In late March a “flash mob” of about 25 teenagers gathered in the early hours in the main entrance of their high school in Northern Michigan. Each of these young men carried at least one knife. Not penknives, but full-fledged “assault” knives with blades six to twelve inches long.
Most of the teens kept their weapons strapped to their belts or stored in their backpacks. But a few took them out and displayed them openly. Students gathering for the day, and even a few teachers, were made to walk a “gauntlet” through the mob to get to their classrooms.
Suddenly the bell rang. That was the signal. The teens departed to a waiting bus.
What makes this story perplexing is that it wasn’t picked up in the press. The police were never notified. If it were not for Yours Truly, the incident would have been forgotten.
How? I was one of the teens. The year was 1980 and we met as part of Mr Marshall’s Wilderness Survival course. The bus took us to the Pigeon River forest where we were deposited and sent in groups of three to live or die with nothing but what we had strapped to our backs. Everybody lived.
Mr Marshall came to our school for only a short while. He had previously been a fire jumper in Alaska. Somehow he found his way to Michigan and talked officials into letting him teach woodsman skills. We met in a “portable”, a small trailer perched outside the main buildings.
He told stories of how jumpers would get parachuted behind the lines or in advance of wildfires. The men—it was all men—would dig trenches, start smaller fires to deprive the main one of food, and call in water drops. Alaska is big and fires dangerous and unpredictable. The jumpers would often be forced to fend for themselves for days to weeks at a time, battling and occasionally running from the flames. Sometimes they couldn’t run fast enough.
It sounded unbelievably cool. This was in the years Grizzly Adams was on prime-time television and more than one of us swore that we were going to run off into the woods, leaving all cares behind. But first we had to learn how.
There were tall red pines behind the school with convenient branches for climbing. Which we did, and then rappelled from the tops, learning all about locking carabiners, synthetic ropes, and Swiss seats. Swiss seats? It’s a way to tie a rope around your crotch and keister to support your weight as you rappel. We also discovered it was a snazzy method to emphasize certain anatomical features, which brought no end of delight. Nobody died from climbing the trees, though there were some manly bruises and skin gouges we got to show off.
Mr Marshall built his own log cabin using only muscle, the true mark of manliness. First year he felled the logs, second year he started cutting them to size and notching them to fit together. We saw slides of the entire process. I still want to build my own.
The “final exam” was to get let out in the middle of a Northern Michigan winter, build our own shelters, make fires, and live to tell about it. We were not allowed to bring any food (rabbit snares were made). My mother interpreted this to mean “just a little food” and secreted some beef jerky into my bags. But Mr Marshall had a bag inspection and I was busted. Never did I feel so embarrassed. But he bought my story of mom being mom.
Us boys (sorry, girls) could bring clothes, wax-covered matches, some rope, a knife, and, as a sop for the concerned, water purification pills. Finding water was easy because there was the daily snow storm, which turned into an ice storm and then rain, which mixed with the snow and transformed the air to thick fog.
Our lean-to was made of pine branches over a bed of pine needles. It was water tight, more or less. We had a five-foot pile of dry branches for our fire, which was judged inadequate when Mr Marshall inspected our camp. He made us double it, and thank God for that, because an open fire at night eats logs like a politician other people’s money.
Maybe the best part was returning to school midday, all of us filthy and smelling like skunks after a bender (if skunks could drink). We strutted through the halls (still armed) and never felt more confident. A scene from a different world, a world which can’t be reached from here.