By Brian M. Howle
Whenever I hear someone use the analogy, “Oh, don’t be such a Boy Scout” – usually as an admonishment towards one who tries to invoke some semblance of principle in a situation where everyone else “looks the other way” – one, and only one, thought goes through my mind:
They never met anyone from Troop 329.
I have no idea of the current status of my old Boy Scout Troop back in Andrews, S.C. My hope is that it still exists, and that the newest generation of young boys growing up in small town America are afforded the same lessons that my generation was taught, as well as those preceding us.
In the dark ages preceding today’s entertainment buffet, there wasn’t it whole lot to do as a child in my hometown. Oh, we played all the usual games of football, baseball, basketball and other male bonding sports common across the land. We may well have been the last generation to share a love for “Kick The Can.” But besides those games, general play in someone’s house or yard was about it.
Fortunately for us, there were a few men who took on the task of organizing Boy Scout Troop 329, Coastal Carolina Council Chapter of the Boy Scouts of America. Mr. Jerome Moscow was the Scoutmaster when I first came up from the Cub Scouts. He was a fine and honorable man who extolled the virtues of Scouting, literally “from the book” – the Boy Scout Handbook. The weekly meetings held in the little Lion’s Club hut on Rosemary Avenue were prompt and rigid: Uniforms were expected to be pristine and exactly to specifications. Fulfillment of requirements for achieving rank – from Tenderfoot to Eagle – was tediously reviewed and certified. It was very ‘50s Americana oriented – it’s just that it was the mid ‘60s at the time.
Mr. Moscow retired not long after my age group came into Scouting (I don’t think we personally had anything to do with it, it was just his time to move on). We all wondered who it would be to take the banner and lead us onward and upward, in the true spirit of Scouting.
And then, a young man born and raised in our little town took the reins of Troop 329. Sambo Harper, known for his years of playing football at Clemson and his rolling, boisterous laugh, was the new head honcho.
Our lives would never be the same.
Sambo was one of those odd compilations of conflicting character traits. On the one hand, he was just a regular guy – a little rowdy, a little raunchy, and a lot on the heavy side. On the other hand, being a National Guardsman, he was also a great believer in the ways of military standards when it came to discipline and organization.
Being in the Scouts was pretty neat and all when Mr. Moscow ran the show. But, it became a lot of fun – mixed with a lot of humiliation and anguish – when Sambo became Scoutmaster.
The meetings began with a lot of back and forth “comments” between Sambo and us, something that would never have been acceptable during the previous regimes. He had a couple of guys to assist him in keeping us in line, but the one I remember best was Luther Langley. As a naive, gullible kid, my first brush with adult sarcasm, cynicism and humor came from watching these guys roast each other on every subject imaginable. Not long after their tenure began, my friends and I started “getting” a lot of the humor on nightly television shows that normally went right over our heads. And Sambo and Luther can take credit for that.
Our Troop consisted of several patrols, each numbering around 6 to 8 boys. As usual, my best friend, “T,” and I were together in the Cobra Patrol. We painstakingly painted our Cobra logo on our canvas backpacks, stitched up our little Cobra flag for leading us into the wild, and started taking this Scouting thing pretty darn seriously.
The Rowell family had a farm about 5 miles outside of town, and they allowed the Scouts to use an area back in the woods for our weekend camping excursions. There was a shabby little shed-like area for group congregations where, on what seemed like almost every Friday afternoon, we unloaded our supplies and made our way to our respective campsites for a two-day stay. Within a hundred yards of this area, there is a fresh water spring that makes its way out into the surrounding swamps (for newcomers to my exploits, Andrews is little more than a small raised area surrounded by swamps and wetlands). The temperature of that springwater is absolutely freezing – it seems to be about 34˚ by my recollection. But it saved us from the laborious task of hauling coolers filled with ice out to the boonies. First thing we did upon arriving was to take our drinks and perishable foods to the spring for immersion into the chilly waters – nature’s own refrigerator. More on the spring – and the surrounding swamps – later.
