For the past two days, I’ve been talking about how, every Wednesday, when it was the cook’s day off, the entire camp, in cabin groups, was dispatched on cookouts, where we fixed dinner over an open fire at some campsite in the forest. Or – my favorite campsite – by the, not that big but still quite exciting, rapids.
Now usually, meaning, virtually every cookout we were sent out on, the main course of the festivities is hotdogs. With a side order of creamed corn, roasted marshmallows and English biscuits called Peek Freans for dessert, washed down with Donald Duck Orange Juice, swigged directly from a tin. (The stuff tasted nothing like orange juice; it tasted considerably more like tin.}
This time, however, instead of hotdogs,
We had steaks.
Being chewy and about a quarter of an inch thick, these steaks were nothing to write home about. Though, on second thought, maybe they were, because people actually wrote home about them.
“Mom! Dad! We had steaks!”
Which was the whole point of serving steaks – to impress the parents, and insulate them from the fact that ninety-nine percent of the time, dinner was some indeterminate type of grilled chop, most accurately described as gristle with a bone.
You see how that works? One standout meal, covering a summerful of…blech! It’s like the old East Berlin – a single, very impressive “show street”, and behind it, it was rubble.
Okay, so one cookout, they gave us steaks. At this juncture, I am the Senior Counselor in charge of eight six year-old boys. My assisting Junior Counselor, did not originally come to camp as a counselor. He’d been hired to drive the boat. Unfortunately, early in the summer, he had driven the boat into the dock. However, instead of firing him, they made him my Junior Counselor, I think, because he was the camp owner’s cousin. You generally don’t fire cousins. You just put them somewhere where they won’t wreck the boat.
Setting the scene:
We are at the campsite. The campers are gathering firewood. My Junior Counselor is preparing the fire. I’m just walking around. Or, as it’s called when you’re in charge of things – supervising.
Excitement is in the air. We are going to have steaks! Though, at six years old, my campers would have difficulty navigating their stubborn chewiness with baby teeth. This assignment would best be confronted with metal teeth, like that guy in the James Bond movie.
The fire is up and crackling. The next step is to unwrap the steaks, and slip them carefully onto the grate.
So far, so good. The steaks are sizzling over the flames. The aroma is intoxicating. A few minutes, grilling the other side – Let the feasting begin!
I count out the appropriate number of plates. We have just the right amount. Paper napkins and cups (for those who are squeamish about shlurping directly from the tin)? More than enough. I then reach into the bag of supplies for the cutlery.
There is no cutlery. I double and triple check to make sure? I was right the first time. The supply bag was empty.
I had forgotten the cutlery.
How did that happen? I guess I thought – since it was traditional on cookouts – we’d be having hotdogs. Hotdogs don’t require cutlery. You roast them on a stick, and you slip them into a bun. Years later, that sounds like an excuse, since, along with the hotdogs, there was always creamed corn, a glutinous side dish you would not want to tackle with your hands.
I had simply dropped the ball on the cutlery. And we’re having steaks. For which, cutlery – you would probably agree – is a requirement.
The steaks are almost ready. What am I going to do?
I consult with my Junior Counselor, hoping he’d volunteer to run back to camp and retrieve the cutlery. I guess I could have ordered him to, but I felt uncomfortable doing that, since I was the one who had made the mistake. It didn’t seem fair. Plus, he was the camp owner’s cousin.
The problem is obvious and acute. There are steaks sizzling on the fire. And we have absolutely no way of eating them. Now, the classy move would be to simply admit my mistake. To a bunch of six year-olds. Who trusted me. If I came clean about the cutlery, I wondered, what would happen to that trust? These were impressionable, young children. The experience could scar them for life!
“I looked on in horror as my steak burned to a cinder before my eyes. Our counselor had seriously let us down. Today, I am a grown man. But ever since that horrible betrayal, I was unable to trust anybody again.”
