A Scout Is a Scout Forever
Ron Karpinski ©1994
At ten years old, I yearned to be a boy scout. After much pestering, my parents sprung for a uniform and let me sign up. Meetings were held at Hillgrove Grade School, in rural La Puente, California.
There were two reasons why the boy scouts appealed to me. First, a uniform might enhance my image among the girls. Second, camping in the woods sounded like fun.
Then, you had Grant Koch, the scoutmaster. What a great guy. Every boy in the neighborhood wished Grant were his own father.
Okay, there was another reason. Grant had a daughter named Karen.
Karen was the real reason I joined the boy scouts; and she caused most of the other boys in our troop to join, as well. When news leaked out that Karen would join her father at the meeting that night, attendance doubled.
Miss Karen Koch was the first girl I ever viewed with an eye for beauty. Until she came along, girls were just targets for thrown spit balls, rubber bands, or paper clips. One brief dimpled smile changed all that. As objects of affection go, she cast the die and set the standard for all the rest that followed.
Soft, wavy brunette hair, rosy cheeks, and a smooth peaches-and-cream complexion were gifts from the gods. When she passed by, you wanted to reach out and touch her, just to see if she were real. At twelve years old, she had curves in the most conspicuous places.
Karen's pure sweetness drew boys like a magnet. In grade school, she showed a potential for beauty. By the time she reached high school, all doubts had been cast aside.
Over the years, Karen and I came close a few times; but some cosmic interference always seemed to get in the way. In the end, we settled on being lifelong good friends.
* * * * *
From the day we met, Grant called me "Karp." Before long, most of my friends had picked it up from him and called me that, as well. At first, I didn't care much for it. A lazy short cut, it saved folks the trouble of learning to pronounce my name the correct way.
I figured, if I had to learn to say that name, other people should, too. Karpinski had only three syllables, with emphasis on the second one. Quite simple really, even for a ten-year-old.
But, in 1957, ethnic pride had not yet burst upon the American scene. We were a melting pot, and names got reduced to their simplest forms for the masses. So, given a choice between having people call me "Karp" or "Ski," Karp didn't sound too bad, after all.
* * * * *
Records are made to be broken, they say; but little "Karp" put a mark on the wall that will likely stand forever. It took me longer than any kid in the history of Boy Scout Troop 627 to earn a tenderfoot badge. Tenderfoot is the lowest rank in the boy scouts.
Earning a tenderfoot badge is simple. First, you buy a uniform and learn to put it on all by yourself. Then, you show up for meetings.
Before long, someone will notice you and issue a Boy Scout Handbook. You are then expected to learn the code of conduct and how to tie a few basic rope knots. Knowing how to tie the right knot could save your life in a pinch.
Most new scouts learn to line up their belt buckles and tilt their caps at just the right angle in a few short days; but mastering the rope knots can take two weeks or more. Then, at a ceremony in front of half the town, a beaming scoutmaster pins the tenderfoot badge on your shirt.
In Troop 627, one more honor came your way. When Grant Koch felt comfortable with you, he took you behind closed doors and taught you the coveted "Troop 627 Secret Boy Scout Handshake." This marked you as "one of the guys."
Many boys had joined the troop after me and already knew the secret handshake; but I had yet to feel it in my grasp. First, I had to learn the knots.
In case there are any doubts, little Karp joined the scouts to steal peeks at lovely Karen, not to study a bunch of rope knots. For him, the true spirit of scouting had yet to sink in. Weeks stretched into months.
* * * * *
Grant tried his best to get me started on the Boy Scout Handbook, but I found it a dry tome. For hours at a stretch, I stared at the pages in a blank daze. After a while, Grant assigned me a tutor, a scout second class named "Wayne." Wayne took scouting seriously.
Wayne sat across from me at meetings and patiently tied each knot over and over, hoping they would sink in by rote. I watched closely as a length of cord flitted through his hands; and perfect bowlines, half-hitches, and square knots appeared like magic. Then came my turn.
Glancing down at the pictures in the Boy Scout Handbook, my head spun. Now, how did he do that? The knots all looked alike to me.
I tried to tie them the right way, but each effort fell short. No matter which knot I started on, they all came out the same – the granny knot. A granny knot will not save your life in a pinch.
Wayne cried and cried; the poor boy cried a river of tears. Again and again, he banged his head on the table and moaned, "Why, why can't you learn to tie a simple rope knot?"
