Serious MomSense column published on (click HERE for the link)

My boys came back from their respective Scout campouts this summer with various grievances: gross food, bad weather, nasty bug bites. I smiled and reminded them that it all builds character.

That being said, I’m well aware that not all character-building Scout campouts are created equal. Take the survival campout my brother Dan went on at age 13, for example.

Each boy was dropped off alone in the middle of nowhere with a blanket, a coat, one empty tin can, one match, one knife and lots of critters to keep him company. The goal was to survive for 24 hours.

In theory, this was a piece of cake because these Boy Scouts had “mastered” every outdoor survival skill needed while earning the required merit badges. In reality, most young boys have limited retention capabilities and only vaguely remember to stay away from plants with three leaves.

Only after excessive goofing around did the boys decide they should probably get to work starting their fires.

Most of them didn’t fully appreciate the significance of having only one match at their disposal and watched their chances of staying warm that night go up in small wafts of smoke under their hastily-constructed stick teepees.

The Scout leaders — to their credit, and who had likely planned this all along — had stationed the boys relatively close to one other along the banks of a stream. So when a boy started to panic after his match failed to light a fire, he discovered that shouting could easily determine the whereabouts of a fellow Scout. If there was no useable match in the newly-formed alliance, they would simply resume shouting.

In this manner, all seven boys eventually reunited and found that there was but one good match among them.

Knowing that temperatures during that November night were likely to dip into the 30’s, the adrenaline-fueled Scouts set about constructing history’s most-prayed-over stick teepee. Lighting the precious match resulted in barely a smolder, at which time the boys panicked and started grabbing any leaves and sticks within reach to throw onto the teepee until it eventually caught fire.

The boys had never felt so relieved and they fed the fire with great care throughout the night.

Regrettably, starting the fire had zapped so much energy that they hadn’t given food much thought. Try as they might, no one could quite remember how to differentiate between edible and poisonous plants, so they went hungry except for a wild cucumber someone found and tried to boil in his tin can.

My mom remembers Dan’s phone call on Saturday afternoon: “Mom, I’m back. Bring food and I AM SERIOUS!”

The ordeal was over.

Until Sunday morning, when Dan woke up with a red and slightly swollen face. By Monday, his face resembled a puffer fish, his eyes were completely shut, and his fingers were so inflamed that two of them had fused together.

The doctor took one look at him and asked how he had ever managed to expose himself to so much poison oak.

Those leaves the boys had grabbed to start the fire — the leaves they had fed the fire with all night — were poison oak.

Without going into too much detail, every boy at the campout had poison oak on virtually every part of his anatomy, as proper hygiene such as hand-washing hadn’t been strictly adhered to. And because Dan’s skin is especially susceptible, he was affected everywhere the smoke came into contact with his skin. Dan was given multiple shots and had to stay home from school for a week.

So after listening to my boys’ campout grievances, I could only offer a token amount of sympathy. And then I said,

“It could be so much worse. Just ask Uncle Dan.”