Then we would set about rounding up firewood – or rather, running for firewood. Each patrol had to accumulate enough wood for two days’ and nights’ worth of cooking – and in the winter, for keeping us from freezing to death. So, getting out there and finding trees and limbs that had naturally fallen and aged was of paramount importance. Otherwise, a lot of back-breaking – and usually accident-prone – axe work was required to load up on green wood, which tended to be a real pain getting to burn.
Once the firewood was gathered, we set up our tents, carefully ditching around the edges for drainage in the event of rain (you only forget to do that once, by the way), and clearing any debris from the campsite that may have cropped up since the last visit (when nature calls in the dead of night and you venture out in the dark to, well, you know… you don’t want to break your neck tripping over something that wasn’t there before; again, you only forget to do that once, also).
With campfires crackling and burgers sizzling, we would have our supper and then make our way over to the old shed. The itinerary for the weekend’s events would be explained, the leaders would trade insults with one another, and then we all headed for the big cow pasture adjacent to our camping area. It didn’t matter how many times you went camping – there was one thing that we absolutely lived for on each camping trip.
Capture The Flag.
As darkness fell, we would choose up sides and take opposing ends of the vast pasture. It encompassed about 12 acres, a clear field in the middle of swamps and woods, with just two little knobs of scrubby little trees at either end. Both sides signaled their readiness with flashlights and yells, and the game was on.
There was a definite take-no-prisoners mentality involved in this contest, and everyone knew it. This was no place for the weak or faint of heart. Most slithered on the ground, slowly – very slowly – to avoid crawling through one of the numerous “pasture muffins” so thoughtfully left behind by the grazing cows during the week – inching our way towards the enemy’s stronghold. Detection by the other side could result in serious contusions and lacerations, but no one seemed to mind. It was all part and parcel of the game.
Personally, I preferred the “Banzai” approach – running wide open through the darkness in a beeline, braced for the unseen collisions with anyone or anything along the way – eyes fixed on the small glow of a flashlight affixed underneath the “flag” hung upon a scraggly branch of the small trees that comprised the enemy base. Akin to my no-holds-barred approach to “Kick The Can,” the element of brazen surprise (or unwitting stupidity) seemed to have winning results most of the time. I would fly by the enemy’s unsuspecting last line of defense in an oblique curve, snatch the flag from the limb, and then kick it into high gear for the long run back to home base.
On one particular night, I failed to take into account for a member of the other side in my body count, as I flashed by the limb and grabbed the flag. Somewhere between their base and the center line, I had the misfortune of encountering Siggy Tanner, who was a few years older and a lot bigger than me. Siggy introduced me to “The Corkscrew” – a form of contact that involved a fist, taking the slightly raised knuckle of the middle finger and applying it to the temple of the victim in a rapid and hard motion. I don’t remember the first part of it, but as I regained consciousness, I recall the relief of all the guys standing around me.
“Man, I’ve never seen anyone go into convulsions like that before!” was the general phrase the seemed to be real popular.
Even though Sambo and Luther banished the use of “The Corkscrew” from any further contests, I avoided Siggy like the plague after that.
Bruised, battered, bleeding and completely elated, we returned to our campsites for a nightcap of marshmallows dangling from thin limbs, and hot chocolate, as we recounted our exploits of the evening. Then we crawled into our cozy sleeping bags and drifted off into restful sleep.
Daylight brought about the sounds of more crackling fires and the smell of frying bacon and eggs, and muffled hollering in the hazy distance of other campsites awakening. Not being a morning person, I usually stayed in my warm sleeping bag long after the others had started their day. After breakfast, we began pursuing various tasks required for the next rank, or for merit badges. Or we would just revel in being kids in the woods, doing all the mindless stuff that occasionally resulted in someone requiring it trip back into town for stitches or a cast. But we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Lunch normally consisted of sandwiches or canned food that didn’t neccessarily require cooking, as we conserved as much wood as possible for breakfast and supper. Afternoons consisted of games of football or baseball in the pasture, or with us paying close attention as Sambo and Luther taught us how to tie various knots and lash trees together to build rope bridges and signal towers. We all learned morse code, using signal flags or flashlights; we didn’t realize it at the time, but later on, this came in right handy.
