(part of Old Brandon)
The British founders and American originators of the Boy Scouts definitely had character-building in mind, and probably those who started Scouting in Vermont, in Barre in 1910, did as well. Meetings of the Cub Scout Pack and Boy Scout Troop began ceremoniously, with everyone repeating the time-honored phrases having to do with the way a Scout should conduct himself. I don’t think most kids saw this as the most important part of belonging to the groups; indeed, there were times when the Cub Scout promise “to obey the law of the Pack” seemed to signify less an adherence to the high standards of the scouting group than a tendency toward uncivilized behavior. But I think the founders realized that a boy’s understand of right and wrong develops slowly, and that the principles might take time to soak in. Meanwhile, there were practical skill-building and experiences of living outdoors to attract participants.
Also, in the sometimes beleaguered country where some said that a certain wartime battle “had been won on the playing fields of Eton,” preparation for national service must have been part of it. In this country, too, the uniforms and the awarded decorations and the system of boys moving up through the ranks at times seemed paramilitary. This was especially true, as I will explain later, at Camp Sunrise, on Lake Sunrise in Benson, owned and run by the Scouting organization.
The recollections that follow come from my experiences working through all the requirements until I was an Eagle Scout. I’ve been told that once you are an Eagle Scout, you are one for life. Certainly some of what I learned has carried through, and on the whole, I am grateful for Scouting’s opportunities having been there for lower-middle-class boys like me.
“To help other people at all times,” says part of the Boy Scout Oath. The first aid techniques we learned do not begin to compare with the training that members of local volunteer rescue squads go through today, but they did build our confidence. My sophomore year, on the way to the new debating team’s first tournament—the state tournament at UVM in Burlington–an old man walked out from behind a truck on the hill going down into Shelburne past the Shelburne Museum, and we hit him. I didn’t see his head crack the windshield before he went over the car because I was in the back seat working on my evidence file. As he was lying beside the road, a motorist who had seen the accident rushed over and began pumping his chest to try to get his heart going again, while to make sure he did not choke, I knelt on the other side and held his tongue—a lost cause, alas. My partner and I lost our first round, too.
Hiking was a big part of Scouting. I must confess the Boy Scout patrol of which I was patrol leader, initially named the Flaming Arrow Patrol, did not have a very distinguished record in this regard. Twice our campfires resulted in visits from the local Fire Marshal; on one occasion, before I could prevent him, one patrol member decided to find out if a birch tree could be set on fire by putting a match to its bark. In the interest of stopping anyone else from trying the experiment: yes, it can. Fortunately, the flames had not gone too far up the trunk to put them out.
Speaking of the way higher principles can develop with maturity: one of the most troublesome members of the troop later became an officer in the Brandon Fire Department.
One time we went to the White Pastures in Chittenden, which I think had that name because their unforested expanse stood out in the winter as a big white patch when seen from the valley below. It was an intriguing area: there were low concrete enclosures in one place that were unlike anything I had seen on farms—structures which I believe, from news reporting later, were the springs from which the Pittsford Aqueduct Company drew the town’s first municipal water supply. We saw a doe coming toward us, and waited while it came within feet of us; not smelling us and not seeing anything moving, it had no idea we were there. We never did much with the stalking techniques described in the Boy Scout Handbook, but on this occasion we didn’t need any.
Then something even more surprising, though fundamentally quite ordinary, brought new meaning to the name White Pastures: we were enveloped by fog. Maybe it was a low cloud. In any case, we could see only a few feet in any direction–and we were well and truly lost.
But one of the patrol members had a better directional sense than the rest of us, and after wandering around for a while, we went the way he suggested and found ourselves in the vicinity of the point where we had started. Better-prepared Scouts would have had a compass with them, but we didn’t. If it hadn’t been for him, we would have had to follow the standard advice: find a stream and keep following the water downhill. In retrospect the incident illustrates, to my mind, the concept that there are many kinds of intelligence.
Camping, which sometimes included hiking, was a major part of Scouting—and there, skills that we learned were indeed useful. For instance, rather than struggling to start a fire with wet wood, we knew we should whittle slivers from a stick (sheltering the shavings from getting wet, of course), accumulate twigs and small branches and a supply of larger firewood, then use the small blaze from the dry pieces to get the twigs going, and so on, until we had a fire. This wouldn’t work in a downpour, but it did in a drizzle. We also learned the rule of thumb “Gather three times as much wood as you’ll need.” The corresponding advice from firemen is “If your house is on fire, get out as fast as you can.” Those who know what entropy is can apply the principle here; those who don’t actually do, they just don’t have the scientific word for it.
