This week my boys and I are at Wilderness Ranch, in southwestern Colorado. Wilderness is a Young Life-owned property where high school kids around the country take off for a week of backpacking with their youth leaders and friends. The ranch serves as a base camp, and is dotted with log cabins where families or individuals can spend the week enjoying the San Juan mountains. As the high school kids embark on their backcountry trips, we have the run of the camp.
There are 21 kids at base camp this week, 16 of them boys between the ages of 4 and 13. The first day we arrived, one of the boys organized a soccer game in a field by the dining hall. They’ve been hiking, canoeing, playing frisbee golf, challenging each other to four-square, wrangling cows off the ranch property, and generally running around camp.
Yesterday the boys got their fishing poles assembled and headed to a beaver dam between this ranch and the next ranch down. One of the boys caught two huge rainbow trout. Even though it’s a catch and release lake, kids are often allowed to keep their catches. There are several families here from Tulsa, Oklahoma , who know one another through their kids’ school. They have welcomed us into their community and loved my boys. When one of their boys brought his fish back to the cabins, all of us grabbed our cameras to document the moment.
That night at the campfire, one of the men brought the fish out to filet. I had the crazy idea to throw the fish heads in the fire to watch them sizzle. The boys cheered. I felt ultra-cool, adding up my hip mom points. After the first head was cut off, it was thrown straight onto the burning logs. As the only mom there, I felt quite proud to be part of the burning head ritual. That is, until one of the dads suggested someone eat the fish eyeballs. That is when I realized I was out of my league. I needed another woman for support. Not one showed up.
So imagine the feeling in my stomach when my sons volunteered to eat the eyeballs. Yet I didn’t really think they would do it. One of the dads pulled out the charred head and poked out the eyeballs. The first eyeball-eater was a youth minister. He HAS to eat fish eyes, right? I mean that’s what youth ministers do. They are all about shock and awe to reach their kids. But when my second-born son raised his hand to eat the other eye, I was shocked to see him follow through. The eyeball rested on the end of a switchblade. Yes, a switchblade… and then it went into his mouth, and with a chew or two, it went down his throat. Everyone cheered. He was a hero.
The next fish head was grilled over the fire on a grate. Something about watching it cook, with its gills still attached, was even more disgusting. This one wasn’t turning black and unrecognizable like the one before. So when it came time to poke out its eyeballs, it was a bit more graphic. Strike that. A lot more graphic. But the boys all cheered and as my third-born son was ready to partake, the knife went around the eyeball only to discover that the eyes weren’t ready yet. They were still too raw. I’m not kidding, Folks. The eyes were not done! I couldn’t even make this stuff up. So we waited a few more minutes and when fish head had cooked a little more, the eyeball was released from the head and placed not on a knife this time, but right in my son’s hand. I readied my camera and thankfully snapped immediately as he tossed that sucker right down his throat. Another victory for the House boys. I didn’t know whether to cheer or vomit.
As we settled in our cabin that night, the boys talked about the taste and texture of the fish eyes. I said I had to go the bathroom. I lied. But watching them eat fish eyes was one thing; actually re-living the event was too much for me to handle. I made a phone call and when I came back to the cabin all four boys were asleep.
Today all the other boys are dying to catch more fish so they can join the eye-eating club. Can you imagine? They actually WANT to be part of that club? As a girl, I really cannot fathom this sort of competition or association, but I admit there was something magical about the night. About watching my boys take a dare and feel special. There are just some things in life that no matter how disgusting must be celebrated. And last night was one of those nights.