Scouting and camping

I graduated from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts while we were in DC.  Working very hard, I managed to accrue over 25 merit badges and work my way up from Tenderfoot to Life Scout, which was one step under Eagle.  Some of them were easy, like Cooking and Basketry, but the more technical and scholarly ones took quite a bit of effort.

My favorite one, if I had to pick it, would probably be my Astronomy merit badge.  This one required that I map the sky several times during the night so I would set an alarm clock and drop fuzzily out of bed and squint into the night sky from the back porch.  My mom was also very interested in astronomy and talked to the merit badge counselor who knew someone at the University of Maryland’s observatory.  What a coup she had pulled off!  I was going to be able to go to a real observatory.

When the time for the trip rolled around, the two of us drove into DC and worked our way across town to the campus.  We parked, identified ourselves and went into the building.  Since viewing the stars is a bit difficult during the day, we had gotten up at eleven in the evening for our trip.  We met the head astronomer and were taken on a tour of the entire facility.  A huge reflector telescope dominated the entire room.  I was shown how it kept tracking a single spot by the use of a clockwork mechanism, and how a camera could be attached for photography.

We spent almost four hours there chatting and viewing.  The dome really got a workout that night as we swung the scope this way and that.  I finally pooped out around three in the morning.  I dozed all the way home.  I was definitely ready for the badge test though and didn’t miss a single question.

Many camping trips were taken with my Scout buddies.  Most of the time, we would get to go over into southern Pennsylvania to a private reserve that catered to boy and girl groups.  My dad was a counselor for the Boy Scouts so he went with us on pretty much every trip.  It can be a drag having your dad along all the time, but he did teach us a lot about how to live off the land and things like that.

Sassafras tea was my first introduction to ‘things you can eat or drink that live in the woods but won’t kill you’.  We were taught to look for the tree with three distinct leaf styles: One is oval, one partly divided into three lobes, and one is mitten-shaped.  Once located, you dig around the small tree to expose its roots.  This is what you want and can be confirmed by the smell of root beer emanating from them.  Cut off several roots and trim them by shaving the bark onto a drying surface.  You can make tea from undried bark, but it may be a bit bitter.  Dump the bark chips into boiling water and let it simmer until dark enough for your taste.  Add sugar and you have sassafras tea.

Another set of instructions was how to set snares for rabbits.  All sorts of devious means were shown to us for snagging these elusive creatures.  I never caught one, but my buddy did.  We were shown how to skin, clean, and prepare for roasting.  It was very delicious.

One incident stands out in my mind though.  My dad had lined up some different bits of fruit on a table for us to sample.  Wild strawberries, currants, apples, and pears sat there along with a small, round, fruit that looked like a short stemmed cherry.  Tasting went along swimmingly until we got to the persimmon.  My dad had slipped a ringer in on us.  The persimmon was green.  When persimmons are green, they are nothing but a small ball of alum.  Alum, as we all know, will make your mouth pucker up, all the moisture will disappear, and you start to make sputtering noises trying to spit out the fruit.  This can’t be done because you have no spit to do it with.  The sight of all us boys in various stages of oral agony really cracked him up.  Yeah, real funny dad; thanks a load.

Nighttime campfires provided the venue for telling ghost stories, holding various councils for some of scouting’s awards, and just generally fooling around.  On one occasion we boys were herded into a circle around the fire and told we were going to be taught an old Algonquin Indian ritual.  We were to kneel and face the fire.  Instructions began with us to repeat the first word of the three word incantation: “Oh-Wa”.  We dutifully repeated it in slow cadence while flinging our arms towards the fire and bowing.  We were also told that enlightenment would soon come upon us.  When that happened, we were to break the circle and stand quietly.

Then, after a brief introductory statement about the second word, we repeated it slowly: “Ta-Goo”, and bowed again.  The third word, the speaker noted, would complete the mantra for us.  It was “Si-Am”.  We were then to repeat these three sacred words slowly, but to increase the pace until almost running them together.

All of us began slowly repeating the secret phrase: “Oh-Wa” (pause) “Ta-Goo” (pause) “Si-Am”.  Faster and faster we chanted, each one of us bowing as we did so.  One by one the kids started dropping back from the circle until just a few of us were left.  Yes, I was one of the last to finally get it.  “O wha ta goose I am”.

