I am wandering around in the hour before suppertime at summer camp—a regimented camp with little time unspoken for. I love a good solitary meander, did then, and still do now. The shadows are getting long. I dawdle into the rifle range—one of many boy-centered activities; a place of real danger with 22’s cracking out all day and strictly off limits. Now its quiet and I’m curious to look at the bullet shields sticking out from a pine log wall. I’m in the forbidden zone. The row of metal plates impenetrable and rusty orange are tilted downward, gazing downward, like sentinels with circles of spattered crushed lead dense and piled up at the center. The range is strung with laundry lines on pulleys to move targets without danger.
I look behind the steel to see where errant bullets enter the logs; I want to see how far in they go. On the back of one shield my eye is caught by a group of tiny fungus things. Little yellow paper umbrellas sitting up on glossy black stalks thin as horsehairs. There must be 60 grouped tight in a 2 inch square, one half inch out, perpendicular to the steel. Straight out. I think they must be from another planet, like from the sci-fi movie, Forbidden Planet, they showed last night. They are so tiny and perfect with stiff ribs holding out the yellow circle awnings. But, they aren’t in the ground or on a log, they are growing on steel. Very alien and too perfect, like fake flowers in a doll’s house.
I kept meaning to show them to the nature-study guy but distraction rules a nine year old and I forget about them until college Biology class when I am shocked into recognition. In discussing distinctions of plants and animals the slime mold, a photograph of Myxomycetes comes up on the big projection screen. My little umbrellas! The picture so vivid then, jumps right to now. What I saw back in 1956 was the fruiting body, distributing spores that hatch into amoebas that squelch around eating microbes and bacteria in the dank forest floor. When it gets cold or dry, as if by a factory whistle, they slither toward one another until all together the microscopic critters form a slug an inch long. There are thousands and thousands; some oriented toward the front, as guides, so to slime along to someplace right, handy for sending up that colony of umbrellas broadcasting spores, starting the whole thing – over again.
The camp had big loud speakers on top of the headman’s office, it was hooked to a microphone for announcements and a record player to broadcast army bugle calls for mess, taps for lights out, reveille in the morning. All to organize the day. Five minutes to line-up for inspection and body count before dinner. The bugle calls…. streams of campers in the blue and white camp colors gravitate toward the big concrete pad where we will shuffle into rank and file, get counted and have our hands checked for mealtime wash-up then watch the flag lowered with hands on our hearts.