Scouting in the woods
As fall creeps into our lives, my mind turns to a favorite memory of a cool, crisp evening spent with our scout troop out in the woods. This invariably brings me to another time that I spent with many of my friends. Maybe you were there. I published the tale back in 2015, but consider it worthwhile to visit again. It was such fun, after all. Some readers may not recall this earlier effort and new readers would have missed it altogether. Please bear with me as I share it again.
It was back in the late forties, or maybe early fifties when I was invited to help with a scouting hike and camping event. I was perhaps barely in my early teens, but the kids we were to take on the trip were younger. While I had not directly participated in the scouting program for years, the scoutmaster needed some older fellows to help oversee the younger kids. He had a goal to teach the troop how to survive in the wild, so several kids my age and one Scout Leader took them over the low hills beyond town hill. It was a long afternoon’s hike, but very enjoyable to be out in nature. There was nothing unusual about the landscape I saw that afternoon and evening. The trip was to take us out somewhere that only the scoutmaster knew, and we would spend the night in our tents. The troop apparently had plenty of those to house us all, but we cared little else than having fun and enjoying cooking our own supper in the wild.
We were brought to a halt just after we had climbed down a steep path that brought us to a hollow between several low hills. They rose from the apparent flood plain of a small meandering stream. The creek was very shallow with trees along both its banks. We could just make out in the dim light telling us that a nearby portion of the land ahead had been under recent cultivation. Dried corn stalks were still around although broken off and left behind in the harvesting process. There was no fence that I saw. I just figured that a farm was likely close by, even if we couldn’t spot any houses, cabins, or barns.
The scoutmaster announced that we would make our evening’s camp here. Several of the boys went to work figuring out where the tents would go and where they might build a campfire to cook our supper. I was called over and asked to scout the stream to see if the stream would at some point provide us a clean source of water to wash little hands and to rinse the pans we’d use to cook. With a sheepish grin he also whispered I might want to find something to carry water, since he’d overlooked the possibility of needing something. I remembered the scout motto, always be prepared, and won no points for doing so.
After tearing myself through the trees next to the stream it became clear I would have to go downstream a ways since the water there was maybe an inch deep and rocks stuck up everywhere making it impossible to dip a container into the water. I began walking downstream and had gone maybe twenty minutes when I saw a low hill rise to the right, just across the stream from my position. It was already nearly dark, but I could see a building that I figured had been a country church or an old one-room school. After crossing the stream and trying to get my bearings with the shortage of light, I pulled myself up the embankment by gripping a tree branch. Once out I could clearly see the building and a path that led uphill.
The clouds were heavy and grey. Not even a star shown to cast light to help illuminate my path. Leafless bushes were on both sides as were thousands of newly germinated trees fighting for their place in the world. None were over waist high. I wondered for a moment if anything might be hiding in wait along my way. I certainly would not have seen it. I pressed on leaving the lowland behind. I climbed the rise to a relatively flat area of packed, grassless clay. This flat area in front of the building was totally void of vegetation. I figured that if the building had been a school then this barren space was the playground. That would explain the lack of vegetation.
In the darkness I almost ran into a hand pump that rose up out of the ground. That would have hurt had I hit it. I knew I had found something better than a pool of water. This would be a good help in fulfilling my mission. My mind then recalled that the pump would likely have to be primed. That put me back to seeking solutions. Even if I had a bucket I would have to find a pool in the creek that was deep enough to allow the bucket to fill. Then I’d still also have to climb back uphill and not spill the precious water.
Well, I thought as I looked around, there may be some kind of container lying about. After all, if they used this pump they would have had the same problem. Out of the darkness, near the little building there was what looked like a pile of trash. As I drew closer I could see some broken bricks, an old bed-spring, a whisky bottle, some wood slabs (perhaps to feed a fire), a couple of broken school desks, a chair, and stacks of wet, wadded up paper. Then I spotted a small plastic bucket. I would have expected to find a wooden bucket in this primitive area, but since this was after the war, plastic was already taking over.
I could still barely hear the banging back at camp where the other fellows were chopping wood to make a fire. I’d rather be doing that, but after all, they were depending on me to get them some clean water. I renewed my search of the area in hopes I would find deeper water that I could use to prime the pump. I thought back to the area I’d already covered. While the land had been plowed and used to grow corn, it brought on another thought. It confirmed that there was a farm or homestead nearby. With better lighting I likely would have spotted tire tracks from a tractor.
It could also be for making bootleg whiskey. After all, the backwoods of Kentucky was known to have some stills. The moonshiners were not particularly friendly to people who stumbled on their business. They would call out “revenuers” and commence firing on them to drive them away. Once a still was discovered they’d have to break it down and move it again. That would be a lot of trouble for just a kid. I’d have to be careful.
Just down toward the creek from what I had confirmed was an old school, I found a place where the creek bank was well worn from the countless kids wading or sliding down during recess or after school. I followed the path and soon located a place where the water pooled. I dipped in my pail and wondered if this water was clean enough to prime the school’s hand pump. I figured once I had water flowing it would ‘self-cleanse’ and come up fresh and cold. After pouring in the stream water and working the handle I saw that I was right. I quickly had a bucket of good water, so I turned and headed back toward camp. It took maybe twenty minutes before I saw the light from the fire and I could see it wasn’t more than forty yards ahead, so I called out hoping for a response. There was none.
