I wrote this quasi-autobiographical narrative as a tribute to a fine organization. I look back fondly to my scouting experience, and the friendships I formed. All kids should have an opportunity of this nature, at some point in their upbringing.
Plenty of Saltines
If ever there was a more bedraggled patrol of Boy Scouts on the face of the planet than the Tenderfeet, it has yet to be documented to my satisfaction. I don’t think it’s even been suggested. By definition, a tenderfoot is someone who is so unaccustomed to the intricacies of being in the great outdoors, that his feet cannot withstand the rigors, and become sore and tender. In the Boy Scouts a Tenderfoot was the lowest rung of the ladder. In order to achieve Tenderfoot status, a scout had to have his uniform, have memorized the Scout motto, slogan, and various other minor requirements. He did not have to prove his feet were tough.
Why a patrol of new scouts would choose to name their patrol the Tenderfeet, clearly indicates that there existed amongst them, a subtle sense of humor, in a world frequently defined as anything but funny. The members of the Tenderfeet were all newly introduced to Boy Scout Troop 433, located in West Covina, California, back in 1965.
What was going on in the world, in May of1965? Here are five things that occurred within twelve weeks of this time period: On March 2nd, The Sound of Music premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York; on March 8th, the first 3,500 American troops were deployed to Viet Nam; on May 5th, 40 men burned their draft cards on Berkeley’s campus; on May 22, the International Skateboarding Championships were first broadcast on national TV; and on May 25, Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston.
The new boy scout recruits had come, en masse, from a neighboring community, which did not have the luxury of having its own troop. Consequently, having been welcomed in by the powers-that-be, the newest scouts were bunched together, to sink or swim as a unit. In the beginning there was a question about placing all of those, well, tenderfeet, in a patrol without some experienced, older scouts.
But that was asking a lot of the older scouts of Troop 433, to take under their collective wing, a bunch of new recruits, who had no ties with the existing troop. So the scoutmaster, and the other adults involved in the whole shebang, decreed that a patrol of tenderfeet was a perfectly normal development, because they could work together to achieve success, with the older scouts all unofficially lending them a hand as needed. And thus the Tenderfeet took their places besides the rest of the troop, which featured four other patrols: The Eagles, The Pumas, The Tomahawks, and the Grizzlies.
The members of the Tenderfeet included seventh and eighth grade boys, all from the same junior high school, the term “middle school” still not around, back in 1965. They formed a typical assortment of 12 and 13-year-olds, beginning with Marc, a bright little guy who was small for his age, fairly squirrelly, a kid more likely to follow, than to lead the adventure. What Marc had was a fierce pride in his new status as Boy Sprout, a term fixed upon him by his father, a stern, hard-working man, who spent his life laboring to provide for a large family with blue-collar values. Marc had the smarts and the agility to be very instrumental in the patrol’s success, if you could harness that energy, and prevent him from being murdered by someone within the midst, who finally could not take his constant buzz of activity anymore. Did I mention that Marc was a squirrelly kind of guy?
Marc’s best friend was Jeff, a slender kid who was the brain of the group. He wore glasses, and was still grappling with coordination, as it applied to his body. He had it all figured out on paper but struggled to put it into play. He was easygoing in nature, but tended to get overanxious, when it came to performing under pressure.
Next came Mikey, a tall, lanky kid who wore thick glasses, and had a perpetually ruddy glow about his cherubic face. His attitude reflected the fact that he was a mama’a boy, a kid who perpetually whined about life in general, and his life in particular. If Mikey felt he was being dissed in some way, shape or form, he would snivel up a storm, until he either got his way, or made the others wish he had gotten his way.
John helped balance Mikey’s attitude out, by being one of the most accommodating kids on the block. He was of medium height, smart, of an even temperament, and he had at least ten brothers and sisters, all of the same easygoing temperament. John’s dad was a lawyer, with his own practice, and his mother had to be one of the most saintly people who ever walked the earth, or drove it for that matter, as she was always ferrying kids around, with three or four smaller fry, wandering around within the confines of the car, years before there was any restrictions, concerning seat-belts and car-seats.
Jerry was of medium height, stocky, and of an absolute fearless personality. He was a human version of a Sherman tank, raised on the brink of a huge tract of rural property, over which he was allowed to freely roam, becoming familiar with the outdoors, and many of its reptilian inhabitants. Jerry would lead visiting school chums around the foothills bordering his home, effectively presenting a wilderness paradise to his friends. As a scout, he brought a lot of experience and savvy to the patrol.
