The Stick

“Hey look, it floats!”

That was how it first came to my attention. My beloved hickory walking stick had been unceremoniously dumped in the brown river water, solely to satisfy adolescent curiosity. I don’t know which one of the ten-year-olds said it; nor did I know who actually did the deed. I only knew that my stick was fast disappearing in the swift current of the Trinity River, while I had the forced realization that, while it was a treasured possession – it figuratively represented my authority in the woods – I wasn’t going in after it. Nope. Bad choice. Current too swift, not a good swimmer, it’s just a stick. In that order.

Some camp counselor I was; I couldn’t even maintain ownership of a stick! And I was expected to maintain control over a dozen stick dissing kids? There I was nonetheless: standing on a dock on a river, forlornly watching as my trail buddy disappeared around the bend. I immediately second guessed my decision to participate in the city of Houston’s unique magnet school program. The idea that the “classroom” would be east of the city in the Texas piney woods that surrounded a secluded YMCA camp, sounded more like an adventure than work. I signed up immediately.

The deal was rather straightforward: to avoid bussing 5th graders to each other’s schools, the school board decided to send them to magnet schools, new environments that weren’t the turf of any ethnic group. Based on the city’s racial breakdown, 40% white, 40% Latino and 20% Black children were bused to one of six different school sites. The week was split into two groups: the first one arrived Monday and left Wednesday; the second came Thursday and left Friday. For many of these 10-year-olds, it was their first overnighter without Mom or Dad, a definite big deal.

My first group of racially proportioned children scattered in the wind the instant that initial school bus’s doors opened. It didn’t take long for me to learn that calling out “hey you” didn’t exactly command their attention. I soon learned that they did respond to their names, once I’d learned them, so I began to memorize the kids’ names in the three seconds it took them to jump from the top step of the bus to the ground and into the woods.

“Johnny, Miguel, Roberto, Jason, hold it right there!” They collectively froze in their respective tracks, mini statuettes, with a look of ‘how did he know my name?’ on their faces. That year, I became a big proponent of the ‘whatever works’ system of management.

Figuring out how to bridle their pre-pubescent enthusiasm for nature turned out to be a slightly bigger challenge. The regular camp activities, like canoeing, horseback riding, archery, arts and crafts, took up only so much time. The counselors were expected to be creative and to fill the remaining hours of the kids’ three-day stay with productive activities. For me, that became hiking, bridging small streams, damming up small streams, playing in the mud – whatever – boys liked projects. When you captured their collective imaginations, you were a long way to controlling their energy.

Hiking in the woods with my typical crew was not a quiet proposition; 10-year-old boys aren’t bird watchers. However, this was the first year of this camp’s existence, so these woods were fairly virgin. Nonetheless, every creature heard us coming, so it was rare to actually meet up with some of the local fauna. When you did, it was with the snakes. Not only do snakes not have ears, they have no (apparent) sense either. Copperheads, pigmy rattlers, water moccasins and coral snakes were often spotted on our frequent forays through the verdant flora. Why these seemingly lithe creatures were unable to avoid our nuclear marching band was never clear to me. Without fail, we inevitably encountered one variety or another but, somehow – more luck than skill – there wasn’t a single incident that entire school year.

A veteran counselor had taught me that a walking stick was useful in assisting the languid critters’ exit from the trail. I’d found a suitable hickory branch that I shaved over time into a fine walking stick, serving its purpose well. I quickly became pretty adept at snake flickin’ – except for the moccasins – they were fat n’ ornery. Stubborn too. Defiant. I learned that where possible, just go around them, avoid the confrontation. That if you weren’t prepared to kill them, to not mess with them. While killing them would have satisfied the initial urge in some of the boys, the message I wanted to convey was to get along with nature, not eliminate it.

The Stick had morphed into my visual aid, useful in a wide variety of ways. It was excellent for pointing out things, like snakes on the path up ahead, or turkey buzzards circling overhead, or dates on a cemetery headstone. Before their three days were up, it became a contest, a rite of passage for kids to carry the Stick on some portion of the hike, even if it was just the half mile from the cabins to the mess hall. I would occasionally use it to reward one of the boy’s efforts in an activity, letting him carry it and lead the group.

Although it could be construed as a piece of wood or even a club, to most of the kids, the Stick wasn’t thought of as something punitive or threatening at all. It was respected as a tool, a useful aid in our day’s challenges. Intelligent; knowledgeable; even wise in its assistance to our efforts. But, not unlike Piggy’s glasses, it seemed to represent a threat to some, maybe a symbol of too much authority, too much control. Like the glasses, it was an arcane symbol of authority – whoever had it was nominally in charge. And the Stick’s most recent owner felt that it needed to be tested.

And then I was back to watching the swift, dark eddies of the Trinity River carry it away. I suddenly realized how attached I had become to my sole management tool, how I had unconsciously relied on its appeal to extend my control over each group of boys. The sense of loss beginning in the pit of my stomach was to continue to grow over the next few days. But I couldn’t mourn the loss of my trusted assistant just yet – there were twelve pairs of eyes looking my way at the moment.

“Who did that?” I looked back accusingly.

There was no reply. I didn’t push it; there was no point. The Stick was gone, there was no justifiable retribution. There were more Hickory trees in the woods. Finding one and making a new Stick would become a future project.

Originally from Detroit, Doug Guido graduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, after cramming 4-year education into 6 years. Subsequently he set off on a ‘Siddartha’ journey through North America in a ’64 Corvair Greenbriar camper van, covering 20,000 miles in six months. After arriving in Houston Texas, he entered the homebuilding field in the roaring ’70’s and ended up in Tampa in 1981. He has written short stories over the past thirty years, reflecting on various incidents in his life that he hopes are entertaining. The Stick is such a story.

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12 Replies to “The Stick”

  1. A well written story I totally related to despite never being a 10 yr old boy. When on vacation as a child I often walked in nature, came across dams built by flat tailed beavers and examined its construction, learning what the word engineering meant and hoping to find a dam in progress. You brought back many childhood memories, I appreciate that.
    Thank you.

  2. Lovely story! Encompassed within the “stick episode” is the journey of an adult learning about the management of a group of younger versions of himself. It kept my interest until the end.

  3. I enjoyed the story. While I never had quite that experience, I did raise two sons, so I get it. I’ve always felt that the things that go wrong, while annoying and/or worrisome at the time, often become the best memories and stories of an “adventure”.

  4. Well written and very engaging. I could identify with 1st time into-the-wood hikers…..everything was a marvel, including the hiking sticks of my husband and, (tho much smaller) 2 kids. Everyone had to have a “stick”. Now the adventures with my 2 little grandsons. Thanks

  5. Great story. Made me feel that if I were along for the trek I would have the ability to flick off the snakes. All I need is a stick!
    And of course, seeing if the stick could float is exactly what a ten year old boy would do!

  6. Enjoyed your story. First thing when hiking I find a walking stick–the disposition must be wired into our genes. Of course, now it’s more likely to be a cane I reach for.

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