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My 5th Grade Field Trip (or How I Nearly Started a War with Spain)

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The last thing I ever expected to do on a fifth-grade field trip was instigate a trans-atlantic war. Then again, I doubt very many people are thinking seriously about intercontinental politics at age 10. Most of them are just thinking about cookies or something. At the start of this adventure all I was thinking about was hardtack biscuits.

Perhaps I should explain a bit of backstory. At some point, myself, my dad, and a bunch of friends joined an overnight trip to Baltimore harbor to stay aboard the U.S.S. Constellation (accidentally called the U.S.S. Constipation by a younger friend of mine who didn’t understand why that was funny.) The plan was for the ship’s crew (volunteers from the historical society) to show us around and teach us various nautical terms and concepts as well as fill us in on the history of the ship and its interdiction of illegal slavers. Then we’d pile into hammocks and cram together just like the real crew (there were like 200 people doing this, so it really was as cramped as if we were the actual ships crew.)

We started our misadventures immediately. My friend Gabriel unpacked his overnight gear in the hold where we were told we would be staying and then took it upon himself to sign our group up for night watch. Each group on the field trip had to take an hour up on deck to record random happenings in the logbook as some form of sadistic attempt to educate us about how much being a sailor in the old days sucked.

It got worse when they got to the part about having to put up with Kiera Knightly trying to seajack your boat.

Now, to explain the hardtack thing. My dad is a Civil War re-enactor in his spare time, which means that on weekends in the summer he dresses up in period-appropriate uniforms and goes camping with his buddies and their guns. Wait…that just sounds like he’s from Kentucky. What I mean to say is that he sort of takes on the part of an actor in a movie and steps into the role of a Civil War soldier for a weekend. As a by-product of this, one weekend my dad made “hardtack” a sort of bread/biscuit/cracker thing that served as rations for soldiers in the Civil War. In order to let it get to the appropriate level of authentic staleness, he let it sit in the garage for a week or so and then brought it back inside and stashed it in bags, and he always let my sister and I have one because we were young and thought that breaking teeth was fun as long as we got to eat something in the process.

When I arrived for the night on the boat, I got ahold of one of the schedules, and saw that dinner was “hardtack and stew.” I thought that meant I could finally stand out amongst my peer group as “hardcore” because I’d learned how to successfully eat the stuff without requiring hospitalization. All through the history lesson, all through the knot tying, and all through Gabriel’s sheepish admission of when we had to wake up, the only thing on my mind was the manly display of my chewing ability I’d get to show off at dinner.

Use your molars, ya pansy!

After bearing through all of the “educational” stuff people always ruin field trips with, we finally got to dinner. They brought out styrofoam bowls of some kind of beefy soup that came from a can and… saltine crackers? What the crap is this?! Saltine crackers. Oh, no buddy, this is NOT hardtack. I became very offended at the sheer guts these supposed “historical authorities” had in trying to pass off saltine crackers as the manliest cracker in the world. Not only that, but there is NO manly way to eat a saltine cracker! They embody “light tapas” and other words that don’t sound macho. My plan to impress my friends was ruined!

Hardtack. Bah!

After a few more nautical vocabulary lessons it was time for bed. Each of us had been assigned a canvas hammock hanging from the ceiling. Mine was near the aft of the ship (nautical vocab lesson: remembered. Oh yeah…) and unfortunately for me my immediate neighbor was some other kids mom, who slept with her head at my feet and the most unholy stench emanating from her feet, which she stuck in my face all night. Imagine if a fish was rotting, and then someone put lysol on it. It wouldn’t make it smell better, and after a while the lysol would smell like it was rotting too. That was what this woman’s feet smelled like. I tried to move so that my head was no longer near her feet, but by this point I was so crushed in by all the other people sleeping that I couldn’t move. I was trapped in a prison of stink.

By 1:00 in the morning, I was so thankful for my dad arriving to fetch me for watch that I fell onto a coil of rope in my excitement to get out of the hammock, scattering it across the floor and waking up a good fourth of the ship. Oops. The hour we spent on deck was pretty uneventful. Gabriel had a broken arm in a cast, so he spent most of the break writing what I’m sure was a novel in the logbook because he didn’t want to lean his arm on the rail. I took pleasure in making a nearby couple making out on the dock feel extremely awkward by peeking over the side of the ship at them every time they thought I was gone.