Ruben was Mr. Congenial, a heavyset Hispanic kid, who managed to stay on even terms with his peers, no matter how strongly or arbitrarily, the winds of dissension swirled around him. If there was a threat of an argument breaking out, Ruben’s presence, often helped ease over the rocky spot, because he had a way of getting kids to work together, just by being willing to do what it took, to get the process started. Ruben was a huge reason why the Tenderfeet were able to keep the logistical side of camping under control.
Joining Ruben, in terms of logistical aptitude, was Edwin, an athletic black kid, who was the acknowledged physical leader of the patrol. He was affable, the son of a conservative business man, who had instilled in his son, a strong sense of responsibility, not generally associated with junior high kids. Eddie’s willingness to assume many of the chores around the campsite, was instrumental in presenting a reasonably organized view of their campsite to the outside world, regardless of how chaotic the condition of the patrol actually was.
Stephen was a fair-complected, slow-thinking son of a butcher, a kid capable of listening to a string of instructions and advice, and then asking afterwards, if you could repeat that once more for him. He struggled with the complexities of life in general, and with academic growth in particular. No one wanted to say that Stephen was dumb, but that was usually so evident, that it need not be spoken aloud. It might have worked out all right, if Stephen had been a little more willing to get along with his peers, instead of being a bit on the prissy side, and always expecting that the people around him, would make allowances for his lack of forward progress. One thing he had going for him was that he was strong. He was not necessarily athletic, like Eddie, but he was one strong individual.
Will and Phil rounded off the ten, the twins being a mixed bag of lively fraternal squabbling, never seeming to be able to set that sibling rivalry aside. No matter what type of drama was going on within the patrol, Will and Phil would add their own version, guaranteed to muddy forward progress, when it came to group endeavors. Whereas Will was fast and agile, Phil was slow and clumsy, a fact that Will never let him forget. It probably would have worked out, if Phil could have salvaged some shed of dignity, by being the brain of the two, but such was not the case. It was another piece of information that Will brought into the picture frequently.
The big question, as the Spring Jamboree was being planned for late May, was could the Tenderfeet participate, even though they were so green, and would likely not fare well in the competition? This featured ten areas of scouting, commonly regarded as the foundation of principled scouting, reflecting the skills and physical ability for which all young people should strive.
Obviously, the members of the patrol itself were eager to be a part of the action, regardless of the perceived outcome of the experience. Led by Jeff, whose oratory skills were undisputed, the patrol went to the scoutmaster with their appeal. Frankly he was completely incapable of coming up with a rational negative response to the question, “How are we to gain experience, if we are not allowed to participate?” and the Tenderfeet were given permission to attend.
With tremendous fanfare, confusion, agitation and drama, the rookie scouts gathered together immediately after school on Friday afternoon, of the designated weekend, where they crammed their gear into one pickup truck and piled everyone into one old Ford van, for the half-hour drive to Legg Lake Park, located in South El Monte, a nature preserve that was open for recreational use to the public. The preserve had been rented by the Boy Scouts of America, as a venue for the annual gathering of scouts from SoCal, and Troop 433 had four patrols representing it at the Jamboree.
The Tenderfeet were everything they were purported to be, as rough in the arts of both camping and teamwork, as a group of kids could be. This was their first excursion together, and they were accompanied by Mr. Camarillo, destined to be the future scoutmaster of the current Tenderfeet, when the troop broke away from Troop 433. He was a firm believer in baptism by fire, and except for matters of health and safety, Mr. C. was content to let the scouts forge their way, without intervention.
Ideally, the boys would have gathered together prior to the Jamboree, to go through a trial run, but when time, a rock, and a hard place, all conspired to make that impossible, they decided to push forward, and let the dust settle where it may-or the tent, for that matter.
“What the hell is going on?” asked Jeff sharply, even if his voice was somewhat muffled.
“The tent collapsed ding-bat, what do you think that is? I told you those forks would never work as tent stakes. I think it was your snoring that brought the whole thing down,” retorted Marc. “If you had remembered the tent stakes, this would never have happened.”
“How was I supposed to know they weren’t wrapped up inside the tent, along with the poles? You can just eat a root,” spat out Jeff.
"Can't we just prop it up to get through the night?" asked Eddie.
"Not with all of those ropes all tangled up," said John. The boys were never quite certain that they had it all done correctly. It was strictly guess and by golly.