Nighttime fell on the second day, and campfires were once again stoked and roaring for the big supper on Saturday nights. We usually feasted on burgers, hot dogs, or stews that we contrived utilizing some strange combinations of food groups. Since my dad owned the Piggly Wiggly, I had a habit of popping into the store on Friday afternoon and asking the butcher, Wyman, to set me up with a nice thick steak. I got a lot of glaring stares across the ol’ campfire, as others would eye my Porterhouse, then look forlornly at their pitiful little hot dogs or burgers, then look back at my steak, saliva dribbling down their chins.
My reaction to their glares was, “Hey, sorry, you should have picked a dad who owns a grocery store.”
I probably should have rethought that approach, looking back on it. One night – one very dark night – a group of us hiked over to the spring to retrieve some ice-cold Cokes from the clear depths. Unbeknownst to me, there was a conspiracy afoot. As we started back to our campsites, one of the guys feigned forgetfulness, stating that we had forgotten to get one for Sambo and Luther.
“Brian, how about grabbing a couple more Cokes, O.K.?” was the well-rehearsed setup from the guy with the flashlight.
“Sure, no problem,'” I unwittingly obliged, as I ran back the mere few feet to the spring and scooped up the drinks.
When I turned back to join them, I could only hear the sound of fleeting feet becoming more and more distant, amid squeals of laughter. I was left alone in the darkness, the two cold Cokes clinking beside me.
I panicked and began to run towards where I thought we had entered the spring, but within seconds I had begun to mire down in the ever-present swamp. Unable to see my way, I quickly bogged down to my knees in the freezing muck.
“Hey, come on guys, I’m stuck! I’m getting wet and it’s cold out here!” I screamed in terror. “Please guys, come back!” I fought in vain to extricate myself, and then I realized that one of my shoes had been sucked from my foot. And then I realized that, for dome unfathomable reason, I had worn my new shoes.
Now, the cold, the mud, and the abandonment paled in comparison to the scenario of explaining to my mom why I had gone camping in my new shoes.
A lone whipperwill mocked me as I searched the foreboding woods for my friends. Less than 30 yards away, my buddies huddled, stifling their laughter as they listened to me begin to cry. Actually, I began to wail.
Well, they proved to have a conscious after all, and returned to pull me from the swamp, trying their best to hide their overwhelming desire to burst into laughter at my situation. But I could not leave until I retrieved my shoe. I sloshed around for what seemed like an eternity on my hands and knees, desperately searching for my lost Florsheim. And then, just as I was about to have a complete and total nervous breakdown, I felt it slide along my fingers.
All were forgiven for their cruel little joke as I happily made my way back to camp. The shoes were impaled on sticks beside the fire as we all laughed and replayed the scene a dozen times. I was in the middle of razzing “T” for his involvement in the matter, when one of the guys hollered out:
“HEY! BRIAN! YOUR SHOES ARE ON FIRE!”
Mortified, I wheeled around to find my shoes obscured by a cloud of smoke. Placed too close to a fire too hot, they looked to be goners. I grabbed them off of the stakes, only to launch them into the darkness as the searing heat burned my hands.
Well, it turned out they were merely “steaming,” not burning, and yet another round of laughter rang through the night air. The whipperwill concurred.
When dried, the shoes were a little stiffer, but I still had both of them.
Later, as we lay in our tents, “T” asked me, “Psst … Brian .. what are you thinking about?”
“I’m gonna shoot that damn whipperwill,” I said as I closed my eyes.
– Next Issue –
Beware The Red Hats
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, May 4, 2000.