Author: Janice Rothganger

This was the spot. No longer needing his compass, Jackson tucked it inside his shirt. He dropped his pack and went about setting up the campsite: pitching a tent, igniting the fire, cooking dinner. He had planned the trip right down to the number of matches he needed. As the desert sun prepared to set, the temperature dropped. The teenager added a layer of clothing and drew his watch cap over his earlobes. Tendrils of smoke arose from the fire, drawing the Scout close to its heat. His witness, Tony, jotted observations in a field notebook.

“Are you scared?” the older boy asked. His tone could have been mocking. Instead, it was matter-of-fact, as if to say that fear would be normal at a time like this.

“No. I’m nervous, maybe. But not scared.”

“You’ll be fine.” This was the only time the two would meet. To protect the integrity of the badge, Jackson’s tasks must be witnessed by a Scout who he didn’t know. Normally a witness was unnecessary. But Jackson was seeking a highly coveted award, and the process was steeped in tradition.

He retrieved a foil packet from the coals, slowly unwrapped it, and allowed the steam to escape in halting wisps. He poured the liver and onions into his mess kit. When he divided it into two portions, Tony stopped him cold.

“I’m good. I brought my own food, but thanks anyway.”

“You sure? I’ve got plenty.” Jackson tried to hide his amusement. The stench of liver chased Tony into the tent. For a second, he hoped the kid wouldn’t earn his badge. Ever.

As the sun disappeared and the desert was swallowed in darkness, Jackson turned his attention to the stars. If he earned the merit badge on his first attempt, he would receive an additional oak cluster. And the feat would all but seal his nomination to the Air Force Academy. He watched for hours, fighting fatigue and boredom. Sleep tugged at his eyelids; playful dreams tickled his subconscious. Many Scouts failed to earn a badge because they couldn’t stay awake. But Jackson was too disciplined for that. He slammed a Red Bull and paced around the campsite while Tony scribbled notes. So far, Jackson had accomplished his tasks in the proper sequence. There was just one more thing to do, but the final step was out of his control.

At 3:00 a.m. Jackson was stoking the fire when he saw it. An ethereal glow lit up the night, casting long shadows from the cactus onto the desert floor. A round, spinning aircraft edged closer and lowered its altitude. Through the curved windshield, Jackson gawked at the pilot, a small being with an over-sized head and wide eyes. The strange visitor flitted like a hummingbird for a few seconds, then retreated to the Heavens. Tony clapped Jackson on the back hard enough to rock him onto the balls of his feet.

“Congratulations. You’ve just earned your U.F.O. Merit Badge.”