If I were to say I was active in the Boy Scouts of America into early high school, it would no doubt conjure up certain images. They'd be wrong. No matter what they are, the images you have would all be wrong. Oh yeah, I was a Boy Scout. But our Boy Scout Troop 17, University City, Missouri, the first burb west of St. Louis, was nothing less than a prep school for the Kappa Sigma fraternity house and a training ground for Officer Candidate's School, US Army.
First, the uniforms. We looked like, well, something much more than Boy Scouts. And the spirit of these uniforms came from some place else, too. Think of legendary, Scottish pride, like William Wallace's. Or English history, wrapped in glory and honor, spit polished and pressed, and glorious. Tradition, rich in fabric and grounded in a swagger that showed up in the way we carried ourselves, in the way we marched.
Rigid, flat-brimmed felt campaign hats, the "Smokey the Bear" type, wrapped with a hard leather band. Wool, military-pleated olive-drab shirts, long-sleeved, tucked in to identically colored wool shorts, both of them Army surplus. They had to match perfectly, which wasn't always easy since Troop 17 Scouts had scoured St. Louis' military surplus stores for years for this stuff. And if they didn't match, you were wearing a "golf suit." And you were on your way home from Thursday night troop meetings, having blown weekly inspection.
Over-the-calf wool stockings, held high with red-tabbed garters, long after most of our fathers quit wearing the things. I can remember ordering the socks from a catalogue somebody had from England. And nothing but St. Louis orange, Threadneedle Street broughams on our feet, shined to a high gloss. Military Khaki surcingle webbed belts, held tight by an Army brass belt buckle and dressed out with a Brasso-mirror shine to it.
The Troop 17 insignia patches we wore were cut out of their official BSA squares and sewn to our shirts, for a more precise look. We had the "17's" especially made, one-piece, with a white embroidered border. And we wore specially designed Army-style campaign ribbons over our breast pockets, proclaiming the honors and awards we gained from our Troop 17 experiences. We rolled our royal blue-on-red cotton kerchiefs tight, right up to the BSA triangles, and held them around our necks with a unique, woven-leather and knotted clasp.
In the summer we would leave our wool shirts hanging in our closets at home and wear gleaming, bleached-white beefy T-shirts.
In other words, we looked good.
And we were cool, too.
We looked unlike any other Boy Scout Troop anywhere, which was by design, and appropriate, since we acted unlike any other Scouting organization anywhere. And we were damned proud of it. Hell, I still line up my belt buckle with the front seam in my pants directly beneath my shirt buttons - the "gig line" - something I learned in Troop 17 and was required to do in Officer Candidate School in the Army, and then as an officer.
Each July or August we went to summer camp along with the rest of St. Louis' scout troops. They rode busses all the way in to their campsites, with their parents. We marched all the way in from Irondale, Missouri, and the whole town would come out to watch us. Meanwhile we'd left our parents at home, where they belonged. We came each step to the pavement in perfect sync with our drummer, eyes straight ahead, legs and arms swinging in perfect syncronicity. Out front, leading the way and calling a sharp, confident cadence, was our Senior Patrol Leader.
Troop 17's SPL was, quite simply, a god!
There were three different ones in the time I was active with 17: one like Gary Cooper, one like Marlon Brando ("What d'ya got?") and one more like Bear Bryant. Four to six years and a lot of girlfriends older, and a lot larger than the rest of us and of life itself, the Senior Patrol Leaders instilled in all of us a great sense of purpose and confidence, which emanated from their own.
At the core of our pride as a troop were our legitimate accomplishments. We were incredibly skilled, and we knew it. How could we not? Invariably, at every county and regional competition - usually called "Jamborees" - our four patrols would finish 1-2-3-4 out of the hundreds of other troops and patrols we competed with. Fact is if we weren't this good we would never have gotten away with any of the rest of it.
Within an hour of rolling into the designated camp, we would pitch our pup tents - Army surplus, they came in shelter halves, one to a man; we'd snap them together and either stake both halves to the ground in classic fashion or "fly" one half for an open option - and line them up by patrol, straight as an arrow. I can actually remember having to move a tent more than once because it was out of line by just an inch or two. And then we'd sit back and watch while the parents of the other boys struggled with their bulky, oversized wall tents.
But the real glue, the element that gave Troop 17 its staying power for the older guys, and probably kept many of us out of prison, was a selective, senior element in the troop called The Bakers, a fraternity of sorts that you were brought into only after demonstrating great skills and a sense of reverence for what we were all part of, and an irreverence for what we were not. And, of course, having demonstrated the ability to swill beer like a frat man, shop lift like an ex-con, stay out all night, steal booze from your parents, speed shift a car by age 15, generally avoid arrest or at least conviction, and at least get to second base on first dates.
All in the true spirit of scouting, of course.
The Bakers, aptly named after our long-time and venerable Scoutmaster, John Pope Baker, were the elite of the elite. With an espirit-des-corps that I would only see again for a brief moment when I was initiated into the Kappa Sigma fraternity at Missouri University, and only later in OCS. Baker's wore Levi's. Period. Button-fly Levi's jeans and Levi jackets over beefy white T-shirts. In a wonderful twist of historic serendipity, the inside surfaces of Levi jacket buttons each carried a "17" mark from the factory, probably left there by some riveting process. We took it as a sign. We appropriated the old Eisenhower World War II SHEAF patch, royal blue with a flaming sword and stitched to the left shoulder of our jackets. The head Baker wore a black version of the same patch.
