I was 10 or 11 when they sent me and a few others to a 4-H camp about 50 miles from Helmville. It was a big deal. Most of us had never spent an extended time away from home unless it was with a relative. The camp was to last a week.
Helmville was a homogeneous town in those days. There were 30 or 40 of us in the grade school, and with the exception of the two bartenders, the owner of the general store and the local priest, all of our families owned or worked on ranches. Most of us were related.
Camp was another story. We were going to mix with strangers from faraway places like Helena and even beyond. With the uniformity of upbringing and family, we weren't accustomed to the natural competition that exists when children come from more eclectic backgrounds.
Being the eldest of a family of six, and one of the first born in the post-World War II baby boom, I was accustomed to being in the lead of most activities. I wasn't cognizant of that role; it was just the way things were.
I fell in with a group at camp, but was relegated to the end of the line. Being short for my age and younger than many of the others, I became a “me too” follower. It was a strange feeling and not a pleasant one, although I couldn't articulate it at the time.
One day, half a dozen of us were at the little lake when someone spotted a water snake in the weeds. The others were afraid to grab the poor thing, but I had been catching snakes in our pond at home for years. I saw my chance to be the star.
I splashed into the water and grabbed the snake. It was bigger and stronger than others I had captured, but I wasn't going to turn it loose in front of the group. I was on my way to heroism.
The snake managed to get its head loose and bite me on the hand. I dropped it on the ground, figuring I had made my name just by having the courage to catch it. But some fool ran to the counselors screaming that I was snake-bitten. The confusion started.
The adults came running and hurried me to the lodge, where they bedded me on a plastic sofa and covered me with a blanket.
While they were getting a car ready to rush me to Helena, my companions sidled into the room and gathered around the couch in a silent, unwashed herd. I didn't think I was in danger, but the little group was sure I had met my end. Their fatalism worried me a little, but I was finally getting some notice, even if it meant dying on a cheap, plastic couch.
Finally, the counselors hauled me out to the old station wagon, and we roared off to Helena at a lightning 55 mph. I was feeling fine, but didn't want to ruin the mood. I was the star and was going to milk the role.
We got to the doctor's office, and after a short wait he walked in, took a cursory look at my finger and made a careless swipe over the bite mark with some common iodine. He dropped my injured hand like a piece of waste and left the room. I don't remember that he said a word to anyone.
They let me sit up on the way back to camp. I didn't even have a bandage to wear as a sign of my courage – not even a Band-Aid. All I had was a smear of iodine.
I hoped there would be a group waiting for my triumphant return, but that didn't happen. They had forgotten me to pursue other adventures before the old station wagon was out of sight. Chagrin is a heavy feeling for a child who has been on the cusp of martyrdom.
After showing the boys my unimpressive wound, I fell in at the tail end of the pre-pubescent tribe where I was before the snake incident. I had been the star for the 20 minutes they had gathered around to watch their friend die of snake bite, but at least I had that.
That evening they took me down to the pond and showed me the snake which they had stoned to death in revenge for having the audacity to try and protect itself. I felt guilty when I saw it. I knew I had killed the poor creature by trying to garner attention from a group of fickle peers. The snake was a victim of my childish ego, and I avoided that spot during the last days of camp.
I have a lot of those things in my life.
Richard Geary is a rancher in Helmville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.