were generous enough to share with me. But, as the night grew colder, they retreated to the comfort of their tents and recreational vehicles. Near midnight, Sean also turned in, climbing into his tiny tent, leaving me alone by the fire, which by that time was little more than dying embers. I moved as close to the warmth of the fire as I could, lying down on half of the sleeping bag, covering myself with the other half. Somehow, despite the cold, I managed to fall asleep.

I awoke just after dawn to near freezing temperatures. The sun was coming up over the tops of the mountains, but it provided very little warmth. My muscles ached from sleeping on the cold, hard ground. My body shook, my teeth were chattering. My breath came out like steam in the freezing air. There was nothing left of the fire, but a few hot embers buried under gray ashes. No firewood remained. Wrapping my sleeping bag around me, I scoured the nearby area for anything that would burn; cardboard, soda boxes, paper towels, dry twigs, anything I could find. I blew on the hot coals until my small collection of flammable materials ignited. The warmth from the fire was wonderful, but fleeting, as the paper, cardboard and twigs ignited, flashing hot, then burning out. I searched for more items to burn, desperate to get warm, but soon ran out of flammable materials. The fire died.

I needed to burn something bigger.

Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I broadened my search, passing several campsites, including the site belonging to the Girl Scouts, to a nearby meadow, finding bits of wood, parts of fallen branches and more twigs. I brought them back, placing them in the fire ring, blowing on the coals until the fire sprang back to life. The bits of wood burned longer than the cardboard and twigs, but they, too, burned out, leaving me cold and miserable.

I needed to burn something much bigger.

I headed back to the meadow, my sleeping bag draped over my shoulders. I looked passed the small pieces of wood. Something bigger, I thought, something much bigger. That’s when I saw it. An old, round log, two feet long and a foot and a half wide, lay on its side near one of the large oak trees. Surely that much wood would burn for hours. Gleefully, thoughts of a warm, roaring campfire in my head, I picked the log up. It was heavy and cumbersome. I struggled under its weight, carrying it in both arms, stumbling as I went, tripping over the sleeping bag, which was draped over my shoulders. I passed the campsite of the Girl Scouts. A large flip chart rested on a stand. The brunette scout leader flipped through the pages of the chart, preparing for a class, I supposed. I noticed the words Stop, Drop and Roll on the front page of the chart. A fire extinguisher sat on the ground next to the flip chart.  A couple of girl scouts watched me as I passed by, stumbling under the weight of the log, tripping occasionally on the edge of my sleeping bag.

I made it back to the fire ring and dropped the log directly in the middle of the hot coals and waited for it to ignite. Smoke rose up from the log, and the part touching the coals turned black, but it did not catch on fire. I blew on the coals, and they turned red for a time, but still the log did not burn. I grew desperate, my hopes of a warm fire dissolving before my eyes. I remembered one of the church members at the campsite next to ours had a bottle of lighter fluid near his barbecue grill. I went to the campsite and “borrowed” the lighter fluid. The bottle was about half empty. I sprayed the log with lighter fluid and, bending over, blew on the hot coals. The log ignited in a blaze of blessedly warm fire. I stood as close to the fire as I could, soaking in the warmth. But, to my chagrin, the fire was consuming the lighter fluid, and not the log. As the fuel burned out, the fire died.

“That log will never catch fire,” Sean said. I turned to see him standing up from the entrance to his tent. He stretched and yawned, wiping sleep from his eyes.

I poured the rest of the “borrowed” lighter fluid onto the log. The fire sprang up again, lapping up the fluid. I exulted once again in the warmth. Then, just as before, the fire died. The log was smoking, but it wasn’t burning. Sean stepped up beside me, looking down at the log.

“It’s too big, Knucklehead. You have to split it into firewood before you can burn it.”

“Do you have an axe?” I said. He shook his head no.