When I walked into the camp I could see four tents formed around a big campfire. A fifth one was only partially erected, so the fellows had been busy. I could see that someone had dragged some logs to use as seating for the gang once we all were gathered. It was good that the others had put up the tents, and had taken the trouble to build up a good supply of dead wood to keep the fire going. There were not many wild animals of sufficient size around to trouble us, although a few years earlier someone had seen a bear. I remembered the story of a woman who was hanging out her clothes when she saw a bear rambling towards her from the woods. The lady ran for her gun but the lucky bear had run off before the woman had reappeared from the doorway of her homestead. Reckon they’d had bear meat sure enough if it had hung around.
No one was in sight and I couldn’t hear a sound. I could read the signs that told me that the fellows had left camp in all directions. The dead, dry grass was bent over exposing paths and rocks, which had been kicked lose from their normal abode. Overhanging branches were snapped here and there. I wondered if someone or something had chased them from camp. If so, they had left with the boys. There was nothing for me to do but to set down the water bucket and warm myself at the fire. For the first time I noticed that a cold wind was whipping down into the hollow. A few lonely snowflakes wound their way to the ground, too, so I deducted the possibility we would find ourselves snowed in.
Out of habit or some kind of reflex I picked up a piece of firewood and added it to the already glowing fire. A bed of coals were already built up. That told me the fire had been burning for some time, yet there were still a number of logs on top that had only just caught fire. As a natural reaction I turned away from the hot blaze to allow the very welcome heat to warm my backside. Because the fire was open, I reminded myself to turn continually to watch lest it creep out of its borders. With the dry grass that was inches away crushed down by the trampling of feet it wouldn’t take much to start a forest fire.
I looked at my watch to see the time, but that was a futile gesture given that I had totally lost any related reason to care. It might have been a little after six-thirty, early enough most days, but in the woods it was something else again. It had been dark for some time already. It had been an hour or so since I had left camp, but I had no reason to care since we had no timed agenda that I about.
Snap! I turned at the sound wondering which of my gang was approaching. The first thing I saw coming out of the shadow was two prominent ears. “Harry,” I spoke instinctively. I had known Harry Richard all through grade school, and maybe a little before. We would often play together, sometimes shooting basketball at my house, or practicing throwing football in the street or on a nearby lot. I remember once playing tackle on a berm next to Creep Chandler’s house during a heavy rain. We’d take turns running at each other with a football in hand while the other tackled us. He was a lot smaller than me, but he’d been well trained to take down a bigger fellow. We would slide on the muddy ground and laugh as the dirt caked to our clothing and skin. I remember us sitting in a bathtub at my house still laughing as we washed off the mud.
It wasn’t long before the scoutmaster returned with the rest of the younger kids. He put them to work finishing tent erecting and advised us all to prepare the evening meal. Afterward he would have a couple of people talk about staying safe in the wilderness. That cooking part was what I was waiting for. I had stopped by Andy’s grocery and bought me two pieces of pounded steak. I had a small container of flour that I snuck out of our pantry, and a little bottle of grease. I breaded the meat and fried it in a skillet I held directly over the flames. I didn’t have mashed potatoes, salt, or milk to make gravy but the meat would do just fine. After all, I was roughing it, wasn’t I?
During the time we took to cook our meal all the others had stumbled back into camp. The scoutmaster announced to the group that I was going to be first to give a talk about safety that all of us needed to heed. He hadn’t told me in advance that I was on the agenda. I thought my contribution was complete when I carried back some clean water. Now, it seemed I had to do some kind of backwoods presentation on a subject of which I wasn’t comfortable. Safety was a big subject, but I had no idea what he wanted me to talk about. Trying to think quickly on my feet I reasoned that since we were all around a big campfire, I could either talk about fire safety, or how to use an axe. I decided I talk about safety in chopping.
I had not brought the hatchet I normally used, which was I knew to be really dull. I asked one of the other boys if I might borrow his, making an assumption that a hatchet is another dull hatchet. I made a few introductory remarks about how important it was to remember the scout motto and ‘be prepared.’ I got a cold look from the scoutmaster. I went on to say that having a good sharp hatchet was important when hiking, or camping, because you would never know when you’d need it handy. As a side warning, I reminded the kids that hatchets can be sharp and can do serious damage if they were not careful. I told them that they should respect sharp tools of all kind to prevent accidents. As an example I told them to never touch the sharp edge of the blade. Without thinking I passed the hatchet across my palm only to discover that this particular tool was very sharp. I had just cut my hand. Someone grabbed the first aid kit while I tried to stop the bleeding with a handkerchief. It turned out to not be a serious cut, but it hurt my pride. I was embarrassed, but I think the kids got the point. The scoutmaster was impressed that I would sacrifice myself to help the little fellows. He whispered that he knew I was good with words, but having a demonstration of what can go wrong was just plain brilliant! I think I saw a smirk as he turned away. I thought to myself, it wasn’t just the kids that learned a lesson. firstname.lastname@example.org