One of the benefits of youth is a lack of cynicism. We believed in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and those things and more lent a sense of magic to life. As we grew older and we became suspicious, these myths were broken and often gently, so when the neighborhood punk –call him Billy Westerman– vented his sociopathy and laughed at you as he revealed that Santa was really mom and dad. he was only partially fulfilled. Our rising cynicism prepared us, bolstered by our increasing worldliness.
Some of us learned himiliation in similar ways. When I was seven my parents sent me off to summer camp. Laurel Glen Camp was typical in that it offered swimming, fishing, horseback riding, crafts, hiking and, of course, the Annual Snipe Hunt.
From our arrival the counselors started to built our anticipation for the great hunt. We heard about the wiley animal and how difficult they were to catch. Why, in the twenty years the camp had operated, while there were close calls, no one had managed to catch a snipe but they were sure that this would be the year. Our group, being so much smarter than those (snort) former campers, was destined to do what none of the others were able to achieve.
The night of the hunt finally came and we were told to get our flashlight and pillow case and come to the fire circle. As darkness fell, we would sit around the fire and listen to tales of California history, stories of those rugged men and their families who sought gold in the very hills we sat in. They told us about the spirits of the indians and the mystical animals that wandered the forests still. But tonight they told us how to catch the elusive snipe; a creature that was part bird, part rabbit and part lizard. It was not a dangerous animal, but it was lightning fast, incredibly smart, and compelled to investigate sources of light and immitations of their own call. We were to sing ‘snipe-snipe-snipe’ in high squeaky tones. They said perhaps we’d heard a snipe calling while at camp and didn’t recognize it. We were told to be silent and listen …and sure enough, off in the distance we could hear the plaintive cry of snipe-snipe-snipe. That was, you see, how they got their names.
We wiggled with excitement as they explained how we were to spread through the woods and find a spot with a thick bush where we should hold our pillowcase open and hold the flashlight behind it. Our sing song snipe call, the light and the animal’s curiosity would sure cause a snipe to creep into the pillow case to investigate. When it did, we would close the pillow case quickly and hold it out away from our bodies. While a snipe didn’t bite, they had sharp little claws that might scratch us.
We spread out and for the next hour and a half the woods were alive with the call of the snipe as thirty children urged a snipe into their pillow case with every grain of their being. Occasionally a counselor would shout out “There’s one!” only to follow it up with “Awww, just missed it It was sooo close!”
Finally, the gathering whistle was blown and we marched back to the fire circle in defeat to have our noses counted and to hear commiseration from the counselors. “You did your best.” they said. “You were better than any previous group.” they told us. “No one has ever come so close as you.” they lied.
The following day it was time to go home and families came to retrieve their campers. Of course they heard all about the snipe hunt. It took no time at all for older brothers or sisters to burst out laughing and explain to us there was no such thing as a snipe and made inferences to a lack of cognitive power on our gullible selves. This, of course, caused a reckoning in which we, the scammed, approached the counselors and demanded that we be told the truth. Our dejection deepened immeasurably as they confessed their sins of deception. Some of us rode home with lower lips trembling, the stain of humiliation and betrayal spreading red across our cheeks and making our ears hot.
Time would pass and the memories of the many fun things we did during our time at camp would finally overwhelm the negativity of being the brunt of a practical joke. As more time went by, we would realize that we had learned a great lesson, that we should think about those things presented to us and never to take ourselves too seriously. A kind of parallel to the advisers who accompanied the centurions of the Roman Legions reminding the commanders to “Remember, thou art mortal.”