Grant might have assigned me to Wayne as an eagle scout project. As the months passed, Wayne could feel his merit badge slipping away.
* * * * *
One weekend per month, the troop went on a camping trip. They were rollicking fun; and, they provided much needed relief from the arduous study of rope knots.
Six boys crammed into each car for the drive to the camp site. Along the way, we bounced on the seats and grabbed among ourselves. During lulls, the men would tell boy scout stories from the good old days, tales from when they had been little squirts like us.
Deep in the woods, we scurried about the task of setting up camp. Ronald Scott and I were tent mates, mainly because no one else would have anything to do with either of us. We watched the others quickly pitch their pup tents and set out to do the same with ours.
Soon, the assistant scoutmaster began his rounds, conducting a safety inspection of each tent to ensure that it could withstand the rigors of a night in the forest. At the foot of our sagging example, a stern look crossed his face.
"You boys must not have paid much attention at the meeting last week," he said. "Try pitching your tent on a flat spot, instead of this here slope; and, while you're at it, you might want to dig a small trench around it."
"You see," he went on, "it is supposed to rain tonight, and a drainage ditch will channel the water around your tent rather than down through the middle of it. Also, if you make the sides taut, the rain will bounce off, instead of forming a pool on top and caving in during the night." We got the message.
Later, we were free to roam the nearby woods. It is safe to say that our noise chased away any wildlife that might have been in the area. Stealth did not exactly describe our gait; rather, Ronald and I tripped and rolled along, grinding the rich forest loam into every tuck and fold of our natty little uniforms.
As the evening wound down, all gathered by the campfire where Grant stood to give a class. His pet subjects centered on survival in the wild. We boys sat on logs, mesmerized, as he described ways to catch a snake, bite off its head, and cook it for dinner.
Grant walked us through each step, right up to the point where you do the biting. Then he skipped on, describing how you season the meat in the frying pan. Ronald Scott demanded to see the actual head come off, but Grant said he needed the snake for another class the next day.
The fire died down, and a hush fell over the group. One of the men cleared his throat and launched into a lengthy ghost story. Later, he finished to a chorus of shrieks and screams, and we all scampered off to bed.
Thoroughly spooked, most of the boys stayed in their tents the rest of the night, fearful of strange noises in the dark. Lying snug in my sleeping bag, I feared no man or beast. Ronald Scott could fight like a cornered bobcat, so nothing dared come into our tent.
The real joy of a pitch black night in the woods lay elsewhere, however; for the dreaded Boy Scout Handbook stayed at home.
* * * * *
One day, in rope tying class, Wayne changed tactics. He gave up on the more complex knots and focused his efforts, instead, on the basic square knot. A hundred times, he forced me to tie the square knot. Drilling the moves into my brain, he repeated his mantra. "Over, under, up, behind . . . over and through again, then cinch it down."
Grant kept asking Wayne when I would be ready to take the tenderfoot test. Most boys took the test within two or three months of joining the troop; but, after eighteen long months, I had yet to try it.
I told Grant I needed a little more time. Wayne, standing next to me, let out a groan. "Enough of this," Grant said, "you're taking the test next week." At that, Wayne sighed and slumped in his chair.
To be honest, I don't recall the test. I tend to block out bad memories; but I did somehow pass it, earning a tenderfoot badge. Wayne got his merit badge, too, as well as a special commendation signed by the President.
The ceremony took place on a Tuesday evening in the large assembly room at Hillgrove Grade School. Dozens of proud parents filed through the door and sat in long rows of folding metal chairs. Each had come to see their little man strut across the stage in his dress uniform. Tenderfoot being the lowest award on the program, my march to fame had to wait until the end.
My parents were there, too, squirming in their seats; but I looked right past them and found Karen sitting in the front row with her mother and sister. "Yeah," I thought, "I'll bet she thinks I'm something now."
* * * * *
Six months passed, and life in the boy scouts fell into a routine. Each Tuesday night, I went to the meeting, stared at my Boy Scout Handbook, and stole glances at Karen. Once a month, we went camping, and my uniform came back covered with grime. No new promotions loomed in sight.
One fall Saturday morning, Grant phoned my mother and asked if I could come over and talk for a few minutes. The chill air bit at my cheek, as I walked the short distance to the Koch place, around the corner, down at the end of Hollis Street.
