our wrecked van

If you aren’t part of Scouting, a Camporee is a Scout camping event that includes multiple troops from across a district or council. It’s the biggest thing all year, outside of summer camp and is just a small taste of the National Jamboree or other larger regional events. They can be a big deal. Whenever possible, Avner typically reacts well to fresh air and being outdoors. We’d later be told that sunshine makes for good therapy for hypersomina/KLS.

In the middle of September  2016, the Suwannee River Area Council Camporee was held at St George Island, in the state park. Several of us decided to bring bicycles. Several also brought fishing gear. The area is known for good surf fishing and locals can catch their limit of redfish if they know what they are doing. We had just spent a week without power at home, a weekend camping trip by the beach didn’t seem so bad.

At the time, I was driving a 2001 four door Prius. Barbara had a Sienna van that seated eight. I had a bad habit of borrowing the van for camping trips and not getting the scouts to clean it out completely. Barbara made me promise to return the van as clean or cleaner that I started. 

We started later than we’d hoped. As we wound our way west down highway 98, the sun was setting and I only had one good eye. Making out the road ahead challenged me and I hoped that we could get to the island before dark. The area is very rural and street lights rarely punctuate the darkness between clusters of beach homes and businesses. By the time I got into the park, it seemed very dark to me. It may have been the bikes, but I don’t recall why we didn’t bring the church van to the camporee. Regardless, I missed the turnoff for the youth campsite. 

The phone rang. It was Crill. “Hey, you planning to camp at the end of the island tonight?” he drawled. He explained that he was watching our progress with “Find My Friends” on his iPhone. He saw that I had passed the turn for the campsite. I turned the van around in the dark. I had scouts watching for the campsite signs. They weren’t as prominent as I’d hoped they’d be, but I finally made it to that scouting village in the park. 

We’ve been involved in camping since 2011. Even now, I’m still amazed to watch the transformation of a green field into the small village of a group campsite. It’s just as amazing to me, to watch it transformed back to an empty space in a park. It’s not just a tent or a collection of tents. Each tent becomes a temporary home. Those homes are organized into small neighborhoods. In our troop, we use our own camping gear. Some troops have community tents, but not our troop. The result is a colorful bouquet of colorful tents that reflect the personalities of the scouts who set them up. 

After my knee surgery, I acquired a tall tent that I didn’t need to crawl into. It became the scoutmasters tent for a while. Crill and I would share the tent and often be joined by one or more assistant scoutmasters. It was an 8 person blue Coleman tent that was dubbed the Taj Mahal because of its large footprint compared to the other tents used by the troop. However, by the time two to four adults, and their gear were in the tent, it was very comfortable and functional without feeling cavernous. I would grow to dislike that particular tent for several reasons, lack of ventilation on warm nights was near the top of that list. 

Finally after groping my way down dark roads for the last several miles, we parked the car and the scouts unloaded their gear. A campsite was chosen for our troop from the locations still available in our temporary village.

Our camping protocol is very straightforward. Troop gear first. Only after the kitchen fly is raised and the stoves setup, are the scouts allowed to set up their personal tents, and/or go to bed. The first pieces of equipment were usually the propane lanterns. They put out thousands of lumens and make it possible to work on the campsite without personal flashlights.

The scouts sort and arrange the skeleton of the rain fly, then tie the tarp to the structure to function as the roof. Finally the legs are attached and the mess tent stands on its own. The stoves, cookware, dishes, propane tanks, work tables and coolers are all staged in place. We have a large tub with a single high power burner for hearing the dishwater. This is our community center when we camp as a troop. It dominates and defines our space at a gathering like a camporee. 

Finally, the site was ready. It was 9:00 pm or later. It was really dark and we were tired from work and school and setting up camp. Cots and sleeping bags were welcome sites. In the Taj Mahal we spoke of the camporee schedule and the scouts and fishing. Then we all got the weather alerts. There was an approaching thunderstorm.  

A tent, according to Boy Scouts of America is not adequate shelter for a thunderstorm. A tent near a beach, on an island even less so. So, Crill and the assistant scoutmasters created a plan. We arrived in our own vehicles, which were parked nearby. If the storms came our way, we would evacuate from our tents to our vehicles with the scouts we brought with us. I went tent to tent to pass the word to all of the scouts. They knew where the vehicles were. On our word, they were prepared to relocate in the night to vehicles, which were safe shelter.

