After school, when I was 13, and in the eighth grade, I would frequently go over to the home of one of my classmates, a studious boy named Jerry Coleman. I had known Jerry since we were both in grade school together, but we never interacted much as I was usually over at Hughie’s house. I may have gravitated to Jerry, out of some sense of rejection because Hughie seemed more interested in hanging out with Richard, the boy who lived next door to him. But I never completely gave up on Hughie until he got a car on his sixteenth birthday and he and Richard got in it and drove away together to one of the local drive-in hamburger restaurants that were popular at the time. I was still riding my bicycle at 16, but it wouldn’t have been cool to follow them on my bicycle.
One day after school, Jerry asked me to come over to his house and help him study Morse Code. He explained that he was trying to learn it so that he could rise up the ranks in the Boy Scouts.
I thought that it would be nice to perhaps try to cultivate a new friendship in light of my “third wheel” status with Hughie and Richard. Plus my father had been employed for many years as a telegraph operator for the Seaboard Railroad and he had learned Morse Code from his own father who had been a telegraph operator in a little shack by the tracks in Nicholls, Georgia after Rheumatoid Arthritis made it impossible for him to continue his vocation travelling around Georgia by train as a “drummer”, or seller of wholesale groceries.
The way I looked at it, not only would I be cementing a new friendship, by helping Jerry, but I would be carrying on a family tradition.
We met several times and after Jerry had mastered the Morse Code, and I had learned A, B, C, E, S, and O, we turned our attention to tying knots. Thanks to Jerry, I can still tie a “square knot” and a “half hitch”, and a “hangman’s noose” three of the simpler types of knots, but nevertheless knots that might prove useful in life, especially if you want to tie a knot that stays tied. The first time I tried to tie the “square knot”, Jerry smiled consolingly and told me that I had tied a “Granny,” an inferior type of knot that wouldn’t hold. Since I lived with my grandmother, an invalid in a wheelchair, and we were very close, I wished that the scouts had come up with a different name for it. I felt a little sorry for myself for the minor failure and even sorrier for my Grandmother.
After a week or two of hanging out with Jerry, he asked me if I would like to join Troop 108 of the Boy Scouts of America. They met every Monday evening at 6 p.m. in a little shack on the grounds of The Whitfield Methodist Church in our neighborhood.
I’ll admit, I was somewhat intrigued by the invitation and gratified by the realization that someone actually wanted to spend time with me and I found the prospect of making more new friends rather appealing, especially after my frustrating and rather disappointing experiences with Hughie in my early life. But, in my own defense, I had given it a good ten years to work out. In retrospect, it was nothing personal, it was just that I needed him more than he needed me.
The following Monday evening at around six, in the fading light of an early Fall evening, my Mother dropped me off in front of the church and I tentatively walked over to a small white building off to one side. The door was open and there was a light on inside and I could see six or seven boys congregating near the entrance. I could tell by their movements and the way they darted in and out of the door that there was something fun and possibly very exciting going on in that little shack. And I wanted more than anything to be a part of it.
As I walked in, I passed a young man of undetermined age, perhaps as old as nineteen or twenty. He was talking to another older boy. They were both dressed in their scout uniforms, which were covered with medals and ribbons and one had a sash across his chest that had dozens of colorful merit badges on it—which had no doubt been awarded to him for his superior knowledge, skills and abilities in a variety of areas. I soon found out their names– George Linsky and Aurthur Saile and that they were scout leaders.
My friend, Jerry Coleman was already there, looking sharp in his uniform. And all the other boys were in theirs, except for me, that is. There was an American Flag on a shiny wooden pole on one side at the front of the room, and on the other was the Troop flag of Troop 108 of the Boy Scouts of America. Hanging from the top of the Troop Flag were a variety of ribbons which had been awarded for various events and activities the troop had been involved in going back many years. I felt honored to be in the presence of such accomplished and skilled individuals and the ghosts of countless others that were not present but who had obviously come before. It was obvious to me that this was an organization with a proud and glorious history–you could feel it in the room.
And I was determined to be a part of it.
George called the scout meeting to order and everyone stood up and raised their right hand and gave the three-fingered scout salute. Then George led us in the Scout Oath, which was a regular feature at the beginning of each meeting. “On my honor, I will do my best, To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
I wasn’t sure what “doing my duty to God was” or what “morally straight” was, but deep down inside, I worried that I may have already violated that oath on numerous occasions. But I really hoped that whatever it was wouldn’t prevent me from becoming a Boy Scout.
