New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.
If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.
What would a real man do?
Travis Makepeace was eleven years old and on his inaugural Boy Scout camping trip when Johnny Hamilton first asked him that question.
Everything was new that weekend. Sleeping in a tent. Cooking over a campfire. Carrying supplies in a backpack, one of many the troop owned so that no boy, no matter his economic situation, would lack the necessary gear. Spending an entire weekend away from his mom who raised him alone ever since his father left many years before.
Chatting with other new Scouts, he thought nothing of walking past the plastic bottle tossed to the side of the trail by a previous hiker.
Mr. Hamilton stopped the hike and gathered the boys. He addressed young Travis and asked him if he had seen the bottle. In response to his tentative nod, the follow-up question came, “What would a real man do?”
Embarrassed, Travis shrugged.
“Real men always try to leave the world better than we found it.”
Chagrined, Travis picked up the bottle, stuffed it in his backpack and hiked on. But what did picking up trash have to do with being a man? A real man. Real men were superheroes or heroes in video games.
At the end of the weekend, he cleaned the pack and stared at the bottle that had traveled back home with him. Such an insignificant act. Picking up one piece of trash. What difference did it make? Sure, the troop took pride in leaving their campsites cleaner than they found them, but there was so much trash that even the whole troop didn’t seem to make a difference.
But Travis picked up trash everywhere he went. At school. In a shopping center parking lot. At the playground. His friends laughed at the odd habit, even joking as they picked up trash themselves and threw it away.
A year later, on another camping trip, Travis – now 12 – was assigned a new eleven-year-old Scout as a tent mate. The boy knew nothing about how to set up a tent or organize their packs or how to start a campfire. Travis grew frustrated having to do so much work.
Mr. Hamilton waited for a quiet moment before he motioned Travis to join him at the fire. “So how is Corey doing?”
“Terrible, Mr. Hamilton. I don’t want to be his tent mate next time.”
Mr. Hamilton nodded and stirred the fire. “It’s a good thing you know all about camping or Corey would be in a lot of trouble.”
“Yes, sir, he would be.”
“Does he want to learn?”
Travis thought for a second before answering. “Yes, sir. He asked how I knew to do stuff.”
“What did you tell him?”
Red crept across the boy’s face. “Because some older guys showed me.”
“And are you older than Corey?”
“Well, yes, sir.”
Mr. Hamilton watched Corey struggling to gather firewood. “And you know the things he needs to learn.”
Travis looked at his feet and kicked the dirt. “Yes, sir.”
“What would a real man do if he saw someone trying to learn something?”
“He would take the time to teach him.” Chagrined, Travis scrambled over to Corey, helped him gather the firewood, and then offered to teach him a few knots. Corey caught on and his camping proficiency grew.
Still, Travis didn’t understand how teaching someone some knots had anything to do with being a real man. A real man already knew how to camp and tie knots, using that knowledge like a movie hero fighting evil. He didn’t waste his time teaching others.
But the next week at school, he sat down with one of his friends who struggled with math and offered to show him how to do it. It took a lot of time and effort before the friend’s grades improved.
At thirteen, Travis enjoyed his first high adventure trip restricted to the older boys. Rappelling down a rock face was exciting – until he stood at the top of the cliff and stared down at the broken boulders below. Strapped into his harness with a helmet on his head, he eased over the cliff and moved a few feet down the face before freezing. He was too scared to continue and too ashamed to climb back up.
Mr. Hamilton laid down on the rock above so that his head was just a few feet above the dangling boy. “Scary up here, isn’t it?”
“Y-y-yes. It’s so high.”
“I understand. I get scared every time I go rappelling.”
Travis’ mouth gaped open as he stared at the older man. “Scared? I thought you liked rappelling.”
With a nod, Hamilton replied, “I like it because it makes me face my fears. Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. And being scared isn’t wrong because you can get hurt rappelling. But a real man acknowledges those fears, faces them, makes sure he is as safe as possible, and then moves forward.”
Travis gulped and gripped the ropes securing him against gravity. “So you think I can do this?”
“I know you can do it. But it doesn’t matter what I think or know. It only matters what you think.”
Travis closed his eyes for a few moments and breathed deeply. When he opened his eyes, Mr. Hamilton remained laying above him. “I can do this.” And he did. Step by step, he inched himself down the rock until he reached the bottom, as safe as ever.
He ended up rappelling several more times that weekend – though always scared at the start. Real men weren’t afraid, were they? They sure never looked scared on TV. When would he stop being afraid?
A few weeks later, a bully was picking on one of his friends. The guy was bigger and had a rough reputation, so his friend was in a bad situation. Though scared to get involved, Travis knew the two of them could handle it. And if the two of them stood there, maybe other friends would join. So he stepped beside his friend and told the bully to stop it.
The bully looked less certain at the two of them, but his confidence crashed when a third friend and then a fourth friend joined. He backed down, looking for easier prey.
“Weren’t you scared?” they asked.
“Of course,” he replied.
