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When Oliver Jensen Was Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, And Reverent
A memoir of Boy Scouting in the youthful days of the movement
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
The Boy Scouts of America, I am surprised to discover, is seventy-five this year, a wintry age for something so perpetually associated with the springtime of life. I never think of the Scouts without remembering my boyhood heroes of long ago, Theodore Roosevelt and Sir Robert Baden-Powell. One became President and the other a lord, but both remained in many ways boys all their days. And then I remember that I am, in age, close on the heels of the Scouts; they were going on sixteen and I was twelve when I joined in 1926. I bought the Handbook for Boys (price, forty cents), with two Scouts signaling on the cover, learned the motto (“Be Prepared”), the sign, the salute, and the way to tie some dozen knots, and then I was sworn in as a tenderfoot, lowest of the low, in Troop 3, Beaver Patrol, in the basement of the Second Congregational Church in New London, Connecticut. Apparently it did not concern me that the very same year I had been confirmed in the Episcopal church a block away, but their Scout troop, in my boyish opinion, did not amount to much.
My parents seemed untroubled by this bit of apostasy and outfitted me in full kit, some of which I have just dug out of a trunk in the attic and set up on a table as an aide-mémoire . There is a shirt of thick, tough khaki, with what used to be called Stanley breast pockets, detachable BSA buttons, and the once-exciting words “Boy Scouts of America” embroidered in red over the right-hand pocket. There are patches and stars, and merit badges on a sash, an impossibly short web belt, a bugle on which 1 can still give an unsteady rendering of “Assembly,” and a still functional hatchet.
This is a very creditable job of souvenir-saving by my late mother and father, who even tucked away some of my childish letters of the time. The one thing I miss is the hat, because I am sure it was that broad-brimmed, khaki campaign hat that made me join up. Worn at a devil-may-care angle, it suggested the manly feats that older Scouts, mature chaps of thirteen and fourteen, could scarcely be persuaded to describe. Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, wore the hat, which he had copied from the broad-brimmed headgear of his erstwhile enemies, the Boers. He had worn one as the colonel commanding the British garrison in the siege of Mafeking. So my mother, an English-woman, told me. She had been in London, a girl of sixteen, when news came on May 18, 1900, that Mafeking had been relieved, when London went mad with joy, and when Baden-Powell suddenly became England’s most popular hero.
That wonderful hat was also worn by Theodore Roosevelt, who any boy could tell you had been weak and sickly as a youth and had gone camping and ranching in the West. There he had grown strong and courageous enough to return and lead his Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill (wearing the hat and glasses, I noted, because I also had to). Other grown-ups, too, wore the hat, like the artist and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton and the author and illustrator Daniel Carter Beard, who led the Boy Scout movement in the United States. (It is a curious and endearing fact that so many artists, amateur and professional, like Norman Rockwell and Baden-Powell himself, have been active in the movement.) None of these others, however worthy, quite stirred my imagination like Baden-Powell. His tales of tracking and camping in enemy country in India and Africa soon led me to abandon The Rover Boys, The Boy Allies , and James Fenimore Cooper’s twig-bending Indians.
Baden-Powell learned tracking from experts, as in this example I find in his biography by William Hillcourt. In 1896 Baden-Powell, then a brevet lieutenant-colonel, was involved in trying to put down an uprising of the Matabele tribes-men in newly formed Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe but still at odds with the Matabele). The tribesmen formed great war parties of often over a thousand men each, called impis ; between fierce onslaughts some of them would hole up in the little, stony hills or kopjes in an area called the Matopos. Reconnaissance was difficult, and Baden-Powell himself, with a Zulu scout named Grootboom, set out alone on the perilous mission of finding an impi . One day, riding through an open, windless, grassy plain, they came upon a few downtrodden blades of grass, and, following them, some small sandal prints in sand. Women, from their size, and on a long journey, or they would not have worn footgear.
“Grootboom looked about him and suddenly gave a ‘How!’ of attention. A few yards off the tracks he picked up a leaf and sniffed it. It was the leaf of a tree that did not grow in the area but some ten or fifteen miles distant. It was damp and smelt of Kaffir beer.