Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sundays with Steve - The Last Adventure

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

The Last Adventure

OK, really, this is the last Scouting story, and it’s the story of my last Scouting experience.

In the summer of 1964 eight of us Boy Scouts from our North Idaho town gathered at Spokane, Washington to board a chartered train. It was the first time any of us young teenagers had been on a train, and for most of us of us, it was our last activity of our Boy Scout careers, it was the wrap-up of six to eight years of scouting, and it was a dandy experience.

The train would transport 300 of us Scouts from the Northwest for a grand adventure and a four-week tour in the East. Our destination was the national Boy Scout Jamboree at Valley Forge, PA, an every four-year event that drew 50,000 of us from around the country and around the world. For most of us, the Jamboree was the reason for going, but the trip itself was the highlight.

My parents drove my brother David and I to the train station that morning, a two and a half hour journey that got us to the train station in plenty of time to meet up with our traveling companions, get our sleeping compartment assignments, store our duffle bags, and say our goodbyes for the next month.

I was excited that day, excited by the prospect of a train ride across the country, excited by the full itinerary, excited by what I thought was a huge number of Scouts all traveling together. And I was excited to see local television cameras filming it all for the local news, something I had never seen at that point in my life.

All eight of us from our home town were together in one car. Five of us had earned our Eagle Scout rank the prior year, all at the same time, and we were a close group who had been together for six years or more in the same scouting troop. The Eagle is the highest rank a Scout can achieve. The other three from our town were also Eagles, so that together we made a high-ranking group. This trip was a reward from all of our parents, for achieving the Scouting rank, and for sticking with the scouting program for so long. Our parents knew, as we did, that this was our last Scouting hurrah.

Our home for the next four weeks was a Northern Pacific train with about 10 passenger cars and pulled by several new and modern diesel engines. I mention this only because this was a transition time in U.S. transportation, there were still a lot of steam engines in the country and not all passenger trains had diesel locomotives. Trains were still the primary long-distance transport mode, as airline transportation was just seeing jet aircraft being introduced, and air travel was still very expensive.

Two scouts were assigned to each sleeping compartment, with beds that folded away into the wall to reveal a couch for day-time use, a tiny compartment that also included a toilet and shower in a small space that made today’s airline lavs look luxurious. There were maybe 20 compartments on a car. Our two adult Scout leaders also shared a compartment. The train had eight passenger cars, a “dining” car, a kitchen and a baggage car. The diner car was actually two converted box cars with buffets at each end, and several lines of wooden tables to sit at. Much to our delight the side doors were usually open, giving us a taste of the wind, the smell, and the noise of an open train rushing through the country-side. The food was lousy, but we loved the atmosphere.

We were on the Northern Pacific railroad, and crossed into Montana and Glacier Park that first day on our way to our first stop, Chicago. I’m not sure any of us were prepared for the long, endless days of riding that train. Three days to Chicago on paper didn’t seem like much, but to high-energy teens, it was tedious. We spent the days talking, meeting the rest of the scouts on the train, walking car to car and perhaps stealing a snack from the kitchen car on the way through. We didn’t get off that train until we arrived, and I recall that we were tightly wound.

We spent a day exploring Chicago of the early 1960s, and for small-town boys, we found it terrific. We tried to get to the top of every tall building we could access in the down-town area, and were shown out of several as we were “inappropriately dressed”. Some of the stuffed shirts in the private clubs on the top floors did not appreciate being invaded by teenagers in scout uniforms and shorts. I went to the famous Marshall Field’s department store to buy my mother a souvenir, where I told an older sales clerk that I needed something “cheap.” I was informed, with a sniff and an upturned nose, that Marshall Field does have “cheap”, but only inexpensive. Obviously I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

We boarded the train for the next stop at Detroit and a day at the Ford Motor factory, then it was a two-day run to the East Coast and New York City. New York was everything we had read about: big, busy, loud, noisy, fascinating. There was a morning at the Statue of Liberty, the experience of subway riding, and a day at the New York World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows (sorry New York, I liked the Seattle World’s Fair quite a bit better, two years before).

As we toured the cities of the East, it was typically the eight of us Scouts and our two leaders doing the touring. That made the logistics easier, of course, but with 50,000 Scouts descending on Valley Forge, we did see kids in uniform everywhere we went leading up to the Jamboree opening.