To the couple’s great relief it was soon time to return to our hammocks. I rebelled at the notion of a return to my prison of olfactory torment, so I instead opted to sleep on the floor of the ship (or, as the pros called it “the deck”) Several uncomfortable, but thankfully odor-free hours later I awoke and was treated to more saltine crackers and some oatmeal for breakfast. Whoopee.

By now you’re sick of hearing about my tiny woes, and instead are aching to hear how exactly a 10 year old boy managed to nearly start a war. Well, it began at about 10:00 that morning as the crew was teaching us how to load and fire the “parrot gun” or tiny cannon at the back of the ship. You may begin to see where this is going. Previously, they’d made the mistake of not wadding newspaper into the barrel to muffle the sound and had broken several windows on the Hyatt Hotel across the street. This time, they taught us to carefully pack lots of newspaper  into the barrel to prevent the sound from becoming too loud. This also had the effect of creating a giant flaming ball of newspaper that disintegrated before it hit the ground, but nonetheless looked like an enormous fireball had been fired from the cannon.

Pictured: 5th Grade History

This is normally ok, but in the excitement of the crew to shoot the cannon (apparently they’re as much pyromaniacs as historians) they forgot to look where the cannon was pointing when it went off. There was a (still) deafening “BOOM!,” a fireball went arcing through the air, and 100 Spanish dignitaries went diving under the luncheon tables on the Ambassadorial ship immediately in our line of fire. Plates spilled, exclamations of surprise were shouted, and suits were gotten dirty.

To my 10-year-old mind, we’d just declared war. Every story I’d ever heard of ambassadors getting shot at had ended in beach landings, bombing runs, and old people in congress giving impassioned speeches about everything. This was not exactly how I saw my field trip ending, so I spend the remainder of the trip worrying about the best ways to dodge the age requirements from the military. Not until years later did I realize that if I had joined the army I would have been killing people for something that was totally my bad. Oops.

Maybe using this would mitigate the problem?




Pre-Adolescent Street Cred: Whatever the Cost

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Some of you may remember my previous post about criminals, which I opened with the words “Criminals are dumb.” Since writing that post I have come to quite a serious conclusion. This decision is the product of a lot of thought, and a lot of soul-searching, but here it goes.

Little boys are even dumber.

I know I’m classifying myself for a lot of my life as being dumber than people who roll joints in front of a SWAT van but I can’t in good conscience let the little blighters off the hook. My primary reasoning for this comes from the way in which the two groups choose to build up proof of their “street cred.” Criminals generally have a wealth of tattoos detailing what prisons they’ve been to, what gangs they’ve run with, and in some cases the sorts of crimes they’ve committed. No hardcore criminal is going to believe you’ve done time in Sing-Sing unless you’ve got the tat.

This one started young.

Admittedly, this is really stupid, since one of the easiest ways for the cops to ID you is if you have a sign literally etched into your skin declaring “I’M A FELON!” (note that I’m not saying all tattoos mark you thusly, just specific ones that you are hopefully unlikely to accidentally impose upon yourself.) Despite the inherent stupidity of this system, however, little boys have them beat cold on the stupid-o-meter. How do they do this? Little boys refuse to believe a story is true unless you have a scar to prove it.

Think about that for a second: the “pics or it didn’t happen” of the prepubescent and even adolescent boy is “bodily disfigurement or it didn’t happen.” You literally have to have injured yourself to the point that some part of you couldn’t grow back right to obtain credibility with these gremlins. And that presented a major problem for me, because I don’t scar.

The tribulation inherent in being a boy who does not scar plagued me all the way through my younger days. In fact, I think I ended up being even more self-abusive than most little boys in my reckless quest to kill myself just to prove I’d done it. No matter what I did, I couldn’t raise so much as a little skin discoloration to prove that I had, in fact, caught a metal drainage pipe with the lawnmower and sent shrapnel into my shin.

