All I know I learned in Boy Scouts
by L. Stewart Marsden
It’s not true, of course. I didn’t learn everything in the Boy Scouts. But pretty darn much. I learned how to:
- Read a compass
- Open and close a pocket knife safely
- Assemble a two-part canvas pup tent
- Dig a latrine
- Cut a fuzz stick to make a fire
- Basic first aid — including helping a drowning victim (which has since changed)
- Pack a backpack
- Sharpen an ax
and all those other essential skills.
I also learned that opening a large can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs and putting it over a fire is not cooking.
I learned it’s not safe to chop wood at night in the dark.
I learned that mixing aspirin and hot Coca-Cola does not get you drunk.
I learned that rabbit tobacco is not tobacco.
I learned that Morse Code is not easy to learn — especially the signal flagging part.
The two best parts of being a Boy Scout, besides the uniform and all that military regalia stuff?
Camping and summer camp.
I belonged to Troop 4, sponsored by the largest United Methodist church in town. It sprawled over what seemed to be a billion acres. We called it Vatican City. So big it even had a bowling alley. I guess that’s where the term “bowling for Jesus” came about.
Meetings were once a week at the church. We’d play games — dodge ball if it was raining outside; Fox and the Hounds if it wasn’t.
Now, that was a game!
We’d break the troop up into two equal sides. There were always between 20 and 30 boys at our meetings (before Boy Scouting fell victim to things like soccer leagues).
One half was the foxes, who would dash outside and find a place to hide on the church grounds. Five minutes later the other half, the hounds, would stream out of the church, baying to the moon, in search of the foxes. When everyone was caught, the sides would switch, and the chase began again.
Mr. Zimmerman, one of the adult Scout leaders, had a farm just on the edge of the town. That’s where we held most of our camping trips.
We lugged all our gear in station wagons and the beds of trucks out to the property drive way (a rutted dirt road), and hiked the rest of the way into a forested area that abutted a large field.
Once tents were pitched, fire pits were dug, and latrine sites were selected, the designated cooks pulled out thin steel cookware to begin dinner: usually some mixture of ground beef and Hamburger Helper.
Food had to be hung up by a rope because of the critters that might come late at night to steal it.
Nobody was ever constipated on a camping trip because the meals were so greasy. Everything slid right through.
When it got dark, it was time for Fox and the Hounds! Now, at the church, the game was somewhat benign as far as danger. In the woods on Mr. Zimmerman’s farm, however, there were troughs and tree limbs, spider webs — and old rusty barbwire to contend with.
Much practice of first aid skills resulted from those games. In fact, it’s amazing we didn’t lose a kid or two. Come to think of it, maybe we did.
Then, campfire stories.
Ghosts, ghouls, and other creatures that go bump in the night. It’s amazing how a simple tale or two, told with just the right voice — low and slow — can creep a kid out so he stays wide awake with his flashlight on all night.
The adult leaders lived in the lap of luxury. Zimmerman and our Scoutmaster, Mr. Ingram, “roughed it” in a Baker tent — a square, four-sided tent of heavy canvas. They also had cots and really thick sleeping bags. They cooked on a Coleman stove. And they sat back and smoked their pipes, perhaps listened to a Saturday night broadcast of an ACC basketball game. Cool, nonplussed sorts, they were.
When you first awoke in the early morning, the sound of crows cawing came to ear. Then you noticed that somehow a rock had crawled under your sleeping bag, and poked you in the ribs.
The metal clang of camp cookware slowly stirred you to sit up, and the smell of bacon frying in a pan wafted into the tent.
Those were the best parts of camping out.
But the very best part of Boy Scouts was summer camp!
Our troop went to Camp Uwharrie — the name of the council we were a part of. It was a short distance from town, out on acres and acres of land covered by pine forests and two lakes. One of the lakes was about 50 feet above the second lake. They were separated by an earth dam. The upper lake was for fishing, boating and canoeing. The lower lake was the swimming area, and was cordoned off into four swimming areas designated by swimming skill level: non-swimmers, beginners, intermediate and advanced swimmers. You had to have earned your swimming merit badge to swim in the advanced swimming area. It abutted a concrete dam, and had no bottom that you could touch standing up.
