Crouching low, piling up sticks, my son and his fellow Cub Scouts kept up a steady patter. Nine- and ten-year-olds, it would seem, are incapable of taking any action without commentating on it. Loudly announcing their actions to each other, their play-by-play continued for their umpteenth attempt:
"I'm putting lots of dry pine needles in the center."
"I'll make a teepee from the bigger sticks."
"Make sure to leave lots of air underneath or it won't burn."
"OK, I think we're ready to try again. Get the instructor."
The boys stood to wait for the test.
Stepping over to join them, the instructor, a college student in a tan uniform, eyed the build. "Where do you want the match?" she asked. In order to limit the chance of injury, she was the only one allowed to handle the matches.
The boys gestured to the pine needles, and she dutifully lit a match and held it close to the would-be tinder. The needles caught fire and then curled up, turning immediately to smoky ash. Though placed carefully around the needles, the twigs designed to be kindling didn't light. Disappointed, the boys sunk back down onto their haunches, decimated their build, and started over.
As I took photos from the sidelines, I marveled at their problem-solving attempts. Only momentarily disappointed, they sprang back into action, throwing out ideas and carefully arranging another semblance of a campfire structure. Their eyes flashed confidence, and even though I could see the obvious flaws -- too much crowding the center of the teepee, kindling sticks too thick to ignite quickly -- I held my breath as another match neared the structure, hoping.
After another match fizzled out, they groaned. "Come on!" one of them exclaimed. But that moment, too, passed quickly and they set to work again.
A few years ago, I would have squatted down next to them and tried to help my son. I would have made suggestions, perhaps pointed out some sticks and some arrangements to try. These days, he's at the Webelos level, or the highest level of Cub Scouts before moving up to Scouts BSA. He needs to learn to do it himself, and so do his friends. So I kept my mouth shut and left the instructing to the instructor.
Undeterred, they continued their perpetual cycle of attempt, failure, try again. Squatting, building, standing, sinking again. Building grand visions of bonfires, while their clumsy hands couldn't even cobble together a low flame.
As I watched this dance, as if in fast motion, I saw them stumbling through that pre-adolescent dance of growth and disappointment. One moment, they're perceptive, thoughtful, and confident, striding forward with chests held high. The next moment, they crumble into doubt, needing a hug, or wiping away frustrated tears.
But however childish they may feel inside, individually, however fragile they may admit to being at home with no one but their parents to see, together they become blustery in their determination. They may not always believe in themselves, but they believe in the group.
That sort of flexibility becomes invaluable in uncertain days, the sort of days that I couldn't even have imagined a year ago as I watched this scene play out. Since then, I've watched some of the same boys, gathering in masks, giving each other "air high-fives" and combining forces to clean up a local creek. I've seen them sauntering along the rip-rap, finding flat rocks to skip along the waves, in between stopping to scoop up bottles and plastic bags. All the while staying six feet apart.
How do you do it? I want to ask them. How have you become so much greater, so much bolder and braver than we had any right to hope?
This past weekend, my family watched "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first time my son had seen it, although he was familiar with the story, having read the book with his dad. I had other things I should have been doing, but I sat down and watched this movie for possibly the fifth time. Yet, I've never seen it the same way.
This time, I saw myself in Gandalf and saw my son and his friends as the cheerful, indefatigable hobbits. Naive about the world, perhaps, but so very much more brave and capable than anyone could have predicted. For all their childish glee, their pranks and jokes, they rose above it all and took on a challenge that even bigger, skilled heroes could not.
Unexpectedly, I caught my eyes tearing up at moments that haven't impacted me that way for years. Every time the hobbits stood up, had each other's backs, forged on in spite of insurmountable obstacles, I couldn't help squeezing the wavy-haired boy at my side. I made such an audible whimper during the following famous exchange that my son looked at me in astonishment.
Gandalf: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
An eon ago, in the late summer of 2019, my son's group finally succeeded in evincing a small but smoldering fire to lick at the larger sticks and grow into a promising little blaze. Then, being hobbits, they jumped around so exuberantly, they accidentally kicked the sticks over.