When I wrote about working for the Boy Scouts, I mentioned my troop: Troop 291 from Riverside Church. Now I’d like to talk about some of those kids and tell not all that I remember, but what I can share about their lives, for some things are best left in the recesses of our minds where they either glow or haunt us in the blackness of the night.
The first troop meeting I had with them was that fourth meeting when I declared myself their scoutmaster and decided it was time to begin to start teaching them some of the basic camping skills they would need to advance up through the ranks. So we started with tying knots.
I didn’t know them well enough yet to decide on who I would pick to be the troop leaders. This was important because in scouting, if a troop is run properly, the boy leaders actually run the troop and the scoutmaster acts as a sort of advisor. He counsels the boy leaders and makes sure they don’t deviate too far from the basic principles of scouting, which is essentially about developing self-reliance, but he should not make decisions for them but help them to learn how to make decisions for themselves. The program is centered on the development of the boys, not the adults, or at least that’s the way it is in principle. Many adult scout leaders seem to either forget or overlook that. But having been a scout myself, and a junior leader (the senior patrol leader of my troop) and having even been sent to a 2 week junior leader training camp by my troop, I understood this all too well. But at this point in my association with the troop, I still didn’t know which boys had the potential to be effective leaders and so I was sort of feeling my way around them during the knot tying.
We had found some rope in the church basement but the lengths were too long and so I turned to a few of the older boys and asked if any of them knew where we could get a knife to cut the rope into strips. It was at that point that Jeff Diehl pulled out a switchblade knife from his back pocket and proceeded to cut the rope. He did it casually, almost too casually, and I knew he was waiting to see how I would react to that switchblade with its 6 inch blade (anything over 3 inches is considered illegal by most police departments). I didn’t say anything at first, then asked him if I could see the knife after he was done cutting the rope. I think he half expected me to confiscate it, but I just felt the weight of it, its balance, tested the blade, and then handed it back to him. Then I casually said I had one, too, but with a curved, Italian style blade. That piqued his interest and he asked if I had it on me. I said no, but if he’d like to see it, I’d bring it in next week. And, of course, I did. He offered to trade for it but the knife has sentimental value for me so I declined. But from that moment on, we had a bond. And I later decided to gamble and made him my senior patrol leader. He was a bit aloof from the others but the other kids respected him, and he turned out to be a good choice. He was a bit of a loner, liked to hunt, and brought me some roasted squirrel meat once which I found tasted a bit like chicken, though perhaps a bit more pungent. He stayed with me for the two years, though by the end of the second year his interest was waning. But I think his discovery of girls, and their interest in him, had something to do with that.
The next leader I picked was Billy Thomas as a patrol leader. He was a short, slender black kid with an easy smile but a sardonic look about the eyes that only someone adept at maneuvering their way around poverty develops. He was poor but not ashamed of his poverty, just adjusted to it, if one can ever truly be adjusted to being poor without being defeated. But Billy was the type of kid who had no time for dark thoughts, being too busy dodging the temptations to crime and drugs that surrounded him. He would not succumb to anger or self-loathing and though he didn’t go out of his way to befriend white kids, he didn’t avoid them, either, but was just mistrustful. He told me early on that if we were going to have rules, then the punishment for breaking them had to be clear and there could be no exceptions to it. He was scornful of his principal because he threatened to paddle offenders of school conduct (corporal punishment in schools was still widespread then) but once you were in his office, he would tell students to pretend they were paddled and then let them go. Billy thought that was a weakness. not a kindness, and had only contempt for him. So the rules we established for conduct within the troop had to have a punishment that was enforced, otherwise there was no point to the rules. Though I tend to be a little more flexible by nature when it comes to rules, I realized that these kids, because of the laxity in terms of any discipline in their lives, needed structure. So I adjusted to their needs and tried to pick leaders who would enforce their agreed upon code of behavior. And Billy was the best patrol leader I had because he set an example for the others, and he performed all his duties with an easy-going smile.
Junior was another gamble as a leader and I made him Jeff’s Assistant Senior Patrol leader. He was hot tempered, partly because of his small stature, partly because he hated the name Herman and preferred Junior even though that implied second and he did not want to attain any rank but first. But he was a quick study, a hard worker, and though he lacked Billy’s patience or Jeff’s charisma, he worked harder than anyone else in the troop. He also got into the most controversial fight at summer camp and dragged Billy into it, too. And if I hadn’t stumbled onto it in the early stages, it could have become a race war at Pioneer Scout Camp that summer.
