By Brian M. Howle
In the last issue, I began recalling the experiences of Boy Scout Troop 329 from my hometown, Andrews, S.C.. As one of the remaining bastions of simple, honest mentoring, Scouting provided my friends and me a positive way to seek out our confidence – and a great outlet for controlled mischief. Our Scoutmaster, Sambo Harper, and his assistant, Luther Langley, schooled us in the ways of Scouting – and allowed us to be ourselves as we participated in a myriad of activities.
The virtues of decency and helpfulness were instilled in us despite our best efforts to avoid them. We became ravenous for merit badges and spent long hours quizzing one another on the eve of final accreditation to attain the next rank. When all of the prerequisite tasks of proper Scouting were completed, we turned our attention to camping out – anywhere, anytime.
Sambo was in the National Guard during his tenure as our Scoutmaster. As a result, we became familiar with the majority of military bivouac gear, provisions and protocol. I guess Sambo had a good line on used stuff, since we came to be in the possession of a couple of huge tents – like the ones used to provide emergency shelter for the newly homeless in Homestead, Fla. after Hurricane Andrew decimated their homes. We were also issued rain ponchos, canteens, a variety of specialty belts which contained oodles of neat little pouches and hooks and keeno guy stuff like that. At some point we even dined on C-Rations while attending Jamborees or public service events, finally coming to be at one with our fathers in reminiscing about the coveted tin of pound cake. Straight military issue, these meal packs also contained the then standard issue mini-pack of cigarettes – an inclusion that eventually resulted in Sambo and Luther pre-opening our packs to confiscate the forbidden smokes before some of the less sensible of us scarfed them up and puffed away the evidence before being busted.
When it came to an outdoor excursion, Troop 329 was equipped second to none. Although we had use of an established campsite located on the Rowell farm outside of town, we did not simply load up the gear and kids in the backs of pickups for every trip out into the wilds. Sambo and Luther drilled us on the use of a compass and map reading, and would drive us to various locations around the two-county area and drop off a patrol with a sealed envelope containing the coordinates, a compass and a timed start. They would then drive to a different place, drop off the next patrol, return to the Scout Hut in town and load up another patrol or two for more of the same. They would spend their personal free time during the week mapping out the assorted routes, hiking the courses to ensure correct coordinates and time tables.
We never asked, but I think we may have surprised our leaders with our success on these maneuvers. The alloted time may have been exceeded occasionally, but no patrol ever became lost or disoriented. And there are simply some things that elude description to truly convey the importance of our coming to realize the potential of our abilities. Those map and compass hikes were a catalyst for immersing ourselves into voluntary basic training.
Outsiders would have had a hard time understanding our seemingly conflicting modes of behavior. We had the mechanics of outdoor life down to an art, swarming over a new campsite and establishing an operational base, complete with working mess area and deluxe “four-holer” latrine in less than an hour. Because we knew that the sooner camp was made, the sooner we could begin looking for trouble. Which was probably the only thing we did faster than setting up camp.
No one knows for sure exactly when it happened, but not long after taking over the reins of 329, Sambo implemented his single greatest innovation – simple, red baseball caps.
Long-standing tradition had imposed those hard-to-keep-on little boat-shaped, pleated Scout hats as part of the strict uniform code. Besides making you look like a real dweeb, they were almost impossible to keep on your belt when not using for inspection assembly. And while we realized, as we blended in with hundreds of other Scouts at Jamborees or camp, that uniform appearance was an integral part of the organization as a whole – well, that basic childhood need to be different still gnawed at our collective gut.
That all changed when Sambo issued his proclamation that we would all wear identical red baseball caps, with the 329 numbers sewn on front, above the bill. After clearing the change through official Scout channels, ol’ Sambo figured out that when we piled out of the back of the pickups on campouts, he could quickly locate ANY member of our troop with just a glance. As with any new idea, there were some who scoffed and shook their heads in disapproval whenever we would march into a camp with other troops. But it didn’t take them long to recognize the benefits of quick identification and accountability.
It also didn’t take them long to recognize that when the red hats were around, there might just be a small chance that their guys may be in harm’s way.