I shook the empty bottle of lighter fluid and headed over to the other campsite looking for more. There, sitting on a folding table next to the church member’s recreational vehicle, was the answer. Of course. A two gallon can of Kerosene. Now that would light anything. I “borrowed” the can of kerosene and headed back to the fire ring, feeling triumphant. Sean was on his knees, straightening the inside of his tent. The campground was coming to life, and a few church members were sitting in chairs not far from the fire. I unscrewed the lid from the top of the kerosene can and poured it eagerly over the smoking log. Nothing happened. I bent down and blew on the coals. They grew redder, but the kerosene did not catch fire. I examined the can. It was kerosene. The warning “highly flammable liquid” was written on the front of the can. So why wasn’t it lighting? Frustrated, I tried once more. I poured the kerosene over the log.

PHUMP!

The kerosene lit with a small explosion, rippling the air around the fire ring and scorching my eyebrows. Everything seemed to slow. I watched, frozen in place, as the fire climbed from the log and up the stream of kerosene, entering the can. The can grew hot in my hands. Fire spewed from the opening. Someone once told me a can of gasoline would explode if it caught fire. I figured that was also true for kerosene. I saw the church members sitting nearby and worried the can would explode, injuring them. I had to get it away from people. Turning away from the church members, I tossed the can, using both hands, but stumbled just before tossing it. The can left my hands, spinning in the air, end over end, the fiery liquid pouring from the can as it revolved in the air, covering and igniting the ground, the nearby bushes and my right leg. It landed about five feet away from me. My right leg was on fire. The ground was on fire. The bushes and leaves around me were on fire. Thinking the can might still explode, I made the brilliant decision to kick it further away. I ran toward the can and kicked it hard with my right foot. It flew, spewing more fire, landing upside down in the top of the nearby bushes. The rest of the kerosene poured from the can, setting the bushes on fire. I stood, watching the fire as it grew, consuming the bushes and dry leaves. I felt no pain, but I smelled burning flesh. Acrid smoke enveloped me. Everything burned around me, and I was growing dizzy from the fumes. The world was on fire, spinning before me. My knees were going limp, and I felt myself falling. I was going down in flames.

“Stop! Drop! Roll!” A girl shouted.

Someone grabbed me from behind. I felt small arms around my waist, pulling me to the ground. I fell, landing on my left side. The girl behind me was covering my right leg with a wet blanket. Someone in front of me was using a fire extinguisher, putting out the fire.

“Stay down,” the girl behind me said. “You will be okay.”

Moments later, the fire was out. A girl of about twelve years old came into view, seeming to appear from the smoke and the misty white residue of the fire retardant. She had long, dark hair and wore glasses. A light green sash was draped across her chest, over her dark green uniform. Her pins and medals glistened in the morning sunlight. She carried a red fire extinguisher in her right hand. I craned my neck to see the girl who had pulled me down. She was a heavyset blonde girl, wearing a sash and uniform like the girl in front of me.

“We need to get him out of the smoke,” the girl scout with the fire extinguisher said. She joined the girl behind me. Taking me by the arms, they pulled, dragging me away from the smoke. I heard clapping and cheers. Dozens of campers, drawn to the commotion, were applauding the brave actions of my two young rescuers. It must have been quite a sight; me, covered in soot, sitting in the dirt, my right pant leg, black and charred, the two girl scouts looking down at me with concern. And in the middle of all the commotion, my lungs still filled with poisonous smoke, I forgot to say thank you.

Sean drove me to the closest clinic. He was my friend, which meant, of course, he laughed at me the entire ride, and would, for many years, tell the story of the brave and stalwart actions of the Girl Scouts to everyone we knew.

At the clinic, the physician, a man in his early forties, removed my pantleg with a pair of shears. The skin on the inner part of my ankle had melted down to the underlying facia and came off with the pantleg. He removed the dead skin around the burn with surgical scissors and dressed the wound. Sean sat in the treatment room, watching the procedure. I winked at him.

“Doctor,” I said, looking down at the dressing on my leg, “do you think I will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks?”