I could not have that on my conscience. I was also not crazy about humiliating myself before children. So I concocted a lie. Not an accidental lie, a deliberate “face-saver”, to disguise the fact that I’d forgotten to bring the cutlery.
I don’t know where it came from; I am far from a practiced liar. I do have an active imagination, but, for the most part, I try to use it, not for evil, but for good.
My visage turns solemn, as I say,
“Guys, you wanna gather up here? There’s something I need to tell you.”
The campers quickly semi-circle around me. Are they in trouble, they wonder? The signals suggest they might be. They have never seen me like this before. Their expressions mirror my furrowed concern.
“I’ve been thinking about something,” I begin, not at all certain where I’m going, “and I want to run it by you. You probably don’t know this – they are not allowed to talk about it – but when older campers eat steaks on their cookouts, they do not eat them with a knife and fork.”
“No. The older kids think that, on cookouts, using cutlery is for babies. What they do, instead, is, they cut down sticks, you know, like hotdog sticks, they sharpen them to a point, and when the steaks are ready, they jab them dead-center with their sticks, they lift them off the fire, they hold them up to their mouths, and with no plates, and no cutlery – one bite at time, they eat the steaks right off the sticks.”
“Yes. You know what they call it? ‘Steak-on-a-Stick.’”
My campers are astounded, reacting as if they’d been let in on the secret of some buried treasure.
“Now I was wondering – and if the camp director (I mention his name: Joe) found out about this, I would probably get sent home, because the camp rules say you have to be at least twelve to do this. So you can’t tell anybody about this. Not even your older brothers and sisters. You promise?”
The campers solemnly give their words.
“Okay.” I hesitate, dramatically. And then proceed.
“I was just wondering if you guys thought you were old enough, and mature enough, to take a crack at…’Steak-on-a Stick.’”
An eruption of enthusiasm ensues.
“Yeah! We can do it!”
“We’re not babies!”
“We want 'Steak-on-a-Stick!'”
At that point, after quelling the rambunctiousness, I pretend to have second thoughts.
“You know what? I shouldn’t have even mentioned that. I know you want to. You may even be ready to. But I’m sorry. You’re just too young.”
“We’re not too young! We’re six!”
“Let us try it!”
“We want 'Steak-on-a-Stick!'”
“Think about it,” I mock persist. “If your steak falls of the stick, you’ll have nothing.”
“It won’t fall off!”
“Give us a chance!”
“We want 'Steak-on-a-Stick!'”
I hesitate. A surrendering sigh. And then, I propose a test.
“We’ll try it with one person. But – and there will be no discussion about this whatsoever – if their steak drops the stick…I am getting out the cutlery.”
The campers select their most coordinated cabin-mate. A hotdog stick is prepared, though this time, it’s a “Steak on a Stick” stick. With a democratically agreed-upon strategy in place, and tension hanging in the air, the “Designated Eater”, his face, a contorted mask of focused concentration, carefully lifts the steak from the fire, and methodically nibbles away around the periphery, trying not to penetrate too deeply in any one direction, for fear of a potentially disastrous steak plummeting. As he faces this challenge, his buddies urge him to the “Finish Line” with a combination of encouragement and threat. (“You can do it!” You better do it!”)
Despite some agonizing “near misses” along the way, the last morsel of steak is finally guided safely from stick to mouth. Everyone cheers the accomplishment. The “Designated Eater” burps, and bows.
As previously agreed, the others then follow in turn. To our amazement, and joyous satisfaction, not one camper loses their steak to the ground.
The greatest moment of all?
We are heading back, a “Band of Brothers” celebrating a triumphant mission, when one of my less successful campers, a pudgy outsider for whom the “Steak on a Stick” episode would shine gloriously as a “Summer High Point”, speaks euphorically for them all, when he bellows,
“Hey, Earl! Next time, you can leave that dumb cutlery back in camp!”
You should not be rewarded for telling a lie. But, sometimes,
It works out that way.