We attended many public service projects, in addition to the Jamborees and camps. One such outing took us to Francis Marion National Forest, near McClellanville via U.S. Hwy. 17, where we participated in trail blazing on a grand scale. The Palmetto Trail’s trailhead is located just off Hwy. 17, where one may now begin the long trek through the forests and swamps of the coastal plains. The trail cutting was assigned to troops in specific segments – usually one-half to one mile in length – and utilized dozens of troops. Armed with compasses, machetes and axes, we mapped the trail, clearing medium trees and underbrush as we went. International Paper Company provided harvesters and skidders for the large trees, but for the most part it was good ol’ fashioned hand-to-plant combat.
The military services used this occasion to ply their spell over wide-eyed youths captivated by the assortment of hardware brought to the show. We witnessed equipment demonstrations of vehicles, artillery pieces and every automatic weapon in the U.S. arsenal. We ooh’d and aah’d at the engagement mobilization of a screeching Jeep equipped with a mounted cannon, fell our own heartbeats race with the tension of hand-to-hand combat (complete with the bayonet-thru-the-dummy’s-heart finale), and set land speed records lining up for our turn at firing the .60 caliber tripod mounted machine gun or the M-16s. Our only disappointment was when we learned that despite our offer of signed waivers, we would not be allowed anywhere near live grenades. Which, in retrospect, was probably a good idea.
Sambo’s righthand man, Luther, had a habit of mixing scouting weekends with hunting. Long before we stirred from our comfy sleeping bags, Luther was up and decked out in full hunting attire, pursuing various game depending on the season.
On one particular outing, he yammered on and on about finding the perfect spot for putting up a duck blind as the eve of duck season fell. Relief from “duck mania” came only when he retired early in the evening in preparation for his pre-dawn start. While he slept, we quietly – and carefully – replaced his birdshot shells with “Double Ought” buckshot, which is used for deer and wild boar. Happy and content in his secluded blind, we could only imagine his reaction as he trained the sight of his shotgun on the first incoming duck, and then squeezed the trigger – only to see the doomed fowl disappear in a puff of feathers.
Retribution inevitably followed such pranks, usually after much thought and planning by our beloved leaders. But for incidental error or disobedience, Sambo issued his absolute favorite and most used form of punishment – hugging trees.
Anything, from incomplete uniform at inspection to wantonly ignoring specific orders, would get you wrapped around a tree. It may sound silly, but hugging trees would quickly “get your mind right” to Sambo’s edicts. You spend an hour or so holding an oak or pine and you’ll get with the program in short order. Besides the obvious physical discomfort of standing for long periods of time with your arms around the tree, there were several types of critters who would happily attach themselves to your body in the most uncomfortable of places. Chiggers, ticks and “redbugs” are not welcome visitors on a campout.
As we passed through our youth, our rowdiness and play seemed to be all that mattered. But when we attended a Jamboree in the middle of a wet and miserable winter, the real worth of our training shined through in practice.
We set up our camp in record time. We stocked our firewood and maintained our campfire for the entire weekend, while all others struggled to build theirs just to cook one meal. Then we set about building a pair of signal towers on either side of the expansive camping area, lashing logs together with yards of rope to form strong, stable platforms for signaling and observation. It was a private line as it turned out, as no other troop present was capable of flag signaling, or even morse code with flashlights.
As our contemporaries huddled in wet, cold and hungry groups around us, we reveled in our accomplishments. The many competitions over the weekend were consistently dominated by the troop with the red hats. And everyone knew it.
My friends and I have come to appreciate the disciplines and ideals that these men instilled within us, as our lives stretch into the abyss of middle-aged reflection. Every member of our troop from that era has gone on to lead respectable, successful lives. And each of us have passed on the values that we learned to our children – at every opportunity.
Amid the mindless clutter of today’s assortment of video and computer games, cable TV and cell phones for our children to master, there’s something to be said about the knowledge of tying a square knot or starting a fire with a stick and some twine. Oh, I know – there are those of you who will laugh this off as useless nostalgia, good only for reminiscing rednecks. And that’s O.K., too.
Let’s see you start a fire with a Nintendo controller.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, May 18, 2000.