Camp was divided up into camp units of four to five cabins that circled a sheltered common area. The cabins were built of wood, with an open screened area at the tops of the two flank walls. Bunk beds were positioned against the walls.
I always chose a top bunk, as the screened opening was at mattress level. At night I would listen intently to crickets sing and the lake bullfrogs croak. At times a cool night breeze would blow into the cabin.
Camp was where you earned a boatload of merit badges — especially the ones that were more difficult in finding a merit badge counselor to pass you. Camp counselors were the instructors, and usually only a couple or three years older. And they were cool. They all wore the same T-shirt: a light blue shirt with the profile of an Indian chief printed in red, with the words Camp Uwharrie arching over the top. With the dark green summer shorts, green knee socks with red flags hanging from the tops, the counselors were the tops.
Nature, basketry, archery, riflery, swimming, life saving, canoeing, rowing, fishing and more were the courses offered. As well as needed skills for Tenderfoot, 2nd and 1st Class.
The cafeteria was a large one-level expanse with dozens of tables and benches. Best food in the world at camp! This is where you learned to mix grape jelly with your grits, and drink bug juice. Milk was served ice-cold in metal pitchers. Bread was hot and gone in seconds.
Once at camp, I was downing glass after glass of milk. I was working on life saving merit badge, and my body was dehydrated from being in the water so long.
One of the volunteer adult leaders, Dr. Nicholson — a junior high science teacher — warned me about overdoing the milk.
“You’ll pee in your bunk!” he warned.
Sure enough, that night I had the most realistic dream about peeing — then awoke midstream to discover I had saturated my sheets! Mortified, I quietly stripped my bed of the soaked bedding, and buried them under leaves outside the cabin. I unrolled my sleeping bag for the rest of the week. No one in the cabin said anything. I can’t remember what happened to the sheets!
Each night Kate Smith belted out a recorded rendition of “God Bless America,” which echoed across camp at its end. It was followed by a beautiful playing of taps — again recorded — by a bugler.
The night of the last day of a week of camp was designated for the Tap Out Ceremony. In Boy Scouts, there is/was a brotherhood of scouts who were selected by their fellow scouts. The Order of the Arrow members were tapped out as part of a very mystical production.
The entire camp assembled in the main square of camp, which served as a ball field as well. We were ordered to silence, and camp counselors, dressed as American Indians, with war paint and all, stretched a long hemp rope along the scouts. We grabbed the rope as told, and were led down to the waterfront, where we formed a large semicircle facing the lower lake.
From the waterfront lifeguard tower, a counselor, his face painted half white and half black, wearing a buffalo headgear, sing-songed the story of the Linni-Linape.
Then, a drum started to beat somewhere from across the lake, and a torch was lit on the far side, and carried by a swimming Indian, careful not to dip the torch in the water. He slowly swam to the near shore, and shouted loudly, shoving the torch into a large pre-built stack of wood.
A second Indian walked out with bow and arrow, and lit the end of the arrow in the crackling fire. He drew the bow, aimed and shot the flaming missile over the lake, shouting again as he disappeared.
Again, from the far side of the lake, a canoe appeared. One Indian held a large burning arrow, supported by a pole, above his head. A second Indian at the rear of the canoe paddled the craft across the lake. The reflection of craft and burning arrow was mesmerizing.
On shore, the arrow bearer began to march in front of the lined up scouts, the second Indian walking behind clutching several arrows. The tom-tom beat rhythmically.
Suddenly the arrow bearer would stop and swing the arrow down in front of a scout. The drum would beat frantically as the second Indian slapped an arrow across the collarbone of the scout, who grabbed the arrow and held it to his chest.
This went on until the last arrow was delivered.
The selected scouts were then bound together and led away into the dark night by Indians. They returned to their campsites much later, sworn to secrecy regarding where they had been taken and how they had been instructed.
Then the chief and his aide returned to the canoe and slowly paddled back across the lake, where the large flaming arrow was doused to a thunderfall of drum beats.
In silence, the camp returned to their campsites.
Kate Smith sang a little later, and taps blew across the camp.
So, not all, but some of the best of what I know and remember I learned in Boy Scouts.