The late fifties and early sixties was an age before television began to lull us inside and present a distorted view of reality. Life outside of the house was exciting and adventuresome. Inside was for eating, sleeping and homework. Outside was for quests, socializing, learning and getting into trouble. When we were ushered outside to play, mom’s words went something like this; “Go outside, play, have fun and don’t get into trouble.” The problem was, my idea of trouble and mom’s was usually different.
Trying to stay out of mischief often necessitated belonging to some youth organization which parents believed would somehow mold us into responsible adults. If you were one to push the limits, the threat of reform school hung over your head. For those who were not as rebellious, organizations such as 4-H, FFA, sports or Boy Scouts did the trick. I tried the football route but quickly learned I did not care for my face being stepped on by kids twice my size. Boy Scouts became the route to salvation and a somewhat un-criminal life.
My brother Tom started the scouting experience in our family. Tom earned the Eagle Scout rank, which was an accomplishment for a young guy fighting Cystic Fibrosis. On a hot Nebraska July night, Tom, along with four other scouts pinned on the rank of Eagle in front of a crowd that required the Jug Brown Football Stadium behind the high school to hold all the guests.
Tom was my first lesson in dealing with a person of limited resources. I refuse to call him disabled as many people would want to today. For Tom, the disease was an inconvenience and he dealt with it as such. It might be better to label it as a distraction, but for him, it was never a disability. By fifth or sixth grade I was already taller than him, but in my mind he was bigger because he was after all, my big brother. Years later, I was honored to join him in the Eagle brotherhood. Today I measure each new Eagle Scout against Tom’s accomplishments and life style.
Scouting in Falls City was the adventure you read about in Boys Life or in the Boy Scout Handbook as you thumbed through it in the Boy Scout section of the J. C. Penny store. I couldn’t wait to be a scout. All of the tenderfoot requirements were memorized well before I signed on. I had visions of camping in the timber outside of town, wearing my uniform to school on scout days and leading a patrol through town at the start of a hike, each member dutifully following behind the flapping flag of the wolf patrol. As a troop we never went on a fifty mile hike, saved a life or helped old ladies cross the street. But, when no one was looking and without even knowing it, we saved our own lives and helped each other cross the street from puberty to manhood.
We were a camping troop as well as one which believed in initiation ceremonies, PBA (pink belly association) flashlight army, snipe hunting and a few other things that might run counter to today’s Boy Scout philosophy or practices. We had fun and we learned valuable life skills. Skills such as how to ride in the back of a pickup without being pitched out or better yet, how to drive the same pickup, pre-license of course. Each scout in the troop eventually mastered the skill of boiling the hell out of coffee, making it the best tasting beverage you’ve ever had on a cold night, how to pop milo “borrowed” from a nearby field, and God forbid, how to shoot a gun.
Our Scoutmaster, Bill, was the father of two girls, so I believe he looked at each one of us as his sons. Bill worked in a local shop that made the cabinets for mobile homes. He was the first guy I knew who looked like he shoved softballs under his skin making his shirt sleeves stop above the biceps. He wasn’t showing off, he was a hardworking man who came by his muscles honestly. I used to do push ups every night hoping my arms would match his. I gave that idea up years ago.
On occasion, Bill would announce a shooting night for the next meeting. On these announced shooting nights, we were to bring our .22’s. On scout night, one week later, you would see a half-dozen pre-teenage boys walking down Stone Street, the main street of Falls City, toting guns. No one thought anything of it. Today, it would probably generate a SWAT team response and it would definitely create some form of national news coverage. After the meeting we would cut down through the city park (read, Death Drives a Ford Fairlane Sept. 7) then hike by way of an old service road taking us past the water and light plant down to the Nemaha River. Once there, we would plink at whatever we felt was a good target.
Old LP records were some of our favorite targets. We would roll LPs down the banks of the river and try to hit them before they ever reached the river bottom. Thinking back now I realize how dangerous that really was but somehow Bill controlled it. There were never any close calls that I remember. I also wouldn’t mind having a few of those LP’s back. What should have caused even more alarm for the locals, was these same boys walking home in the dead of night carrying armament. How would you react today if you were sitting on your front porch enjoying the evening air and listening to the crickets and you saw four boys, dirty, sweaty and carrying on walking down your street, each carrying a rifle?
It was from these nights that I learned to shoot, gain respect and responsibility for what a weapon could do; lesson never taught, but lessons learned.
As a troop we were good at winter camping. Understand Nebraska winters are as cold as Nebraska summers are hot. There are many January days when the high temperature is still below zero. There is a description of Nebraska cold that says; “It was so cold outside that all the people’s words froze in mid-sentence. When spring came along, all the words thawed at once and you couldn’t hear yourself think.” Few people in their right mind venture out unless they were required to. That is unless you were a member of troop 393. Bill would sign us up every year for what was called the Winter Freeze Out camporee.
The winter I learned to sleep naked in my sleeping bag (well almost naked) was the most memorable of all of the winter events and a source for a few more stories that will follow. It was January. A fresh snow fell in the afternoon and by the time we got the tents set up, we were all ready to pack it in and go home. We were cold, wet and hungry. This changed when Bill made some of his ground coffee elixir; coffee boiled with the grounds then served in a tin camp cup, (which I still have.) You could smell the aroma of the coffee sneaking through the campsite like a winter butterfly fluttering from one bare branch to the next looking for some warmth. Once touched by the aroma, you were prompted to change your attitude and begin the task of fixing your evening meal. Many chose to fix easy camp food like hot dogs or “hobo” dinners. You made “hobo” dinners at home by throwing on to tin foil ground meat, vegetables, and whatever else you wanted in your meal. (I always liked a little A-1 in mine.) You formed a pouch around the concoction with the foil and packed it away. Once at the campsite, all you had to do was pitch it in the coals until the hamburger was cooked. When you opened the foil, the steam fogged your glasses and thawed your nose. The bouquet of smells made you feel like you were back at mom’s table with her special one pot meal.
Bill was in charge of dessert. His Dutch-oven peach cobbler was the crowning glory of camp food. I still get a little teary eyed when I reminisce about the taste of this delicacy. It is a lost taste, which cannot be duplicated without the old seasoned ovens and subzero nights. Bill would mix the cobbler in several dutch ovens, then bury the ovens in campfires around the encampment. No one dared lift a lid until Bill gave the orders to sample. Once done, the ovens shared an oozing peach and dough creation. The edges burnt from the coals and peaches on the bottom, caramelized. To make it even better, on this encampment, someone had the great idea to bring ice cream which of course needed no freezer. The vanilla ice cream, on top of hot cobbler, fresh cowboy coffee; excuse me while I wipe away the tears and the drool.
As the camp evening wore on, the younger scouts played flashlight army or buried themselves in their mummy bags thinking for some reason that was the way to stay warm. The older scouts, those of us who actually had a few whiskers, sat around the fire, drank coffee and finished off the cobbler dished up in Styrofoam cups while Bill sat there blowing smoke rings from little cigars. They say that smell is great reminder. When I catch a whiff of tobacco smoke, campfire or coffee, it’s easy for me to conjure up those nights around the fire. When we stepped away from the fire we realized how cold it really was but for some reason instead of feeling colder, we felt older for the experience.
It was all part of growing up.