It may sound a bit corny nowadays, but I met some of the nicest kids at these camps.  Our troop was a bit on the small side, so we almost always had to buddy-up with another smaller troop.  Each time I was a different one.  One year it was a troop visiting Washington from France.  Most of the kids didn’t speak much English, and we hardly knew any French, but we all got along pretty well.

Their counselor was a big, strapping guy that laughed a lot.  His assistant was a pretty dour cuss that hardly ever smiled.  He could cook up a really great meal given the primitive kitchen tools we had.  He even showed us how to use a Dutch oven properly.  We had a wonderful peach cobbler that he made from fruits we picked ourselves.  And, nothing beats the smell of fresh biscuits in the morning.

A few of our mixed band of conspirators were out in the woods one day showing the French cook what delicacies were available.  We found several growths of wild onions, some fruits, and even wild potatoes.  It was one of the French kids that spotted a small, furry, black and white animal ambling up the trail ahead of us.  Now, we Americans know a skunk when we see one, but none of the French guys had ever seen one.  We convinced the cook that this animal was a delicacy worth capturing and that we would surround it and he could wait for him at the other end of the log it was sitting near.

We approached (carefully) and urged the French troop forward with hand signals.  The cook got out ahead of his guys and began closing in on the skunk.  It hissed a couple of times, and then darted into the log – which turned out to be hollow.  Gleefully whooping the hunters swarmed both end of the log and started poking sticks into it trying to dislodge the skunk.

With easily predictable results, the skunk retaliated in a manner befitting a skunk and fired at Will, er, Arne, Francoise, Jean, and the rest.  Now, I don’t understand French, but the air seemed a bit blue; and not entirely from the skunk.  The entire team of intrepid hunters set a blistering pace towards the nearest water, which happened to be our lake, and dove in – clothes and all.  Among much sputtering, eye-rubbing, and general consternation we apologized.

The next evening the cook wouldn’t let us into the kitchen while fixing up our dinner.  Once he was done, the French scouts all filed in dressed nicely and sat down.  My troop filed in likewise and awaited the repast.  The first thing on the table was a couple small pots of butter and some loaves of bread.  These were followed by several plates of – no!  Were those SNAILS?  Yes, they were.  Ah, man, we’ve been had, was the general opinion among us.

Laughing nervously, we watched in horror as each of the French scouts grabbed their small forks and dug in.  Oh, NO, they’re EATING them!  I was offered a shell in which a small piece of snail was sticking out.  Arne showed me how to spear this little bit and drag the rest out.  I worked up the courage to put it on my tongue and chew – once – and swallow.  Hey!  That tasted pretty good.  I could taste lots of garlic and other spices, plus the melted butter it was dipped in.  Pretty soon, every one of us was slurping down our first dinner of snails, ripping off hunks of bread, and dashing them through the butter dishes.

Those guys were pretty good sports after all.

Every one of us had our bunks short-sheeted.

Boy Scout Camp truisms:

Snipe are an elusive bird that simply can NOT be captured by running through the woods like an idiot at midnight with a burlap bag and a flashlight.

Hornet’s nests are NOT to be used as a football, especially if YOU are the wide receiver.

Vines hanging from a tree are NOT the best method for crossing a stream.

Do NOT be the first person to go to sleep.

Outhouses do NOT just fall over by themselves – especially if someone (you) are in them.

Snakes do NOT naturally try to hide in your sleeping bag.

Do NOT accept binoculars for use unless you have first checked the eyepieces for soot.

Bees WILL make nests in the ground also – even under your tent.

Water makes knots in your clothing VERY hard to remove.

Make sure your group leader knows how to read a map. In Addition: If he does, make sure he does NOT hold the compass next to his belt buckle.

When falling into a swamp, trying to run and screaming “Shit! Shit! Shit!” will only make matters worse.  (See previous truism.)

Never believe anyone who tells you that the Girl Scout Camp is just over the hill (or across the lake, or somewhere else nearby) it NEVER will be.

T.O.M

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