When I was a kid, I had a little smidge of germophobia. While other boys may have feared ghosts, or clowns, or what-have-you, I was petrified of little tiny critters so small I couldn't even see them. I can understand kids being afraid of the wolfman under their bed, but at least only one of them could fit down there. But I could lay there and worry about the billions or trillions of microbes hiding under my bed.
I suppose it could be from my mother, who, as a nurse and a good Christian woman, would tell me that cleanliness was next to Godliness.
To this day, I cannot feature that bacteria have any benefit at all, except for beer, cheese, and bread. Actually, come to think of it, bacteria might be ok after all. But at that time, I fixated on the thought of the little invaders getting in my system and moving in, much the same as the way some Montanans might feel about hordes of encroaching Californians.
We were boy scouts, but they were not the friendly, life-affirming boy scouts you have today. Rather, boy scouts were wild, half-feral, tough-as-nails brutes. They might not have been smart but they weren't letting that get them down. They might not have smelled like a rose, but what business did roses have smelling so good anyway? We were practically neanderthals, in other words.
Dad, as one of the leaders of the troop, was boss neanderthal. He had an idea we would hike to the ice caves in the Snowy Mountains near Lewistown. There we would have a caveman cookout.
The hike is a brutal affair, seven miles one way. The rules were simple, enough for a caveman. We were given two farmer matches, a paper cup, two raw eggs, and a not-too-choice strip of steak from some indeterminate cut since they weren't about to waste good steak on dumb brutes like us. We could also take a canteen of water. That was it, no cooking tools, nada, zilch.
Climbing the winding switchbacks, we discussed how we were going to cook our meat.
A husky, bespectacled boy named Herman thought he had it all figured out. "I'm going to sharpen up a stick, like a fork at the end, stab that sucker with it, hold it over the fire a minute, and then tear into it."
"Oh yeah, Hermie? And what're ya gonna do with them eggs?"
"I don't got 'em anymore. I tripped and they broke in my pocket."
By and by, the troupe made it to the top of the ridge, and as planned we were ravenously hungry. And after seven miles of hiking, most of the meat had a rather unappetizing look to it as well. Boys who had, five or six miles ago, been envisioning farmer-rigged rotisseries were now wondering whether cooking wasn't just another unnecessary extravagance compelled on us by an over-civilized society. At least one of them - Herman, I think - gnawed on his steak for a good ten minutes before any of us succeeded in starting a fire.
We did not count on two mountain rain showers that drenched us to the bone, and for most of us, ruined our matches. Mine were pre-waxed and packed in a baggy, in a decidedly un-caveman-like concession to the 20th century. The other cavemen start eyeing my matches.
Now my troop had won the water boiling contest the summer before at the Montana State Scout Jamboree - a simple contest really: the first group of boys to bring a 5-gallon metal bucket of water to a boil wins. I am not too humble to admit that our tenure as the best boilers in the state was due in no small part to my facility with a flame.
"Give us your lousy matches, you dope," grunted Ugg.
By now, we had regressed sufficiently to have forgotten our civilized handles and taken on caveman names. I was Grag, the fearless warrior-king and fire-wizard, who was sure that one day he would have a hairy chest. I sent Jurc to gather dry moss from the north side of trees, Flook to gather small twigs, and Barbog for bigger twigs. As for Ugg, the beast formerly known as the boy Herman, I sent him to the creek to wash the egg out of his pockets.
After we had a fire, most of the tribe made good on their idea of sticking a stick through the meat and putting it directly in the blaze. Almost immediately, most of their sticks caught fire or broke, sending their steaks tumbling.
I watched their revolting progress. The steaks were now blackened, not so much with char as with soil, and Herman/Ugg's steak seemed to have a little glaze of spiderweb on his as well. Seasoned with boy sweat, bristly with hair and dirt, and now troublingly intermixed there in the ashes, the steaks looked less like beef than dust bunnies.
Most of them grabbed a fresh stick, speared their steak, inspected them, shrugged, and dug in.
Not me. I found a flat rock, put it in the fire, and when it was hot enough, I placed my steak on my improvised grill and cooked my meat. I thought myself a rather sophisticated caveman. Ugg, who had finished his, asked for a bite of mine, and I had to bear my teeth and growl, but the rest of them stayed in their place.
None of my neanderthal peers (the ones that managed to keep their eggs intact this far, I mean) could hit on a good way to cook eggs. For my part, neither could I. I just cracked them with a rock and tipped them back like oyster shooters (I think that people are much too careful with cooking eggs; I ate them raw and suffered no ill effects at all except for waking up hours later and puking -but I think we can hardly blame that on the eggs, at least not definitely).
Finally, I carefully lifted the steak from the hot rock with the blade of my pocket knife, ready to transfer it to a tin plate I had packed for the occasion. At that moment, Ugg slapped the steak out of my hand, and it landed a foot or so away in an anthill. I stared at it in disbelief and then stood up and walked over to Ugg. I called him several unprintable names, punched him in the shoulder, got punched in turn, retreated, rubbed my shoulder while thunder clouds brewed in my head.
Dad, meanwhile, drank a beer and watched us with disgust.
So anyway, how was my steak? Well, I still love a good steak. Now I put them in my Traeger smoker with some hickory pellets until it's a perfect medium-rare, and then I serve it up finished with a little butter and maybe some asparagus or a baked potato on the side.
But the secret ingredient? The thing that really makes that steak sing? It's just a little dusting of gravel and ants collected from the end of the driveway. There's nothing quite like that earthy flavor.
Hey, at least I'm not a germophobe anymore, right?
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.