The Scoutmaster – A short story by Joseph Chrzanowski

The Scoutmaster – A short story by Joseph Chrzanowski

The Scoutmaster – A short story

 

Dedicated to Skip Toth

 

***

 

 

***

 

“Hell no. Just remembering my name these days is about impossible. OK, a slight exaggeration; but looking into empty spaces when I try recall somebody’s name or why I went into the garage is getting to be a bitch. Forget putting a name onto a face. You too, huh?”

***

There was no way that they would or could remember the year or the years, yet it was all so real. To use the cliché, like yesterday.

***

“Hurry up, hurry up. The meeting is starting. Shit.” With the lights lowered, the auditorium that during the day didn’t seem all that big, had now become immense, a leering monster ready to strike, grab what was real and turn it upside down.

“What are we going to do now? This is kind of spooky.”

“Shut up.”

It really was eerie. Twenty or so of us who were just beginning to notice and appreciate girls, ordered to form a circle and to put our arms over the shoulders of whoever was to our right and to our left. Funny, you have to admit that it was comforting as the lights were dimmed even further, as the monster’s mouth opened wider, like that lion before the movie starts. Except it was even bigger and scarier. Strength in numbers? Or feeling, but not realizing, that touching and holding onto someone made us safer, even if it was just another boy like you standing there in the dark. Thinking back on it, it was spiritual, not therapeutic, as the shrinks say. Just a feeling that our connectedness to others was more than what we felt as we put our hands on the shoulders of whoever was on either side of us. Not enough to make you a believer, but you felt to your core that the human family was real, and that you were a part of it.

***

“Damn it’s dark in here,” some kid whispered in the brief moment of silence that followed the lights being turned off completely. “Shut up!” And then we sang:

“Day is done,
Gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.”

And so it was that each meeting of Boy Scout Troup 44 began.

***

Two, maybe three, generations in our small New England town, boys and girls, growing up under what for most of us was the caring guidance of Scoutmaster Ed. A man, who for many of us, was a second father.

“If I let myself, I could get emotional remembering.”

“Yea, me too. He really was special, wasn’t he?”

“Talking about memories, I bet you remember what’s her name who had that incredible body.”

“How could I forget?” I answered, after a slight hesitation that had nothing to do with my waning ability to remember. How is it possible that I can’t remember why I went out to the garage? I resisted laughing because somehow it went against the respect for women that my father instilled in me. But I laughed.

***

“Mom, can I go to the game?”

“What game?”

“Ed’s taking a busload of kids to the Yale-Brown game in New Haven again. It’s in two weeks.’

“Of course.”

I still hate the dark. Spooks me. Anthropologists and psychologists have their theories. I could care less about the theories. It’s the feelings that always get me.

“So what are we supposed to do?

“We meet at school after dark. It’s some kind of a mystery hike. The whole troop.”

“At night? Damn. I guess I’ll go if my mother and father let me.”

***

Why does that giant yellow school bus look and feel like a big animal lurking in the dark? Too much thinking about monsters. And all the windows covered in paper so we couldn’t see in or out. And a sheet in front so that we couldn’t see through the windshield.

And there we stood, wrapped in the blackness of night, some nervous, some giddy, many joking, waiting for everyone to arrive so that we could board. The minutes passed, but the bus didn’t look any less menacing.

***

“He said that the patrol leaders are supposed to sit together. Let’s grab that one. Did you bring a compass and a flashlight, like he told us?”

“Yea, I did. I wonder where we’re going. This is kind of scary.”

As the bus slowly pulled away, we tried to guess what roads we were on. Several minutes straight ahead, then a turn to the right, followed by another quick one – was it to the right or the left? More driving straight ahead, and before long it was impossible to have any idea where we were. As the bus slowed to a halt, the talking and joking stopped. We were just kids, some curious, some scared out of our wits (we used to say it differently). No one said anything. Ed pulled the handle and the trap door sprung open. And there we stood on a narrow country road– no cars, no street lights. Only a hint of a moon. Trees and more trees, and the fireflies and the mosquitos. The only sound, the peepers. And not a clue as to where we were. Not as intimidating as entering a confessional for the first time, but close.