A pair of sparrows sang high in a tree, and a crow cawed in the distance. The long hot days of summer were past, and soon we'd be counting the days until Christmas. Life seemed on track, and I felt good.
That was about to change, for Grant had an unpleasant task ahead of him that day. No doubt he had been putting it off for several months.
I found him in his backyard pitching horseshoes. When he saw me, he dropped them and walked over. Wrapping one arm around my shoulder, he gave me a big squeeze.
Grant rested his large hand on my thin shoulder blade and spoke softly. "Karp," he said, "I've been thinking. You're not really cut out for the boy scouts, are you?"
The words cut deep into my soul. He was right, of course. I hadn't exactly excelled in the scouts; but it hurt to hear him say it, just the same.
Until that point in my young life, I had never met with failure. Now, eleven years old, I faced a challenge too big and had to give up. How would I ever succeed later in life, if I quit the boy scouts? I felt crushed.
Then Grant spoke again. This time, he left no option. "I think it would be better if you quit the boy scouts, don't you?" he asked.
"Yes," I mumbled. "I guess so." What else could I say?
"But," he added, "you can come over and see Karen any time you want." Suddenly, I wasn't crushed anymore. The two of us then got down to business and pitched a serious game of horseshoes.
* * * * *
Fast-forward to April 1983. Karen prepared to marry for the second time. Stationed less than a hundred miles away, I attended the blessed event.
The church lay on the outskirts of San Bernardino. A small, wooden structure, it sat nestled amid one of the few orange groves left in southern California. Its white clapboard siding stood in sharp contrast with the green trees, ripe orange fruit, and cloudless blue sky.
I hurried inside, just in time to see Karen and her beau walk down the aisle. The priest said his piece and they said theirs. Then came the kiss, and the guests all rushed outside for the food line.
Several rows of tables had been set up on the lawn. Large canopies protected guests from the bright sun. I had finished two helpings and contemplated thirds when a long thin arm reached over my shoulder and placed a small delicate bag on the table in front me.
Each person at the table received one. The bags were made of fancy lace, large enough to hold one or two tablespoons of powder or the like. Another arm reached over and placed a large, open sack of rice on the table.
A voice told us to fill the little bags with rice and tie them off with ribbons. Later, when the lucky couple left for their honeymoon, the guests would pelt them with these dainty little hand grenades.
Local ordnance or a church canon banned tossing loose rice in the old, time-honored fashion. It had to do with littering the grounds of a historic shrine, or something like that. The hired help swept up the rice bags afterward.
As ordered, I filled my little bag with rice and reached for a ribbon. Wrapping the ribbon around the neck of the bag; I began to twist it into my personal specialty, the world-famous granny knot.
Grant saw this, and pain swept across his face. "No, no," he barked. "Do it right, Karp! Tie it off with a square knot. You were a boy scout once, and a scout is a scout forever. You know how to tie the square knot, now do it."
The man wanted the square knot. My hands trembled. "Now, which one was the square knot?"
Eyes shut tight, I tried to recall my Boy Scout Handbook with the drawings of all those knots. An image of Wayne, my old tutor, appeared. Poor Wayne had showed me over and over how to tie the square knot. I thought of those days with Wayne, and I wished I had paid more attention back then.
Self-doubt consumed me. Did I still know how to tie the square knot? Could that long-lost skill, twenty-six years later, somehow resurrect itself from deep within the dusty cobwebs of my subconscious?
In the end, I did what I always do in a crisis. I went with my instinct and forged straight ahead into the dark unknown. My mind went blank.
Flying fingers darted nimbly to and fro, as the thin ribbon worked its way around the narrow neck of the fragile bag. Sunlight glinted off the loose ends. There seemed to be no link between my brain and my hands, and yet . . .
Over, under, up, behind . . . over, and through again. Cinch it down. In a matter of seconds, the lace bag sat on the table, a band of blue wrapped about the neck, topped off with . . . a knot of sorts.
The crowd fell silent. I looked at Grant for a reaction. Long seconds passed, as he squinted down at the bag. Then his face broke into a broad smile. "Yeah, that's my boy!"
Later, Grant led me off to the side where no one else could see us. There, in hushed tones, he taught me the coveted Troop 627 Secret Boy Scout Handshake.