It started when Junior and Billy were out on a canoe and a white kid from the Wood County troop (small town boys from rural Ohio who were in the campsite next to us) in another canoe called them “niggers”. Junior, of course, hit the kid with the canoe paddle. The Wood County boys hurried back to shore, not being used to such a display of “hostility” I was told later. Anyway, they gathered together a few more older boys and there were 5 of them laying in wait with sticks and one even had a Scout knife in his hand. I was out walking with Eddie Cain who had become my shadow that summer (another story I’ll get to in a minute) when I spied them crouched between the 2 campsites. I didn’t know what they were doing there until I saw Billy and Junior come walking down the path. Then the 5 Wood County scouts loomed up to block them. I waited to say something (no one saw me yet) to see what would happen and Billy and Junior, of course, acted true to their natures. Junior was ready to fight but Billy put a hand up to stop him, turned to the taller white kid with the knife and said, “And just what you gonna do with that?” The white kid got flustered, put the knife behind his back as if to hide it, and said “Nothing.” Billy just grinned, then said, “I know you gonna do nothing.” And it was then I came down the hill and asked what was going on. Billy said, “We’re just out walking and these boys came to meet us.” The Wood County scouts just stood there looking like kids look all over the world when they get caught with their hands in the cookie jar and so I asked them to go back to their campsite but to tell their scoutmaster I’d like to talk to him. He never came over, though, but the camp director, Bob Keogh, did to inform me that our neighbor had lodged a formal complaint against my troop for bullying and other unscoutlike behavior involving a canoe paddle. I told Bob about what I saw and what I had learned preceded it on the lake and though he sympathized, he was clearly caught in the middle of conflicting accounts.
And there it rested, at least until the Friday night, camp wide Pow Wow when scouts and scout leaders were taken as pledges for the scouting honorary the Order of the Arrow. Pledges were members of troops who are voted on by their troops as outstanding examples of the principles of scouting. They were to spend that first night and the next day in silence, only being given water and salt tablets, while they worked on conservation projects throughout the camp. Afterwards, if they passed this ordeal, they were officially inducted into the order at the Saturday night campfire in an impressive ceremony where they were rowed across the lake in canoes by members of the order dressed as Native American Indians. Both Billy Thomas and the Wood County scoutmaster were taken as pledges that evening.
I was proud of Billy the night he was inducted but even prouder the next day when the Wood County scoutmaster came over to our campsite to formally apologize to me and the boys. He said at that time that Billy had impressed him with his manner, so very much in keeping with the ideals of scouting, and that anyone who behaved that way certainly couldn’t be lying about what happened in the incident with his scouts. And thus, vindication. And Junior learned that sometimes victory was so much sweeter without having to throw a punch, or a canoe paddle.
Another lesson came when the boys wanted to make peach cobbler but we lacked both a Dutch oven to bake it in and the necessary ingredients: flour, baking soda, canned fruit, etc. I really can’t remember everything we needed but I do remember we not only didn’t have any but we also didn’t have the necessary funds in our troop account to buy whatever we needed at the Trading Post. So I took both Billy and Junior with me to the back door of the mess hall and asked to speak to Bob Keogh. While waiting, I told Billy and Junior not to say anything but to let me do the talking, but they were to look sad, no smiling unless I gave the cue. Bob came to the door and I proceeded to ask if we could get any cobbler that might be left over from the staff’s dinner the night before. I told him how the boys wanted to try it but we didn’t have an oven nor could we afford to buy whatever we needed but if we could get a leftover piece or two, they could all at least get a taste. Well Bob looked at both of them, and I have to admit they did look sad, and he said wait a minute and disappeared. Before long he reappeared with two Dutch ovens, a bag full of boxes of flour, baking soda, some eggs, cans of fruit (peaches, apples, blueberries) and milk. When I acted surprised and said we couldn’t afford all that, he just seemed more embarrassed than we were and gave it to us. Later, as we were walking back to the campsite, I told both boys that just because they were both poor and black, which was a major disadvantage in America, they could, at times, if they knew how to work it, turn a disadvantage into an advantage. “And remember this when you graduate high school and start applying to colleges.” And I told them how my brothers and I all got scholarships and grants for both financial reasons (no father) and because they were members of a minority (Chinese, if you remember the post about my brothers). It was the first time they ever thought they had a chance to get a college education.
