This piece is a little longer, as some of the forthcoming pieces will be. This is an amalgamation of several stories Papa told me about his childhood.
“Cecil! Cecil, wake up!” L.Z. Martin was outside my window, but all I could see was the top of his Boy Scout hat. Behind him, dawn crept over the treetops, but the roosters had yet to crow. L.Z. slapped the window sill again. “Come on, Cecil, it’s time to go!”
“Alright, meet me out front,” I mumbled on my way out of bed. L.Z. was one of my oldest friends, and, for some of us attending, today would be our first camping trip with the Boy Scouts. I tucked in the uniform shirt I had slept in, then sat down to tie my boots.
“Come on, Junie!” L.Z. yelled. He jumped up on the windowsill. “What’s taking you so long?”
“I told you, don’t call me that!” I grabbed my pack and ran out the front door where he stood, next to Cornelius Lopez, the Panther Patrol Leader. Cornelius looked me over and made sure everything was straight: hat, shirt, neckerchief, shorts, socks, boots, and backpack.
“Alright, fellas, let’s go,” Cornelius said. We took off walking to the Methodist church, where the rest of Troop 15 was waiting. When we got there, we met Joe and Bill Farley, Ben Atkinson, and Cecil Sahad of Fox Patrol; J.L. Fox, his dog Tip, and James Lee, our Senior Patrol Leader. Right as L.Z., Cornelius, and I walked up, the 5:30 passenger train blew its horn – our signal that we were right on time.
“Troop 15, form up!” James called out. We lined up shoulder-to-shoulder by patrol, with James facing us. “Ben,” he said, “will you please lead us in the Scout Oath and Law?”
Ben stepped forward and raised his right hand, giving the three-finger Scout Sign. “On my honor,” he recited. The rest of us joined him, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. Pause. A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
“Well, boys,” James said, stepping forward and patting Ben on the shoulder, “our friend here is officially a Tenderfoot!” Everybody cheered and clapped for him. Ben grinned ear to ear and shook James’ hand, then walked back to his spot in line so James could address us:
“We’re heading for Oakley Cemetery in Gilbert today. Our hike will be about five miles, so we don’t want to leave anything behind. Everybody have a change of clothes?” Check! We responded. “Pocket Knives?” Check! “Full canteens?” Check! “Toiletries?” Check! “Panther Patrol – your share of the food and cooking gear?” Check! “Fox Patrol – your share of the tents?” Check! “One Scout handbook per patrol?” Check! “Is there anything else I missed?”
“Fox Patrol brought along the horseshoes!” Joe Farley shouted.
“Are you sure you can handle the extra weight?”
“We got one shoe each,” Bill replied.
James nodded, then looked back to Panther Patrol. “J.L., you’re gonna be okay with Tip, right?” He knelt down and patted the brown coonhound mutt on the head. Tip was less than a year old, but he and J.L. were never apart.
“He’ll be fine, sir.”
“Okay, then, just keep an eye on him.”
“What kinda weather are we looking at, James?” Cecil Sahad asked.
“Hot, so we better get a move on. Panther Patrol, you have our three newest Scouts, so you’ll take the lead. Everybody got their bags ready?”
“Great. Let’s go!”
“Did you remember everything?” L.Z. asked.
“I didn’t want to say it back there, but I think I forgot to pack a change of underwear.”
“Underwear?” he asked.
UNDERWEAR?! The troop repeated in unison. They began to sing, to the tune of “Over There,” one of their favorite Scout songs: Underwear, underwear, in my gosh darn itchy woolen underwear… I sang along, and forgot all about being embarrassed. The whole way, the Farley boys took turns pushing a hoop. The older boys made blowguns out of cane poles and shot chinaberries at each other. J.L. and I played around with Tip the whole way.
We stopped for breakfast around 8 a.m. next to a creek.
“What’s that upstream?” J.L. asked.
“Looks like a little foot bridge,” I told him.
“Wanna go check it out?”
We got all the way over there and found out it was only one plank wide. We tested our balance by crossing it, but Tip figured he was better off swimming. Tip swam out to the middle of the creek, when he got caught in the current. The creek carried him into a pile of brush and limbs, where he couldn’t swim very well. Struggling to stay up, he got very tired and winded. J.L. saw what was going on, then walked back across the footbridge to pull him up by the nape of the neck. Tip wagged his tail in gratitude.
When we got back to the road, our packs sat there all alone. The rest of our troop was a quarter of a mile ahead of us, so we had to run to catch up. Cornelius turned around and stopped when we got close to them.
“You two left without telling anyone,” he said. We got up to him and stopped walking, huffing and puffing the whole time. “Then, when it came time to leave, you were nowhere around.” J.L. didn’t say anything, and neither did I. “Raccoons didn’t get to your packs, did they?”
“No, sir,” I answered.
“Good. Means you don’t have to go back to town and get more food. We’re about halfway there now. Nobody’s gonna pull your weight for you out here.”
