Boy Scouts into men

Mr. Kramer gave us a gift whose value only grows over time: confidence

August 08, 2010|By Wayne Biddle

I am holding a torn 8-by-10 black-and-white photograph of a group of boys. Supplied with color from my memory, they are dressed in the striped orange neckerchiefs and olive-green shirts of a Boy Scout troop, circa 1960, posed under a summer camp's green trees and brown canvas tents. Most of them look quite happy, which I know for a fact they were. That's me, fifth from the right in the front row.

Only one or two have figured in my life in any way for the past 50 years. I don't know what happened to many of them — nothing of a celebrity nature, safe to say. But George Kramer, the man in the upper left corner — sleeves rolled, thumbs hooked in pants pockets, probably cracking a joke to produce grins for the camera — remains a vivid figure. I think he saved each of us in some way, and that every boy in the picture, now in the depths of middle age, would agree without hesitation.

That he has been dead for a dozen summers now is sadder than the usual loss of a fond face from childhood. There may be others like him somewhere, but we won't be benefiting from them ourselves.

Mr. Kramer, as we all called him (this small formality alone sounds so anachronistic) was born in Baltimore in 1920. He grew up in the then-middle-class neighborhood of Waverly; went to Polytechnic, Baltimore's jewel of public education; got drafted into the Navy and survived the South Pacific; and spent his whole working life in the great steel mill at Sparrows Point. In the 1950s he joined the post-war exodus from the city and settled his family in Kingsville. My father took the same path north along Belair Road into the county. There were still unspoiled woods, hay fields, shallow streams and marshes out there, perfect for children to run safely amok in.

It was the patriotic-naturalist imperative of Scouting in those days to organize this energy into acceptable behavior. (In 1960, posing for a group photo under a handpainted sign that proclaimed "For God and Country" was not yet a "camp act" in the Sontagian sense.) Temperamentally, Mr. Kramer liked the outdoors better than almost anything that happened indoors, especially television, which was just starting to remove millions of kids from fresh air. Along these lines, the important thing to note about the sign in the photo is how it was attached firmly to the trees by ropes. Instead of heading for the hardware store for expensive tools, as the commercials on the "idiot box" (his favorite term) encouraged, Mr. Kramer showed us how to build with hitches and lashes. He made it an aesthetic issue (without having such terms in his vocabulary), a demonstration of competence unrelated to wallet thickness.

We got good at it, building suspension bridges across the Big Gunpowder River, signal towers at Elk Neck State Park, rafts on the Susquehanna. We never had to buy anything except rope, which was cheap and far outlasted our youth.

Canvas tents are another salient detail. You could sleep in cabins at Broad Creek Scout Camp, but to Mr. Kramer they were beneath contempt. Tents let in the wind and the rain and the critters. At night they were scary dark, during the day hot as ovens. They smelled like we imagined sailing ships might. You needed to know how to pitch them right or a thunderstorm could capsize them. Canvas tents had to be dried and rolled carefully at the end of each trip. Like rope, they demanded skills that could not be purchased.

Just visible in the background of the photo are the tarps of the camp kitchen. Mr. Kramer cooked on a wood fire, never propane. Hot water for washing up came from a holding tank heated for hours over open flames. There was no electricity; perishables were stored on ice. The labor involved in running a kitchen of this kind for a week was considerable, but I don't remember feeling burdened by it. To my knowledge, no kid ever got burned or sick. Mr. Kramer turned wood gathering into an army game, dish washing into a naval engagement. We learned to eat what we cooked off the plates that we scrubbed, a bone-simple sequence of responsibility that to this day wards off squeamishness and colors my attitude toward designer appliances.

Mr. Kramer had no discernible politics or any verbalized philosophy. He was not a saint. Maybe he had some instinctive skepticism about technology and money; I don't know. He did what he liked to do and made it fun for us, too — that was all. When he retired in the mid-1980s, instead of a gold watch his old friends gave him a totem pole. As fate would have it, he died a decade later in a hospital where none of his skills would have mattered anyway. At his memorial, they stood up with tears in their eyes and laughed about the times when knots, tents, cook fires and kids' mischief got the best of him. His ashes were scattered over the campgrounds.

The problems that have spoiled the Boy Scouts as an organization for many people today — such as membership policies against gays and atheists — are real and should have been faced head-on like so many social issues as the country moved forward out of less enlightened times. If the Scouts are to survive another century, they must get rid of the old rotten baggage, just like everybody else. The key for me, looking back from this vantage point of the 100th anniversary of Boy Scouts, is that what Mr. Kramer gave to us boys who were fortunate enough to know him as our chief for a fleeting moment long ago was confidence that we could do things we liked and be happy, too. That's very valuable. It sounds so easy, until one learns gradually in life that it is not.

Wayne Biddle is a visiting associate professor in The Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University.

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