One of my best friends has attained a rather exalted rank in the Boy Scouts of America of late. This is as an adult, so I'm not talking actual Boy Scout ranks here. He's become a commissioner in the organization. Basically, he's a leader of a group of troops. In his case I think it's five troops. Before accepting the new position, he was a Scout Master; before that, a Cub Master. This progression is understandable if you knew the fellow. First, he had a son who was interested in the Boy Scouts, so he helped him along by taking leadership roles in the various Scout organizations as his son aged and worked his way through the ranks. Second, he has a difficult time saying “no” to anyone who presents a need that he feels he can accommodate. And third, he badly wanted to be a Scout when he was young and he was not allowed to become one. So he was, I think, living a bit vicariously as a Scout through his son.
I was happy to see him thus able to be a Boy Scout, even if it was second-hand, and he told me on many occasions how much fun he was having doing it.
I was a Scout as a youngster and seeing him engaged in this pursuit and hearing his descriptions of his adventures on camping trips brought back many memories of my own.
Let me share one with you.
The highlight of the year for any Boy Scout, at least back in the very late '50's and very early '60's when I was a member, was summer camp. This week-long camp was an event that was dreamed about, planned on and prepared for during the entire year. Money was saved, equipment was bought or repaired, family vacations were moved to accommodate the camp and skills were learned and honed in preparation for it. It was the high point in a Scout's year.
The summer camp I attended while I was a scout was named Camp Tuscazoar. It was named after the Tuscarawas River and the village of Zoar, both of which were nearby. This was a large, permanent camp which accommodated hundreds of Scouts per week over most of the summer. It has a long history since its inception in 1920 and its naming in 1925. It had several permanent buildings in the camp including the mess hall, the nature lodge, Hoover Lodge (named after the man who donated the first 65 1/2 acres for the camp), Dan Beard Lodge, the trading post, maintenance building, headquarters and several other ones. It also had a full-size swimming pool, rifle range, archery range, many miles of trails and primitive campsites and numerous other venues for Scouts to utilize. There were also a number of campsites for the visiting Boy Scout Troops, both with canvas 4-man tents and with Adirondack cabins (small cabins open on one side).
Tuscazoar was highly regarded for its comprehensive camping program, its experienced leaders and the beauty of its locale. But its most stellar characteristic was the award it bestowed upon its honor campers. This award was called the Pipestone Honors Award. This award was a piece of pipestone rock, hung on a leather thong and worn on the Boy Scout uniform over the right pocket. The pipestone was brought in from Pipestone, Minnesota in slabs, sawed into appropriately sized pieces and particular symbols were engraved in each piece before a hole was drilled in the top of each piece and a leather thong attached. The color of the pipestone varied from a darkish-tan to an almost purplish brown. Each award was different than the others, so what you got was unique.
Pipestone was carved and used to make peace pipes by Native Americans in the old days.
The pipestone was awarded to campers who had met certain requirements during their weekly tenure in the camp. There were camping, swimming, nature, Boy Scout advancement and other requirements necessary for qualification. For first-year campers, the requirements were fairly easy. For each subsequent year that the Scout attended the camp, the requirements became more difficult. This progression of difficulty continued until the last award was offered, which was the fifth year. The requirements were stringent and had to be met to qualify for the award. There were no pipestone “gimmes” handed out.
If you qualified for the award that year, you turned in your pipestone from the previous year and, after a ceremony, were awarded a new stone with an additional symbol carved on it. So the first year you got a stone with a single symbol on it and, if you attended that camp for five years and got the award each year, you ended up with an impressive piece of pipestone with five symbols carved in it. The symbols, in order of year were: the outline of a man standing and holding a stick above his head, a campfire, a tepee, a flower blossom and an Indian arrowhead. Each symbol was tied to a moral lesson which was taught at the appropriate award bestowal ceremony at the end of the week.
Becoming a fifth-year pipestone winner was considered a great honor. It was a much-sought-after award and was highly treasured above many other awards a Scout could earn, possibly only second to the Eagle badge itself. It was also considered an indication of manhood. The progression of these awards paralleled the maturation of the Scout, as he grew from the age of 12 or so until 17. A fifth-year pipestone winner was, in many respects, a man, at least in the eyes of his younger brethren in the troop.
On your first year camping at Tuscazoar, if you had been diligent, had worked hard and had performed all the tasks necessary to qualify for the pipestone, this is what happened:
The awarding of the pipestone honor award always occurred on Friday night during your week at camp. After supper, the Scouts who had qualified were sequestered in a separate area away from the rest of the troop and told to keep quiet and to think on the accomplishments they had achieved during the week. When dusk was approaching they were lined up by a leader and led to a circular clearing in the woods they had not seen before. It was called the pick-up circle, but the boys did not know it by that name yet. They were seated on the ground facing an already burning campfire, told to cross their legs, fold their arms on their chest and not to speak. The leaders then left the boys alone.
