The picture is over fifty years old, a frozen moment in 1968. Bad jobs, poor relationships, and failing health have made me forget what being a hopeful, impressionable twelve-year-old was like. But whenever I look at the photo of Boy Scout Troop 41, the little boy in me surfaces long enough to laugh, cry, and reflect.
Some of the signatures on the back of the photo capture the typical bravado of a twelve-year-old, such as Charles P. Frenchette III, or Quentin Myles Moseby, Esquire. A few scouts wrote messages to me capturing a moment: “To the kid who was having a very bad day,” or they referenced long-forgotten inside jokes: “To the scout with the biggest smile – how come I didn’t get you to do fifty pushups?”
Most of the twenty-seven fresh-faced scouts are smiling (more on why later). It’s telling that the four kids who aren’t smiling fell short in life. Evan “Spike” O’Toole wanted to be a gangster. Spike fulfilled his criminal destiny when he was pinched for selling drugs. He wound up getting shanked in prison at twenty-eight. Being the highest-ranking scout may have given Robin Braverman a false sense of privilege. As a financial advisor, he thought he could get away with embezzling his investors. He was wrong. The two other grim-looking kids, Logan Harrison, and Paul Detorre, found out that speed kills, perishing in car accidents.
I was tearing up the local baseball pony league in the summer of ’68, earning a huge measure of respect for my hitting and fielding from kids who used to chase me around the playground. Then my mother told me I’d be going to Boy Scout camp for two weeks. Camp Read was three hours away, closer to Canada than New York.
On the baseball field, I was an All-Star. As a Boy Scout, I was a clumsy neophyte. But I told myself I’d climbed to the top in baseball, so why couldn’t I do it in Boy Scouts?
The main reason I agreed to what amounted to two weeks of Boy Scout boot camp was so I could spend time with my best friend, Caleb Richardson. Caleb was a redhaired Einstein who got straight A’s, could play the trumpet like Herb Alpert and had future success stamped all over him. I hoped I could acquire his brilliance through osmosis, but alas, like everything else, I had to work hard at things that came naturally to someone else.
Someone, most likely my buttinsky Mom, must have told the Scoutmaster I was too dependent on Caleb and needed to make new friends. So, instead of being together in the same tent, we were separated. I was matched with Moshe “Moe” Rubenstein, a nerd who tended to make quirky historical references. The only thing Moe and I seemed to have in common was that we both wore glasses, but we quickly discovered we shared a dry, biting wit that allowed us to turn two potentially torturous weeks into our own comedy show.
We began passing the time by betting how long it would take for someone to end up in the hospital. I said two days, while Moe went for one. Neither of us was right. An hour after we arrived, Alex Starr, who was anything but, nearly hacked off his thumb chopping wood, earning him the nickname “Axeman.”
Moe and I cherished going to the commissary for a few forbidden snacks. My favorite, to this day, are M & M Peanuts. On our first trip, I bought two packs, putting them in my mess kit inside of my knapsack.
That night I was awakened by a loud crunching noise.
“What in the world are you eating?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Moe replied.
“Whatever is making that noise is close,” I noted, grabbing my flashlight.
Balancing himself at the end of my bed while scarfing up my M & Ms was a raccoon the size of a German Shepard.
He looked at me like I was interrupting an intimate moment.
“You gonna shoo him away?” Moe asked. “Just remember what happened to Custer when he chased after the Indians.”
“He kinda looks mean. Rabid. You wanna take a run at him?”
“He’s not eating my M & M’s.”
We never did figure out how the raccoon unscrewed my mess kit to get at my candy.
The first few days of camp were drudgery, consisting of setting up tents, hiking, breaking down tents, hiking, hiking, and hiking. We took exhausting constitutionals that were as long as the Bataan Death March and would have made Johnny Appleseed break his walking stick. Scouts wearing Hush Puppies, loafers, or moccasins ended up with slab-sized feet or limping like Long John Silver. Torture by hiking finally ended when a two-mile jaunt became ten when we got lost. From that point on, the other troops at Camp Read referred to us as “The Lost Boys of Troop 41.”