I have mentioned in “Crosslots” hiking to the top of Hawk Hill, the location of the pre-Revolutionary-War settlement of pre-Brandon named Neshobe–whose small cemetery and cellarholes can be seen to this day. We camped above the cliff that can be seen from Otter Valley Union High School; as I have also written in “Crosslots,” while looking at the valley below I saw a hawk glide by, below my feet. Some of the less-well-behaved troop members saw the farmer who lived just to the north of the high school working in a field to the west of Route 7 and yelled down to try to taunt him, “Hey Herm—you want a hot dog?” I doubt that Herman Dodge could hear them, and if he did, he was probably used to such nonsense. Unfortunately for the farm kids who attended Otter Valley, he had become an object of derision because of the size of his manure pile.
One year at Camp Sunrise there was a weekend to teach winter camping, and members of Troop 111, myself included, took part. The following winter, my patrol decided to go out on February 11 and camp overnight, on the hill to the east of Route Seven south of the high school. (There was no mobile home park at that time, just the Berry Patch Motel on the west side of the highway, where one patrol member lived, and a house on the other side, the home of another patrol member.)
Lightweight nylon tents had yet to appear. I had recently bought a clear plastic tarp—quite an innovation then—which for shelter I put over a triangular frame of branches I constructed. The other guys had a waterproofed canvas tarpaulin, under which they simply huddled. As we had been taught to do at Camp Sunrise, I cut enough evergreen tips to make a mattress of sorts by sticking them into the snow. (Today, I’m sure this would be seen as environmentally destructive.) We gathered plenty of wood to build a fire at the center of our encampment.
Overnight it snowed six inches. Later I would learn that the parents weren’t anxious: “They’ll be all right, they’re with Ed.”
All night we kept that fire going to ward off the weather. In the morning we slunk off the hill with our tails between our legs, leave a sizeable collection of lost items that only saw the light again when the snow melted that spring. The plastic tarp, weighed down by the snow until it was torn by its supports, was a total loss. So much for winter camping.
One more story about the same hill: at that time, before the state’s anti-billboard law, a tourist trap in Leicester called Sea Shell City put a series of garish red monsters along Route 7 to let people know Sea Shell City was now only so many miles away. (The place did have very nice seashells at very reasonable prices, plus craft items made with shells, along with all sorts of suggestive, somewhat off-color statues and signs and such.) Some members of my patrol decided, independently of any Scouting activities, that the plywood from one of those signs would make a nice cabin. Eventually the authorities came to the area to ask if anyone knew anything about the theft. “Haven’t seen it,” said one of the mothers, who knew perfectly well what had happened. Few if any community members regretted the sign’s disappearance; arguably, its removal might be counted as an example of following the Boy Scout principle “Do a good turn daily.”
Hiking and camping were part of summer stays at Camp Sunrise. When we weren’t on the move, we lived in tents, two bunks to a tent, which was placed for the summer over a wooden frame. And there was woodland camping, without a tent, but rather with the Scouts in the area around a central campfire sleeping in places where they had dug out, as they were taught, depressions in the ground for shoulders and hips.
At these campfires, the talk seemed to be mostly about sex, including bad, anatomically incorrect jokes, but particularly focusing on one subject of endless fascination: queers. I use the word that was used, knowing that today’s GLBT community (gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered) has seized upon the slur and turned it around, making their “queer” nature an open affirmation.
There were discussions of particular sexual techniques, which I won’t try to detail. There was talk about particular kids, and what they might do if you went to their tents. On and on into the night it went, with me in my sleeping bag having to listen to what the older boys were saying until I went to sleep. Counselors, too, were involved in these speculations. Listening to recent debates over whether or not to allow gays to become Scouts, I can’t help thinking “Gays have been part of Scouting for half a century—just not in the positive way they want now.”
But the focal points of Camp Sunrise were water sports, facilitated by its location on a lake, and the merit badge system, whose requirements could be met after a week’s attendance various morning classes, These overlapped: you could get the Swimming and Canoeing and Fishing merit badges through the camp’s aquatic opportunities.