That same week, my mother took me downtown to the basement in Penny’s department store where they sold the Boy Scout uniforms and equipment. With the help of a salesman, in no time at all I had my uniform, consisting of shirt, pants, web belt with brass buckle, red and yellow neckerchief and Official Boy Scout hat. For good measure, my mother bought me a wallet with a zipper on it in which to keep my membership card and any money I might acquire. Like any decent wallet worth its salt, there was a place for folding money and even a small pouch for coins. The whole thing could be zipped up for greater security. It was my first wallet, and as I would soon find out, a fine one.
But no zipper and no amount of money could ever secure me.
By November of that year, I had learned oaths and mottos and rules. I had learned how to build a fire, cook on it, wash pots and pans in dirt if no water was available, dig a latrine, splint a broken bone, what different animal tracks look like, where to apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and even how to suck out the poison from a snake bite.
Preparations were now well underway for our first camping trip. It was to take place on The Isle of Wight, near Midway Georgia in mid-December. I also learned that it gets very cold in Georgia in the Wintertime.
On the appointed day, at around five-thirty in the morning my father dropped me off in front the church to join the other scouts who were going on the camping trip. I had a Boy Scout Haversack which my father had bought from a friend named Hatcher. It was slightly used and still had his name on the leather label, “Fletcher Hatcher”. There was no way to change that as it seemed to be burned into the label with a branding iron. I hoped no one would notice the name on the pack and think It had stolen it–or worse yet, think my name was really Fletcher Hatcher.
The rest of my gear was comprised of an old army surplus pup tent I had purchased for a dollar, about five years earlier from King’s Pawn Shop on Broughton Street, and its accompanying poles and pegs and rope. I packed my sleeping bag, which had been repaired by my grandmother after it had caught on fire a few years earlier, and my mess kit, canteen, a change of underwear and socks, a small hatchet, a pocket knife, some strike-anywhere matches and a couple of cans of vienna sausage and box of Premium Saltines. The hatchet and the canteen, I wore on an old pistol belt from the army surplus store.
At around six a.m., we loaded up everything into a rag-tag convoy of old cars and set off down Highway 17 passing the same familiar sights I had seen dozens of times before on the many trips I made with my father to visit his mother in Jacksonville, Florida. There were my old friends the Powder Magazine, The Horn of Plenty, Gill’s Grill, Charlie’s Rendezvous Lounge, The Bamboo Ranch, Mammy’s Kitchen, Howard Johnson’s, and eventually The Dixie Jungle, where I had ridden my bike to buy firecrackers only a few weeks before. In a little while we turned left off the highway at the old church in Midway, with its graves of long dead farmers and their wives and children. We followed the car in front of us, which followed the signs to the Isle of Wight.
After crossing a wooden plank bridge with no railings on it, in short order we arrived at the scoutmaster’s property on the river where we would set up our camp. Mr. Fillmore, our scoutmaster, was a red-haired man with very white skin and a permanent look on his face that seemed to say, “Yes, I can sort of see what you mean….” Mr. Fillmore was more of a figurehead, really, and rarely spoke to us directly. The Monday Meetings were mainly run by the Assistant Scoutmasters, George and Arthur.
Not having a tent-mate, I set up my tent, all by myself, by some tall pine trees, about halfway between the road where the cars let us out and the bluff of the river. I remembered that my uncle always insisted I was a “sleepwalker” and had tied me to an army cot and to trees a few years earlier when I went camping. Although I knew he was wrong, I still didn’t want to get too close to the river. Rivers and the edges of cliffs are best approached in the daylight, and even then, with caution.
Everything went reasonably well that day. We set up camp in the crisp December morning, dug a latrine in the woods, gathered firewood, chopped it up, cleared an area for a fire, made a fire, cooked on it, ate canned goods and hot dogs, drank Coca-Cola, and ate potato sticks, made a map of the campsite, looked at the river, went on a hike, visited each other’s tents, and as darkness fell, we lit the big bonfire we had made earlier and sat around it, each kid telling some scary story in the firelight and each kid falling asleep as he listened, and picking up the story in his dreams, while others drifted warily back to their tents in turn.
Soon it was time to retire for the evening. Leaving the comfort of the fire, I immediately noticed that the temperature had dropped considerably in the last couple of hours. I hurried to my tent, crawled inside my repaired sleeping bag and buttoned it up as best I could in the dark. I remember thinking, next time, I’ll bring a flashlight. On a moonless night in the Georgia woods it gets dark at night and cold as well.
Particularly if you don’t have a ground cloth, or something waterproof to put between your sleeping bag and the frozen bare earth. This is especially important if you have lost about half the feathers in your sleeping bag. But my grandmother did remove the burned insulation and sew the bag back up, God Bless her Soul.
I was beginning to understand what the scout motto “BE PREPARED” meant.
(to be continued)