By Dan Haag
As a boy, I was captivated by stories of the knight in shining armor who rescued a damsel in distress, capturing her heart with his courageous acts in the face of ogres and dragons. I convinced myself that this would one day be my destiny. All I needed was an opportunity to prove my mettle. One humid Minnesota day in 1985, fate’s fickle finger beckoned.
That year I was 14; tall, gangly and constantly sprouting body hair like a freshly watered Chia Pet. I sported the patchy beginnings of a beard that tended to alternate which side of my face it would grow on: one week it nested on my left cheek, the next week my right. I was a cave painting come to life.
On top of that, I smelled. A lot. I didn’t try to, I just rolled out of bed in the morning wrapped in a force field of funk. To combat the issue, I surrounded myself with a group of friends who often smelled just as bad, if not worse. When it was one of our parents’ turns to drive us to the mall or a sporting event, they would gulp and slouch their shoulders resignedly like a prisoner making that last, slow walk to the electric chair. I can’t say I blamed them. The thick, persistent odor of teenage boys is probably best described as “slow-roasted dumpster.”
You never read about Lancelot or Galahad dealing with cloying body odor, though I imagine baking inside all of that hot armor while performing heroic deeds couldn’t have been overly pleasant. The squires who were charged with removing the armor after a day of pitched battle must have signed some sort of non-disclosure agreement before taking the job.
But I had no armor or squire, only the company of my pack of skunky friends. And we were especially ripe that particular summer afternoon. We’d spent a long day canoeing through the marshes of Northern Minnesota and an oily cloud followed our merry band as we edged toward our evening campsite. It was strangely quiet in our wake: no birds sang near us, no fish jumped. Even the mosquitoes, normally so thick this time of year, gave us a wide berth. Those who foolishly ventured too close to us likely died in a ball of flame like the rebel fighter pilots who crashed into the surface of the Death Star in “Star Wars.”
My dad had drawn the short straw and was in charge of this fetid caravan. As we paddled, I saw him breathing shallowly through his mouth, his eyes wild like those of a trapped animal who is seriously considering gnawing off his own paw to escape.
As our canoes ground onto the pebbled beach, dad staggered from his perch in the lead craft and gestured violently at the water.
“Bathe. Now,” He gasped.
Not waiting to see if his command was being obeyed, he lurched into the woods, either to vomit or to draw his first breath of clean air in days.
We pulled the canoes on shore and proceeded to strip off clothes that were so encrusted with mud, bug repellent and wood smoke that we merely leaned them against nearby logs: there was no limpness left in the fabric. We dug soap from our packs and waded into the cool north woods water.
As we prepared to immerse ourselves, we heard a distinct sound: giggling. And not just any giggling. Girl giggling. As teenage boys, we were acutely aware of that sound because, more often than not, we were the cause of it. That unmistakable soft giggle that follows a boy when he thinks he is doing something cool but is, in fact, behaving like an idiot. We looked at each other, panic in our eyes, wondering where this sound was coming from. Had we gone insane? Were we hallucinating from overexposure to B.O.?
That would have been a mercy, because at that moment, a flotilla of canoes bearing a host of Girl Scouts rounded the corner and paused to take in the sight: a group of unwashed boys standing in the water wearing their last surviving pair of underwear and clutching bars of soap like tiny Holy Grails. The giggling intensified.
“We need help,” a stern-faced woman wearing a mosquito netting hat said. “Is your leader here?” She emphasized the word “leader” like she half-expected us to be the minions of some alien overlord who had stopped by earth for a quick bath in a Minnesota lake. I took offense to her tone. Who was she to judge? Her stupid hat made her look like an angry lamp shade.
“I am,” I said, stepping forward, thrusting out my chest bravely, hands on my hips. This was my moment, my chivalrous destiny come a’callin. These fair maidens were in trouble and needed our help. MY help.
“How can I help you?” I made my voice an octave deeper. One of my stupid friends snorted a laugh.
Still skeptical, Lamp Shade rolled her eyes and gave her charges a “can-you-believe-this-guy” look.
One of the girls smiled sweetly at me. Her sash identified her as Bethany.
“We have a bear in our campsite,” she said. “Can you chase it away for us?”
Bears! This was too good to be true! Not dragons, but close enough.
“Of course we will!” I proclaimed. “Ready the canoes, men!” My stupid friend laughed again and I made a mental note to reward him with a wedgie later.
“Great!” Bethany said, paddling her canoe closer. Hers was the sweetest, cleanest face I had ever beheld. I was in love and my heart hammered like a battering ram against a castle gate. Glory was near!
As she got closer, the smile faded, replaced by a horrified, wrinkled expression. She looked like she had taken a chug of expired milk from the carton without first checking the expiration date.
“Ewwwwww,” she whined, drawing the word out to at least five syllables. “What’s that smell?” The other girls had noticed it, too and were wearing similar expressions of horror.
“Nothing, it’s nothing,” I stammered, feeling the moment of glory slipping through my fingers. Lamp shade was scowling at me and she made a shooing motion at her girls, like she was warning them off bad fish at a buffet table.
“Never mind,” she said. “There’s a ranger station on the next lake.” She jerked her head and her charges began paddling in earnest. We stood there alone, dejected, foiled in love by our own pungency. No battle to the death with a bear, no honor and glory, no knighthood. And no Bethany.
We shuffled wordlessly to the shore. My father waited, hands on hips, a touch of healthy color returned to his face. He shook his head. I smiled. Dad understood. He knew what it was to love and lose. He would comfort us and offer us s’mores and tell us ghost stories around a camp fire. My heart lifted again, waiting for his words of support.
“No way,” he said, pointing at the water. “Anyone who doesn’t take a bath right now gets paddled over to that campsite and fed to the bear by me personally.”