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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Older Boys

ALTHOUGH I FOUND MUCH to be impressed about Kurt, my next-door neighbor, what struck me most vividly was the sight of his hands. They looked unnaturally tan, as if he spent all his daylight hours outdoors. His knuckles were bruised and gnarly, and the veins on his hand-backs were bright blue and wrinkled. They were hands of accomplishment. Hands of wisdom, even, I decided. He was nine. I was five.

Portrait of the pith-helmeted author in the
throes of early adolescence. Summer 1970.
But I was a tall, precocious five, who, if I kept my mouth shut, could blend in with Kurt and his fellow nine-year-olds, allowing me to join them in forays through the gullies and along the railroad tracks of northern New Jersey. There was much to learn from those fearless sages. Especially how to keep our activities secret from excitable parents, who tend to prove unsympathetic to the challenge of getting a train to squash a penny.

Older boys seemed to have solved many of life’s mysteries, and because I could pass for one of them, I sought them for friends. Not that I was a picture of maturity. It was Kurt and his friends who told me the truth about Santa Claus, against which I fought with angry tears.

I joined the Boy Scouts when I was twelve. My family now was living in Connecticut, and I advanced through the ranks quickly in a suburban troop that seemed as much a social club for the dedicated dads as it was for us kids. I hiked, I camped, I tied knots, and I camped some more.

You start as a Tenderfoot, and by putting in a specified mileage of hikes, earning a certain number of merit badges, helping enough old ladies across the street and suchlike, you’re promoted ever closer to the exalted rank of Eagle.

Like the older boys. The ones who wore sashes thick with merit badges, and sported even more arcane signs of achievement such as the Order of the Arrow. They led many of the activities at Camp Mauwehu, a verdant spread on Candlewood Lake in Sherman, the northernmost town in Connecticut’s Fairfield County. Scouts signed up for stays of a week or two each summer to enjoy the woods and earn more badges, and it was here that I, a terrified 13-year-old, was persuaded by older boys to jump for the first time into water over my head and learn to swim.

I’m guessing it was that same summer during which the first of two significant older-boy events occurred. Camp arrival was on Sunday, departure the following Saturday. But I’d put in for a two-week stay and thus witnessed the packing and exodus of most of the others at the end of the week.

It became a lonely Saturday, with all activities suspended and even the usually frantic dining hall oddly subdued. I’m recalling that there was some kind of curfew for those of us who remained, and it was enforced by one of the resident grown-ups, a man named Bartlett Hastings.

I had very little interaction with the fellow, but had learned to share the campwide fear of his reputation as one who brooked no nonsense. A murmured “Bart’s coming” could scatter a gathering with dizzying speed.

In the middle of the camp complex was the PX, a building that functioned as snack-sales headquarters and spiritual nerve center. A set of loudspeakers atop the building blared the recorded bugle calls that signaled wake-up and mess and lights out, but late this particular Saturday I heard classical music singing forth. Specifically, Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

I ventured inside. The older boy who ran the PX was Tim Rowe, a member of my Scout troop. His father taught music in the school system; his younger brother was my class- and troop-mate. Tim was a music-loving eccentric with a devastating wit, who explained to me once that, as long as William Steinberg was at the helm, the initials of Boston’s venerable orchestra should be interpreted to mean “Body Sweat Odor.” He sat sprawled in a desk chair, his feet on the table before him.

“You like Rachmaninoff?” he asked as I entered. I assured him I did. “This is the Rubinstein recording,” he said, “with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. Have a seat.”

He was the rare individual who could listen in silence. And so we sat as the piece worked its way to the love-theme variation everybody knows. But we didn’t get that far. An angry Bart Hastings burst into the door, drawn, I’m sure, by the unlikely sound of non-military music on the PA system. But then he caught sight of me, out of my campsite, off-limits.

He pointed a finger and thundered, “What are YOU doing here?” and I understood the majesty of his wrath. Tim, who must have been not even 17 at the time, rose and thundered back, “We’re listening to RACHMANINOFF,” as if that answered everything.

And so it did. Bart said nothing for a moment, looked from Tim’s face to mine, and then said, “Well, all right. But get back to your tent as soon as it’s over.” And turned and left the building.

With magnificent silence, Tim re-started the record, resumed his seat, and we listened to the entirety of the piece. Perhaps this gave me the sense of invulnerability that led to the following summer’s folly.

Once again, it was the Saturday between sessions. And again I was looking for something to do. That evening, my friend Lenny Kessler and I decided to sneak out and see what the older boys were up to, which seemed only fair as one of them was his brother, Gary. We found him hanging out with Chris White. Both were fellow Troop 26 members. They’d been talking about making a canoe excursion under darkness to an island that perched nearby, and insisted that nobody would miss us if we ventured en masse.

We crept to the dock and untied two of the boats, taking care to bump nothing against the aluminum canoes. Quietly, stealthily, we paddled across the water, making a game out of the challenge of keeping everything silent as possible. We found a canoe-friendly bank on the island and roamed it by flashlight until we’d had enough of the sameness of it all. Then we journeyed back.

You can muffle only so much, and that includes excitement. Someone got the idea of trying to run the canoes close together. Or maybe the intention all along was to collide. Whatever the case, the boats came together with a bang and our attempts to right the rocking vessels only ensured that we all went into the drink.

Causing enough commotion to draw a progression of flashlights to the campside shore, with Bart’s voice leading the calls of what’s-going-on. “Listen,” the older boys told us. “No sense you guys getting in trouble over this. We’ll splash around and distract them while you two swim over in that direction, and you can get ashore over there and get back to your tents without them seeing you.”

And that’s what Lenny and I did. Their advice was sound; our transgression never was discovered, and I suspect their own punishment was eased by the lack of younger charges. It make the weekend far more fun than I could have hoped, and I sure was glad I’d learned to swim the summer before.


jchborg said...

So nobody took it in the seat?

B. A. Nilsson said...

Just wait, wise guy. I've got more stories to tell about you. You're the older boy who prodded underage me to join you in crashing the Westchester County Wine Tasting club's get-together one day.

Harry Minot said...

Such a marvelous posting. And so sweet that I read it with a window view of Candlewood, too.