And for the Bakers, flattened campaign hats, each one an individual labor of love, adorned with hatbands as unique as we could make them. Snakeskins, leather, feathers, ribbons, each one more distinctive that the next. We called them "Any" hats, because they were good for damned near anything - fanning a fire, repelling the rain, boiling water, sailing across the way, pre-Frisbee. Most of us had two-year old condoms tucked away in the inside band, just in case. Baker hats were like faithful dogs, growing more familiar and reliable as they aged and began to reflect the individual lives they watched over with a great sense of growing loyalty. And moccasins with tassels we braided ourselves. We never wore socks.
The Bakers, University Methodist Church, 1961
First row: Doug Taylor, Dave Taylor, Dick Epstein, Tim Arnold, Rick Albrecht, Tim Albrecht, Tom Wilson, Jim Oakey.
Second row: Dick Barnes, Jim Wion, Marshall Goldberg, Paul Harrington, Alex Smith, Irwin Albrecht, Steve Albrecht, Jim Landau.
It was the Bakers that held me in and held me together through these years; when life around me was so unpredictable, I could count on the bravado and the cocooning of the Bakers, in Troop 17.
The Troop owned some land in mid-Missouri, outside Troy. It was named Camp Nawakwa for some damned reason. We called it The Land - a minimalist title that served its purpose. We would spend weekends out there at The Land, in the cabin hand-built by those who went before us, and smoke and drink beer and vodka and Coke or something horrible and listen to Wolfman Jack all night on the radio, all the way from Del Rio, Texas. "Rock and roll, baaabaayyy!!!" We'd play cards and cuss and generally convince ourselves we were getting away with something amazing, and that this time when we went back home we would absolutely find the ultimate, miraculous babe, now finally attracted to this freshly-hewn stud, back from the woods and the wilds.
Once a year we'd take the "Stroll," an all-night fifteen-mile hike into The Land, and we had to carry everything in on our backs that we'd need for the weekend. Everything. Tent. Food. Water. Clothing. All of it. The Stroll was incredibly competitive, just like everything else in Troop 17, to see who would get in first and fastest. So you started with the weight of your gear, getting more inventive each year in saving a crucial ounce here and there. Had to have good boots, and the right kind of pack-frame would mean a big advantage. I finally found a fantastic aluminum one at an Army surplus store. It weighed next to nothing and you could supposedly drag it behind you in the snow if you had to, like a sled.
The first year I went on The Stroll I was all of 125 pounds myself; many of the guys in the troop were high school jocks, football players and wrestlers. And of course these guys were all already Bakers. But I had managed to show up year one with a mere 15 pounds on my back, and I was a cross country runner, so by the time we blitzed into The Land, several hours later and nearing dawn, I was number five in, which pissed off the grizzled veterans who finished behind me.
But we didn't always hike out there. Most of the time we drove out there, fast. Real fast. True to form we'd have to see exactly who could get out to The Land the fastest, from the Texaco gas station on Delmar, up from MidWest Laundry in UCity, all the way out to The Land, past the statue of Odom - which we ultimately reduced to dust with various unlicensed firearms - and right up to the cabin's front door.
During one of these rides I had my first and only direct experience with God. It was raining, hard. We had the Troop truck, a Ford with an open bed in back, and Jim Oakey was driving. Oakey was my best friend, and one day a few years later he would wrap a car around a tree driving real fast, running from cops, and die. Two other guys were in the truck with us that day - one wasn't even in the Troop - and we tore out from the Texaco station intent on establishing a new world's record for speed - which meant we'd have to arrive out there in under 59 minutes. Forty-five miles of two-lane highway, the first nine in city and suburban traffic, the last six on country dirt roads and raining like hell. Didn't matter. Oakey was driving and maybe he already knew he was going to die some day in a car wreck, he just didn't know when so it might as well be today.
As we close in on Troy, and the record, we roar up over a rise in the road. Blinding rain is pounding the windshield; we're not exactly driving, we're hovercrafting at 90-something miles per hour, and we can't see a damned thing. EXCEPT FOR THIS LONG ROW OF CARS STALLED RIGHT ON THE HIGHWAY, RIGHT IN FRONT OF US!!! Oakey slams on the brakes, an instant but useless reflex. And cranks us over into the oncoming lane, avoiding the cars immediately in front of us. We've got a chance. BUT HERE COMES A TRACTOR TRAILER TRUCK BARRELING RIGHT DOWN AT US, HEAD-ON!!!! We're dead. No way out. It is at this instant that God Himself reaches down and puts our truck all the way over onto the shoulder, outside the oncoming truck, and forces us through the blinding rain and thick mud far enough along so that the truck passes, and when it does He pulls us up out of this ditch of a shoulder and nudges us back across the road and into the proper lane again, so we can avoid the rest of the oncoming traffic, and puts us back on our way.
After all this we're still doing 50, but we're saved!
We had nothing to do with saving ourselves.
We just sat there, frozen for what seemed like 10 minutes in slow motion. Out of our hands. Impossible. I've retracked it a hundred times since, and there's no way we make it.
Except that we had some serious Help.
We gave up on the record for that day. But there would be others; such as it was in Boy Scout Troop 17.
Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind.
Obedient. Cheerful. Thrifty. Brave. Clean - and Irreverent.
But only if you were cool.
Baker for life.