And a boxing story now. This is about Eddie Cain, the middle brother of the three Cain boys. Randy, the oldest, was a bit slow; you could say he was two beats behind everyone else on his good days. Eddie was partially sighted and his mother at first didn’t want him to go on camping trips but we all watched out for Eddie so she finally relented. He had extremely thick glasses and couldn’t read unless he was actually on top of an object. Kevin, the youngest, was considered the “normal” brother because there was absolutely nothing physically or mentally wrong with him, except that he was spoiled and a bit of a whiner. Everyone in the troop sort of tolerated Randy, protected Eddie, but didn’t care for Kevin. Billy summed it up by saying he preferred the abnormal Cain brothers to the normal one since they at least tried to do their fair share of the work. So Kevin ended up in Bruce Ellis’ patrol while Billy took in Eddie and Randy. But Kevin had the nasty habit of making fun of his brothers, especially Eddie and so one day at camp Eddie asked if he could put on the gloves and have a match with his brother. Everyone went into panic mode and Billy pulled me aside to say it would be suicide and “Mr. Durso, you can’t let him.” But there was this look about Eddie, the set of his jaw, the way he refused to back down from the challenge, and Kevin gloating, mocking, teasing him mercilessly. And so I let them put on the gloves, Patrick refereeing, the troop forming the circle they would box in. There were three one minute rounds, just like everyone else, and Eddie bound and determined to be like everyone else. And though Kevin seemed to be getting in the most hits that first round, by the time we went to round two, Eddie had landed a few solid punches on Kevin and Kevin suddenly became insecure, hesitant, and every time he moved close to land a punch, Eddie clobbered him. The scouts were cheering wildly for Eddie, and Eddie started grinning, his body poised, and he landed every punch he threw. By the time round three ended, Eddie was the undisputed winner, the boys hoisted him up and paraded him around the campsite, Kevin teary eyed just sulked away to his tent and didn’t come out for hours. The next day, with Eddie trailing me as usual around the camp, he pulled my sleeve and whispered in my ear, “I can see shadows, Mr. Durso. And I just swung at every shadow I saw.”
And the news got back to their mother when we all went home and she was justifiably upset. But a day or two later, she called me at the Scout Office and asked if I would come by the house later that afternoon. When I got there, she told me she wanted to thank me in person for making her son Eddie feel like a normal boy for once in his life. And there was Eddie grinning behind those bottle thick glasses somewhere behind her.
And finally there was the council wide camporee where troops from all over Northwest Ohio came to compete in events that utilized various scouting skills, like building fires, tying knots, using a compass on a scavenger hunt, log rolling, following trails, etcetcetc. It was an all day competition and we had 18 boys that weekend doing their best to win a prize. By day’s end, when all the points from all the contests were tallied up, Troop 291 took third prize. The scouts were jubilant. And Jeff, the senior patrol leader, and Junior, his assistant, went up to get our trophy. It was a golden shovel. Well to say there was a general letdown among the troop is an understatement. They were thinking something more along the lines of a cash prize, or a barrell full of candy, or a gift certificate to MacDonald’s for the troop, but a golden shovel, or to be more accurate, a shovel painted gold, was not exactly the picture they collectively had in mind. But to their credit, they didn’t act disappointed or make any faces but acted appropriately humble until we were back in the cabin later that night. To booster their spirits, though, my assistants, Galen Koepke and John Foster, and I chipped in to treat them all to a late night meal of Big Macs, French fries, and cokes. That soothed them. And later, at our first troop meeting after the camporee, we hung the golden shovel on the wall of our meeting room and I noticed a look of pride as Billy said, “Anybody try digging any holes with this thing, they got Patrick to talk to.”
Those kids were hard to leave but there comes a time when you need to devote time to yourself rather than others. Though my life has been a constant battle with my heart the battleground where the impulse to be the missionary, as my former boss at my NY college called me, and the maverick, as his assistant labeled me, play out the tug-of-war for its possession. And I moved on, but those kids have stayed with me. They were part of the first real fight to change the corner of the world I was in, and set that pattern of my life for the many times I embarked on similar crusades. But there is no crusade where I am now, no chance to do my part to empower the powerless, to help forge inroads for the disinfranchised toward a better life. I’ve left that fight for others and find I have no real outlet for the passion stirring in my soul. Now, though, I find these ghosts of the past are calling me back from my retreat halfway round the world. And it’s a call I find hard to resist. The Billy Thomases, the Jeff Diehls, the Patrick Cottons mingle in my mind, my heart with the Maria Rodriguezs, the Gilda Galianos, the Ali Esmens, the Muzaffer Alhans, the June Hwangs, the Muhammed Zia Karims, the Jenny Hernandezs, the Numa Dongos, and the broken bodies of the Harry DeCostas of this world. How does one deny a part of oneself? I felt too old, too weary, too bitter to continue, but once a long time ago a woman I used to love said someone must devote themselves to a cause they know they cannot win. And she looked me square in the eye and said I was that someone. No matter how hard I’d like to be someone else, I hear Billy telling me that last time I stood halfway out the door, “It ain’t gonna be the same when you go.” But I have to ask myself, what will it be like when I return?