Clear your mind: All done? Excellent! Now imagine, if you will a hundred, pre-teen, male and female children. Keep the obvious jokes to yourselves, please – this is a family blog, remember. Now, imagine said children with real, honest-to-God weaponry, and no idea of how to use it. Got that picture in your mind? Excellent! This, folks, is what this installment is all about: weaponized pre-teens.
Now that I have either piqued your interest, or have you seriously considering calling the police to raid my cult compound, let me tell you about three weeks, of three summers, that I spent from the ages of fourteen to sixteen.
Each summer, a Day Camp for area Brownies & Cub Scouts in Winnebago County was held at Searles Park, on Rockford’s Northwest Side. This camp ran for a week, offering hundreds of children the opportunity to learn and do numerous things that would, under normal circumstances, be inaccessible to them. One of those activities, believe it or not, was learning archery from the ground up. And I, of all people, was permitted to be one of their instructors. Of course, there was also a supervising adult instructor who ran the area, because – hey – no one is THAT crazy when it comes to leaving me unsupervised, especially when weapons are involved.
When I was young, my Father decided that it might be about time to take up hunting, and also spend some time with a few of his buddies who were then members of the Blackhawk Field Archers, located North of Rockford in Shirland, Illinois. For whatever inexplicable reason, he thought it might be fun to teach his two sons how to shoot as well. Sometimes he would take us with him, when it came time for him to practice. We did this sporadically for only a couple of summers before we just stopped, as the family finished unraveling. Some of my rare, fond memories of being with my father are of weekend mornings, shooting the target courses there (think golf, but with a bow and arrow, and you sort of get the idea).
What I didn’t realize, until much later in my life, was that I was actually pretty good at shooting what is commonly known as ‘Freestyle Archery’. It is so named because no sights, pins, releases, accessories, doo-dads, lasers, homing-beacons, rocket propellant, exploding broad heads, etc. are used. It’s just you, a re-curve bow, a string, and an arrow. Back then, I didn’t even know that what I was learning had a sub-categorical moniker.
Archery, I have to admit, is something of an art form. As with using a firearm, there are myriad things to know and consider in order to correctly place a shot exactly where you wish it to end up. Unlike using a firearm, however, there are far more variables that come into play when shooting archery – even more so when doing it freestyle. Some of you may be disagreeing right about now, wondering where I get off saying something ‘insane’ like that. Well, I’m also a certified NRA Sharpshooter, so I feel as though I’m at least mildly qualified to make that assessment: Archery is far more nuanced and difficult, in my humble opinion. Not that shooting a firearm is a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination – it’s an art form as well. Feel free to send me hate mail – I can handle the derision – so long as you can wait your turn in line.
I digress. Back to the story at hand, already in progress:
During the summers, we under-aged folks were permitted to sign up, through Boy Scout Headquarters, to work at the Day Camp (and be paid the then princely sum of $50.00 for the week!), so long as we were full-time Boy Scouts and could meet the requisite criteria in our particular field of choice (if any were required). Archery, for obvious reasons, isn’t something that you can just turn a novice loose with – especially not when attempting to teach it to groups of fifteen to twenty attention-deficient boys and girls per rotation is concerned. Fortunately, I had cleared my Archery Merit Badge at my first Summer Camp experience the prior year. My experience there, coupled with a referral from the Counselor, and my ‘interview’ with the woman who ran the Archery portion of the Day Camp were enough to earn me a spot in that vector of the Camp rotation.
Each dew-blanketed morning, I would get up at the crack of dawn, hop on my trusty bicycle, and pedal the two and a half miles to the park. I was fortunate that, two years earlier, a new segment of bike path had been completed. This particular section had an entry connection on Auburn Street, and the path itself led directly through Searles Park. I could ride the whole way in peace, unconcerned with traffic, enjoying the mornings, the nature happening around me, meandering Kent Creek, and the overt tranquility. I wish my commute, now, was that peaceful.
