Scouting changed his view of life

By Jim Burke
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS-TIMES
2003-01-05


Editorís note: Jim Burke of Brewster is a retired composing room worker from The News-Times. Here, he reminisces about his adventures in the Boy Scouts many years ago.

Not too long ago I got to wondering about some events in the past, that if they hadnít happened, what my life would have been like. Some unusual things have taken place but the one that seems most important, at least right now, was my joining the Boy Scouts.

Iím not really a joiner the way some people are. As a matter of fact, I would say Iím more a loner than anything else. Not that I donít like other people. I get along with most anyone I meet, and Iíve met a lot of people in my lifetime, many I wish I could see again.

I joined the Boys Scouts in the early 1930s in Long Island. when I was about 12 years old. I did some camping, which wasnít always pleasant, and at the same time I remember being quite upset when one planned weekend was to be called off because of all the rain, but wasnít. What a miserable time. Another campout, I got the intense feeling we were only there to feed the mosquitoes.

One year, during the summer. I attended the big Scout camp up in the Poconos, at Ten Mile River. Actually, the water it bordered on looked more like a lake than a river. That experience was pretty good; two weeks of camping out in virtual comfort. The tents were large, built on an elevated platform to keep us dry and off the ground. They slept about 10, all with individual cots, no double-decker bunks.

It was at that camp I was introduced to skinny-dipping and I learned why floating soap was on the list of required materials. Each morning, down to the lake we went, stripped down and bathed in the lake. No need to worry about girls being around. The nearest ones were at a camp on the far side of the lake, so far apart that there was no distinguishing who was in the altogether, boys or girls. Though from the remarks of some of the older Scouts I got the impression that they were familiar with what distinguished girls from boys. I was a little disillusioned by such talk the first time I heard it, coming from Scouts no less. Of course, over time I realized that Scouts were no different than anyone else, made up of people from all sorts of backgrounds and with differing viewpoints, but still good Scouts.

Troop meetings were usually held on Friday nights. No need to think about getting up for school the next day and an opportunity to stay up a little bit later than usual. We had a variety of activities going on at these sessions. Sometimes a speaker or two, or lessons in first aid, knot tying, just about any subject that would help advance us in rank. Sometimes a fun night was in order. One time, around Halloween, one of the older (18 or 19 years) members collapsed and was taken to another room. Shortly thereafter it was announced that the fellow had died and we were going, one at a time, into the other room and pay our respects. It was a setup, pure and simple, but who could say no? One of the tip-offs was the fact that those who had left the room, under the guidance of an older Scout, hadnít returned. That way the uninitiated were kept in the dark. The room containing the "deceasedĒ was kept pretty dark. He was lying on a table close to a wall and our escort got us as close as possible to the table. The walls were draped with dark-colored paper streamers that appeared to be wet. Which was no wonder, since the deceased was on his back with his right arm dangling on the far side of the table. Just in time to move slightly out of the way and miss a full blow, I realized what was going on. The dangling arm held a large sponge of some sort that connected with a bucket of water. I didnít escape entirely, but my escort caught some of the splash also. Then off to the drying room to join up with the newly initiated. No one could say it wasnít good, clean fun.

A speaker I remember very well was an Eagle Scout named Paul Siple. He had been selected to accompany Admiral Byrd on one of the expeditions to Antarctica, a glorious opportunity for a very young man. One of his duties there was unforgettable. In fact, I canít remember anything else he reported doing. Facilities, you must understand, were quite basic, including toilets. They were nothing more than outhouses, although I doubt they were any distance from the main structures. They were cold places, but then most places in the neighborhood were cold. So cold that the waste material deposited had a tendency to form stalagmites. When they reached the point where bodily harm could occur, Paul had the job of reducing the danger with an ax. The road to glory isnít always smooth nor the work glamorous.

I didnít advance very far in the Scouting hierarchy but I know I got further than Tenderfoot. Probably the most important thing I picked up was first aid.

One Saturday night, my parents had a party; just a little get-together. Some drinking was involved, but not a wild time sort of thing. I was allowed to remain up while the younger ones were all in bed. At some point I heard a disturbance in the dining room. I went in. There was some broken glass about and someone was quickly moving my father off into the kitchen. Blood was spurting from the side of his face, sending fine red jets about two feet into the air. In the kitchen someone had soaked a dish towel with water and started to use it as a compress. The lessons I had learned at Scout meetings came to mind immediately and I stepped in and found the pressure point that controlled the bleeding. A doctor was called but it was about 20 minutes before he arrived. Dad was stitched up in short order and we got him into bed. While the doctor was working on Dad, he told me it was fortunate I had been around and knew what to do or my father could have bled to death.

Dad lived on for about 30 years following this incident, dying just a few months shy of his 75th birthday. Cause of death was pneumonia, induced by lung cancer. There is no telling how long he would have lived if he hadnít smoked so much. But . . . what if I hadnít joined the Boy Scouts?


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