January 18, 2023

Tales from the attic: Boy Scouts and mature voices

Sam Smith – As a young teenager joined Boy Scout Troop 188, specifically the Rattler Patrol. I initially regarded the Scouts as training for a life of adventure, but I was soon disabused of this notion by a more knowledgeable member who pointed out that with my interest in writing and his political clout, I could easily become troop scribe, thus achieving instant status without the tedium of earning merit badges. It was, he correctly pointed out, the troop council, and not the goody-goodies with all their badges, who actually ran the place.

I readily joined his political machine and never rose above second class. I was more than content to be a member of something and, for a few hours a week, to hang out with other boys engaged in normal boylike activities. My most notable outdoor achievement was to lead a three-hour hike that mystically and unintentionally brought us right back to where we started without ever having viewed our assigned destination. I also learned that the outdoors was more uninviting than I had envisioned -- the ground was hard, the food marginal, and even a spring night could be cold.

This view would be strengthened shortly after I graduated from high school when our ex-Marine assistant scoutmaster helped lead a group of boys, aged 13 to 16, to Canada’s Banff National Park in order to climb the 11,656 foot Mt. Temple. The hikers were ill-trained and ill-equipped (some made the climb in sneakers) and the mountain was one of the toughest in the region. Only a year earlier, four Mexican climbers had died in an avalanche four and half miles from where my scout leader and his squad was hiking.

The group made it to within 2000 feet of the summit before deciding to turn back. Then, according to an AP story:

As they started down, a mass of snow and rock roared upon them, tossing them 300 feet down the slope. One died instantly, rescuers said. Three others succumbed to multiple injuries and exposure to the bitter weather last night before search parties could reach them.

Seven students died, two others, along with the two leaders, were injured. Our assistant scoutmaster responded to press criticism saying, "How do you equip for an avalanche?"

There was little danger that I would have signed up for such a trip. On the other hand, at the troop council meetings I had felt right at home. And the job of scribe led inevitably to my becoming co-editor of the Campfire, the mimeographed troop newspaper which I put out with Roman Hromnysky, my first friend with a name that was hard to spell. The paper inspired members to increase their peanut crunch sales, bemoaned the fact that "certain patrol leaders are taking very small interest in their respective patrols," and was the outlet for my first published verse, "In Honor of a Not Forgotten Can of Peanut Crunch."

Tell'em it's fresh, tell 'em it's new
Tell 'em anything you darn well want to.
Go out an sell it in hot or cold
And don't come back until it's sold.

Meanwhile, back at Germantown Friends School the teachers tended to presume that their students would do the right thing, but the presumption was laced with firmness to insure that it proved correct. Ed Gordon had, for example, a habit of arriving late for his eighth grade class. We quickly adapted to this by stationing a student outside the door to warn of his pending arrival, thus immunizing all interior activity during the interim. When he caught on, he proposed a compromise that seemed quite reasonable. If, as he turned the corner, he could get the draw on the lookout, that student would suffer detention. If the guard drew first, he was home free.

Mr. Brauniger dealt with our exuberance in a more direct way. Although a math teacher, he would leap upon the mis-formed sentence or argument with the cry, "Speaka United States!," perhaps the best literary advice I ever got. Upon any signs of rambunctiousness, he would send the perps on a several lap run around the school building. It was a classic Quaker approach to restoring order. It had the form of a punishment, but in fact was often as welcomed by the offenders as by the teacher -- for us a break from the tedium of triangles and square roots as well as an opportunity to be cheered on by whichever schoolmates happened to be peering out of windows.

For the most part the teachers acted as though we were far more mature than we were, and that we, like they, were part of the same community. When we failed their expectations, the reaction was more often disappointment than fury. Thus, when I stuck an anonymous note in the announcement box calling for all the girls to stay after assembly for a meeting -- which they did to no avail -- the worst censure I received was from Miss Iliff, a tall, bespectacled filo-leaf of a figure in her faded print dress with lace collar and imposing black shoes, who passed me in the hall looking sad and saying simply and wearliy, "Oh, Sam." I still feel sorry that I made Miss Iliff sad. It was that sort of place.

Not all the teachers had such success. Miss Hyatt, the French teacher, failed in four successive years to teach me either skill or love for the language and upon hearing me recite would repeatedly say, "Ce n'est pas Francois, Sam." And art class was a fraud, although a pleasant one because of the opportunity it presented for socializing. Since my parents approved mightily of culture in all its forms and I approved mightily of art class, I took it year after year, only rarely producing a symbolic simulation to bring home as proof of its efficacy.

But the sciences were excellent, including physics and chemistry as taught by Frank Bacon, who hated shortcuts and could work himself into a paroxysm over an answer that did not explain how one arrived at it. He also liked to startle. Once he invited a student to smell a test tube and try to identify its contents. The student approached, and was on the verge of taking a good whiff when Mr. Bacon screamed, "STOP IT!" The point, he then explained, was that one should always hold the test tube away from one's nose and fan a bit of the aroma your way by hand, thus avoiding what he then vividly described as the potential mortal consequences.

Miss Darnell, my senior math teacher, had a similar concern for process but, as with Mr. Bacon, it was always rooted in pragmatism and thus avoided the appearance of priggishness. "You're mixing apples and pianos," she would gently admonish a student whose equation had gone astray. And her warning that an answer can be no more precise than the least precise number used to arrive at it would often serve me well in later inquiries into government budgets and projections.

Miss Darnell also shared with us one of the most exciting moments in her life. She had spent the previous summer at Harvard learning about that mysterious new device known as the computer. She had, in fact, almost been locked in one overnight because the machines of the day, with their innumerable vacuum tubes, occupied whole buildings while barely doing the work of an early Mac. Somehow she had escaped this technological tragedy and was able to return to GFS to instruct us in the wonders of basic Boolean algebra, thus inoculating us against anxiety when we finally confronted a computer -- now reduced in size and threat to human life -- many years later.

Miss Darnell's 1950s enthusiasm for something that would boggle many allegedly well-educated adult minds for decades to come was not atypical of GFS. The Friends, despite their sometimes seemingly archaic ways, were confident enough of their faith that the future and the new did not seem to bother them much. Far from being called, in the best prep school tradition, to revere the old, GFS was constantly plunging into uncharted waters. One portion of 8th grade English involved a close study of advertising. Other teachers happily introduced us to new books with new ideas with which we could intimidate or taunt our parents.

Even the ancient Irving Poley would occasionally allow an avant garde work into his beloved Malvern Festival, a round of about a dozen plays in which every member of the senior class was expected to participate and in which no one was meant to be a star. I was cast in two. In the first, I was the IRA commandant in the classic, The Informer. I got to kiss a girl on stage and to order the death of Gyppo, the drunken traitor to the Irish nationalist cause. I also got to explain to my girlfriend that I wasn't "thinking of myself. It's for the movement." The idea of a movement for something good was a new and appealing one, a sort of Society of Cruds with a purpose. And I liked the fact that in the final scene in the church, Frankie's mother forgave Gyppo for having betrayed her son. In my family it was hard to get forgiveness even for venial sins.

The repertoire also included Tennessee Williams' recent play Camino Real. In it I only had a bit part as a guard but I got to leap into the audience, chase Kilroy up the aisle, and with my partner wrestle him to the floor and drag him back to the stage. It was far more fun than anything I had seen in Shakespeare and the fact that I didn't understand what Williams was talking about didn't bother me a bit. I just liked the action -- although one phrases would sometimes come back later: "Turn back stranger, for the well of humanity has gone dry in this place and the only birds that sing are kept in cages." It wasn't like that at GFS.

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