***

“OK. Listen up. Each of you patrol leaders gets one of these pages of instructions. They will tell you what directions to look for on your compass and how many steps to take before turning. You all see how dark it is, so watch where your step. There could be rocks or logs on the ground, so don’t trip. You will not end up back where we are now. Patrol leaders, if you need help, talk it over with your friends. You are all in this together, like soldiers. Now come and get your instructions, and good luck.”

And into the woods we traipsed, both nervous and scared. There is something about the dark, and no place to hide. Some forty-five minutes later– or was it an hour and forty-five minutes? — one patrol after another slowly emerged from the woods, like snakes slithering from under rocks, relieved and proud that we had done what Ed wanted us to do. Somehow we sensed that we had taken an important step toward growing up. And we had learned how important it was not to rely only on ourselves. Maybe that’s why Ed began our Troup meetings the way that he did.

“All is well.”

***

“Did you hear? Everyone’s talking about it. Ed is going to clear the brush and cut back the trees along the stream that is down behind the Little League field. And they say that he wants to make a little beach so we have a place to swim.”

“Wow! How neat!”

And so it was, and so the town named the park after Ed.

***

“Were you on that camping trip when we got snowed in? I’ll never forget it. We all took our sleeping bags and tents into the woods, and Ed showed us how to set up the tents, tie knots, make a fire, and fend for ourselves. And then that freak snow storm hit. We woke up with like six inches of snow on the ground and no way to get of the park. Remember? Remember how we had to hunker down in that big cabin in front of that enormous fireplace until they could clear the roads and get us out of there? Boy, that was something!”

“I know. It’s all coming back. And did Ed invite you to join the Order of the Arrow too? A whole day with a stick in your mouth because we weren’t supposed to say a word! And when they rowed us across that lake in canoes in the dark with the bonfires lighting up the sky on the other shore and the drums beating, you really felt special. And I still can see Ed sitting in the front of the canoe, a far-away look on his face, like he was somewhere else. I wonder if he was thinking about that widow in town that they said he wanted to marry, but who said no.”

“Yea, I was there. It was unreal.”

***

There comes a time in a conversation when talk slows and memories run their course. Yet, in some cases, the unspoken can no longer be ignored or avoided. And so it was as we looked off into the distance for a few moments, and then at each other, and struggled with what puzzled and tormented us.

“Boy, can you believe what those guys said about Ed. You gotta wonder. I never heard a thing. And I was around him a lot. I was even with him once when we had to stop by his house to pick something up. I can’t believe it.”

“Who knows? Maybe there was another side to Ed, a dark one. But to have that stuff come up so many years after he died. The poor guy never had a chance to defend himself, if he could.”
For several moments, we couldn’t bring ourselves to say anything more. We knew that human weakness, like evil and like monsters, can come in many forms. People say that calling a person “good” after they have done something evil is indefensible. But neither of us was willing to cast the first stone at a man who meant so much to so many.

“We’ll never really know. But just the thought, just the possibility… Damn.”

We so wanted to remember and hold on to our own experiences, and only to the good things that a man long since dead had done, even though he may have done some really bad things.

***

“Maybe he was sick. Who knows? Or maybe that stuff never happened. It wouldn’t be the first time that people made things up or exaggerated.”

One thing was undeniable. What for many of us was so real, that meant so much to us and to our town, had suddenly been turned upside down. Few are left who can remember those times, and probably even fewer remember what that park used to be called. Nor why.

***

 

Day is done. Gone is the sun. God is nigh.

 

***

 

Joseph Chrzanowski, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Spanish
California State University, Los Angeles

Autor
Categories: Literatura

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