Over time, I developed a strange sort of background psychological complex bent on sabotaging me to the point that I just had to get a scar. I started at about 8 when within a week of moving into a house with brick stairs out front, my legs tripped me up and slammed my forehead straight into the corner of one of the stairs. Huge gash, no stitches, perfect conditions for scarring. The doctor even said it was going to scar up quite nicely. What do I get? A little tiny crease in the corner of my forehead if I crinkle my face up just right and the humidity isn’t too low.

Later in life I somehow managed to not notice that in attempting to remove some cornbread from the oven I had somehow pressed the inside of my left arm against the extremely hot metal side of the oven and burned an ugly little crescent into the side of my arm (it was the really bad kind of burn). Doctor’s opinion? “You’ll have a scar there pretty much for life. Three years later I had a tiny patch of slightly lighter skin and the first time I got a suntan it disappeared completely.

Since when does ultraviolet radiation heal you?

Over the next few years I ran the gamut of physical imperilment. I got myself hit in the face with an aluminum baseball bat going full speed, I slashed my foot with a metal grate, I even shot myself in the foot that only days earlier I’d had a 2 inch piece of wood removed from! (A good story, for another time perhaps) Nothing worked. No matter what I tried the boyhood equivalent of street cred eluded me. I’m like the convict who always gets caught by the guards every time he tries to start inking himself.

My absolute worst attempt, which I was positive would work, requires a little set up. You see, partly out of my masochism and partly because it was absolutely awesome, I was an avid street hockey player all through my childhood. We even lived in a cul-de-sac where not only did we have the perfect place to play, but also an abundance of kids and adults as into it as I was.

This next part is completely disconnected from the previous paragraph. When my mom was a kid, she was late for some sort of important event and so was running down the stairs of her house toward the front door. Unfortunately, what she thought was an open door was actually a plate glass storm door, which she managed to get her entire arm through before she realized the damage she was doing to herself. She was now stuck in the storm door, and began to try and pull her injured arm back into the house to get treatment. At the sight of this, my grandmother, in a moment of panic, screamed “NO! Go outside, you’ll bleed on the carpet!” My mother has never quite forgiven her for this.

So, back to me, one day I was out playing street hockey sans any kind of padding because I was a cocky little snot and was too good for any of that stuff. It just got in the way of my style. For the most part I actually was good enough that I didn’t fall down and since we didn’t have any kind of boards to check against, I was safe from being smashed up against anything. However, this day God decided I needed a good humiliating to make up for all my smirky smugness. While going as fast as I could the tip of my roller blade hit a tiny little pebble, which sent me flying. I landed on my (bare) shins on the asphalt pavement and proceeded to skid for around ten or fifteen feet. My legs were literally hamburger, but somehow I staggered back inside my house. I limped gingerly into the kitchen and started to make my way toward the living room, where my mom and grandmother were having a conversation.

“Mom?” I ventured, weakly.


Immediately upon realizing what she’d said she turned as white as a ghost and clapped both hands over her mouth.

Rather like Macaulay Culkin, actually.

My grandmother, in spite of herself, busted out into uproarious gales of laughter at my mother that she couldn’t control for at least  five minutes. After bandaging myself, I started to silently rejoice. Here was finally an injury that couldn’t help but scar. For good measure I even accidentally got the injury dragged through a patch of poison ivy by my manic dog a few days later, which developed nicely into a tormentuously itchy, skinless patch of pain. The only thing that got me through all of the pain cheerfully was the surety that finally I’d have that longed-for cred amongst my peers, who would no doubt examine my mutilated legs and nod sagely to each other in admiring approval.

Nope. Nothing. Not even a little change in skin color. Heck, the hair even grew back after the new skin did. After failing to scar yet again I decided to give up on my insane quest and just accept that none of the awesome stories I had to tell would ever be believed by anybody in my peer group.

I’d love to say that I moved past that and realized how dumb the whole thing was. I’d love to say that the wisdom age has brought me has allowed me to renounce this frankly stupid form of validation. But then I realized that I just wrote an appeal to the internet to believe all the stories I tried to get my freinds to beleive as a kid.

And no, I still don’t have the scars to prove them.