There were plenty of other activities I was embarrassingly bad at. Target practice was at the top of the list. For almost two weeks I shot at and completely missed hitting the target. I was good at sending up puffs of dirt that threw off everyone else’s aim or rattling the wire that held up the target, but I never came close to scoring any points.
“You don’t want to snap the wire, deadeye,” Ronnie Hall said to me.
“What happens if I break it?”
“You get disqualified. Your points don’t count, “ Ronnie said. “But since you haven’t hit anything, I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”
Ronnie was an old friend and an experienced scout, so I tried to heed his advice.
I finally hit the target on the last day of shooting. Not only did I hit it, I scored a bull’s eye. The other scouts were so proud of me, they cheered.
I still had two shots left. I was confident I could score another bull’s eye.
“Don’t get cocky, deadeye,” Ronnie warned.
My next shot sent up a puff of dirt.
My last shot snapped the top wire. The target floated away on the breeze. Bye, bye bullseye.
Swimming was encouraged, which I avoided because I hated being in water over my head, couldn’t see more than a foot without my glasses, and most importantly, couldn’t swim. One of our required activities was a swim test in the murkiest, muddiest section of Lake Read. I tried to dog paddle my way through the first leg of the test, choking and swallowing enough muck that realized I was about to drown. Sensing my distress, a lifeguard rowed to my rescue. In his zealousness to help he got too close, whacking me on the head with his oar. Knocked woozy, I did a realistic imitation of the dead man’s float. I somehow drifted to a nearby dock and was pulled out by Ronnie, Moe, and Ronnies’ older brother, Brad.
“Always joking around, Jefferson,” Ronnie said.
“Yeah, the way you were floppin’ around out there, you really made it look like you can’t swim,” Brad added.
“Mike is like Trotsky,” Moe said. “He’s a rebel, a revolutionary. He’s not gonna bow to the man’s silly test.”
“I was done in by a cramp,” I said.
Everybody laughed, still thinking I was joking.
The most sadistic ritual was the stakeout. Tenderfoots, scouts who were new to the troop, were basically kidnapped, tied up spread-eagle in the sun, and left to bake for several hours.
Guess who was a Tenderfoot?
When a group of veteran scouts looked at me saying, “Hey, isn’t Jefferson a Tenderfoot?” I clenched my teeth, gave them my best Sonny Liston death row stare, and clenched my fists. I may have looked like The Nutty Professor, but it worked.
Tommy “Fitz” Fitzpatrick’s tough-guy impression was not as effective. Not only was Fitz one of the smallest scouts, he was also a whiner, so everyone was looking forward to seeing him get staked out.
Moe and I were relaxing in our bunks when we heard yelling and screaming on the level of a Wild West massacre. Half a dozen older scouts were chasing Fitz around the campsite, and he was proving to be as elusive as mercury.
Fitz might have gotten away if he hadn’t ventured too close to the tents. He ran full speed into one of the neck-level ropes holding up a tent. Letting out a loud and disturbing “AAACK! OW!” Fitz’s spun around the rope before he was unceremoniously flung onto his back.
Fitz sported a rope burn around his neck for the rest of his life and spoke in a whisper for a month. The boys didn’t stake him out because they felt he’d suffered enough already.
The Boy Scouts adhered to a strict diet. Sound of mind, sound of body, which meant oatmeal for breakfast that was so tough you could pave a road with it, or pancakes as hard as manhole covers. The chocolate milk, however, seemed to have come from a very contented cow. Still, Ronnie advised Moe and me not to drink it.
“Why not, it’s delicious,” I noted.
“It’s not just chocolate milk,” Ronnie said. “Let it settle.”
Within a few minutes, my glass of chocolate milk had divided itself into two parts. The top half of the glass was light brown. The bottom half of the glass was much darker, almost syrupy.
“Okay, what is that?” I asked.
“Ex-Lax. You notice how we all end up going to the latrine at the same time every day?” Ronnie asked, smiling like an all-knowing sage.
“Cossacks! They’re experimenting on us!” Moe exclaimed.
“Jeez. What else have they tampered with?” I asked.
“Keep your eye on the chocolate pudding,” Ronnie replied, winking.
