Who Would You Eat First?

Photo by he zhu on Unsplash

I was a Boy Scout leader for 17 years. It was great fun. It gave me the chance to guide young people on their way to adulthood, which is a nicer way of saying I helped prepare them for the sick, dark, complex world that awaits them. I tried to involve myself in as many outdoor activities as possible, as allowed by a heavy work schedule. I did this because it allowed me a second childhood and the activities were fun.

I involved myself in their activities because I realized after a couple of years the kids enjoyed having their adult leaders with them. We did activities such as hatchet throwing, shooting a bow, obstacle courses, races, and once we went whitewater rafting. We played sports, like broomball, and I was sure I was going to collapse trying to keep up with teenagers. Trying to run on ice was incredibly difficult, made even more difficult by 15-year-old boys throwing themselves at your feet.

Most adults would not get involved; they’d use “being out of shape” as an excuse when they were insecure about failing in front of their kids. I felt like they wanted to maintain an aura of infallibility; that they couldn’t maintain respect if they were slow on an obstacle course, for example. I never thought much about losing competitions; it was fun, the scouts enjoyed it, and that was good enough for me.

I taught wilderness survival skills. These weren’t Special Forces level survival skills. We weren’t trying to turn them into assassins. These were basic skills such as how to start a fire, knot tying, building a shelter, reading a map with a compass, how to use an axe, purifying water, outdoor cooking, and basic first aid.

The Rule Of Threes

We taught them to understand the rule of threes, which states:

• You can survive three minutes without air, or in icy water.

• You can survive three hours in a harsh environment (extreme heat or cold).

• You can survive three days without drinkable water.

• You can survive three weeks without food.

(I was surprised when I learned you could survive three weeks without food. The first time I heard this was from a first responder who is giving a talk about a young man who spent a week lost in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. He survived by sheltering inside a fallen tree trunk.)

The rule of threes helps you understand your priorities if you’re in a difficult situation. You need to find shelter before you find food or water, for example. You need to find a source of water before you worry about food. Life will become uncomfortable as you become hungry, but you’ll survive as there will be rescuers looking for you.

Scout leaders had distinct skill sets they taught. One of our leaders was excellent at teaching knot tying. Another was an excellent outdoor cook who took our experience beyond weiner water soup to having cobbler desserts at every camp out. Each time we taught, we tried to get our scouts to think about how these skills applied in real life.

The bowline knot is known as a rescue knot. It’s used to create a fixed loop at the end of a rope to secure an object. It can be tied around a person’s waist and will not slip when pressure is applied; you can lift a person out of a chasm without the rope slipping and squeezing them to death. When we taught knot tying, we took the time to teach life skills. We’d ask when it was appropriate to use each knot or how you would handle rescuing a person in different situations.

One of my teaching points was trying to get young people to understand a concept many adults can’t grasp; that they don’t have to like each other to work on the same team or to work towards a common goal. You put your differences aside so you can be successful.

What If

I loved to play ”What if?” scenarios with our scouts, particularly when we were camping in the woods. My “What If?” questions ranged from simple questions about first aid to the wildest situations I could think of. If one of our scouts was using an axe, I’d ask others around him what they’d do if he mis-swung and was severely injured.

We’d cook supper, then sit around a campfire as night fell. I’d continue asking them questions.

”What if the zombie apocalypse breaks out right now and we’re here in this wilderness?”

“What if all of our electronics died right now? What would we do? How would we discover the cause? What do you think might have happened? How would we contact our families?”

They didn’t realize it, but I was leading them down a path towards a bleak existence.

“What if we couldn’t get home, and we were stuck here in this wilderness? How would we survive? What food could we eat here? Where would we get water?”

All were questions based on survival. It was always interesting to hear their answers. It wasn’t difficult to keep them engaged, as I encouraged silly, creative answers along with those that were serious. We’d discuss the subject for a bit. Then there would come a lull in the conversation. I always asked after it got quiet for at least a minute. It seemed more dramatic, the sound of the wind in the trees, everyone staring into the campfire, contemplating God knows what. It was then I’d look at one of them and ask,

“Who would you eat first?”

