My oldest grandson has just joined the Cub Scouts, and hearing about that inevitably woke up some dormant memories in me, not only because I was involved in Cub Scouts with his Dad but also of my own experiences as a boy. I was a part of scouting for a lot of years, and I’ve even kept some of the memorabilia from those days. Most of those old badges and cloth emblems – called “patches” by scouts – are over fifty years old, but still look pretty good for their age. (Unlike me, but I suppose I’d look nice too if I’d been kept carefully packed away in a drawer — or maybe not.) My recollections of scouting include not only musical memories – as always – but also a remembrance of one of the most embarrassing incidents in my life, but more later about that.
When I went away to summer camp for the first time, I was 11 and had just graduated from Cub Scouts to the real thing — I was a full-fledged Boy Scout, albeit a Tenderfoot, the rank assigned to rookies. It was a pretty exciting time for a kid who had spent very little time away from home, and if I felt a little wistful as I watched my parents driving away, I was soon fully occupied by all the activities that counselors had devised to keep a couple of hundred pre-teen boys entertained and occupied. I can only imagine the ingenuity that must have required.
As you would guess, it was a quasi-military setup, starting with the tents we were occupying, which were war surplus and actually pretty roomy. They contained 4 metal cots and were semi-permanently erected on top of wooden platforms, so it wasn’t exactly “roughing it”, but it was pretty exotic to us. We also learned to pay attention to the bugle calls, from morning Reveille to nightly Taps and everything in between. One of the bugle calls we quickly learned to recognize was the one that called us to the mess hall, where we sat at long tables to eat our meals and if it was our turn, act as waiters and kitchen help. The mess hall was also where evening assemblies took place, when we’d sing a lot of timeless camping songs, such as “On Top Of Old Baldy”, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, and “I’m Happy When I’m Hiking”. (And later in our tents, we’d sing “99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall” and feel very grown up.)
Most of our day was pretty well planned – again mirroring a military lifestyle – and included crafts and nature study, along with archery class. Of course, we had some free time too. There was a small lake at the camp and we canoed and swam every day, and still had time to explore the woods surrounding the lake. In fact, the lake – and the canoes – formed the backdrop for my embarrassing moment, so I guess we need to get to that.
There were always special things going on, and one of those events was the induction ceremony for an honor society of senior scouts that was based on American Indian language and history. The ceremony was a regular occurrence, planned for the night that our parents came out to the camp for a visit. It was a solemn and serious atmosphere, and the families would watch quietly as all the campers were lined up along the earthen dam at one end of the lake by senior scouts who were already society members. Those guys were costumed in breech-clouts, feathers, and war-paint, and carrying flaming torches, and they would be completely silent as they herded us into place. Soon after that a canoe with a torch aboard could be seen approaching across the dark lake, and we watched with wide eyes as it landed on shore and a guy with a full feathered head-dress stepped out and walked toward us. He was flanked on either side by other society members and began walking slowly along the line of campers, occasionally and abruptly stopping opposite one of them (who we would learn later had been voted into the society by secret ballot) and give him a hard push backwards out of the line. One of the other members would be waiting to catch him and put him with the other designees, and later they’d all begin their initiation rite.
My embarrassment occurred when campers on either side of me were getting selected and the guys carrying the torches kept stopping right in front of me. Those torches, which were made with kerosene-soaked rags, stunk to high heaven with fumes and smoke. On top of that it was a hot night, and well…I was nervous. Anyhow, the next thing I know I was waking up flat on the ground, looking up a a circle of concerned faces surrounding me. That’s right, I had fainted.
It took me a long time to live that down. For days after that, I kept insisting that I hadn’t been scared, just sick of the fumes from the torch. Finally, I heard another kid say that he’d heard that it was all staged to make the ceremony look more scary, and that I was in on it and had just pretended to faint. Hmmm…I decided that sounded pretty good, or at least better than the alternative, so with my encouragement that version became the legend. It helped that the following year, I didn’t faint — and I was one of those selected for the society, but that’s another story.