By Terry L. Bruning
Illustration by Sandy Kossin
Two weeks earlier, according to the camp staff, you could have walked across the ice on the lake. The water had warmed up a bit since then, but at 10,400 feet in elevation, it was about as far from a heated pool as one would find.
Standing on the edge of the pier, it occurred to me that the last time I stood in this position I was 14 years old, in the summer of '73. My Scoutmaster, Mr. McKell, was the first into the water at the head of a troop of a dozen or so young Boy Scouts.
And now it was the summer of '98. I stepped off the edge, and danged if that water wasn't only about five degrees warmer than snow. And unlike that day 25 years ago, I passed the swim check.
At age 14, I'd never felt anything so physically shocking as the icy water of Scout Lake at Camp Steiner in the high Uintas of Utah. But now, almost 40 years old and with 15 years in the Marine Corps behind me, I'd had worse.
But suppose I hadn't jumped into that lake 25 years ago? Suppose that I hadn't been blessed with Scoutmasters who gave up their precious vacation time and their precious sanity for the sake of the young men in their charge?
Suppose that Mr. Wright hadn't been there to help me overcome my fear and get me over the mountaintopsuppose I had turned back, run from my fear, suffered humiliation when everyone else made it?
Suppose that Mr. McKell hadn't been there to push me through Day Three of the Fifty-Miler, when we were out of water with two miles to go, or Day Four when I wanted to go home with the "milk run" that brought out the watermelon?
Suppose I'd missed the glorious triumph of Day Five, when the whole troop raced the last hundred yards, and it didn't matter so much who won, just that we all finished?
Suppose that Mr. Boothe hadn't asked me to be junior assistant Scoutmaster, giving me the opportunity to visit all the places where I'd been defeated (or nearly so) as a younger Scout and the opportunity to triumph over them while helping other, younger Scouts to triumph as well?
Many years later, Mr. Wright was "with me" when I clung to a sheet of ice on the north face of Mount Shasta in the pre-dawn twilight, focusing on the delicate task of a lateral traverse and not on the two thousand feet of next-to-nothing below me. Mr. McKell was "with me" as I led a patrol through a 15-mile training exercise, short on water, one Marine down with heat exhaustion, a mile short of the landing zone and only 10 minutes until the helicopter left without us.
And Mr. Boothe was "with me" when I applied for my first job as a newly minted civilian in the high-tech industry and got it as much based on my self-confidence as on any technical qualification I possessed.
I spent only 10 days and 10 nights over the course of two summers at Camp Steiner. But of all 180 days and nights of those summers, my only clear memory is of my time at camp. I remember little about the TV shows I watched or the tin cans I punctured with my BB gun or the canals I swam in violation of parental edicts.
But I clearly remember catching, cleaning, and eating a fish straight from the waters of a cold mountain lake; I remember learning the constellations under a sky unmarred by city lights; I remember keeping food and trash tied out of reach of marmots, tossing a peanut to the occasional critter who came within throwing distance; I remember rain, sleet, snow, and bright sunshine all in the space of 10 minutes, and being caught unprepared only once.
What if I hadn't jumped into that lake 25 years ago? It's foolish to speculate on what might have been, I suppose. But I can be sure of thishad I not jumped into Scout Lake in the summer of 1973, I would not have jumped into it in the summer of 1998.
And the Scouts of 1998 who did jump in would have had to look elsewhere for their example.
"A Boy, A Mountain, A Scoutmaster," another recollection of Terry L. Bruning's Scouting days, appeared in the November-December 1996 Scouting.
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