They’d be startled at first. They’d straighten up. They’d continue being quiet as they tried to figure out what I just said. At first, they’d think it was a joke because no one ever thinks that far into survival. We live in a time of so much abundance, being desperate enough to eat another human being is unconscionable. I’d give them about a minute, then ask again, this time with more insistence.

“I’m very serious. Who would you eat first?”

If I got no response, I’d continue to coax them.

“If we’re stuck here in the wilderness, you must eat to survive. Given that you guys couldn’t come up with a sustainable amount of food when you were asked, it’s obvious at some point you will be forced to eat someone. So… who will it be?”

One of them, typically one of the funny, sarcastic kids, would go, “Oh, I’d eat Tim first.”

The others would stare at him for a second. I NEVER asked why they picked Tim. I already knew the answer.

Humans individually are hard to predict. Humans in a group, not so much. You can take a group of humans and lock them in a room together. After two hours, they won’t always pick a leader, but they will pick the person they hate. In this case, their choice would be obvious. They’d pick the nerdiest kid amongst us, the one who didn’t fit in as well as the rest.

“Congratulations,” I’d say, “You’ve killed the only one of you who can cook. Once Tim is dead, the rest of you will probably die from poorly cooked meat.”

Each one of our scouts typically had a talent they were better at than anyone else. Some kids were good knot-tyers. Some were good at starting a fire from scratch or building a shelter. Precious few of them wanted to cook, but the ones that did were pretty good at it.

Every person brought something to the table. I had to know them well enough to point it out. My question was part of an exercise to get them to recognize each person has value. Being part of a successful group didn’t require everyone to be the same. I wanted them to understand it was their differences that made them stronger. I have always believed that. All those differences in strengths and personality make everyone better than they are individually.

The discussion became pretty lively, sometimes funny and sometimes disgusting as we wondered about what body parts would be most desirable.

I was surprised they never picked me first. It seemed to me I was the most logical choice. I was older, less physically capable than them, and I wasn’t very good at many of the same survival skills I tried to teach. I told myself it was because I was always entertaining. It’s more likely it was because of the power structure under which we live. It isn’t just the nerds that go first, it’s those at the lowest level of society.

Once, as we returned home and the parents were picking up their scouts, a parent came up to me and asked, “Did you really ask them who’d they’d eat first if they were stuck in the wilderness without food?”

“Yes.”

I explained we were talking about extreme survival, then I lied and said, “I encouraged them to bring it up at their next family holiday dinner. I thought it might lead to a fun family discussion.” I never heard from anyone whether that happened. I’m sure that parent explained to their son it might not be appropriate for a family discussion on account of how drastic it might seem.

I counted on the taboo of cannibalization to be sure my scouts would remember our conversations. I wanted to make an impact on how they see the world around them. I wanted them to understand the beauty in their differences as human beings; to appreciate each other for who they are and the skills they bring to the table. I sincerely hope none of us ever end up being served on a table, and if we do, there better be really good reasons why.

I Gave Participation Trophies To Kids Who Didn’t Want Them

I coached youth soccer for a decade. I coached in a recreational league where the goal was to teach the game of soccer. Other goals included teaching kids how to be part of a team, sportsmanship, and how to handle winning and losing with grace.

One year, I had a team that didn’t win a single game. I felt bad about it. I felt as if I had failed as a coach. Towards the end of the season, I picked up a few of the kids to drive them to a game in our van. They were doing their usual travel chatter when I interrupted and asked, “Does it bother you guys we haven’t won a single game this season?”

They were quiet for a moment, then one kid spoke up and said, “It would be nice to win at least one game, but it doesn’t really bother me.” The other boys around him agreed. They’d enjoyed themselves and had fun. It bothered me that one kid was my son. I had hoped he was more competitive, but this was one of those moments where you have to realize this isn’t about you.

