the true stories
If someone wasn't willing to be the Yankee there wasn't going to be a war. Since my dad was a Canadian, I felt it was only logical that I volunteer for the blue uniform of the Union Army. After the battle lines were drawn across the playground, I watched the Rebel Army head across the baseball diamond and over to the fence where the sugarcane field began.
I waited by the monkey bars and advanced by degrees when my opponents' attention was distracted from my position. There were two of them and they were my best friends, Brian and Bobby. The recess was short so we had to escalate from the strategic deliberation stage to the actual conflict rather rapidly.
In the heat of battle, at a point where it was impossible to tell who was advancing and who was in retreat, Bobby and I rolled across the sun-baked clay locked in a mutual flying tackle. He had long since abandoned the labour of loading his Springfield and I had jettisoned my Enfield in order to give quicker chase.
Right after a breakaway and subsequent tackle the bell rang for us to return to our grade five class. Bobby kept rubbing his shoulder so much that the teacher asked him about it. He said it was just a scratch and she carried on the lessons. About forty minutes later, Bobby raised his good arm and asked to see the school nurse.
He came back awhile later all wrapped up in white linen across his chest and one of his arms in a sling. His collar bone had been broken clean in two during our combat. I had never seen a boy bear the pain of injury more bravely. Before the proper taping up of the break, Bobby showed me and Brian the angry red lumps under his shirt. I felt awful bad about having been the author of it and I felt mighty proud of the noble way Bobby continued our friendship after my apologies were extended.
At a birthday party of Bobby's at his house, I was made aware that his older brother had not and would not forgive me, nor forget which side I had taken in the battle. I tried to explain that we had wanted to play Civil War, not WWII and to find a guy to be a Yankee in Baton Rouge, Louisiana was just impossible. After explaining to him that I was many generations a Texan on my mother's side, he relented enough to maintain cordiality.
The three of us were Indian Guides, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and football players for the Bulldogs. I was third string but I never missed a practice nor a game. I only took the field once when our half-back broke his arm and the coach had no other choice. I caught one button-hook pass and I still remember the rush. Brian's dad had taught me that one. My dad didn't do ball sports. He'd been a good hockey player as a lad and could swim like a fish.
Tuesday nights were Scout nights and I am still partial to that day of the week. We were in the Istrouma Council and accounted for the better part of the Panther Patrol out of Troop Six. When it came time for knot tying, my dad who had been a certified third mate and bosun in the Canadian Merchant Navy came up big for me and Brian.
He went to a drugstore and bought a two big poster-boards and some nice white rope. While we sat transfixed on the living room floor he tied sheep-shanks, camel hitches, clove hitches, hangman's nooses, pipe-hitches, monkey's fists, dog's-cocks, straight splices, bowlines, mooring eyes, reef bends, lariats, slip knots, shamrocks and sheet bends; one for each of us. He took some twine and whipped the ends of one of the pieces to boot. The whole process took about ten minutes and while we stapled them onto our boards, he spliced up a dog leash with the left over. I'd never seen him change a light bulb and that was the day I realized he knew a lot more than he was showing me.
In the summer of 1968, Troop Six shipped off on a yellow school bus for a camping trip to the Ozarks. We drove up through Vicksburg, Mississippi and stopped at the Strategic Air Command Base in Little Rock, Arkansas. We sang, “We gonna march to Sel-ma, Sel-ma, Sel-ma. We gonna march to Sel-ma, Sel-ma, Al-a-bam-a” all the way to commemorate the freedom march to Montgomery three years prior. We slept on the SAC Base gym floor and were up and away early next morning.
I remember the food wasn't half as good as the red beans, rice, fat-back and cornbread that we got at our elementary school. We reached Buffalo River in Northern Arkansas that afternoon. The Eagle Scouts and the Scout Masters told us that we had to pitch our tents before we could explore. They were big four-man tents and we cussed our way through this heinous task. Brian, Bobby and I shared a tent and I cannot recall the name of the fourth boy.
We heard some whooping from the riverside and ran over to investigate. There was a rope swing hanging from a tree on the bluff! Several guys had already warmed it up. We had recently had a visit at our school by Johnny Weissmuller, aka Tarzan and we were all dying to do some vine swinging. I even had an autographed picture of him flying through the canopy.
I was about third in line and took a running start. The bluff was about ten feet high and the river was banked with fine yellow sand and overgrown with blackberries. Out I swung and just as I was smack over the brambles and halfway through my Tarzan yell, my hands lost their purchase on the greasy rope. I had just enough altitude to turn once in the air on the way down.
My reflexes were ocelotic so I thrust out my right arm to break my fall. I broke my wrist and got a mouthful of blackberries and sand. We had been camping less than an hour and there were two weeks to go. The break was a hairline fracture and Bobby helped me wrap it in a neckerchief to kill the swelling. By nightfall, I had it in a sling because the pain was distracting me from the first night's game of Capture the Flag. That was a fun game for a boy in the daytime, but at night in strange woods it was exquisite.
The days were full of merit badge quests. The nights were full of firelight and the long talk of boyhood dreams. We did fire building, lashing, cooking with tin-foil, first aid and a few others, with no problem. The problem was trying to get the Eagle Scouts to come out of their tents where they were smooching with their girlfriends, day and night. These guys had to score your work and bestow your badges.
One night while discussing how to deal with the girl problem, the topic of the origin of babies naturally came up in our tent. All I remember was that Bobby flat refused to believe what I told my three companions. The others had open minds but reserved final judgment until further investigations. Our conversation was interrupted by a guy in the next tent who had caught a Blue Racer!