We spent several days in Washington, D.C., seeing the standard national monuments and museums. Of course we were not going to take the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument, but two-thirds of the way up, we wish we had. An old Army friend of my father’s, pals in World War II Europe, picked up my brother David and I for an afternoon and evening with his family while we were in Washington. But he picked us up in a giant tour bus, which we found a bit astounding. It was just he, dressed to the hilt in a business suit, David, me and the bus driver. It turned out that he was the manager of the local Grey Lines tour company, and had the bus pick us up and deliver us back to our hotel late that night. Our fellow travelers weren’t sure what was going on with us, and neither were we, but we found the attention hugely flattering.

We finally arrived at Philadelphia and took the bus ride to Valley Forge. We were amazed by it all: There were thousands of tents spread through the grounds, well organized and laid out. There were tens of thousands of youngsters, all in scouting uniforms. And there was heat, which wasn’t bad, but then there was that Eastern summer humidity that none of us had ever experienced. I sweat for the next seven days, non-stop I think, and consumed Coca Cola by the gallon. Brother David was ill one day from the heat, and stayed on his cot in the tent, sweating. But when a hot dog eating content was announced late that day, he miraculously revived to participate (did I even mention that David won numerous hot dog eating contests through those years growing up? I don’t know how he did that, but he often did).
We had a Philadelphia rock & roll radio station turned on most of the time – none of us had ever heard big-city rock & roll, we loved it, and we ordered T-shirts from the radio station before we left.

Every day and most evenings there was new entertainment, including the Beach Boys one night and President Johnson the next, who told us about the righteousness of the Vietnam War. Many of the Scouts would sadly learn about Vietnam in the not too distant future.

We spent the day’s meeting other Scouts, trading patches and neckerchiefs, and taking in skill events.

Here are some photos.

By week’s end, we were ready to head for home. We’d been gone a little more than three weeks – the longest any of us had been away from home. It was a long train ride from Philadelphia to Spokane, about six days, with very little to do other than read and perhaps harass one of our Scouts who hadn’t started shaving yet (we big kids, of course, had to shave a least once a week!). The days passed long and slow, with maybe one stop a day where we could jump off the train and buy a burger at the station.

When the train pulled through the Montana Rockies we grew anxious. When it passed down the Clark Fork River and along the beautiful Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho, we knew we were just a couple of hours from home, and we were ready.

Our parents were pleased to see us, of course, and we were pleased to see them. I don’t think we stopped talking on the drive home, nor for the next several weeks. They were pleased to hear how well Dad’s friend had treated us in Washington, D.C., and they were eager to hear most every detail of our adventures. There were many rolls of film to get developed down at Wes Tollenaar’s photography store, scrap books to build, and relatives to visit to tell the trip details once more.

But life was changing. My first year in high school was starting the next month, and my career in Scouting was over. That summer trip was the end-point of Scouting for me. As you can probably tell as you have read my stories, Scouting had a large and profound effect on my life both as a teenager and as an adult. It laid a good deal of my life’s foundation – outside my family and all of the experiences that were to come that I have been telling you about – a foundation that is still there 50 years later. Scouting for me, as a youngster transitioning into early manhood, was an exceptional experience.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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under the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws. The contents of this post/story may not be reproduced as a whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, without consent of the author, Stephen J. Matlock. All rights reserved.


Anonymous said...

Gorgeous post; very moving. I don't think there's anything quite like the adventures that we have as children.

I'm a great fan of scouting too (I was involved as an leader for a time) and it's always lovely to know how it impacts people's lives.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

enjoyed your story Steve...
married to a long ago scout i've heard many tales...and i know he can thank his years of scouting for the solid foundation that is his life.
all the best

Ms. A said...

To a young person, that endless train travel sounds exciting and tolerable. At my age, it sounds grueling and torturous.

An Eagle Scout... kudos to you!

Pondside said...

That was some trip! I can see, from what you've wrote, that scouting has influenced your life. My son was a scout - all the way to Queen's Scout and then on - and my husband moved along with him as a leader. There's no doubt that scouting has influenced the kind of man that our son has become.
We lived, from '75 to '78 within walking distance of Valley Forge. The Great Dane was posted with the US on secondment to Burroughs (Burrows?) in the early days of computers. I loved that part of your country!

H said...

What an adventure. I don't think I would enjoy all of that time on the trains though. Like you, I would have been trying to reach the top of every tall building I could!

Judie said...

What a fun post, Steve! You are right about scouting. I think it turned many young boys into exceptional men!