On my eleventh birthday I was finally old enough to join the Boy Scouts. Back then Troop 153 was led by Roy Barber, a local farmer, a Kansas Andy Griffith. To my mind, he was everything a Scout Master should be. My parochial school had no male teachers, and I had never bonded with a coach. They were always insisting that I catch, throw, or dribble a ball. “Why?” I’d ask. “They’ll just throw, catch, or dribble it back. It’s insanity!” None had a response.
But I loved scouting and eagerly joined-up with my best friend Steve Schachle. We faced our first challenge when we learned that we would be the founding members of a new patrol, one called “Buffalo.” Until then, Troop 153 had had three patrols. First came “Cobra,” composed of the oldest scouts, those already in high school. My older brother Harold and Don Peter, the nice, older guy across the alley, belonged to “Panther.” (In my boyhood, anyone who didn’t sit on me or beat me up was nice.) The next patrol was “Bob Cat,” which Bobby Sauber and Richard Meyers, our own age, had been the last to join.
Play it out: “Cobra!” Strikes fear in the heart doesn’t it? So does, “Panther!” Even “Bob Cat” carries a scent of danger, but who’s afraid of a “Buffalo?” It’s a prairie cow! Eventually there would be a fifth patrol called “Beaver.” It truly occupied the pond-bottom of Scout society. Every one of those fellows is now institutionalized, either therapeutically or criminally. You were guaranteed a bull snake in your sleeping bag if you were Beaver Patrol. At least in Buffalo we stood a chance.
Fortunately, Mr. Barber had taught us how to distinguish venomous snakes. They had only two fangs, whereas non-poisonous snakes had a roll of teeth, although, as Steve always pointed out, “Are we going to wait for the snake to smile. Really? I don’t think so!”
Thanks to Mr. Barber, if you leave me in a Kansas pasture, I can find Indian Root, which can be eaten, something like a turnip. This was important to know, because the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood were always warning us that failure to say the rosary would mean the non-conversion of Soviet Russia, and that would lead to the eventual occupation of Kansas by the Commies. And scouting, not little league or basketball, would be our line in the sand.
Steve and I took our responsibilities as patrol leaders seriously. We’d go shopping to prepare for camp outs, out on Roy’s wooded land. Patrol leaders had to make sure that the mess kits were stocked with food. This meant a trip to the grocery store for field rations, which never varied. We’d purchase a product called Randy’s Frozen Steaks, breaded meat patties. We burned one after another. And we bought Jiffy Pop, because what’s better than watching Jiffy Pop do its thing over an open fire? Unfortunately, Jiffy Pop requires a controlled flame. Years of scouting, and we never managed to pop a single pan. Basically we were good at sticking hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks. In fact, we were good at sticking anything into the fire. Life doesn’t get much better than watching a Styrofoam cup melt on an open fire.
Breakfast was always a disaster. How were we supposed to know that you cook the bacon first so that you have something to fry the eggs in? We would have starved without Mr. Barber. We would have barely finished burying whatever crisp we had produced – a Boy Scout always leaves the campground better than he found it – than we would smell something like warm maple syrup over at Mr. Barber’s campfire. There he would be, producing one fluffy pancake after another. “Sure smells good, Mr. Barber.”
“You boys hungry?” “Would you like some pancakes?” Mr. Barber was our Moses, bringing forth manna in the desert (Ex 16: 13-15). Looking back, I realize that he always made enough pancakes, or lunch, or dinner for Buffalo Patrol to eat, but only after, over at our campfire, we’d desecrated the name of Betty Crocker.
The Israelites grumble about their next meal, forgetting the goodness of God. The disciples of Jesus follow him because of the wonders he works, rather than the true nourishment that he is. Both groups evince a faithless attitude that can creep into the life of any disciple: if you are God, you’ll do what I want, when I want. That’s magic, not faith. Magic seeks to control the supernatural; faith puts itself at the service of God, knowing that God is good, that God is present, that God will be faithful.
We could depend upon Mr. Barber, but he taught us to trust ourselves. As scouts, the things we did with him were simple enough, and the issue wasn’t whether we did them perfectly or not. We were being changed each time that we tried. None of us could see it at the time, but we were growing into men under his tutelage. Square knots, first aid, learning to read a compass: that I know these things as an adult isn’t nearly as important as the adult I became in learning them, which I did under his kind, manly presence.
In Eucharist, we do what Christ told us to do, without fully knowing why. Someone who knew nothing of Christianity would find what we do plain enough. We share bread and wine around a table, which we call an altar. What we do is simple; who we become in the doing is nothing less than sacred. Through the years we come to this altar in joy, in sadness, in melancholy, in fear, in boredom, in relief, in anticipation. We come with all the emotions and desires that make a life. We’ve come doing what he told us to do, simply because he told us to do it, trusting that God is good, that God is present, that God will be faithful. And we are changed in the doing.
Mr. Barber had a way of knowing when to show up, when to salvage a project we’d bungled. He knew when to call us in for Kool Aid on a hot Kansas afternoon, when to come looking if we didn’t show up, when to pause the ice skating on his pond to call us in for cocoa, hot from the fire. In a life of faith, we tend to think it’s all about what God does for us, but perhaps when God acts is more important than what God does.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein