The So-So Troop vs. The Eagle Factory
By T.B.T. Baldwin
Who got more out of Scouting - the boys in Rose Valley's merit-badge assembly line, or Wallingford's fun-loving campers?
In our town in the 1960s there were two Scout troops. We Scouts identified them by the neighborhoods they served, Rose Valley and Wallingford.
The Rose Valley troop distinguished itself as few other troops ever have and became known as the "Eagle Factory." On the other hand, Wallingford--my troop--had contributed to Scouting in its 20-some-year history only one solitary Eagle. And he had long since moved on to Exploring.
Fellows from both troops attended the same schools. We swam in the same creeks and hiked the same woodlands of eastern Pennsylvania. We played sports in the same leagues and attended the same Scout camps. We caddied together at the local golf course and in the hours afterward spent our caddie money together at the same movie theater on State Street.
Still, it hurt a little whenever the local paper came out with its periodic, full-page spread announcing "Eagle Night at Rose Valley." There they were, our Rose Valley pals, awash in merit badges and solemnly receiving their coveted Eagle Scout medals.
The difference between our troops was this: At Rose Valley's Wednesday night meetings, held in the wilderness setting of a restored grist mill, they focused on merit badges. Their leader kept a chart. It tracked which Scouts were aiming at which badges. Why, he even phoned you at home if you appeared to be lagging behind. He got your parents involved. His pep talks renewed your vigor.
Not so at Wallingford's Wednesday meetings. We met in the cavernous girls' gymnasium at the high school, where splinters chipped off the creaky floors and our sessions usually degenerated into hysterical games of kick ball. Or worse, we would terrorize the night custodian by racing through the hallways and turning off the master electrical switches.
One other difference set our Scout troops apart. Rose Valley spent weekends at council meetings, exhibitions, and similar academic pursuits. Wallingford's troop opted instead to get out and camp.
Camping became our religion. We made certain, year-round, to stage one major camp-out per month, one 10-mile hike per season, and numerous shorter trips. We hiked all over the Appalachian foothills. We canoed the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers. We camped at Gettysburg and along Brandywine Creek. We bivouacked along the Chesapeake Bay and piloted sailboats, loaded with camping gear, along the New Jersey shore.
Our midwinter 10-miler, which ended in a farm woodlot alongside French Creek, in a place called Pughtown, Pa., was made better only by the swirling depths of snow that piled up against the tents. You were not a "genuine" member of Troop Wallingford until you had survived that trip.
One year it was so cold that the farmer trudged down, lantern in hand, and suggested we sleep in his hay loft above his cows, where steamy bovine bodies would warm us. No one budged. We remained snug in our green, open-fly baker tents, feeding our reflector fires, of which each of us--and not one an Eagle Scout, mind you--was proud. How cold did it get that night? In the morning we dangled our boots from sticks over our campfires, just to thaw out the leather.
Along came the council camporee, on the sacred ground at Valley Forge National Historical Park, where Washington's men wintered during the American Revolution. All the Scout troops would be there. Hiking and camping would be the order of the day, with a massive, hillside campfire on Saturday night and all day Sunday to swap patches and visit neighboring campsites.
We from Wallingford planned the thickest of meat stews for supper, with our own homepressed hot cider and bread that we baked, trapper style, in a huge, black frying pan leaned cockeyed between hot rocks and the cook fire. For breakfast, we scheduled a wild omelet of hamburger, onions, and (believe it or not) apples and raisins. It became a habit with us, at these multitroop affairs, to serve the best chow of the encampment.
We liked the way other troops talked enviously of our cooking, and the way they wandered by to check out the delicious smells that wafted from our circle of tents.
Few troops could boast the teamwork necessary to cook one meal for all its campers. While they were scraping black toast off a stick in their campsites, we were dishing out stuffed pork chops.
What a weekend it promised to be--until we set out Saturday morning, marching single file under leaden October skies. By noon it had turned into a bone-chilling rainstorm, one of those where the rain came down sideways, blowing across your face in stinging sheets. We spent most of the six-mile hike bent over, heads down, draped like donkeys beneath our ponchos.
We finally arrived at our thoroughly-soaked campsite. All the firewood lay scattered and soggy, and the ground squished with every step. "Wallingford," we grittily told one another, "this is your kind of camping weather!"
It was more than an hour before another troop arrived and occupied the campsite next to ours. Instead of hiking in, these fellows arrived by car. It seems the rainy, wind-tossed conditions had been a bit too much for them, and instead of hiking, their leader had summoned motorized transportation to ferry them to the campsite.
And look! Of all places...These Scouts were from Rose Valley.
We greeted them warmly, with lots of "Hey, guys!" and "How're yours?" It didn't occur to me to rib them about abandoning their hike, at least not until some of our older Scouts laid in an insult or two. "Couldn't finish the hike, huh, Rose Valley?... Pretty as a rose and just as soft!...Ought to call you guys Toes Valley!"
But hey, so what if they quit the hike? We were both here now, we and our crosstown buddies, side-by-side at a dynamite camp-out.
On that frigid day in late October there was something not quite right about a campsite with no smoke, none at all, curling up from anywhere, not from a cook fire, not from a ceremonial campfire, not even from a reflector fire.
Nor did a campsite look smart when the tents sagged to one side, forming pockets that collected little pools of rain water. A campsite where kids stood around shivering in dripping ponchos, striking vainly at soggy matches, was no campsite at all. No smoke, no fires aglow, no chow on the grill, no piles of split wood.
And that was what we saw that night. Rose Valley's campsite looked almost abandoned. They were not dealing with the elements but buckling under to them.
Rose Valley finally got one fire started, but it failed after nightfall for lack of wood. I doubt the troop got past dinner before the fire sizzled out under what had become an intense ice storm. At their darkened campsite, the fellows stood around like statues, as if they were waiting for their leaders to sound retreat on the bugle and head for the nearest pizza shop.
Over at Wallingford we knew we had a decision on our hands. One by one the Rose Valley Scouts began drifting into our circle, drawn by our crackling fire and the thick smoke that puffed around our supper.
We didn't have to take a vote; we knew what was best. An older Wallingford Scout finally put a voice to it, shouting into the stormy darkness, "Hey, Rose Valley! C'mon over and warm up to some of this stuff. It's supper time at this end."
Soon the two troops were as one. We ate together that night, mixing up two extra pots of hot corn pudding to accommodate the visitors. Then we built our fires into wood-splitting roars and dried out their sleeping gear. We remade our cook tent into sleeping quarters, where the worst-off of Rose Valley's crew could bed down and stay dry during the night. To others, we gave away our precious firewood.
The songs and ghost stories generated a special warmth that night. Then a Rose Valley lad arose to thank us one and all. He mentioned that his troop stood indebted to us.
This was all the opening needed by my tentmate, a wisecracker of the first order. "Hey," he wondered out loud, "now maybe you guys could teach us how to make Eagle."
Newspaper reporter and writer Tom Baldwin eventually made Eagle, after leaving "Wallingford" when a third troop began in town. He lives in New Hope, Pa., near where he started in Scouting.
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