Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Memories of '68, Part 2

I turned eleven barely two weeks into 1968. It was a big deal as I was finally eligible to join the Boy Scouts and go camping with someone other than my family. I wasted no time and was at the troop meeting the Thursday after my birthday. It’s amazing I stayed with scouting. There was more hazing in those first two meetings than the sum total of the rest of my life. Brian and I were both new to Troop 206 and they put us in the Rattlesnake Patrol with a bunch of older guys (probably all of 13 or 14 years old). When the adult leaders weren’t nearby, they arrange things like belt-lines for us to run. But it didn’t last. I’m not sure what all when on behind the scene, but by the third week, we were put into a new patrol and Gerald, an older scout, was put in charge of us. We named ourselves the Cobra Patrol, consciously picking a snake more deadly than a rattlesnake. Gerald put an end to the hazing and was quite protective of us.

A week or two later I made my first campout as a Boy Scout. We headed up to Holly Shelter Swamp and camped along the bank of the Northeast Cape Fear River and Gerald had us put our tents in a line. Brian and I ended in a slight depression. I argued that we should move our tent, having done enough camping prior to scouting to know we were in the best location. But Gerald was all for neatness and order and so we stayed in a neat line and when the rains came that night, we got flooded. I now had a second reason to quit scouting. Thinking back on my experiences, I can’t recall a camping trip that I’ve gotten soaked at night except for when I was a scout. However, Gerald made everything better, offering us his semi-dry tent. We assumed Gerald was going to sleep in our pool, but found him in the morning asleep in the back of the equipment trailer, the only really dry place around. The storm cleared and we dried out our bags and had a grand time in the woods, even though we kept having run-ins with our nemeses in the Rattlesnake Patrol.

We’ve come along ways since 1968. There were no I-pods, laptops, game-boys or other forms of amusements in our packs. All I had for fun was a nine-volt transistor radio and we listened to it that first night, as we tried to ignore or forget the moisture seeping into our sleeping bags. I could get the powerful 50 kilowatt station out of Cincinnati and a few local stations. And that night, laying in a sleeping bag on a bluff overlooking the slow waters of the Northeast Cape Fear River, between the music of the Beatles, Stones and Supremes, we heard news reports about the Chinese New Year and the Tet Offensive. For the first time Vietnam seemed real.

Our second night included a game of capture the flag, played pitting the Cobras against the Rattlesnakes. We didn’t win, but we went down honorably and it would only be a matter of time. After the game, we had a big campfire, which concluded when our scoutmaster, Johnny R. told us the story of "the Hand." He made it come alive and although I’d hear this story a dozen times over the next couple of years, he was always adding new twist so that you were never sure when he make you jump. That night we didn’t listen to the radio; we wanted things to be quiet so that we’d hear "the Hand," in case it was about doing its dastardly deeds.

Our second camping trip with the scouts was at a camporee on the grounds around Sunny Point, on the Brunswick County side of the Cape Fear River. This gathering involved troops from all over the council and the theme was getting along with one another, with a special emphasis on racial harmony. All the scouts who participated in the event received a badge showing a handshake. One hand was light colored and the other darker, symbolizing getting along between the races. It was a lesson we’d all need to hear for soon all hell would be breaking loose. But that weekend, we didn’t know that. Instead, we worked hard and Cobra Patrol earned a red ribbon (next to the highest) while the Rattlesnake Patrol only received a yellow (participation) ribbon. I became a hero during the camporee in the signaling event. Few of the patrols had anyone who could read semaphore and I shocked everyone with my newly acquired skill.

My self-instruction in semaphore came as a result of what was happening in Mr. Briggs classroom. My mother told me a few years ago about how she heard me talking about these things we were doing in his class and assumed I had a wild imagination until one night, Mr. Briggs called. And did my mother reward me for my honesty? NO! Instead, I was doubly grounded. Not only could I not leave our yard, I was stuck in my room except to go to the bathroom or to eat dinner. This sentence was to last a few years, my mother thinking that by then they’d sell the house and I’d go with the house and not them, but she relented after I brought my citizenship grade up a notch. In such tight confinement (and there were no TVs in my room, now a solitary confinement cell), I was stuck with reading. And my choices were meager. I could read schoolbooks, but I had a natural allergy to them. I could read the Bible, but figured that if Mom saw me reading the good book, she might keep me grounded for my own edification. The only book of interest was the Boy Scout handbook and I quickly set down to the task of learning semaphore (which I long since forgotten) and the constellations (which I still remember).