It was quiet. The night had, by then, fallen and it was dark. The only sounds were the snapping of the logs in the fire as they were burned, the distant croaking of frogs in the marshy spots of the camp and possibly the quiet whisper of wind in the treetops. This quiet waiting went on for long, long minutes – perhaps even a half-hour or longer. Some of the boys may have even got drowsy, sitting quietly and waiting. Then, way off in the distance, a drum was heard. It sounded like a BIG drum. The drum was beating in a certain rhythm – a loud beat followed by three lighter beats. BOOM, boom, boom, boom. BOOM, boom, boom, boom. BOOM, boom, boom, boom. The drum beats slowly became louder and louder until it seemed the drum had to become visible, it had to be very, very near. Then... silence.
The drums suddenly stopped. I think a lot of the boy's hearts skipped a beat when that happened. It was sudden, startling and unexpected. They sat there waiting for whatever was supposed to happen next.
The tension was excruciating.
Suddenly, behind the fire, an Indian appeared. He wasn't there... then... he was. It was unnerving. His fierce gaze slowly passed over all of the boys – back and forth, back and forth. He suddenly barked several unintelligible words and threw a powder into the fire. A huge flare of colored flame shot up, a large cloud of smoke arose and... CRACK, CRACK, CRACK... about 20 intensely-bright, red railroad flares erupted on all sides of the group the Scouts were sitting in. Each flare was held by an Indian brave.
Most of the boys were frightened and shocked. They had no idea what was going to happen. They stared at the sudden appearance of the Indians, their eyes wide with alarm.
The Indian's bodies were uniformly colored with a reddish paint, they wore loincloths and moccasins, had black hair in Indian braids and their faces were covered in warpaint. They had feathers in their headbands.
The Indians roughly pulled the boys onto their feet, lined them up and began to run them down a trail, keeping them moving, keeping their voices silent, having them keep their eyes fixed to the boy ahead of them, leading them down a trail to an unknown destination.
After many long minutes of running and stumbling in the dark, being prodded and pushed by very intimidating-looking savages carrying their hissing, spitting flares, the boys at last approached a campfire circle deep in the woods. They were arranged into an arc facing this campfire, made to again fold their arms in front of them and were ordered to keep perfectly still and perfectly silent. The Indians moved constantly behind the boys, straightening the ones who were drooping, shaking the ones who weren't keeping still. Their hands were not gentle.
All was silent except for the crackling of the fire.
Inside the circle of the campfire were three main figures. The first was an Indian brave standing still as a stone holding a rod high above his head, the symbol of the first year painted on his chest. He would maintain this posture for the entire ceremony.
To this day I do not know how he did it.
The second was the Indian Medicine Man, his face entirely black except for a white skull painted on top the black. His fierce eyes glared at the boys. The third figure was the Chief with buckskin clothing and a full Indian headdress and war paint.
He was holding a human skull in his hands.
Each boy was led by two braves into the circle separately. They first were required by the Medicine Man to drink a bitter liquid from a mussel shell placed at their lips. There was no choice about this. You drank. You then were led to face the Chief. He held the skull in front of you and he gestured you to look into the eyes of the skull. As you looked, a light came on in the skull and there was a word written there. This was your “secret” word which you needed to memorize and repeat the next year at camp to receive your next award. You were then returned to the silent arc of fellow Scouts facing the fire.
After all the boys had their turn in the ring and had then been returned to the group, the Chief bade you all to sit and to finally relax. He then gave the moral lesson that was the first of five given to honor campers, one per year. After which, you were escorted back to the main part of the camp by the Indians, more cordially this time. You then made you way quietly back to your own troop's campsite where you bedded down for the few short hours before dawn. You held your pipestone award tightly as you fell asleep. It had been tough meeting the requirements for it and even tougher going through the ceremony. You'd earned it.
My friend also earned his pipestone awards – all five of them. He earned them as an adult Scoutmaster by leading his son and the rest of his troop for their weeks of summer camp. He worked diligently at those camps for five summers shepherding the boys to and from all the activities they needed to attend during the week, answering their questions and concerns, instructing and informing and feeding their native inquisitiveness.
Being a leader.
He performed these tasks efficiently and professionally despite the sciatica which was wracking his lower back.
He earned his awards too, following a possibly more difficult trail as an adult than I followed as a young man.
I salute him for his diligence, his steadfastness, his moral code and his ability to do something a lot of the rest of us would have a hard time doing.
Or couldn't do at all.
The world is a better place for having men like my friend and the next generation will benefit from his labors.
Kudos to you, my friend. Your efforts were not unnoticed.