Daily swimming was fun and doubled as daily washing. At the waterfront, swimmers were paired up in the buddy system: when a whistle blew, you had to be near your buddy or you lost your swimming privileges for a day. On my first trip to the beach, as a smaller and less knowledgeable camper, I didn’t come with a buddy and got paired with the leftover kid: a guy nicknamed “Liquor” _____, one of the camp’s well-known reprobates. He just went off on his own and when the whistle blew, we were both ejected.
I did not get the merit badge for fishing at camp, because that would have meant either roaming around the lake or using equipment I didn’t have. But there was one occasion on which I came over to the camp late in high school, when I wasn’t going there as a camper, and brought some of my gear, and tried casting an old, battered spinner off the shore near Troop 111’s tents. It got snagged on a sunken log. Then the log started moving. With many of my fellow scouts watching and cheering me on, and one of them wading into the water to help, I brought in a two-and-a-half-pound largemouth bass—at that time the largest fish I had caught.
The camp definitely had its rough side. There were stories of kids putting firecrackers in frogs, or in fish taken by kids going to spring special activities, when being there coincided with Lake Sunrise’s spring spawning migration of suckers up a brook to the east of the campsites. There were stories, too, of tossing a firecracker into an outhouse while someone was sitting there. There was one kid from West Rutland who got the nickname “Hatchet” because of his propensity for chopping down trees. Reputedly one member of Rutland’s troop had run for president of the camp and to win votes had handed out brownies-made with chocolate Ex-Lax, leading to the slogan “Vote for Ed and **** your bed.”
My father had helped to organize the troop, which did not help me with some of its members. Because he was big and strong, he was assigned a higher number of the classes with more discipline problems than was fair, he would say privately (we three boys knew that “teacher talk” was absolutely NOT to be mentioned in public). His disciplinary methods didn’t involve physical punishment, but he had a talent for caustic remarks and leaving verbal time bombs in people’s minds that I have to count as one of the experiences that helped build my skills as a poet. At the time, though, as a son of teachers I was part of “the enemy,” and my father in particular made bitter enemies of some students.
At dinner at Camp Sunrise one of them was running down my father and I said to him across the table, “______, you’re nothing but a no-good, run-of-the-mill street bum.” I count this as one of the most courageous things I have ever done. These were fighting words. A friend told me later the only reason I didn’t get beaten up was a rumor that my father had taught me how to box. The kid in question was so physically gifted that I overheard some of the counselors talking about it—though he was too rebellious to become part of any Otter Valley sports team.
He led a group of boys who came to my tent that night and said they were going to ‘initiate” me. I had to take down my pants and my underwear, after which they all inspected me and made disparaging comments about what they saw. Then they took turns spitting on it, declared that I had been initiated, and left. I felt more relieved than humiliated.
One summer when my parents were taking teacher training courses at a college in Northwestern Pennsylvania (thanks to National Science Foundation stipends this was a very economical way to take a kind of family vacation) I went to a Scout camp in the area. I was surprised to find the kids there were so much friendlier to each other, and to me.
There was one summer when friction between the Brandon and Middlebury troops threatened to escalate to fighting. As one of the oldest Scouts, I took part in a meeting with one of the older members of Middlebury’s group. Both of us thought the conflict was ridiculous, and together we defused it. He became a good friend through high school, and went on to become a lawyer then a judge. The last time I checked, he had the lowest decision reversal rate, in appeals to a high court, of any Vermont judge.
But such goings-on were minor drawbacks in comparison with the advantages of taking part in the classes the counselors and other advisors led. Archery was a favorite—few were the kids who lived where a target could be safely set up for shooting a real bow. If you were interested in canoeing, your confidence would grow as you learned how, and practiced how, to right a capsized canoe and get enough water out to start moving along again. Knowing how to tie the tautline hitch was invaluable when my family went on a car trip around the country, using a canvas tent to avoid the expense of motel stays, a heavy thing that had to be set up and secured with attached ropes again and again (the knot in question is adjustable but once adjusted does not slip). Yes, like so many campers of that generation, I learned how to make a lanyard.
I had learned to swim, but learned at Camp Sunrise that the sidestroke, with its leg propulsion and glide, was the best for long distances. I used it to go back and forth across the lake twice—four crossings—to earn my mile swim badge. To become an Eagle Scout back then, you needed to earn 21 merit badges, some specified and some elective. I ended with 24, thanks to Camp Sunrise.
