Even Nebraskans who don’t grow up on farms find ourselves immersed in some aspect of corn culture. It seems like corn is everywhere in Eastern Nebraska. Corn is even in our state’s unofficial moniker, “The Cornhusker State”. We fetishize the University of Nebraska football team, “The Cornhuskers”.
Fields of corn are so ubiquitous that we rarely think about them. Local broadcasting stations include commodity reports on major newscasts. Special attention is given to corn prices.
I’ve sometimes wondered if Nebraskans raise corn or does corn raise Nebraskans. It’s probably more accurate to say that corn raises the world. Corn was one of the backdrops in the drama of my boyhood in small town Nebraska. Corn is often a feature in many of my oldest memories.
Our town’s Lutheran churches owned a lake a few miles north of town. Well, to call it a lake is to exaggerate. It was more like a shallow pond, located in a swampy area. It had cattails around the perimeter and green algae on its surface. Some people claimed it contained fish that the state game and parks people brought in.
As far as I could tell, the main reason the Lutheran churches owned the “lake” was for religious gatherings and church picnics. The only structures were a couple of picnic table shelters. There was a small area of land that was cleared of swamp vegetation where people could socially engage in conversation and children could scamper about in play. Of course the “lake” was surrounded on all sides by a large corn field.
One summer day, I was invited by our town’s Boy Scout troop to join them in an overnight campout. It was an effort to convince us to transition from Webelos Cub Scouts into the ranks of the Boy Scouts. Oh yes, my little brother, Mark, could tag along; he might have enjoyed the campout so much that he’d join the Cub Scouts.
That afternoon, mom packed some sandwiches and fruit into my knapsack for Mark and me. We strapped our sleeping bags to our backs, mounted our bicycles and rode out to the lake. When we arrived, there were perhaps a couple dozen boys, including Webelos and regular Boy Scouts. There were a couple of the troop leaders’ station wagons that brought out the tents and food.
There really wasn’t much to do at a swampy pond in the middle of a corn field. There was an orientation lecture by one of the adult leaders. We then pitched the tents on the flat clearing area and laid out our sleeping bags inside of them. Next, we built a campfire from small twigs and branches that had been hauled to the lake site earlier that week.
While the campfire came to life, the adult sponsors got into their station wagons and drove away. There was only one “youth leader” an Eagle Scout, Greg, who remained behind to supervise us.
We prepared a makeshift meal over the fire and sat in a large circle to eat. After supper, there was a sing-along. I think we actually sang “Kumbaya”. After we shared a few “tall tales”, it was time to climb into our sleeping bags. Mark and I shared our tent with Karl, one of the Boy Scouts. Soon the idle chatter of the campers subsided, and the campsite grew silent.
Karl, Mark, and I couldn’t drop off to sleep. We felt uneasy laying vulnerable in a tent that was located right next to the corn. We strained our ears to listen for the presence of wild animals. Karl wondered what we might do if there was an escaped prisoner from jail on the loose who wanted to hold us hostage?
More spooky thoughts crowded my head as I listened to the rustling of corn plants. Karl then mentioned that a person can hear corn growing taller in the summer. I had heard the same thing. Growing corn sounds different than wind blowing past the leaves. It’s a “sturdier” crackling sound. When thousands of corn plants surround you at night, the growing sound is unmistakeable. The three of us laid back down to listen to the corn.
I still have a vivid memory of what happened next.
My mind was in that “twilight zone” between wakefulness and sleep. A flash of lightning lit up the tent, then, there was the soft rumble of distant thunder. It was going to rain. The three of us listened as the pattering of rain advanced through the corn field. Like an advancing army, it came closer and closer, then it assaulted our humble camp. The noise of rain striking the tent was overwhelmed by the hiss of the downpour on the leaves of the corn plants. Soon, I felt the cold wetness of rainwater soaking into my sleeping bag.
Greg, the Eagle Scout opened our tent flap and ordered us to leave the tent and bring our sleeping bags, because the campsite was becoming flooded. We were told to meet at the large picnic shelter. The Eagle Scout lit the Coleman kerosene lantern inside the shelter and hung it from a roof support beam. He called roll and was satisfied that everybody was present.
There was nothing to do inside the picnic shelter but watch the terrible storm or complain about the poor planning of the campsite, and the lack of adult leaders who could help us. A few of the scouts were able to stretch out on tables to sleep. The rest of us surrendered to the peculiarity of the situation and stayed awake.
In such a scenario, boys will be boys. There was plenty of friendly rough house play and some quarrels among the sleepy, cranky kids. A while later, Karl climbed on top of one of the picnic tables so he could adjust the knob of the Coleman lantern. At that point, one of the scouts yelled out “strip tease!”.
Soon, all of us were singing the “ta da ta, ta da da ta” music of “The Stripper”. Karl played along by shaking his hips and waving his arms. A few of the boys taunted Karl and dared him to actually strip. Karl was not shy, so he continued with a very slow striptease while we carried on with our improvised version of “The Stripper”.
Karl was down to his BVDs when, a pair of headlights suddenly swept onto the lake path. He jumped from the table and swiftly slipped into his jeans. The station wagon stopped and two adult leaders ran into the shelter. Our little party was over.
I don’t remember very much about the rest of the campsite misadventure except for the difficult bicycle ride back home with Mark. I’m not sure if mom interrogated us, but we were exhausted. Afterwards, mom said we slept 13 hours straight through.
I did join the Boy Scouts, but only for a year. Mark was totally non-plussed and didn’t become a Cub Scout.
The Blue Jay of Happiness remembers that the Scout Motto tells us to “be prepared to do our duty”. It’s a good idea. Nobody followed the advice that night at the cornfield “lake”.