Sean shook his head and smiled. The doctor thought about it for a few moments. He nodded.

“As long as you change the dressing as ordered, and keep the wound covered during the game, I’m sure you will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks,” he said.

I grinned at Sean.

“That’s amazing, Doctor,” I said. “I’ve never been able to kick a field goal before.”

–Dedicated to the memory of Sean Mescher, my faithful friend–

THE GIRL IN THE RED POLYESTER PANTS


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I don’t remember her name.  I see her in my mind’s eye. She’s maybe twelve years old, the same age I was at the time. Her too round face, her pudgy body, long black hair held back in an Indian braid, her faded red polyester pants, the same pants she wore every day. She changed her blouse on occasion, but her clothing was a variation on a theme; not simply poor, but reservation poor. This was a time before the Indian casinos populated California and the tribes whose ancestors were forced onto reservations remained in poverty. She was a member of one of those tribes. We were in the same class at a small elementary school in Boulevard, California.

My family was poor, and I knew what it was like to be teased and bullied. My clothes were second-hand, never as nice as the other kids’ clothes. I remember wearing shoes a couple of sizes too big, because my parents could not afford a new pair. I had endured the laughter from the other kids when my mother, unable or unwilling to pay a barber, gave me a bad haircut. I knew how the girl in the red polyester pants felt. Before I finally graduated from an adult school, I would attend a total of twenty-six schools in my lifetime. I was always the new student. At some schools, I was bullied, other times I fit in. In that school, I was accepted. And it felt good.

For a while, we simply ignored the girl in the red polyester pants. We ate lunch together in the cafeteria at our table, while she sat at a table by herself. I heard some kids teasing her one day about her pink free lunch card. Pink cards were for poor kids. A green card meant your parents paid for your lunch. My own card was pink. I was embarrassed for her, but I did not defend her.

Then there was the girl who had everything. She had long, blonde hair, feathered in the way many girls wore their hair in the early eighties. The loveliness of her face was marred only by a perpetual, petulant frown. Her parents were well-known and respected. She wore the nicest clothes and lived in the nicest house in the area. But for some reason I never understood, she hated the girl in the red polyester pants. She began teasing her every day. She made her miserable. I remember a day at lunchtime when the girl in the red polyester pants remained in class, sitting alone at her desk to escape the daily taunts. She had looked so sad. I should have joined her, included her. I chose, instead, to be popular.

One day, I was on my way to lunch, walking with a friend, when the girl who had everything stopped us.

“Come on,” she said. “We’re gonna play a little trick.” The look of malice on her face made me hesitate, but my friend and I followed her anyway. She led us back to the empty classroom.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

She opened the top of her desk and pulled out a stack of play money. They were her lucky bucks, bill-sized pieces of lime green paper. We earned lucky bucks by doing well in class, answering questions correctly, or scoring high marks on tests. We could spend these on candy and other small prizes kept in a cupboard behind the teacher’s desk.

“Give me your lucky bucks,” she told us.

My friend obeyed, getting the fake money from his desk. I hesitated, feeling a tight sense of dread.

“What for?” I asked.

She walked over to the desk belonging to the girl in the red polyester pants. She opened the top of the desk and placed the lucky bucks inside. I felt my heart sink.

“Why are we doing this?” I asked.

The girl who had everything looked at me.

“Because she’s stupid. That’s why.”

I wish I had been brave enough to stand up to her, but I wasn’t. Reluctantly, I got my lucky bucks from my desk and gave them to her. She put them in the desk of the girl in the red polyester pants and closed the top.

We left the classroom and ate lunch together at our table. The girl who had everything talked and laughed with her friends as though nothing had happened. I looked over at the girl in the red polyester pants who ate alone at her table, ignorant of the cruel plot brewing against her. I did not join in the conversation around me. I considered sneaking back into the classroom and removing the lucky bucks from her desk. But, instead, I did nothing.

