Babes in the Woods

In which the Boy Scouts of Troop 236 battle wild boars (sort of) on a camping trip in the Italian Appennine mountains

When I was 13 and living in Rome, I was a Boy Scout in Troop 236. Now, a lot of the boys in the troop were diplomat brats, or the children of wealthy folks, and other groups who carry more clout than painting professors—though Dad did have mucho clout when it came to the troop, since he was Scoutmaster.

Through the connection of some boy's father, we got permission to go camping one weekend in a national park/nature preserve in the Abruzzi Mountains, a preserve that was normally severly off-limits to the general public.

We had a grand ol' time, hiking in the forest, learning to make spaghetti alla carbonara with pancetta brought by an Italian boy and powdered egg brought by a military brat, then setting up our tents on the soft carpet of needles that lay thick beneath the pines of the forest.

Noises in the Dark

At some point in the middle of the night, we were awakened by this horrible crashing noise and throaty grunting sounds coming from the inky blackness of the forest.

"Quick!" Yelled an Italian father who was on the trip. "Up! Up! Everybody, quick. Up!" We variously stuck our heads out of our tent flaps or stumbled blearily all the way out into the clearing. The excited Italian father was dancing sideways around his own tent, apparently, um, watering the plot.

"Pee around the tents!" He shouted at us as he finished and zipped up. We all looked at each other at a loss, then at him with a mixture of fear and curiosity. The grunting shuffles and underbrush crashing were getting closer.

"Urinate around the tents. Quickly" He insisted. "It is the wild boars looking for truffles!"

We—at least the non-Italians amongst us—weren't entirely sure what "truffles" were. But I had seen pictures of wild boars with their ridiculous tusks poking under sneering lips, and had just been reading Greek myths in school in which several heroes were gored to death by the fearsome forest critters. I found myself hoping that, whatever truffles were, they didn't look, or smell, like a frightened boy scout.

Since I didn't want to be mistaken in the dark for a tasty boarish treat, I dutifully zipped down my fly and proceeded to enscribe a rough circle aroud my pup tent. Luckily, there were several people to a tent, and we were pretty darn scared, so between our bladders and our fear we managed to provide sufficient coverage.

Back in our tents, bladders exhausted and wide awake, we inched together into a pile of zipped-up sleeping bags huddled in the very center of the tent's nylon floor and listened to the rustling, grunting, snuffling, and thrashing sounds come closer.

Soon it was everywhere, a depserate and earthy clatter surrounding us. We imagined that the nylon sides of the tent were billowing from hot boarish breath and being brushed against by bristly flanks, and huddled closer together still. I wondered if the boar outside my tent could smell the pancetta on my breath from our spaghetti alla carbonara, and worried it might make him mad.

I tried holding my breath, but that's the opposite of what breath wants to do when you're panicking. Finally the ruckus moved off and away and faded into the forest. The night turned quiet, and we eventually drifted to sleep whispering about what might have been and giggling for no reason.

The Morning After

The next morning, I crawled out of my tent to a scene of utter devestation. The quiet carpet of pine needles that had blanketed our patch of forest floor the night before had vanished under a riot of black, loamy soil. The ground was turned up helter skelter to a depth of about six inches, leaving a clumpy tangle of earth and broken rootlings and shattered sticks and bent pine needles.

The devestated earth ran all the way up to an invisible line, inscribed in the dirt, that made a rough circle around each tent.

On one side was a thick mangle of torn topsoil, on the other a bed of pine needles, utterly undisturbed, pitched with a pathetically colorful triangle of nylon and aluminum pipes and string.

In the years since, I've learned why boars love truffles so much. I've also learned, when camping, to go to bed with a full bladder. Just in case.

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