A hero for the years Man wins his Honor Medal after 46 years.

April 22, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Some said the youth was a genuine Boy Scout hero for rescuing a boy from drowning, but the scoutmaster was not about to tout his own son for the Honor Medal, one of the highest national awards the Boy Scouts give. It wouldn't look right, said Ernest J. Bastien Sr.

So he put away the application for the Honor Medal and let the heroics of his 15-year-old son, David, go unrewarded. And David J. Bastien grew up and raised his own family and accumulated a passel of scouting awards, but not the Honor Medal. Because the rescue was not brought to the attention of the Boy Scouts of America, the organization never recognized the scout who saved a young life in the Patapsco River in 1946.

Until now.

Forty-six years after he pulled 10-year-old Bill Hoffman from the water, Mr. Bastien, 61, has added the Honor Medal to his array of badges, ribbons, pins, patches, certificates and trophies -- the rewards of nearly five decades of scouting. The awards crowd the walls of a room in his Brooklyn Park home, pack the pages of loose-leaf books, decorate the chest of his tan uniform shirt.

He put on the uniform for a photographer on Monday, the day he saw Mr. Hoffman for the first time since Mr. Hoffman's family moved away from the Brooklyn Homes neighborhood in 1948. Mr. Bastien, who is retired from AT&T, telephoned Mr. Hoffman last week, guessing that the name in the phone book might be the person whose life he saved so long ago.

"I said, 'Well, my God,' " said Mr. Hoffman, 55, a truck driver now living in Glen Burnie. "Dave, I just couldn't believe it was you on the telephone after all these years," said Mr. Hoffman.

The two men sat in Mr. Hoffman's living room by the coffee table where Mr. Bastien had placed the Honor Medal, right next to the makeshift heroism award that Mr. Bastien's buddies gave him as a joke decades ago. This would be his only prize for pulling Mr. Hoffman from the drink, they said with a laugh: a tin amusement park game token attached to a bit of colored cloth.

That would have been it if not for the efforts of Mr. Bastien's daughter, Vicki Bastien Schaal of Pasadena, and two other women. After Ernest Bastien died in March 1990, Ms. Schaal was looking through her grandfather's scouting folders and stumbled across the old Honor Medal application. The information was all there, including the handwritten testimonial letters that Bill Hoffman and six other boys wrote after the events of that warm Sept. 3 morning.

"I went out too far and there was a drop," Mr. Hoffman wrote. "I fell in and was going under the three [sic] time. When David Basstin [sic] he saw me drowning. So he came and grabbed me by the arm. And pulled me to shore."

The two men remembered how the eight boys headed out that morning as they so often did in summer, walking to the end of Ninth Street, then crossing the railroad tracks, then Frankfurst Avenue to the beach. Mr. Hoffman remembered that he waded out until the sandy bottom dropped out from under him.

"I couldn't swim," Mr. Hoffman said this week. "I really shouldn't have been in there, but you know how kids are."

David Bastien swam out 30 feet into about 8 feet of water where Billy Hoffman was flailing his arms, trying to stay afloat. He remembers grabbing Billy's arm, but doesn't remember which arm. He may have grabbed Billy by the waist, but he's not sure. When they got to the shore, both boys spit up a lot of water. Otherwise, they were fine.

Mr. Hoffman said his parents "scolded me for me being down there to start with. We were forbidden to go to the cove."

Mr. Bastien said he was reluctant to pursue the application for the medal.

"I don't like to brag about it," he said.

"We really pushed him into doing this," said a friend, Genie Smuck-Posner of Brooklyn Park. "He didn't want to do any of this stuff. He said, 'They'll think we're crazy.' I said, 'What have you got to lose?' "

So, with Mr. Bastien's grudging cooperation, the women put the material together and sent it last June to the Advancement Committee of the Boy Scouts' Four Rivers District, which includes the northern half of Anne Arundel and part of southern Baltimore County.

"I thought the basis for it was very sound," said John Walker, chairman of the committee. "I thought it's too bad he didn't get the recognition for it at the time he performed the action."

Mr. Walker sent the application with his recommendation to the Boy Scouts' national headquarters in Irving, Texas, which issued 52 medals of honor in 1991. There, members of the Scouts' National Court of Honor read the letters of Bill Hoffman and the six witnesses to his rescue.

On April 13, Mr. Bastien was awarded the Honor Medal in a ceremony at Old Mill Middle School in Millersville.

The medal sat in the box in front of Mr. Bastien and his boyhood friend, its gold disk and scarlet ribbon vivid against the faded cloth of the ersatz award from the boys of Brooklyn Homes. Time also had grayed the hair of the two men and thickened their waistlines, but yielded at last a just reward.

"Scouting's been good to me," Mr. Bastien said. "You give something to the community, you get a lot back."

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