My third Scout camping trip was back to Holly Shelter Swamp. It was early April. We left home with the knowledge that Martin Luther King was dead, shot by an assassin in Memphis. Things went along well during the camping trip, but my nine-volt transistor radio brought in the news that violence was erupting across our nation. Somehow (after all, this was before cell phones), our Scoutmaster Johnny R., who was a detective with the Sheriff’s Dept., got word that he had to report for duty. But there were enough other men along that we camped two nights. Sunday morning, we packed up and headed back into town. Since our troop met in a church, we’d always come back from camping trips in the early afternoon, so as not to disturb the worshippers. But this Sunday, things were eerie. There were no cars on the road. All you saw were police and a few military jeeps. Rioting erupted in Wilmington, as it had in many cities, and the city was under a 24 hour curfew.

Since we lived way out of town, down in Myrtle Grove Sound, far from where the rioting occurred, we weren’t really affected, except that we got a week vacation from school. With everyone being forced to stay at home, my parents cooked out that Sunday afternoon and invited our next door neighbors. This was a rarity as I knew my parents didn’t like the man (I later learned that he was very abusive, but as an 11 year old, I just thought he was a jerk). I don’t even remember his name now, but I recall sitting in a lounge chair in the yard as he told my dad (along with my brother and I) about the Wilmington Race Riots of 1898. "The Cape Fear River ran red with n----- blood" he said, suggesting a similar situation out of the problem Wilmington was currently facing. My parents, who didn’t allow us to use the "N" word, weren’t too happy with this conversation and that was the only cookout we ever had with them and shortly thereafter they moved. Interestingly, this was the first and only time as a kid that I heard about the 1898 riots (later I’d learn they were more of a massacre as the whites had a gattling gun while the African-American community mostly defended themselves with squirrel guns). I’d also learn later that the guy whose park we played little league ball in, Hugh McCrae, was the one who acquired the gattling gun and he, along with several other well known names in town, was somewhat responsible for the "riot." But that story needs to wait or if you’re interested, I can suggest some books on the subject.

I am not sure just how calm was restored to the city, as we lived far outside its boundaries. The riots just gave us a reason not to venture downtown. After a week holiday, in which we played sandlot ball with kids in the neighborhood, we went back to Bradley Creek Elementary School where everything was normal.

Okay, I’m tired. I may come back tomorrow and edit this. I still have much more to write about 68, especially the elections of that year. But that’ll have to wait for another post.


  1. I was in the boy scouts for a few years until our scoutmaster was sent away to prison. No kidding.

    Anyway, I wasn't much impressed with the scouts. Their camping practices were woefully out of tune with the environment, our troop did little except for the occasional camping trip and associated tomfoolery, and I can't remember one useful thing that I learned as a result. Of course I didn't read the book like you. I did go to the regional jamboree several years but that was most tomfoolery on a higher level.

    I think after three years I made Tenderfoot rank and called it good.

  2. Ed, I quit before making Eagle, but got to Star and had 20 or so merit badges in things like signaling, radio, atomic energy, etc... Interestinly, I didn't get the hiking or canoeing merit badge! Our troop camped regularly, but we didn't do things like canoe and backpack, which I started to do on my own as I got older.

  3. I was in Brownies for a short time, only because I wanted to wear the uniform to school. I remember having to pray, and that made me uncomfortable with the whole thing. Brownies got to camp out once a year, but most of the time all we did was make these stupid figurines out of yarn and fabric. Maybe we talked about cooking or good citizenship? I don't remember. It was immensely dull.

  4. Some of your merit badges sound pretty interesting. I'm sure my opinion was skewed by my disinterested leader. Although I know I got a few merit badges, the only thing that I really remember is earning my totem chip card so that I could bring my pocket knife along on campouts.

  5. You bring back memories of my girl scout troops, and camping. I hated camping, but we all had to do it. I never had a good experience sleeping on the ground, usually on rocks or pebbles, getting wet from dew if not rain. I am really glad I don't have to do that anymore...LOL

  6. Great story, Pa. I look forward to more. :-)

  7. Well, it sounds like you have some pleasant memories from 68; not everything was sobering going by this post.

    I'm enjoying reading your memories from years goneby. Thanks.