The title, of course, comes from the Boy Scout Law. When I turned 11, my dad volunteered to be a local scout leader. Our troop was a mix of my Sheridan Road friends and a bunch of tough and rowdy kids from St. John’s parochial school. Vic decided the youth were mainly in need of discipline. He recruited an ex-Marine sergeant who had been a drill instructor, and our main scouting activity was to practice marching in military formations in the St. John’s gym every week in preparation for the Memorial Day parade. The scouts were less committed than my dad, but we attended practice for eight months and ultimately were good marchers in the parade.
We did things other than marching, though I’ve lost touch with the details. One occasion that does stand out was when our troop went to Marina Park in downtown Menominee for a fire-making competition (basically pitting the bad kids from St. John’s against the good kids from Sheridan Road). We good kids felt superior because we more camping experience, and we were eager to show off our skills as outdoorsmen. When my dad said “Go”, my friends and I ran off to the birch trees at the opposite end of the park to gather birch bark and twigs. By the time we got back, however, the bad kids were standing around a roaring six foot high fire that they’d started with some yellowed newspaper and old tree branches that they’d quickly gathered up on the beach. I don’t know exactly how to verbalize it, but we learned some things that weren’t even in the boy scout manual.
When I was 12 or 13 Frankie St. Peter and I joined a group of scouts from Green Bay for a trip down to Philmont Scout Ranch in the mountains of New Mexico. The week at Philmont involved hiking through rugged mountains from one camping location to the next, and it was a challenging adventure. We travelled to New Mexico and back by bus. We stopped in Oklahoma on our way back, and a bunch of our group went over to a nearby carnival. Frank and I decided to join them, but we found our route blocked by a tall fence. We walked a long way, but the fence went on and on. It had a sign on it that said something like “Danger – Keep Away,” but we got impatient and finally we just climbed over the fence, sign or no sign. It was pitch dark, but we could make out something that looked like a large hut and some big amorphous globs around it. Soon we came to a second equally tall fence. We climbed over that too and went off to the carnival midway. In the morning we came back to see where we’d been. We discovered that, unwittingly, we had climbed into a buffalo pen. The sign on the fence in fact said “Danger – Wild Buffaloes” and warned onlookers to stay at least ten feet away from the fence. There was a large hut in the center of the pen with buffalo inside it and milling around outside. We counted – there were 27 full-grown buffaloes with large horns congregated in the area that we’d inadvertently walked through in the dark.
When I got older, Vic helped found and lead the first Menominee unit of the Air Scouts, a teenage version of the Boy Scouts. We thought we should have been Sea Scouts rather than Air Scouts, since we were located right off Lake Michigan, and Menominee was not known as an air hub. Our troop did do a tour of the local airport one evening, and my dad arranged for Frankie and myself to go up on a demonstration flight that weekend. At the airport there was a Piper Club and a very jazzy looking two-person plane that I’ll call a Spitfire. Both Frankie and I picked the Spitfire, and I got to go up first. The pilot put the plane through its whole repertoire, zooming up and down, flying sideways, zigzagging, etc. In the midst of it all I vomited up my entire breakfast and lunch all over the cockpit. We promptly returned to the runway. Frank was furious to find out that he had to go up in the boring Piper Cub because the Spitfiire was grounded for the day.
The high point of our Air Scout experience came when our troop spent a week at O’Hare Air Force Base in Chicago. We slept in tents at the far end of a runway, and, years later, my dad recounted how he took a valium to go to sleep, though he had no water to wash it down. The pill stuck in his throat, slowly dissolved, and he was certain he wouldn’t live through the night. The Air Force Base was doing some sort of military simulation of a complete lockdown, and our troop was escorted everywhere by an armed guard. Frank and I did sneak off on our own to go back to the gift shop, and we were apprehended and interrogated by MP’s who thought we had been assigned to play roles as Communist spies. On the last day of the trip we spent several hours at the Maxwell Street flea market in Chicago. I didn’t learn about it until years later, but it turned out that a woman of the streets took my dad aside and offered to entertain the whole teenage troop for ten dollars a head. Consistent with Air Scout principles, he declined. Frankly, I think that was good judgment.