The older scouts did seem to enjoy lording their experience over us Tenderfoots. When we were out on the first of our many overnight hikes, Moe and I struggled to put up our tent, wrapping ourselves up like mummies before we got the hang of basic construction. Ronnie, Brad, and six of the other veterans decided to tie their tents together, forming “The Shady Rest,” a formidable-looking canvas hotel nestled in a valley near the lake.
That night it rained with the strength of a monsoon, sending a river through the Shady Rest. Ronnie and the other “experienced” scouts ended up fishing their knapsacks out of the lake and sleeping in the mud.
Twelve-year-olds love to rank on one another. One night Caleb was selected to play “Taps” during the retreat ceremony while the flag was being lowered. Moe and I decided to bring Caleb down a peg, making faces and sticking out our tongues while he was playing. He tried to keep from smiling but couldn’t. His perfect rendition of “Taps” began to sound like bad bebop jazz. When the rest of the troop caught on to what we were doing, Caleb found himself facing a gallery of scouts giving him the raspberries.
Most of the kids in Troop 41 became friends for life. I already knew Tony Fanelli from our failed attempts to become drummers in elementary school. Tony went on to study guitar, while I ended up singing. I passed by his tent one afternoon and he was playing “Dear Prudence,” my favorite Beatles song. It was a memory I still carry with me - a real musician playing a beautiful ballad while looking as uncool as possible in his green pea soup uniform and woolly knee-high socks.
When Tony asked me to be the lead singer for his rock group thirty years later, the memory of that moment made me say yes.
Franz “Oz” Oswald was a strong, hyper, good-natured giant who loved to greet people by smacking them on the arm, then letting out a hearty laugh reminiscent of Herman Munster. He was also fearless and reckless in his pursuit of a good laugh.
One afternoon we spotted Charlie Frenchette (the third) fishing from a ledge overlooking the lake. Charlie was grumpy, short in stature, and short-tempered, a loner who valued his solitude. Most of us stayed clear of Charlie, who gave off a “troubled kid” vibe and carried a wide assortment of sharp knives.
Oz yelled at Charlie. “I’m comin’ down!”
“Don’t bother,” Charlie replied.
“Who are you, Greta Garbo? Why do ya wanna be alone all the time?”
“Because of knuckleheads like you.”
“Well, I’m comin’ down to fish with you,” Oz insisted. “GERONIMO!”
Oz propelled himself off the hill toward the ledge.
He missed the ledge completely, splashing feet first into the lake.
Charlie, Moe, and I laughed hysterically. So did Oz, who came to the surface spitting water like a fountain.
I could never get him to admit it, but I swore Oz missed the ledge on purpose just to make Charlie laugh.
Once he got to know you, Charlie proved to be a loyal and resourceful friend. It was Charlie who revealed to us that the sunfish he was catching were plentiful but behaved like piranhas. They loved meat – especially Spam, which we had in abundance and used as bait. He also taught us how to cook the sunfish, which meant a few fun fish fries instead of struggling to digest the camp’s mystery meat. Learning the sunfish had mutated into piranhas made it even less like I would be taking a dip in Lake Reed.
I also have Charlie to thank for kindling the pleasant memories I get whenever I look at the photo of The Lost Boys of Troop 41. There are twenty-seven kids in the photo of all makes and models, and all but four are smiling. Why? Because of Charlie, who is standing dead center in the picture. Prior to taking the shot. Charlie warned us he was going to do “something memorable.” At the last second, when the photographer said “Cheese,” Charlie crossed his eyes and pursed his lips, making us laugh. Even people with no connection to Troop 41 can’t look at the photo without smiling. So, the loner proved to be one of the most popular scouts in Troop 41 after all.
In 1988, when I was living with a toxic blonde beauty named Veronica (who was often referred to as the “Ragin’ Cajun”), she sought to win the argument we were engaged in by destroying every record, trophy, artifact, and photograph I owned. My past, from infant to adult, lay in a torn, crushed, and burnt pile in the middle of the living room. Veronica spared me a few photos, including my Boy Scout picture. When I asked her why, she said, “That Michael looks innocent and sweet. He’s somebody I’d like to know and remember.”