“OK, look, for now we are going to have to make do. It’s one-fifteen, and we’re not going to find stakes tonight. We’re going to have to go to plan B. I’ll be back in a sec.” Marc made his way over the top of two of his contemporaries, with much antagonism, and out through the tent entrance.
When he returned, he was lugging Mr. C’s golf clubs, the ones that they had been afraid to ask to borrow. Using a method which had them wedging the broader end of each club, into a shoe, and then using the other end to prop up a corner of the tent, they managed to recapture some semblance of comfort, if not style, and returned to sleep. Of course, early next morning they woke to find their tent surrounded by amused scouts, who had drifted over very quietly, to check the oddly shaped tent out, jiggle a projecting golf club, and make snide comments. Establishing that the inhabitants were awake, and then registering their disdain, the scouts then left them to try and dress and regain a modicum of dignity, something that was not to appear on the agenda, at any phase of the weekend.
It was after seven, by the time all had assembled, except Mikey and Stephen, who could be heard whining within the confines of the tent, still trying to dress themselves. There was rumored to be a pool being formed with the scout correctly guessing the time of final tent-clearance getting no kitchen patrol during the weekend, but they were disappointed when Stephen became the last to join the others, who were collaborating to cook some breakfast.
What would have been very straightforward for most seasoned campers, had become a comedy of errors. Marc and Jeff had been up as soon as the morning sky began to lighten, which in late May, SoCal, is still before five. They had expended a tremendous amount of effort, matches, newspapers, dry twigs, leaves, toothpicks, straw wrappers, and whatever they could find, thus getting high marks for multi-tasking, just to get a fire started. [Wasn’t that one of the required events in the competition?]
However, time was not an issue, at this juncture, so there was ample for them to have already built up the fire with some of the firewood that they had piled in the bed of the pickup, and attempted to cook the scrambled eggs over the fire. After all, wasn’t that what camping was all about? Mr. C. was sitting placidly to one side, drinking his coffee that he had made on one burner of the available Coleman stove, nibbling on trail mix, reading the rules and regulations for the weekend’s activities.
“Eww, The eggs are turning brown.” Mikey was more than willing to share, what everyone else had been thinking.”
“That’s because the butter got too hot and burned,” said Will. “You can’t cook anything on wood fires, until the flames die down. Then you use the coals. I tried to tell you that.”
Jeff looked at Marc, who said, “That’s funny, when we were discussing it earlier, you distinctly said that using the fire instead of the Coleman stove, made more sense because the Coleman stove was as easy as being at home, and that we should be more adventurous. I do not remember you suggesting that cooking-”
He was cut off by the single word, “Fine. You aren’t going to take my word for it anyway. What are we going to do with these eggs?”
The words were no more out of his mouth, when an entourage of traveling Boy Scout officials arrived at the edge of the campsite, beaming angelically. Upon observing the tent and the dark-tinted eggs, and the general air of discontent, they moseyed on. Mr. Camarillo sipped his coffee.
When the boys went to the ice chest to get Sunday’s eggs to cook, Mr. C. stopped them, and asked what was up. When he had examined the eggs, he forked a taste out of the pan, made a wry face, and said, “Why, these are fine! Who cares what they look like? There is plenty of bread for toasting, and we’ll use the skillet and the Coleman stove for that, and besides, there are plenty of saltines.” Indeed, Mr. C. had stocked up on saltines, and they were sitting right there on the picnic table.
For better or mostly worse, the boys not only finished eating, but managed to get the dishes washed. There were rules about what the campsites had to look like, once the scouts had ventured off to participate in the day’s events, and Mr. C. was not going to ignore the exterior of the campsite. Those who were not involved in the clean-up, gathered around to plan how they were going to approach the events that were scheduled.
“It says that there are ten events that each patrol participates in. Some involve all of us, and we are scored as a patrol, and others are individual events, and we choose who does them,” said Jeff. “So we need to figure out who is doing what, before we arrive at the event. We all have to do the physical stuff, but we do not all have to tie knots or build a fire.”
“You mean that Phil has to do push-ups? We lose!” Will was always willing to throw in his nickel’s worth.
“Hey Will, you can-” began Phil.
“Join Eddie cleaning the campsite. If you guys are going to fight, then you’re never going to have a chance,” said Mr. C.
“Yeah, come on you guys. We aren’t going to stand a chance if we pick on each other. We got to stick together,” said Ruben. “Besides,” he said pointedly to Will, “You wait and see. Phil is going to save the day.” He went over to Phil and stood next to him.
“A chance for what, exactly?” asked Marc, turning back to Mr. C.