Finally, the bell rang, announcing the end of lunch. We returned our lunch trays and filed back into the classroom. I sat at my desk, feeling awful. The girl in the red polyester pants sat quietly, unaware of the “stolen” lucky bucks in her desk. Our teacher was a cranky, older man who did not seem to like children.  He was in his late fifties, a hard man with a leathery, unsmiling face.  He sat at his desk while we did our schoolwork on our own. The girl who had everything got his attention.

“Someone took my lucky bucks,” She said. If anything, she was a good liar. Her face was a portrait of innocence. The teacher looked up at her, scowling.

“Huh? What’s that you say, girl?” He said.

“My lucky bucks. Someone took them. They were in my desk before we went to lunch. Now they’re gone.” She stole a quick glance at the girl in the red polyester pants. A cruel smile touched the corner of her mouth. My friend opened the top of his desk and looked inside.

“Someone took mine, too,” he said. He turned and looked expectantly at me. I opened my desk. My ears felt hot. I pretended to search through my desk, keeping my head down, mainly because of the shame I felt. When I spoke, my voice came out low and hoarse. I was not a good liar.

“Someone stole my lucky bucks, too,” I said.

Our teacher stood up, surveying the classroom, his hard eyes scanning the faces of the students, who, under his intense glare could not help but look guilty.

“Alright, everyone,” he commanded, “open your desks.”

We all opened our desks and he stepped forward, walking between the rows of students, scanning the contents of each desk like a drill sergeant inspecting recruits. Finally, he looked down into the desk of the girl in the red polyester pants. I held my breath. I felt like I might faint. But he moved on, apparently thinking the pile of lucky bucks in the middle of her desk belonged to her. The girl in the red polyester pants stared fearfully down at her desk. She saw the lucky bucks and knew they were not hers. Maybe she wouldn’t get in trouble, I hoped. Then the girl who had everything spoke up. She pointed at the lucky bucks in the desk of the girl in the red polyester pants.

“Those aren’t hers! She never gets lucky bucks. She’s too stupid. She stole them!”

I thought for sure she had gone too far, calling her stupid. I thought the teacher would turn on her, but he did not. He looked down at the lucky bucks in the desk of the girl in the red polyester pants. Her round face looked confused. She was staring down at the lucky bucks. She gripped the sides of her desk with both hands. Our teacher examined her with a look of distaste.

“Are these yours?” He said.

The girl in the red polyester pants shook her head. Tears were welling up in her eyes. She looked afraid.

“No,” she said, “they aren’t mine.”

“Did you steal them?” Our teacher said. His voice was cold and accusatory, a hanging judge speaking to a condemned murderer. “Did they just happen to appear in your desk?”

She shook her head.

“No, Sir,” she said, looking down at the lucky bucks.

“Yes, she did,” said the girl who had everything, “she stole them!”

Tears of frustration and fear trickled down the face of the girl in the red polyester pants.

“I didn’t steal them,” she said. Her voice was low and quiet, “I don’t know how they got there.”

“Yes, you did!” The girl who had everything said. “You’re a thief!”

Our teacher looked down at the girl in the red polyester pants.

“Come with me,” he said, grabbing her roughly by the arm. He led her out of the classroom. She was sobbing. I saw a look of triumph on the face of the girl who had everything. I felt sick inside.

The girl in the red polyester pants never returned to our classroom. I heard rumors that her parents removed her from the school after the incident. I have never forgotten her. Her memory has haunted me over the years. I wish I had been stronger. I wish I had told the truth, regardless of the consequences. I want to apologize for what we did to her. I still remember with shame the look of confusion, fear and anguish in the face of the girl in the red polyester pants.

Wherever you are, I am sorry for the way we treated you. I wish I could go back and be your friend, rather than your tormentor. I wish I had joined you at your table where you sat alone, day in and day out. I wish I had the courage to stand up for you, to tell the truth that day, to defend you.

I wish.