Theft and guilt: a summer story
By Brian Doyle
June 27, 2014
I was once party to the theft of 30 cakes in the State of New York. This is a sentence I have never written before, and I think we should pause a moment to admire its weirdness. Yet it is true. This was in Boy Scout summer camp in the Catskill Mountains. I was a terrible Boy Scout, with no ambition for promotion and no interest in staying abreast of dues, but I dearly loved summer camp, where you could see hawks and deer and even, one time, a fox slipping through a meadow, liquid and bronze. The other scouts in my camp were avid enough, and they cooked and hiked and whittled and earned merit badges by the handful. I mostly wandered around looking for hawks and foxes. I avoided the lake; it was reputed to be a thousand feet deep and filled with ice even in August. I believed this.
One day the avid scouts came to me with a proposition. They had carefully watched the patterns of food delivery in the camp and discerned that the same small truck arrived every night at every camp in our sector carrying cakes for all the camps from Camp Lenape to Camp Rappahannock. They proposed interrupting its evening journey, liberating more cakes than we were usually assigned (we were at the end of the run, and often there were only two or three cakes left for 30 of us), and returning to camp as heroes. My role would be to help carry 10 cakes hurriedly through the woods back to our camp. Two scouts would also be purveyors of stolen goods, and two others would persuade the driver (also a scout) to pause briefly, without using violence or threat in any way (they swore this with cool oaths over a fire), and all five of us would then swear brotherly silence in case of any repercussions.
Of course I went through with it. Sure I did. Without the slightest hesitation. I hid along the dirt road with my friends, I leapt eagerly into the truck with them, and we lumbered awkwardly back to camp with stolen goods, which we hid in creative places and ate with real pleasure the rest of the week. The two assault scouts assured us that the driver was amenable and even understanding because he felt bad about us getting shorted at the end of the cake run every night. This might have been true. In any event, there were no recriminations or trials or court-martials, and after the week was over our parents or older brothers and sisters came to get us and we went back to the usual social ramble; but even all these years later, I still feel a little bad about that night. It’s not the theft; quite; it’s the wriggling knowledge that the driver probably was startled and maybe even frightened, and maybe he got in trouble. So often the thing that seems cool ends up getting someone else bruised. Maybe some aspect of maturity is feeling bad after feeling good. I don’t know. It was excellent cake, and we got shorted every night, and we felt we were owed, and we had a point, but still, I think sometimes about the driver, and feel a little bad, still.
Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland magazine and the author of many books, most recently the novel Chicago.