J.L. looked down at the ground while walking. Tip circled around his feet, but J.L. didn’t pay much attention to him.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“We just got yelled at on the first day. We didn’t even make it to the campsite yet.” J.L. turned around and stood there for a minute. “Wanna head back, Cecil?”
“Head back? We didn’t even get there yet.”
“I’m just saying.”
The troop continued marching at a leisurely pace. Around 11 a.m. we arrived and started setting up camp: Fox Patrol pitched the tents while we Panthers walked out into the woods to gather firewood. Cornelius carried the axe and saw while the rest of us took as much as we could carry. We came up to a dead magnolia tree that had fallen over, and Cornelius said, “Okay, this is the one. J.L. and Cecil, you bring the smaller sticks back to camp.”
Camp was about three hundred yards away from there, but it felt like miles with our arms full of sticks. The whole way, Tip ran along with us, and kept getting under our feet. Every few steps, one of us would drop a stick or two, pick it up, and keep going. This made the trip take about twice as long. Back at camp, the tents were set up, and the other boys walked off to find a swimming hole. J.L. and I turned around to get back to the magnolia.
As soon as we could see it, Cornelius jumped up and started shouting. “Cecil! Go get James! L.Z. fell out of the tree and hurt his foot!” J.L. went to help them and I ran back to camp. When I got back, I looked all around but couldn’t figure out where they went. I shouted for James a few times, but he never responded. Then I remembered the older boys talking about going swimming. I sat real still and listened – a trick Grandpa Brewer taught me – and heard water running through a creek. I followed the sound until I found the creek, then followed it downstream to an open lake.
I got closer and I began to hear the other boys shouting – but it sounded like more than five of them. In the clearing, I saw that there were about a dozen boys, some white, some colored, all swimming in the nude, with a pile of clothes on the bank. I recognized where we were now, at the Mill Dam, next to the sawmill where the Daddy worked.
James and Ben sat on the bank down below, and they had put their shorts back on. James heard me coming and turned around. “Got the fire going yet?” he asked.
“No, sir, but Cornelius needs you. L.Z. fell out of a tree and hurt his foot.”
“Alright then,” James stood up. “You gonna be okay, Ben?”
“Going back in the water?”
Ben shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Okay buddy, whenever you do, just be safe.” We turned to leave. “Poor boy, jumped off the diving board and got his head stuck in the mud, all the way up to the ears.”
“He’s alright now?”
“Yeah, just a little spooked. We got worried when he didn’t come straight up.”
By the time James and I got back to camp, the other boys had already carried L.Z. back. “What happened, Corn?” James asked.
“We were up in a tree cutting limbs,” Cornelius responded, “when L.Z. fell out and landed crooked.”
James kneeled down next to him. “You hurting anywhere else?”
“No, sir,” L.Z. sniffled.
“Can you put any weight on it?”
“Alright, well it doesn’t look like you hurt it too badly, maybe just a sprain. We’re gonna leave your shoe off and keep it elevated, okay?”
Cornelius showed us how to build a fire, then pulled the food out of our packs to make dinner. I carried potatoes and onions. J.L. had eggs in a jar and some slabs of bacon. L.Z. brought his grandmother’s cookies and a loaf of bread. Cornelius carried cans of pork and beans.
After supper, a few of us were out throwing the horseshoes. I threw one wide and it rolled toward the camp fire, right past Cecil Sahad’s head. The boys at the fire jumped and started hollering when they saw it coming.
“Better look out,” shouted Joe, who had been lying next to him. “Little Cecil’s been looking to take your place!”
“Yeah, he couldn’t possibly have aimed that far off,” joined Bill, who was supposed to be my teammate. Cecil jumped up off the ground and started walking my direction. At 14, he was already 5’4”, compared to my 4’10”.
“Think you’re better than I am?” he grunted, now towering over me. Joe and Bill kept encouraging him. He put his hand on my forehead and I knocked it off. Cecil did it again, and I dropped the other horseshoe from my hand, grabbed his arm, and we started fighting.
We probably fought for an hour or more, off and on. We scratched and bit at each other. We threw each other on the ground. We each came out with scratches, a black eye, and a fat lip. Finally, we just lay there. The other boys, well entertained, tried to get us to fight a little more.
I opened my eyes and looked up at the sky. It was dark now, and there was a half moon on the horizon. I focused my eyes and there was James hovering over me.
“Alright Cecils,” he said. “Break time is over. Get off the ground and come with me. Rest of you, five minutes, and you better be asleep!” James walked away, didn’t offer to help us up or anything. I got up and started walking, following a few feet behind him. Neither one of us said anything. James stopped about thirty yards from the nearest tent, right at the edge of the woods.
“Well,” he said. “Did you get it all out?”
“Yes, sir,” we both mumbled.
“Good.” James paused. “Cecil,” he said to the other boy, “you’re Fox Patrol Leader and a Star Scout, due up for Life next month. You could be the next Senior Patrol Leader, and I expect a lot out of you. You need a cool head, and you certainly don’t need to be picking on junior scouts – you should be protecting them.”
