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One of the Best Nights of My Life
I pull into Dry Creek Camp at 10:00 P.M.
Normally I would be going home at this time, but tonight my night is just beginning.
Sitting in his white GMC truck, John Bohacek waits for me. John, or “Mr. Bo” as he is called, a director at Boys Village, a boy’s home near Lake Charles. He’s a big burly ex-McNeese football player and one of the sweetest Christian men I know.
It’s the third night of R.A. Camp for Boys.
John and I are leaving now to go bring one of his boys out of the woods.
Ben (not his real name) is a sixteen-year-old Boys Village resident who is camping out in Kisatchie National Forest with our older outdoor group.
He has been ordered to report to another facility by 7:30 tomorrow morning.
We leave in John’s truck down the deserted country highway toward Alexandria.
Our conversation is invigorating. John is so fresh in his love for Jesus and the boys he works with. Even though, I’m dog tired, this is going to be a good trip.
There is no laughing as John tells Ben’s story. It’s is a sad tale of abuse, neglect, and hardship.
Soon our hour and a half trip is over and John’s headlights shine on the gate at the Gardner fire tower. .
Now begins the interesting part of our journey. Two miles of walking the Wild Azalea Trail to the campsite on Valentine Creek.
I’ve walked this part of the trail numerous times but never at night. Being in the woods at night is completely different from the daylight. Everything looks different and sinister as the beams of our flashlights bounce along the narrow path.
We simply follow the footpath and white paint marks on the trees.
After about an hour, we approach the creek. The trail winds downward and the trees change from pines to hardwoods. It s now after midnight and I expect we’ll surprise a sleeping camp of thirty-five boys.
But soon we hear voices of campers visiting and see the dim fires of several campfires.
It is at this point that John and I devise our plan. As we near the campsite, which is across the creek, I begin hooting like an owl.
The happy banter around the fires stops, “What was that?”
Once again, I softly hoot the eight-noted call of the Barred Owl.
Silence is only broken by rustling leaves as boys move closer to the fire.
A shaky voice calls out, “Whhhoooo’s out there?”
John applies the coup de grace in his loud ex-coaches’ voice,
“Park rangers, show us your permit.”
Some of the boys shine flashlights toward us but we’re carefully hidden behind a beech tree.
An authoritative voice from inside a tent booms out,
“Hey boys, what’s going on out there? Be quiet!”
One of the boys answers back,
“Bro. Fred, there’s a park ranger out there.”
You’d best enjoy the rest of this story if you knew Rev. Fred Hartzell, First Sergeant (U.S. Army Retired).
Fred, a wonderful pastor and friend, is the director of the outdoor camp, which is run with military precision and the firm leadership of a retired platoon leader.
Fred’s unzipping his tent and stepping into the fire light. He’s in drill sergeant mode.
“Who’s out there?”
John matches him leather-lung-leather-lung,
“Park ranger, sir, I need to see your permits.”
Even though I’m across the creek hiding in the bushes, I can read Fred’s mind as he thinks, “Permits? Since when did you have to have permits to camp in Kisatchie National Forest?”
John and I leave our hideout and walk the notched log over Valentine Creek. I nearly fall in- partly because of the darkness and partly because I’m laughing so hard.
In the dim light of the fire I see Fred, clad in boxes and an olive t-shirt, striding toward us,
“What’s going on here about permits.”?
He shines the flashlight in my face and stops in mid-sentence.
And it is at this moment I know Bro. Fred doesn’t cuss because it would have come out. We all have a good laugh and explain the purpose of our midnight visit.
Soon all of the boys and counselors gather around us. Herkie McDonald gets his stove out and makes a pot of coffee. We sit around the dying fire listening to the crickets, drinking black coffee, and enjoying the special fellowship that men have out in the woods.
Finally, John says that we must go.
Ben hefts his pack. It’s a special moment as he tells his Boys Village friends goodbye.
No one says it, but they all sense they won’t ever see each other again.
The three of us re-cross the log and leave to the echoes of good-natured joking from the boys.
John shares with Ben what he knows about his situation and move. As John talks, he finds an opportunity to share about Ben’s need for being born again. John asks him, “If you died would you go to Heaven?”
“Because I’ve been a pretty bad sinner and don’t deserve to get in.”
John then explains how all of us are sinners and do not deserve to enter Heaven. He relates how Jesus has provided the way into God’s presence.
He asks, “Ben, would you like to invite Jesus into your life?”
“No, I’m not ready to give up my old life.”
As Ben asks John many questions, I sense a melting of his heart. Darkness is a good time to think about Jesus and eternity. I think about Nicodemus and his nocturnal visit to Jesus.
I climb into the back seat of the truck. One last time, John says,
“Would you like to ask Jesus into your heart?”
Ben quietly answers, “Yes, I would.”
John tells Ben to simply talk to God about this. After a time of silence, he haltingly begins to pray.
Initially his praying is about what a good day it has been and thankfulness for “Mr. Bo.” I’m thinking, “I don’t believe he understands.”
Then Ben simply says,
“Jesus, I’ve been a pretty bad sinner and don’t deserve to go to Heaven to be with you. But I’m asking you to save and forgive me and come live in my heart. And Jesus, I want to thank you for saving me now.”
I glance up. The dashboard clock blurrily reads 1:18 A.M. The blur is partly from the late hours, but mostly from the tears in my eyes.
It’s a special moment will always live in my heart.
The trip home is quick. John and Ben talk a great deal. I snooze off and wake as we pull into the camp gate at few minutes past 3 am.
A strong flashlight shines the truck.
It’s late but there’s time for one last prank.
Our night watchman, Gary Hahler, approaches the truck.
I duck behind the seat. “John, get him.”
Gary, who is a pastor and local schoolteacher, says,
“Sir, can I help you?”
“I’m here looking for Curt Iles.”
“Well sir, he’s home in bed. Can I help you?”
John, using his strong voice again, says,
“Well, I’m from the sheriff’s department with a warrant for his arrest.”
Gary responds with horror,
“An arrest warrant for Curt Iles! What in the world for?”
(From my hiding place in the back seat, I can see Gary’s mouth hanging open.
John says, “I’m here to arrest him for overcrowding the camp.”
I pop up from my hiding place. We all have one more good laugh (mainly John and I) before saying our goodbyes.
I get into my truck. Before going home, I look around the quiet campgrounds.
“This has got to be the most unpredictable job in the world. I’m glad I don’t have a boring job. Unpredictability- it’s the best, and worst, part of my job.”
Going home for a few hours of sleep before the last day of Camp, I say,
“Tonight had to be one of the best nights of my life . . . ”
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