Shortly after Travis’ fourteenth birthday, a boy joined his school and scout troop. Being both new and quirky, the youngster attracted unwanted attention and struggled to fit in.
Several weeks after the boy’s first appearance, Mr. Hamilton asked for a moment with Travis before the weekly meeting. “How is Darren doing?”
“Ok, I guess.”
“And at school? Is he fitting in?”
“Uh, not really. He’s a little unusual. That’s tough sometimes.”
Mr. Hamilton nodded. “You’re a soccer player, right?”
“Popular in school, too?”
Travis shrugged. “More than some, I guess.”
“How many members of the soccer team are in Boy Scouts?”
“Just Mike and me.”
“Any of them tease you about it?”
“Sure, but I don’t care. I like Scouts.”
“That makes you a little unusual, doesn’t it?”
Travis paused. “Yes, sir, I guess so.”
“And yet you fit in fine.”
“Well, they know me, sir.”
“Yes, true, and that makes things tough when you are the new kid. People don’t know you. They judge you.”
Travis nodded. “I get it. You want me to be more accepting of Darren.”
“Well, that’s part of it. Ask yourself, what would a real man do?”
Travis sat beside Darren that night during the meeting. They talked for a while after. But the real test came the next day in the school cafeteria. Travis watched Darren in the lunch line, getting his tray and looking around for somewhere to sit. Sensing what a real man would do, Travis waved him over to join his table.
“What are you doing?” “He’s a weirdo.” “No one likes that guy.” The chorus of protests rose around the table. Travis looked at them all and replied, “He’s a cool guy. You haven’t given him a chance yet.” And he welcomed Darren to the table.
A year later, Darren’s circle of friends were saddened when he moved away. His family moved a lot as Travis learned once he took the time. New school every year or two. Travis always smiled when an email came in from Darren, somewhere else in the world, sharing with his friend the latest of his adventures. He was unusual – something Travis grew to appreciate.
Fifteen-year-old Travis was upset that one of their favorite camping spots was inaccessible because a flood had washed away the trail. The rangers said funding approval to rebuild would take months. Frustrated that a weekend of fun had been taken from them, the boys sat glumly in a meeting room and debated alternate camping sites.
Mr. Hamilton sat down with them and asked his famous question, “What would a real man do about this?”
As the boys mumbled, Travis raised his hand. “Mr. Hamilton? What if we helped them rebuild the trail? Could it be done faster?”
The Scoutmaster nodded solemnly. “Yes, the rangers said they don’t need a lot of supplies, but they don’t have the budget to hire the labor.”
“But,” protested Corey, “That wouldn’t be a fun camping weekend working on a trail. Besides, we can’t get it done in one weekend.”
“So, we get part of it done. And if Mr. Hamilton told the other Scout troops what we were doing, some of them would help, too.”
Following a long, hard weekend of work, Travis rested in his bed feeling his muscles ache. The trail was done and the camping area was open again – months earlier than feared. He thought of all the new friends he made, boys from other troops and rangers who worked alongside them. He dreamed that night of the rebuilt trails guiding hikers through the woods.
A few weeks later, vandals broke into his school on a Friday night, painting graffiti on the cafeteria walls. The principal appeared on the TV news Saturday, lamenting how much it would cost to paint the cafeteria and how long the room would be out of service.
She appeared again on the news Sunday, gushing about how a group of students showed up with paint and equipment. Repainted, the entire cafeteria would be open for business Monday morning – not a single school day missed. She was proud of all the students, but especially Travis Makepeace who had called his soccer buddies and talked them into the project.
Travis dismissed the praise, pointing out his teammates called their friends who called their friends, and it was almost a hundred students who spent their Sunday afternoon painting. And local businesses, owned by parents of students, donated the supplies. Travis claimed to be but one of many.
Now, sixteen-year-old Travis sat in the snow watching the tent doors flap in the winter breeze, revealing and hiding the corpse of his Scoutmaster. Travis’ father left the family many years before, so was nothing more than pictures in a scrapbook. Laying in front of him, though, was the person who guided Travis down the path to becoming a real man.
But I never said thank you. Not once.
Wrapped in grief, he could only sit immobile. The wind drifted snow against his legs.
What would a real man do, Mr. Hamilton? Could you answer that? Because I’m all alone here and no clue what to do next.
Travis listened for an answer, but heard only the creak of a branch as the wind sailed through the treetops. The crackle of the campfire roaring behind them. Snow falling from a tree. The sobbing of Cooper sprawled beside him in the snow, muttering “I’m so sorry. We tried. Really, we tried.”
The tent door flapped open, wide enough to shine light deep into the tent and reflecting off of Hamilton’s eyes. For a second, Travis thought his Scoutmaster winked at him before reality came crashing back through the howls of dismay from Cooper.
Thank you. I know what a real man would do right now. Because you taught me. Because you showed me.
Travis slid through the snow, wrapped his arm around Cooper, and whispered. “You did everything you could, Coop. I know it. Mr. Hamilton knows it. I’m proud of you.”