Friday, August 23, 2019

How I Participated in a Dutch Ritual Against My Will

On July 21st I read an article in the New York Times that brought back some disturbing yet fond memories. The article was titled "A Peculiarly Dutch Summer Rite: Children Let Loose in the Night Woods", and it describes a crazy Dutch scouting tradition known as “dropping,” where groups of children, generally pre-teenagers, are deposited in a forest and expected to find their way back to base. To make it more difficult, adult organizers may blindfold the children on their way to the dropping. It is meant to be challenging, and they often stagger in at 2 or 3 in the morning. Clearly the Dutch do parenting a little differently than most other parents around the world, especially today's helicopter parents in America.

Until I read this article, I had no idea that I myself was once a participant in a similar "ritual," but it was against my will and my parents had no knowledge of it. I was ten years old, in the 5th Grade, my first year in a new elementary school after moving to a new town. One of the things my new school did was take the entire 5th grade class on a week long camping trip in Grotonwood, Massachusetts. Never had I been camping before, and was both excited and nervous about it. We basically spent a week in the woods learning about nature, taking hikes through the forest and up mountains, rain or shine. The entire week was fun and educational, and one of my favorite memories of childhood.

On one particular night, towards the end of the week, as the sun was setting and we had completed a hike, my fellow students and I were led by our camp counselors to stop at one point in the middle of the woods, and sat around a campfire where we did campfire things. At around 9:30pm, it was time for us to return to our cabins to get some rest. A camp counselor extinguished the campfire, leaving us in the dark, and we were all told that in order to get back to camp, we had to walk by ourselves, without a flashlight, back to the camp, using the survival lessons we learned that week to aid us in our return. I got a bit nervous, as I was scared of the dark. I was after all the type of kid that always slept with a night light. We then were let go individually - one kid was told to walk, then after counting around 30 seconds the next kid was told to walk, and so on. We were given no direction except to stay alone, walk slow, and remain completely silent.

When it came to my turn, it was my plan to walk faster than the kid in front of me so I can reach him and we could walk together. I was amazed at how pitch black it was. Barely was I able to distinguish my hand in front of me. The trees of the forest prevented any moonlight from getting through. I was scared almost immediately. I walked fast. After a few minutes I noticed some light far away at the camp, and followed the light. Then I noticed I was catching up to the kid in front of me, so I called at him and he slowed down for me to reach him. By the time we caught up to each other, we were almost back at the camp. We then started joking around a bit, until I felt myself falling and getting drenched in water. The water was up to my shoulders. I had no idea what was happening.

It turns out that because of the darkness and our fooling around, I failed to notice we were walking over a short wooden bridge with no rails that led into the camp, and I had fallen off the bridge and into the river. While in the river, it was so dark that I couldn't see where I was, so I just walked out not knowing where to go. The kid I was walking with didn't know what happened to me, so he just kept walking, and I was left there alone. I could have injured myself real bad or drowned, and no one would have known, perhaps until it was too late. Thank God I was fine and just completely soaked, and was able to climb my own way out of the river.

As disturbing as all this is, I look back at it fondly, because I find it to be an exciting story of my childhood. However, this is only because it had a happy ending and I was able to escape alive and uninjured. When I got back to the camp, I told one of the counselors what happened to me, how I ended up walking right off the bridge into the river in complete darkness all alone. She just said, "Oh no, are you ok?" I said, "Yeah, just soaked." And that's it. The fact of the matter is, it was a stupid idea, and they shouldn't have allowed us suburban kids to walk alone in the forest all alone in complete darkness, especially knowing there was a bridge without rails we had to cross. I don't know if they continued to do this after what happened to me (my guess is they did), and I'm not sure if they still do it today (my guess is they don't), but I don't appreciate the fact that I was a participant in a Dutch ritual against my will, especially without my parents knowledge. It's my guess that something like this wouldn't even fly today, with the possibility of destructive lawsuits. Back then, kids hardly complained, and we rarely told our parents about things like this, fearing that we would be the ones punished, so I did not tell mine. I have always kept it a secret and told very few about it.