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The Ghost, the Bear, and the Girl Scout

February 1, 2011

From ages six to thirteen, I was a girl scout (Okay, okay, you caught me, from ages six to ten I was a Brownie, and then from 11 to 13 a Girl Scout.  I never made it to Junior).  I knew the girl scout promise (three fingers in the air, not two!) and wore the brown sash and skirt.  I learned how to build a fire with nothing but sticks, three matches and corks; how to pitch a tent in under six minutes; how to whittle; how to tell a turkey vulture from a hawk in flight; how to purify water and read a compass.  I made swaps to trade with other girl scouts like a pro, and sold cookies to hungry and weak-willed American University college students.

My first troop leader was a woman named Francis, and she was, to put it bluntly, a bit of a Fascist-wannabee.   She ran our troop like a mini-military: we had to do push ups, and hike to our campsites carrying all our gear on our seven-year old backs.  She would sometimes pretend to leave us in the woods a little way from the path and make us find our way back through compass work.  She always had an activity for us to accomplish every single week, whether it be working in a food kitchen or donating to a charity, or collecting leaves from ten different kinds of trees and identifying them using our guidebook. Whiners, criers and complainers didn’t last long in Troop 2616.

I worshiped the ground she walked on.

When I was nine, we went to a Great Girl Scout Powwow (it was probably called something different, but that’s how I remember it).  It was an all weekend affair in Virginia, and we were excited because there were older girl scout troops there too, one with girls wearing green and blue vests that seemed superior to our brown sashes.  We made little swaps of green felt in the shape of sleeping bags, and we had four whole bags of marsh mellows for the fire.  We were totally prepared to have a great time.  Francis made us set up our tents, carry water from the pump to our campsite half a mile away, and then inspected our uniforms for dirt.  Satisfied, she let us commence making dinner.  After dinner and we washed our dishes and hung them high in a tree so as not to attract bears, Francis told us a chilling ghost story.

It was about a Girl Scout who, in 1919, got lost in the woods right by our campsite.  Cold and alone, she wandered the woods (she didn’t know that moss grew on the north side of a tree or that the sun rose in the east, apparently) until hunger made her try to eat a mushroom.  She wasn’t a good Girl Scout and she couldn’t identify what type of mushroom it was.  The mushroom was poisonous, and she died in the dirt next to a tall oak tree.  Now, on clear nights, you could hear her moaning and retching in the trees, trying to find another Girl Scout to stay with her and keep her company next to her tree….

Appropriately afraid, all of us decided as one to skip going to the bathroom a half mile down the road for the night.  We ran to our tents and zipped them up tight.  Nervously, we giggled and talked until Francis scared us once more by poking her head into the tent to tell us to be quiet or she was going to make us run laps.

I must have fallen asleep a little while after that, because the next thing I remember is waking up and really, really needing to go pee.  I had a dilemma: I could try to go close to the tents, or I could walk my way down to the bathroom.  I decided I was more afraid of embarrassment than ghosts, so I gently roused Jessica.  We had the buddy system, so it was either her or Alex.  Luckily for me, she also kinda needed to go, and we put our sneakers on and I grabbed a flashlight.  We decided to leave the other for Alex, in case she woke up.

Getting to the bathroom was completely uneventful; we joked a little to keep our spirits up and other spirits away, but both successfully and with relief relieved ourselves after only about fifteen minutes of walking.  We started back, and the lights of the bathroom disappeared as we turned around a bend in the little road.  It had just gotten velvety black around us once again when our flashlight beam began to waver and grow dim.  It flickered.  Jessica and I stopped in the middle of the track and stared at each other in horror.  And in under a minute, the light dimmed more and more until it winked out altogether.  Jessica and I panted, the cold metal of the dead flashlight numbing my fingers.

In a crisis with two people (and that certainly was a crisis for a nine year old!) I’ve noticed that one person takes on the role of the panicked, and therefore the other has to take on the role of the in-control caretaker.  Thus, it actually helped me when Jessica began to sob.

“The-e-e ghost is gonna get us!  She made the flashlight go out!” she wailed.

I gave her a hug as my adrenaline surged.  “We are going to be fine.  We just have to keep on walking down the road for another ten minutes, and then look for our tents.  They are blue and green.  We can find them.  You have to trust me.”  My bossy nature came in use as I hauled her up to her feet and made us both keep walking.  I wanted to cry too, but I had to be strong for Jessica.

It felt like we walked forever.   We jumped at every little noise in the woods.  I held the flashlight in my right fist now as a potential weapon, and squeezed Jessica’s palm in my left.

“Maybe these tents are ours?” Jessica asked hopefully.

“Maybe,” I said dully.  They weren’t.  I couldn’t see our tents, maybe we had passed them?  I was just about to suggest that we turn around, when Jessica let out a joyful squeal.

“They’re ours, I think these are ours!”  We hurried as fast as we could in the dark to the tents and almost wept in relief as we recognized the big green and blue tent.

“Let’s not tell Francis we got lost.  She’d get mad,” I said pragmatically, as I unzipped the tent and crawled in.  I almost immediately bumped into a warm body asleep in front of me.  Wrong sleeping bag.  I moved over to the other one and started to try to wriggle in when I bumped into the elbow of another sleeping girl.  She wasn’t Alex.  It wasn’t our tent.


“Ahhh!  Oh My God!  Bears!”


Jessica and I bolted from the tent as one of the previously sleeping, older girl scouts turned on her flashlight and continued to scream.  Absolutely terrified, we ran as fast as we could out of their campsite and up the road.  I slipped on a loose pebble and fell down heavily.  To her merit, Jessica didn’t abandon me, but instead grabbed my hand and hauled me up.  We ran until it was dark around us again.

“Maybe we should just go back to the bathroom and sleep there until it’s light.  At least there is light there.”

“No, let’s try just five minutes more.  If we can’t find out tent by then…”  We both nodded with resolve.  I wiped my face of tear tracks, she did the same.  If we ever made it back to our campsite, we would never ever go to the bathroom again.  Never.

She walked and I limped slightly further down the road.  I tried to remember details of our campsite; the wooden sign by the road that had two burn marks in it, the way the tree on the right had been split by lightning, the rock that…

“Jessica!” I squeaked.  “I think that’s our sitting rock!  Doesn’t it look like-”

We approached the rock slowly.  We saw the food in the tree, the tents of blue and green.  We looked at each other, and without a word, slowly unzipped the top of the tent we thought was ours.  Silently I looked inside.  Alex’s form was happily snoring within.  We threw open the flap and darted inside, throwing the useless flashlight and our sneakers in the corner.  I thanked anyone who might be listening for saving us, but told them that I was stupid in that I would eventually need to go to the bathroom again, so I couldn’t keep my promise.  I fell asleep gratefully.

The next morning, the exciting news was on everyone’s lips: a bear attacked one of the other Troop’s tents!  Apparently, a girl who had a candy bar in her backpack had forgot to zip up her tent door (bears couldn’t unzip tents after all!) and a bear entered her tent, trying to get to her candy bar.  She had screamed and scared it, and it had run off into the woods.  She was quite the celebrity.

Francis shook her head darkly.  “Girls!  This is why you NEVER leave food in your tent.  This is why, repeat after me, this is why a girl scout is always prepared!”

“A Girl Scout is always prepared!” we yelled back.

“And a Girl Scout always brings extra batteries for her flashlight, too,” Jessica muttered.

What bear? I don't see a bear....

What bear? I don't see a bear....

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