The Scoutmaster Who Tried (Long)
Craig R. McGarrah (mcgarrah@MINDSPRING.COM)
Sun, 19 Apr 1998 23:37:30 -0400
I would like to tell this true story about an experience I had when I was a
scout in Boy Scout Troop 173, Etna, PA (a working-class northern suburb of
Pittsburgh). This story is also about the Scoutmaster who took over this
troop in 1944 and today, in 1998, he is still the Scoutmaster, my Uncle
The year was 1979 and I was 13 years old. We loaded up the troop bus (a
1961 International "the big green weenie") with 35 boys and 7 adults and
went to our favorite summer camp, Camp Halliburton in Halliburton, Ontario,
Canada. We had gone there the previous year and because of its very rustic
nature, it was our unanimous choice for that summer's trip. After our 18
hour ride (you couldn't do that today, even with switching drivers like we
did), we couldn't wait to get in our canoes and paddle to the campsite on
Lake Kennabi. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate. It rained just
after we got there and continued for the next couple of days. By tuesday,
the weather was taking its toll.
We had canvas tents then. The Overnighters (for 2 people, 1 pole) and the
Voyagers (for 3 people, 2 poles) were what we had with no floors. Even
though everyone used ground cloths, things didn't stay dry and everyone was
miserable. That evening, we had spaghetti, but since we couldn't keep the
fire lit for any length of time, we had to use the plastic trays (at Camp
Halliburton, only burned-out cans and glass are permitted as garbage.
Everything else must be burned. Without a good running fire, 42 spaghetti
plates would invite every racoon in Canada.). Several were drafted
(including me) to clean up the 42 trays plus cooking items under the leaky
tarps. The task took two hours even though we were veterans at the cleanup
routine. We were about to kill each other and even our usually jovial
leaders were not in the mood to laugh. Tensions were high all over our
campsite. The younger kids started to whine about wanting to go home. The
older kids were starting to get into fights. The adults were on edge.
Something had to be done.
Uncle Bill let everyone know that he expected them to be ready for the
campfire that night. It was met with a collective groan. In our troop, it
is tradition to have a campfire program every night with only the rarest of
exceptions. Yes, we recycled the same skits and songs, but somehow the
comraderie of being together around the campfire was always something we
looked forward to. Not tonight. All we wanted to do was crawl into our wet
sleeping bags and try to pretend this day didn't exist.
However, Uncle Bill wasn't going to put up with any whining. We were going
to have a campfire and that was that.
As the time came, he had to rustle the boys from their tents. His and some
of the boy's and leader's attempt at getting a fire going with wet wood was
met with only moderate success. We had a fire, but it wasn't much to look
at. The boys who came took one look at the wimpy fire and the soaked wood,
and they started back to their tents (it was still lightly raining at this
time). They were rounded up again with much tension.
We started by doing a few songs which no one was really into. The only
highlight was Harold Park's bouncing rendition of "Sippin' Ci'" which we
all enjoyed. Harold was well into his 70's and had a youthful enthusiasm
that won over everyone. Other than that, everyone had to be prodded to
participate. The skits, which usually got at least a polite laughter and
applause, was getting no reaction. This campfire was turning out to be the
worlds biggest flop even though the rain had stopped before the program
Rather than drag it out, Uncle Bill went right into his closing. He had
asked everyone to bring a branch with them to the campfire. He spoke about
how the spirit of scouting was with all of us even when things were bad,
and he put in his little can of ashes which he always kept from past
campfires. I remember about this time someone noticing the sky opening up.
No one was very interested. Uncle Bill said some other things which I do
not remember. The idea was we were to finish the campfire by laying our
branch on the fire (which was looking better by this time) and leave in
silence. He tried to make an impressive ending. He did pretty well
considering the circumstances, but didn't get much credit.
We did as he asked and many of the boys headed right for their tents, but
several of the boys and I hung around. The prospect of going back to the
wet tents didn't sound as good now that the rain had stopped. One of the
boys, who went over to the dock, called us over to notice the sky. We went
over to see the sky halfway into peeling back the clouds to reveal the most
clear sky I had ever seen! I had been to Canada before, so I had seen how
clear the skies get, but this was amazing! The milky way looked like a
cloud, and you couldn't pick out any constellations because the stars were
so numerous! We watched as the thick cloud layer completed its journey
across the sky, but the best was yet to come.
When the skies had completely cleared, we saw a funny light at the far
horizon. At first, only a few noticed it, but as it grew, more marvelled at
it. What was it? We talked half-jokingly about UFO's, but we were a little
scared. It looked so unnatural! We had to see what it was. Over the course
of the next 15 minutes, we sure found out as the NORTHERN LIGHTS painted a
full 180 degrees of the sky! If you have never seen them that far north,
you have never truly seen them. No picture you have ever seen can describe
the eerie, undulating, jagged color waves that paint the sky like that. The
entire half-dome of the sky was alive with them as the other half displayed
the unbelievably clear night sky with no moon to distract the view. You
couldn't stand up and watch them because you would lose your balance. I was
sitting and having trouble keeping upright! I remember Harold Parks talking
on and on about how in his 70+ years of camping, he had never seen a sight
like this and told us that in our entire lives we may never see such a
sight again. So far, he was right!
Uncle Bill was still back in the campsite doing some medial chores when one
of the younger boys said, "Hey Mr. Fincke! Come see what you did!" He
believed for a moment that Uncle Bill's ceremony was responsible for what
he was seeing! We all smiled to ourselves, but we realized that he wasn't
completely wrong. If the campfire hadn't happened and if he hadn't tried to
make a nice finish to a dreary day, no one would have ever seen this
ultimate expression of the natural world!
Uncle Bill came over and was awestruck. After several minutes of silence,
he said, "How can anyone see a sight such as this and not believe that
there is a God?" A long silence followed as we continued well into the
night observing God's gift to us.
Thank God for nature's unbelievable beauty, and thank God for Scoutmasters
Troop 173 (Etna, PA) Eagle Class of 1981
Cubmaster -- Pack 132, Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Terry Howerton Sakima Group, Inc. SCOUTER Magazine Kansas City