September in Northwest Florida is a gamble on the weather regardless of the storm we had coming and this weekend provided no break yet from the summer heat that followed the hurricane. I slept on top of my sleeping bag, until the wind kicked up. Ironically, it was the first decent breeze in the tent to make us halfway comfortable. It was nearing midnight and we heard the thunder rumbling. I grabbed the keys to my wife’s van, a pair of shoes and started rousting scouts from their tents. 

From our vantage point, it looked like the worst of the weather was across the bay over the mainland. Regardless, our weather hazards training instructed us to seek appropriate shelter, so the scouts I brought with me piled back in the van. The windows fogged immediately. I ran the air conditioner periodically, while it rained outside. Finally the storm vanished and we shuffled back to our tents. 

Saturday morning was warm. We gathered for the flag raising ceremony and morning points of interest. We don’t have announcements. The mere mention of the word “announcements” will send every scout into boisterous song about the boredom of announcements. Some of us with bicycles, grabbed fishing tackle and rode toward the town of St George Island to fish from the old bridge. There was a detour into the tourist shop as well. 

When we returned for lunch, we discovered that Crill had a special surprise for the troop. He had packed an old, hand cranked ice cream maker. There was a pivot bolt missing from the bottom, so we improvised with aluminum foil. It was a huge success. Everyone wanted to crank the contraption and everyone wanted ice cream in the heat. It was as if Crill had performed a miracle at the campsite. 

At some point during the weekend, I lost track of the car keys. It’s a common occurrence on camping weekends. We are mostly on foot and we seldom have to drive during camping weekends, especially during a camporee, because activities are planned to happen at the camp location. 

Sunday morning, I woke to find Avner sleeping in the van with his buddy, Michael. I must have asked for something from the van and never got the keys back. Avner and Michael took advantage of the opportunity to create an air conditioned bunk house for the last sticky night in camp. Words were exchanged about the intent of camping and not running down the battery or gas tank. 

Everyone took down their tents and packed up the troop kitchen. We piled into our vehicles wearing our full Class A uniforms after a few quick loops around the parking lot on our bikes. I recall discussing the topic of sustainability with Colin, one of the older scouts in the troop. We stopped briefly to fill the gas tank and headed towards home, Avner and I in front and the other scouts behind us. 

As we got closer to home, a car in front of us stopped to wait for a break in oncoming traffic. I stopped a safe distance behind. Seconds later, the rear windshield exploded, showering everyone with glass.

The driver who hit us,  claimed to be changing radio stations when he hit us. I got out of the driver’s seat to inspect the damage. My bicycle and Avner’s new bike were destroyed. The post of the bike carrier was pushed into the rear door of the van, so that the gate couldn’t be lifted. The side gate wouldn’t open. All the scouts evacuated through the front passenger door. Somehow, we fished out our belongings through the gaping hole that had been the rear windshield.

I stated the obvious to the other driver. “You just hit a van full of Boy Scouts.” I was checking the scouts for injuries. I turned around to find Avner offering assistance to the other driver. I called Crill to let him know that we had a collision but all the scouts appeared ok. Someone called 911. A state trooper and an ambulance arrived in short order and I managed to get the van out of the road. I called Barbara.

“I won’t be able to bring the van back to you, cleaner that I took it.” I explained that we had been hit and the van was undrivable. By that point, the other Geoff the other Assistant Scoutmaster and Crill had turned around to pick up the scouts from our van. Barbara was coming to get me and Avner. 

We would all be sore for a couple weeks, but there were no other injuries of note. Our insurance company would total out the van. I’d have to pursue the other driver’s insurance about reimbursement. 

I discovered that one of the local bike shops had a rental fleet and was selling off the previous year’s models. I replaced by beloved 29er with two bikes from the rental fleet. A 27” mountain bike and a road bike for my triathlons. Avner replaced his bike with the first bike he rode at the shop where he purchased the first mountain bike. I tried to convince him to look around for a nicer used bike, but he didn’t want to shop around. 

It was the fist time I would visit my Council office to file an incident report. I became familiar with the process. It became part of the basis of my admonishment to the scouts, don’t do anything that results in me having to fill out paperwork.

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