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A Secret Society

05/19/2014 @ 1:22pm

This might come as a shock, but as a youngster I was forced to join a secret organization. This “club” even had a pledge that members had to recite as we stood and faced its green-and-white banner. Meetings were held in locations that were revealed only to members.

This secret society had a cabalistic codename: 4-H.

Several decades after attending my last 4-H meeting, I bet I could still recite the 4-H Pledge without consulting Google. It goes: I pledge my head to . . . um, let’s see . . .

Guess the ol’ noggin doesn’t think all that clearly anymore.

So perhaps my 4-H indoctrination wasn’t entirely successful. But I don’t mean to imply that 4-H was an unfun experience. Quite the opposite.

I went to my first 4-H meeting when I was 9. There were about a dozen boys in attendance, ranging from scraggly 9-year-olds to big kids. And by “big kids” I mean “guys who needed to shave twice a day.” I recognized them from around the school. They included some of our high school’s star athletes, demigods of football and basketball. And they were letting me hang out with them! “This club rocks!” I thought, looking around the room in awe.

The meeting was called to order by one of the bigger kids, who was referred to as the president. He used an odd dialect to conduct the proceedings, a language that I later learned is called Robert’s Rules of Order. I was never able to get the knack of that lingo.

Roll was taken, after which the president asked if there was any “old business.” There being none, he asked if there was any “new business.” There was none of that either, which made me wonder if the club might soon be out of business.

Two of the boys were then called upon to give a “talk.” This involved the boy standing in front of the assembly and disseminating for a few minutes on such topics as When to Deworm Hogs or Controlling Mange in Your Beef Herd. Each talk was followed by hoots and thunderous applause from the audience. Giving a talk, I decided, must be pure torture.

The meeting was soon brought to a close. A lunch had been furnished by one of the members, and the boys set upon it like starving wolves. A guy could lose a finger reaching for the potato chips.

As I ate, Harold Husby, our club leader, presented me with a booklet, telling me that that this was my 4-H book. Wow! I was officially a member of a secret cabal! With the paperwork to prove it! I couldn’t have been more proud.

Harold informed me that I was expected to have a “project.” I thought this might involve something like planting a listening device in the Russian embassy, but no.      

I was told that most kids have projects that include a garden or perhaps a small livestock enterprise. This was good; I liked the idea of microscale agriculture. Then came some deeply troubling news.

“You’ll need to keep records of your projects,” said Harold, indicating the book he had just given me. “And you’ll have to give a talk sometime.”

What was all this talk about giving a talk? And keeping records! I hate record keeping! Was this a cruel hazing ritual? That Harold! What a card!

But he wasn’t kidding. I was assured that giving a talk was easy, that one simply speaks about whatever floats one’s boat.  

After much internal debate – would How To Preserve Bellybutton Lint be better than Duct Tape Shoe Repair? – I settled on a presentation called Trapping Pocket Gophers. This was a familiar activity that came with the added bonus of demonstrating how to safely handle a steel trap. Seeing several boys jump when I suddenly detonated the trap made it all worthwhile.

I opted to have a swine for my livestock project. Acquiring a pig involved wheedling Dad into letting me say that I owned one of our feeder pigs.

My porker thrived, his rate of gain boosted by the watermelon rinds and old coffee grounds I snuck to him. By Achievement Days, my barrow was the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. He was awarded a red ribbon by a judge who declared him “overdone.” How could that be? He hadn’t even been made into roasts and chops yet!

At the end of the year, I was told to turn in my 4-H record book for judging. There was one minor problem: I hadn’t actually recorded anything! Panicking, I pulled some numbers from thin air and hastily scribbled them in the book.

So being a part of 4-H was truly a formative experience. Because this is the same record-keeping system I use to this very day.