I kept telling myself that to make myself feel better as a coach; if they were having fun, then that was the point of playing rec league soccer.

Our club has a big event at the end of every season. Rec teams of all ages would gather at the fields for the last big get together. There were bounce houses, concession stands, and other fun activities for families. It was a good time.

As a coach, it was time to say goodbye to my team. We normally gathered together for a few moments, my kids and their parents. I said nice things about the season; what a joy it was to have all of them on my team, and thanking their parents for the opportunity to coach their kids. I meant this every year; in my decade of coaching, I experienced very few problems with either kids or parents. I would point out how much a particular kid improved, or how well our goalies played. I tried to find something good to say about each of them.

My last act of the season was handing out the participation trophies. I didn’t think too much about it. Each kid would walk up, I’d hand them a trophy, and we’d say goodbye. What I discovered was there were three distinct types of interactions involving the participation trophies:

The first type of kid, the most common, grabbed the trophy without a thought, as if they’d been given a bottle of water.

The second type would stop, look at the participation trophy for a moment, then look at me as if to wonder why they were getting a trophy when they didn’t win a championship.

Then there’s the third type who doesn’t want the trophy at all. They have to be forced to take it. At the end of the losing season, I had one kid who looked at me and then asked out loud, “Why are you giving this to me?”

I continued to hold the trophy out to him.

“I am required to hand these out at the end of the season.”

“We didn’t win anything.”

I looked at him firmly and said, “You have to take this trophy because if you don’t, I’ll have to take it home and I already have enough of them filling up my garage.”

He hesitated. I thrust the trophy at him.

He shrugged, gave me a look, and took the trophy. He had to have realized in that moment we were both at odds with the universe and there wasn’t a damned thing we could do about it other than play along.

Kids are smarter than we think. They understand what’s going on. They fully understand they’re trapped in a world run by adults who come up with all the rules. They’re required to follow them no matter how dumb they are.

One year we were told to not keep score. The kids I coached that year were five or six years old. I didn’t explicitly tell them we weren’t keeping score, it just came out in the middle of a game. One kid looked at me, and said, “What’s the score?”, to which I responded, “We’re not keeping score.” One of the other kids said, “It’s 4–2.” He didn’t have to add “the other team is winning” because all the kids knew that on account of them not being stupid. For the rest of the season, I didn’t keep score. I didn’t have to. Whenever an adult would emphasize we weren’t keeping score, the kids who kept score would ignore them. They knew who won their games and what the score was.

It’s not as if adults don’t give participation trophies to themselves.

I did the BTN 10K earlier this year. It was a struggle. I had a widowmaker heart attack in 2015, was dead for over 20 minutes. Part of my heart is dead. For me to do a 10K and finish is a triumph. I could do a 10k with my wife at any moment in time, but I signed up to do the BTN 10k because I could get the shirt and the silly towel for $20 and tell others about it. I know that there are other people who do 5Ks, 10Ks, and marathons who will wear those shirts so they can show off. They didn’t win the race. They may have beat a personal goal, then told themselves they won, but those shirts are their participation trophies.

Participation trophies have caught the ire of many because they are the physical manifestation of what we see as misguiding youth by giving them rewards without having earned them. Those trophies will destroy the world as we know it. 

It’s odd how we place so much blame for the world’s problems on insignificant objects. Participation trophies. Plastic straws. Bathrooms. Taking a knee. It’s as if we realize taking on genuine problems is a lot harder than we’re willing to admit. It might involve sacrifice, which sounds bad. Perhaps we should ask some kids about it. 

The next generation will be fine. Those kids I coached will turn into adults; the ones who questioned why they were given trophies without merit will probably be their leaders. Those participation trophies I handed out will do little to destroy the world. They’ll be trinkets that a kid took home to set on his shelf for a couple years. It’ll end up in the trash or his Mom will save it, then he’ll find in a box 30 years from now and remember the season he had and the other kids he played soccer with. Perhaps he’ll even remember me.

I’ve still got 30 in my garage if you want one.