When I first met Stewie, I was the Nature Director at a Boy Scout Camp in Wisconsin. I was eighteen years old and almost militant in my environmentalism. I was filled with heroes like John Muir and had big plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and I fully believed the world would be destroyed by pollution before I was twenty. This was over forty years ago and I’ve revised my figures since then.
Stewie was a twelve-year-old boy scout who arrived at camp looking a little pale and scared. It turned out that he was allergic to nearly everything in the woods, to include bee stings, and had decided to bravely face these things in order to get what he needed for his Eagle Scout award. The Environmental Science merit badge was required by every scout trying to achieve a higher rank and the best place to get it was at summer camp, through me.
On the first night of camp, all the scouts would gather in the dining hall and go from table to table to sign up for different merit badges. As usual, the waterfront counselors were deluged with kids as well as the rifle and archery counselors. My table attracted just a handful, usually those who had to get the Environmental Science badge, even though my program offered the most merit badges a scout could earn at camp. The difference was, the nature merit badges required a thought process while the other badges were physical and competitive and most of these kids were on a summer break from thought processes.
Stewie approached my table as soon as he entered the dining hall. He then began to sign up for most of the merit badges I offered. I smiled as this pale and frail kid pulled out a notebook and began to write the names of all the badges down. I figured I’d better let him know what he was in for so I began to explain how much work went into these awards. Stewie just smiled, shrugged, and walked away.
The next morning I saw all the kids who had signed up for the Environmental Science merit badge. I always started them out with an early morning meeting and a one-hour activity to fulfill one of the requirements. The requirement was to observe a small natural area and note everything seen in that area in an hour. I took it a step further and would have the kids’ stake out a one square foot piece of turf and observe that for an hour. I wanted these guys to understand the amount of living and natural things that could be seen, no matter how tiny, in this small setting.
I had found that some kids would find only twenty things to list in an hour, others would list fifty or more. Stewie just sat and wrote for the entire time, pausing only to look around his little area. I was very curious to see what he had written when the hour was up. When he gave it to me, I was amazed to find five pages of narrated detail of not only the things he observed but also how these things made him feel. I realized that this was a special kid and I devoted the week to capitalizing on his interests in the nature merit badges.
We made it through the week and Stewie earned every merit badge he signed up for. It was a satisfying week for me as well. I had never had such an apt and eager pupil. Stewie had such a passion for everything he jumped into. It was as if he were a drying sponge in need of constant water. He asked more questions than the rest of the kids combined and even asked some I couldn’t answer. By the end of each day, however, we always had an answer we had found from one of my many books. I was sorry when the week ended.
The years went by and I began to forget about that summer and kids like Stewie. I spent eight years in the Army and after the Gulf War; I left and pursued many meaningless things that lead to nowhere. One day I woke up and found myself unemployed, single, and the proud, although worried, father of four kids. It was during a drive from another round of job applications that I felt the need to take a walk. Besides, the fuel gauge had finished dropping so I assumed I’d be taking a walk eventually anyway.
I pulled into a parking lot for a local Nature Center and parked in the farthest slot I could. I figured the car might be there for a couple days until I could get gas money. Then I took a walk along one of the many trails the center had to offer.
Usually, a nice walk made me feel better. This time was different. This time felt like a long walk on a plank. I was headed for despair and no mere walk in the woods was going to help this time. I was bound to drop off into oblivion at any moment. I had never been this depressed.
I finished my walk in the woods and moved on into the nature center itself. The last time I had been to this place was when I was a kid. A lot had changed and the exhibits were beautiful. The old place I remembered seemed kind of depressing as it was filled with stuffed animals and boring signs. This new look had moving exhibits and talking narrations from surround sound speakers. I made a mental note to bring my kids there.
I was finishing the exhibit on otters when I heard my name called questioningly. I turned to face the voice and looked at a tall slender man who was smiling broadly. I didn’t have a clue who he was. He repeated himself and I confirmed my name to him. He reached for my hand and it was then that I saw his nametag. It said, “Stewart May” Below that it stated that he was the director of the nature center. It took me but a brief moment to remember Stewie.
We spent the next few minutes getting reacquainted and then walked towards his office. I was pretty proud how Stewie had turned out. He was definitely in his element. Stewie, on the other hand, seemed surprised that I was not working as an environmentalist or naturist of some sort. I really didn’t have an answer for him other than the fact that life provides many twists and turns.
The real significance of the event didn’t hit me until Stewie introduced me to his staff. Every one of them acted really pleased to meet me and a couple actually said it was a pleasure to finally meet me. This left me a bit puzzled until I looked at the wall in Stewie’s office. Snuggled between a picture of John Muir and Audubon was a picture of myself in a scout uniform that Stewie’s parents had taken on the last day of camp. It was mounted on a plaque with the merit badges he had earned that summer.
I still choke up with the thought of that day and the fact that I made such a difference in somebody’s life, even though it was years before. That day made a difference in my life as well. I moved on with optimism from that day forward and never again doubted my ability to make a difference in the world, even if it was just a small part. My small part launched Stewart May, the nature center director whose influence now affects a countless number of nature center visitors.
By the way, my car made it home from that parking lot on fumes. I guess where there are fumes; there’s still life.