Instead of living by a clock, our lives as campers were directed by bugle calls, from reveille to begin the morning through the mess call when it was time to eat until taps signaled lights out at night. It was a prestigious thing to take on the role of camp bugler, and a very prominent one at the all-camp ceremonies for raising and lowering the flag. If I ever forget how wonderful the calls are for lowering the flag and for taps, you might as well pull the plug because I’ll be brain dead.
At night, we gathered for campfires. These were a combination of silliness and seriousness. On the silly side were the skits that different troops were supposed to put on; for instance, there was one in which a series of runners warned that The Terrible Viper was coming, and when he finally appeared, he said “I’m the Terrible Vindow Viper—would anyone like their vindows viped?”
Some of the songs were meant to rally Scout spirit. “Trail to Eagle, Trail to Eagle, climbing all the time! First the Star and then the Life will on your bosom shine (keep shining!)…On, brothers, on until we’re Eagles all.”
A degree of respect for Native American heritage persisted in the Scouting of that era. I remember the first Boy Scout Handbook I owned had a ghostly image of an Indian in headdress behind a Scouting scene. One of the songs seemed to be part of that: “Our paddles keen and bright/ Flashing like silver/ Swift as the wild goose flies/ Dip, dip and swing.” Sung as a round, it would resound across the lake beside which we were gathered.
But I think most of those on hand liked a different round better: “Late last night when we were all in bed/ Mrs. O’Leary put a lantern in the shed/ Cow kicked it over and Mrs. O’Leary said/ “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight—FIRE FIRE FIRE!” The reference was to the legendary cause of the Great Chicago Fire, which burned most of the city in 1871.
Two earlier disasters lived on in song. “Oh they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue/ And they thought they had a ship that the water would never go through…chorus—“Husbands and wives,/ (spoken in as high a falsetto voice as possible) Itty bitty children lost their lives./ It was sad when that great ship went down.”
Even earlier, there was The Flood: “Oh Noah, oh Noah, he built him an arky arky,/ Built it out of hickory barky barky…It rained, it rained, for 40 daysies daysies/ Nearly drove those animals crazy crazy…”
Then there was “Madelina Catalina,” perfectly pitched to boys’ preadolescent misogeny. Its lyrics, I have found, vary from source to source the way folk songs often do; this is from the old Camp Sunrise version. “There was a funny girl and she had a funny name/ But she got it from her Daddy just the same/ Madelina Catalina Oompah Shoompah Hokey-pokey-wokey was her name…She had two hairs on her head/ One was sick and the other was dead…She had two teeth in her mouth/ One pointed north and the other pointed south…Her ears stuck out like sails on a boat/ Her Adams apple bobbled up and down in her throat…”
It was goofy but it was fun, and probably did more to build camp spirit than the flag ceremonies.
The most solemn and serious of the campfire rituals was “tapping out” new members of The Order of the Arrow, who had to be elected in secret balloting by troop members. Everyone would stand in a circle while the person who was doing the tapping out would go around the outside. A drum would be pounding out what I have heard since as a Native American drum rhythm, in recordings and at a Shelburne-Museum-hosted pow-wow: BOOM boom boom bomb BOOM boom boom boom BOOM boom boom boom—then there would be a BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM! as the person doing the selecting stopped behind someone newly chosen. From behind he would bring his hands down hard on both shoulders: THUMP…THUMP THUMP! After the campfire, the new members of the Order would be taken on a night hike to a designated camping place on the other side of the lake. Initiation.
I’m talking about a bygone world: today Camp Sunrise is for Cub Scouts or Scouts who want to learn about canoeing, lifeguarding, and other such matters at the Green Mountain Council’s aquatic camp. There are videos about life at the new Camp Sunrise on You Tube, and of course it is featured at the Council’s website. You can see there are—good idea—quite a female staff members. The website even has lyrics for camp songs, but not the ones we sang. I’m glad to see, from the pictures, that the fish are still there.
The Boy Scout camp is at the Mount Norris Reservation in Eden Mills, at the northern end of Lamoille County along Vermont Route 100. Not far away is Mount Norris, elevation 2,575 feet—very different terrain from Camp Sunrise. I trust that the emotional terrain has changed for the better, too.
Regardless of how the decision goes about admitting gay Scouts—I use the word “admitting” because they’ve been there all long—I believe it’s a worthwhile organization that has done a lot of good. “Climbing all the time.”