Back home we collected baseball cards, seashells, butterflies, comic books and such but most of us collected snakes, turtles and lizards. It was well known among the fellows that a healthy Blue Racer was the fastest snake there was. We had all caught corn snakes, water snakes, king snakes, coral snakes, grass snakes, pine snakes and garter snakes until they held low esteem in our eyes.
This was a noble snake and I immediately bought it for fifty cents. I got a cardboard box and gently put all three feet of the sleek indigo creature inside and closed the top tight. Very next morning, Bobby who alone was uneasy about sharing the tent with a reptile, went to check on it and had to tell me the sad news that it had escaped during the night. I was heartbroken because I knew I could have won a lot of races with that beauty. Prettiest snake I've seen down to this day.
I decided to try out for a wild foods merit badge. First I studied up the drawings in the manual and then went hunting for some vittles. I came back laden with the bounty of God's green earth about two hours later. I had some sarsaparilla, some Polk Salad, some black berries, some dandelions, some wild onions and some sassafras.
I prepared a great salad and went to one of the Eagle tents to get a boss to grade me on my work and mark my card. He was a nice fellow and after I assured him that the greens were washed and cleaned he agreed to come over to our fire and try them out. I knew I had that badge in the bag because I had provided more than was required.
The Eagle came up and started poking around the bowl of greens with his fingers like he was counting the different ingredients. He munched a couple of berries and chewed a few onions. Suddenly he flung the bowl and contents to the ground and said something I'd only heard my father say and then only when he was real mad.
As he watched in horror, angry welts popped up along the back of his hand across his wrist and up his arm. According to him, my sassafras was really poison sumac. I never got a itch from any of it but I also never got my merit badge for wild food either. He disappeared to get medical treatment. I decided not to mess with food anymore, too risky. Especially when the pictures in the manual were pen and ink renditions.
The next badge I had my sights set on was orienteering. Me, Brian, Bobby and our other tent-mate were to go together over a predetermined course set up and marked on a topographic map. We had a proper compass and would have our map endorsed as we reached each objective way station.
The first two or three were easy. The ground we were walking on had echoed with gunfire only one hundred years before. Sometimes when crossing farmer's fields we would search for flint arrowheads and to find a belt buckle, button or Minié ball from the Civil War was not hard to do.
Late in the day we were meandering west down the Buffalo River on the south side and working our way back to camp. I remember wanting to hug the river rather than avoid all the oxbows by walking on the flat ground farther south of the water. My way had us a good fifty to one hundred feet above the river on a crumbly pine strewn canyon of sorts. There was some dissension and some talk of us being lost.
I stayed stubborn but committed to see my boys home safe. We were not really on “the” trail but I figured the river itself was a pretty good trail. The way got narrower and we had to go single file. In retrospect of nearly fifty years gone, it is my considered opinion I was simply following a game trail by instinct. It started to get twilight and we had a long way to go and were getting mighty hungry and thirsty.
The way forward was terrifically slow due to the steep drop-off and crumbly cliff. Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. Bobby was on point and as Brian, myself and the other guy watched in frozen despair, he slipped off the overhanging cliff that we had been negotiating. Just like that. A puff of dust and a rolling pine cone were all that betrayed that he had ever existed. We couldn't process the grief and anguish immediately, such was the magnitude of the shock. We stood with our mouths hanging open in silent screams.
Then his laughter floated up between the sound of the wind and the crickets. We couldn't see him but we damn sure could hear him. I have no words today for the feeling of joy and relief that surged inside of me and my brothers. Perhaps like taking a massive swig of the best home-made root beer you ever tasted and then blowing it out your nose because someone made you laugh.
“Y'all, I found the REAL trail. Really. It's wide and easy.”
We wanted to believe him and were thankful to God he was alive but it was difficult to believe there was a trail down there. Our position was on a smooth bell-shaped piece of soft sandstone. Due to the curvature of this stone out over the river it was impossible to see what Bobby was talking about. We could see the river, however. It was very far down there.
As we listened to Bobby's instructions and we had to act on literal blind faith. We were told to sit down and slide off the rock one at a time exactly on the spot where he had gone over. We had to spread our legs wide apart because about five feet down we would encounter a pine tree positioned perfectly to arrest our further progress into the abyss by acting as a horseshoe stake, as it were. It grew just at the edge of the trail on the water side. We were admonished to hold our hands out to grab that pine to keep from crushing our family jewels.
We each took our turn and followed Bobby's instructions to the letter. The trail was wide and easy. We gained back our lost time and as we crossed the last field before reaching camp we heard a chirping sound. Upon investigation we discovered a whole nest of baby cotton-tails. We scooped the poor things up in a tee-shirt and marched into camp. We got our orienteering badges and one of the Eagle Scouts gave the bunnies over to the care of his girlfriend. She fed them from an eyedropper and took them back home to Baton Rouge.
I moved away that winter. I never joined any group after the Panther Patrol. I caught up with Brian in 2007. When he walked into the room, my wife said, “He looks just like you.” We had the same beards, the same pattern baldness, both of us carried knives, played guitars and both wore jeans. His wife was also amazed. Over the years we had spoken only once on the phone and seen each other only once back in 1970 for a day or two. He turned out to be a biology professor and he still caught snakes.
Back on the Buffalo River I learned to lead and to follow. Life and circumstances constantly present us with both rôles and it is wisdom to realize that they are the same in reality. I tasted the joy of true comradeship and felt that little tap on the back from the Creator just to let me know we were playing in His house. We all learned that you can't keep a Blue Racer in a cardboard box.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.