The kindly, feisty matron who ran the Archery area was named Kay DeMarco. For each of the three years that I was fortunate enough to work at the Winnebago Scout Day Camp she headed up this area, sacrificing her time and energy to make the world a better place for the next generation without a single dime of compensation. Kay was a perfect choice for the role of overseer of this particular facet of camp activity. From the leadership perspective, she knew how to obtain – and maintain – the attention of the children (something I was lousy at). She would go over the rules, explain the equipment, and the basics: Arrow goes that way, don’t shoot anybody, you’re not Robin Hood, and don’t poke your eye out.
Once the bows were in hand, and the kids were all standing so that they faced safely downrange, the real cat herding began. Kay and I (and – sometimes – a third, ancillary, volunteer) would all keep an eye on the eager Scouts as they nocked their first arrows (terrifying) in preparation for their first real archery experience (exhilarating). In hindsight, as I’m writing this, I’m sort of wondering if they would even allow this option at a Youth Scout Day Camp in this litigious day and age. It was, to be sure, dangerous. Regardless of the minimal weight strength and size of the bows, or the bluntness of the arrows, mortal damage could still have been done – much like fire, pocket knives, hatchets, and guns, which are all also found in the annals of ‘stuff you learn to wield with the proper respect as a Scout’. Our job was to make sure that those kids had fun, learned something, and all walked away with the complete assortment of their myriad body components intact.
My part in all of this immediately became watching the children to see who needed help with fundamentals, who could benefit from a more advanced set of instructions, and who looked like they were most likely to shoot someone because they thought that we were dead wrong in our assessment and that they were, in fact, the reincarnation of Robin Hood. What I was able to bring to the table, for these kids, was the ability to instill in them the basal fundamentals of the sport, as well as confidence. If you’ve never shot archery before, then you may not realize that it’s not nearly as simple as pulling a string and letting it go. If you have, then you’re nodding along as you read because you get precisely what I’m saying.
I enjoyed helping the natural talents with their release, their draw, their breathing. The kids who struggled I spent extra time with, helping them to correct their often inherent ‘bad habits’: rolling their extended-arm’s shoulder into the bow; ‘pulling’ on the release; not anchoring on their jaw prior to – and during – release; not using their extended arm as a lever during the draw; breathing at the wrong time; dropping their extension arm as the arrow was leaving the bow, etc.
Some of the kids, God bless them, just weren’t cut out for the sport no matter how much we tried to help them or, to their credit, they gave their all. I suck at every sport except Archery and Volleyball – and I’m only marginally good at those – so I’m right there when it comes to feeling their pain on that front. To their credit, they’re probably multi-billionaire oil tycoons or inventors today because everyone is really good at something, and the Scouting program has a long, august history of turning out higher-echelon workers, thinkers, and citizens.
The children who were on the proverbial fence, however, grew more confident, excited, and competent. It was a joy that I had not known existed when I saw the proud smile on one of their faces, after having exercised all of the fundamentals correctly, resulting in their first bulls-eye hit. Those smiles and shouts of pride are priceless life-gems that no one can ever abscond with. Even as I recollect this, I find myself smiling.
As the week would wear on, I could see the spark of a love for the sport set some of the children’s spirits aflame. Others just muddled through it because they either just weren’t interested in it or were not all that interested in becoming better at it. And that was okay, too. Those children were there to gain new life experiences. And that’s precisely what they received, even if my part was only a fleeting blip on their life’s expansive radar.
All these years later I came to realize that I, too, was learning something not only from Kay, but from the Scouts as well. I didn’t realize at the time that I was honing my management, public speaking, and teaching skills but – in hindsight – I have come to know that I was doing precisely that. Somewhere, out there in the wide world, I hope is at least one of those children. I envision him or her with a family of their own, enjoying archery with one of their own children as they – just perhaps – recall that wacky Boy Scout, all those summers ago, who taught them how to do the thing right, and do it well.