“Yes, sir,” Cecil said. He hung his head and kicked at the ground.
“And you,” James said to me, “you need to keep your temper in check. You could have walked away at any time. You could have gotten me for help. You could have gone to Cornelius. Don’t play the victim here, because you were in this fight as well.”
“Yes, sir,” I told him.
“Now, as punishment, you two have to help L.Z. get back home tomorrow. Cecil Sahad, you’re in charge of moving him, and Cecil Brewer, you’re in charge of moving his gear. And remember, we’re leaving as soon as we finish breakfast. Gotta get back in time for church. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” we repeated.
“Alright. Cecil, go make sure your patrol is in bed by now.” The other Cecil turned around and left. James put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, bud, you fought a good one.”
“Why didn’t you break us up?”
“You didn’t need it. Sahad’s three years older and six inches taller, but you held your own.”
“So why am I getting punished?”
“Gotta send a message, kid. If I don’t – and even if I’m wrong for it – then every other fight they’ll try to play the victim.”
I crawled into my tent with J.L. and Tip. I wrapped up in the sheet I brought along to keep bugs off, then folded up my shirt for a pillow.
“Can you stop moving around over there, Cecil?” J.L. asked.
“Sorry, trying to get comfortable.” There was enough grass under me to pad the hard ground, but only a little. “How far are we from home again?”
“Five miles, I think.”
“Think I can make it home?”
“I dunno. I’m just tired of being here.” I rolled over on my left side, facing J.L.
Tip heaved one of those big doggie sighs. He lay motionless except for his flickering tail.
“Hey, Cecil,” Joe called from a few tents over.
“You got the word!”
“What’s the word?”
“Exactly!” Joe and Bill laughed aloud.
“Hey L.Z.” It was Bill this time.
“Go to sleep, Farley boys,” Cornelius grunted. “Or a tornado might just find your tent in the middle of the night.”
The next morning, the Panthers cooked breakfast while the Foxes took down the tents. After they finished, the Foxes started playing Tin Can Shinny. We set the food out on plates and joined them for a couple of games. Bill Farley looked behind me at one point and saw a pig eating off of a plate. Joe saw it too, and he yelled “Get outta here, Limey!” As the pig ran off, I saw the brand for the Farleys’ farm on his backside. We all ran back to the plates, and found it was my plate he had eaten from. All the boys were gathered around looking at me.
I turned around and took off for the cemetery. I stopped when I saw gravestones with Mother and Daddy’s names on them. One nearby had Uncle Lawrence’s name, and another Squirrel’s. I sat down for a minute and scratched my head. Tip walked up and lay down on my lap.
“Hey! Hey!” Joe said, running up beside me. I had my head down. Joe sat on the ground beside me, saying, “Limey could have eaten anybody’s food.”
“It’s not that,” I said.
Joe looked up when he saw me start to cry.
“What does this mean? Mother and Daddy are back at the house.”
“What does this mean? Mother and Daddy are back at the house.”
“Yeah, Cecil. Look, see how it only has date of birth on there?” Joe pointed at the headstone. “They bought the grave sites to be used later. That’s all.”
I didn’t say anything else, just pushed Tip off my lap and walked back to camp. Everyone looked at me when I returned, but didn’t say anything.
“Look, Cecil, calm down,” Joe said. “It’s just…here.” Joe brought his plate over and scraped half of his food onto mine.
“Nothin’ worse than Joe Farley learning the violin or Cecil Brewer crying,” Bill muttered.
“Bill, would you shut up and give him some of your eggs?” Bill came over as instructed, glaring at Joe the whole time.
“Thanks guys,” I said. The whole troop sat down and got to eating.
“Well fellas,” James said. “How are we getting L.Z. back? What’s your plan, Cecil?”
Cecil Sahad took a deep breath. “Well, what we need to do is,” he picked up a pair of limbs that didn’t go in the fire. “You make a stretcher by,” he fumbled the limbs around in various directions. “Well, we can take these two sticks with a blanket.” Cecil took another five minutes trying to explain the process.
My attention drifted elsewhere. Somehow, when asked, I needed to know what to do with L.Z.’s gear.
“Watermelons!” I heard off in the distance. “Cantaloupes! Watermelons!” I turned around and saw Mr. Jimmie Bracon and his family with a horse cart full of melons.
“Mr. Jimmie! Mr. Jimmie!” I yelled, running up to the road. He pulled his horses to a halt.
“How you doin’, Junie?” he asked.
“Doin’ good, Mr. Jimmie. You going into town?”
“Sure are, suh. On our way up to church right now.”
“We need your help, Mr. Jimmie.” I pointed back to the troop. “L.Z. sprained his ankle and can’t walk. Can he ride back with you?”
Mr. Jimmie looked back at the other boys. “I guess he got a pack, too?”
“Yes, sir,” I mumbled.
“Tell you what.” Mr. Jimmie paused and adjusted his hat. “You boys help me sell some melons today after church, and we got ourself a deal.”