“What do you mean? This is a jamboree! You are competing against the other patrols for high honors at the final gathering tomorrow at noon.”
“We’re competing against the Eagles? And the Grizzlies? We’ll be eaten alive,” observed Mikey.
“Well, your mother’s not here to hold your hand, so I guess you’re useless,” sneered Jerry, who had no patience with Mikey’s whining. Turning to Jeff, he said, “I don’t think we have a chance of beating those guys, but we shouldn’t be in too bad of shape, as far as just being able to compete. If we go into this just ignoring the other patrols, and do our own thing, it will have to do. What else is there besides the physical stuff, tying knots and campfire building?”
Jeff responded, “First aid. It’s a biggee, because we need to enter six scouts, so we need to brush up on our basics, maybe go over the stuff about making stretchers, and helping an injured scout to safety. Then there is plant identification. We need three for that. There’s special categories of physical abilities, like gymnastics, and archery. There’s the track and field events, and a lot of stuff. There’s Morse Code. They have a guy at one end of the camp, sending messages in code, and you have to be able to tell what the message is. It’s hard!”
John jumped in with some logistics. “It says we have to participate in the basic seven-all patrols have to, but we get to choose three events that reflect our patrol’s skills.” Looking over at Eddie, who was bustling around the “kitchen” area, he said, “We’re in good shape there.”
“Come on, everyone, we got ten minutes to get our stuff together, and get to the center. Use the latrine if you need to, and remember to fill your canteens. Be prepared,” Mr. C. finished off with the Boy Scout Motto.
The events unfolded with clockwork regularity, with or without would-be participants. What the Tenderfeet did have going for them, was a team of naturally-for the most part-quick-thinking scouts. They had also had the opportunity to examine firsthand, a pair of Boy Scout Handbooks, which had been donated to the school, and which lived in the classroom library. All of the scouts had spent plenty of time, going over certain aspects of the book, which piqued their interest. In fact, they were allowed to check a book out overnight, so the boys had each had the chance to do that.
So just because they were novices at the art of scouting, they had done a fair amount of homework, and had a better grasp of the fundamentals of scouting, than some of the more seasoned veterans in the other patrols. You would not have thought it to look at them, but then again, you know what they say about judging a book by its cover. Don’t forget, you can take a jacket off of one book, and place it on another. Or better still, you can cover a book with plain brown wrap. What does that tell you about the book itself? Not a doggone thing.
You still have to spend some time with it. You have to turn the pages, and you have to be able to take in what you find. What the other patrols found out about the Tenderfeet was, that they were resourceful. They knew how to make use of each scout, according to his ability. Jeff could not beat a one-legged granny in a foot race, but he could tie knots backwards and forwards, and he could do it fast. His hands shook, as though he had the palsey, but he tied those knots. Eddie took firsts in all but one of his events, and firsts brought in twenty points apiece.
In the end even Phil came through in the clutch, because one of the specialty competitions was for morse Code, and Phil, without Will’s knowledge, had been studying the Code for months now, and using the handbook at school to brush up on it.
As they gathered for the final assembly, during which awards were distributed, there was a lively discussion about which of Troop 433’s patrols would garner top honors for the Jamboree.
“You know the Eagles will be right up there, and probably the Tomahawks too,” said Jeff, matter-of-factly. “Of course they’ll probably sleep through the ceremony after last night.” There had been quite a bit of nocturnal exploration by some of the scouts, resulting in some concern that consequences would follow.
“I don’t even know why we are hanging out for the ceremony. Why can’t we just go home?” whined Mikey.
“Maybe some of us would like to see what it will be like next year, when we might have some hope of scoring high honors. You can always stay in your tent.”
Mr. C. spoke up. “I’d like to see you all at the ceremony. Meanwhile, you might want to get organized, because after it’s over, we’re out of here as soon as we get it together. Chop chop!”
They were brash, they were antsy, and they were green, but in the end, the Tenderfeet amassed 901 points, one more point than was required, to achieve the highest ranking possible for a patrol at the Jamboree. From Troop 433, only the Eagles also attained the 900 plus points needed.
“It was Phil and his Morse Code; I knew he would come through,” said Ruben proudly, punching Phil in the shoulder, while enjoying the sour look on Will’s face.
As the Tenderfeet celebrated, the other patrols from Troop 433 gathered around, grudgingly giving them their due.
“Does this mean you are going to change your name?” asked one of the Grizzlies.
“Change our name? No way! We have a reputation to uphold,” said Jeff. “Besides, my feet are pretty sore...” he finished lamely.