It was hot, really hot. 1936 was the year of the great drought on the Canadian prairies and the hottest summer in recent memory. Dundas did not escape the heat, nor did I. Like so many of Dundas residents I spent my time sweating and thirsting. Now my father had served in the Great War as a signalman in the Royal Canadian Engineers. Their unit was sent to Siberia to try to keep the White Russians from fighting the Red Russians. He returned home with a few souvenirs, one of which was a beautiful small lacquered box that he kept in the top drawer of his bureau. In this box he kept his loose change.
My allowance that summer was ten cents a month. At the bottom of our hill on the property of the Supertest Station was a refreshment stand. I said that it was a very hot summer but along with the heat was my personal poverty. I had no money to quench my thirst. The only way I could see of getting a cold bottle of pop or a cool milk-shake was to find some money that I didn’t have. I gave in to temptation. I sneaked into my parents’ bed-room and lifted fifteen cents from that Siberian box, headed down the hill and indulged in a cool one. It tasted pretty good.
The summer continued to be hot and I continued to be broke. So, from time to time I lifted a few coins from the loose change in that box in my father’s top drawer. Every time my father came home from work I would be somewhere else. Then I began to wonder why my father seemed to be growing rather distant from me. I wondered if he knew. I eventually decided to quit my thieving and besides, the weather had begun to cool. I don’t know if my father ever missed any of the money from the box in his top drawer. I probably stole about two dollars over the summer. I never counted it. But I lived with the guilt. I hadn’t yet gotten involved with the Boy Scouts.
About forty years later I was doing some teaching, with a group at our retreat centre, about the need to deal with unfinished business in our past that may be affecting us today. One thing I spoke about was the need for restitution; restoring what we may have stolen. I hung myself right in the middle of that teaching. I got (I think the term is) “Hoisted on my own petard.” I had to admit to the group about my boyhood trips to the refreshment stand via my father’s money-box. What to do next? I had to come clean. I tried to figure what I owed my father. I knew the Bible story of Zaccheus, the cheating tax-collector. When Jesus got hold of his heart, he restored four-fold what he had taken unjustly. I also figured that, with inflation and interest as well, I probably owed my father about sixty-four dollars. He was living in Saskatchewan then so I wrote him a letter telling my story, asking forgiveness, and included a cheque for sixty-four dollars. I waited for a reply. In a couple of weeks he returned my cheque, endorsed, and suggested that I give it to some worthy charity. He also admitted that he may have been too tight with my allowance. When I next saw him I wondered what he might say. But the matter never came up. I figure that as far as he was concerned the issue was closed. If it was closed for him it was closed for me. Our
relationship improved after that. It’s one thing to teach about something; it’s quite another to apply your own teaching. It can be embarrassing; it can also be very freeing. But if some embarrassment can lead to some freeing, believe me, it’s worth it.
I was always short of money before I got my paper route and one of the ways of getting a few cents was to collect salvage like paper, rags, and old metal. Those were the days when a man with a horse-drawn wagon came around the streets of Dundas calling “A rag, a rag.” He would buy stuff for a pittance and take it to someone who would pay him a bit more than he paid. We called them “Sheenies.” I didn’t realize until years later that this was racist term. I apologize. To lighten things up I’ll try an old joke here. “This fellow was driving his horse and wagon around the neighborhood calling out, ‘Rags, bones, bottles.’ He noticed a sour-faced woman cleaning her front porch. He called to her, ‘Any old beer bottles lady?’ She glowered at him and shouted, ‘Do I look like the kind of a woman who would drink beer?’ A short pause, then ‘Any old vinegar bottles, lady?’”
Charlie Arm carried on a similar profession but he did it from his house. I think it was on Church Street. People brought salvage material to his house and he paid a few cents a pound for paper, rags and metal. He was very careful and would not take any metal that he thought was taken from the railroad. I think it was Ross Wilkins who introduced me to Charlie Arm. We were about ten years old. We took mostly newspaper to him. It was a slow process to get enough money to buy anything so I decided to hurry the process. Ross didn’t know what I was doing. I got a fair bit of newspaper and an old burlap potato bag. I put paper in the bottom, then added a couple of fair sized stones. Then I filled the top part with more paper. Charlie weighed the bag and gave me the money. I beat a hasty exit from his place before he found out my fraudulent act. I killed any chance of ever taking anything to Charlie again. I still think about this now and then, realizing there is no way I can now fix it. Random House Dictionary defines fraud as “Deceit or trickery used to gain unfair or dishonest advantage.” That was me.
I indulged in a few other criminal activities like when I stole cherries from Millard’s English cherry tree and musk-melons from Cam Thompson’s melon patch. At the age of twelve I was encouraged to join the Boy Scouts. The First Dundas Troop met in the old onion factory on Cross Street and was led by Scoutmaster Jim Lodge. Others of my age like Bob Robinson, Gordie Lennard, the Folkes boys, R. T. Bailey, Jack Manson, Don and George Cliff and Ross Wilkins were part of our troop. Bill McMicking was a bit senior to us and he shared in the leadership. I was the lowliest of the low in the pecking order of scouting, a Tenderfoot. But I was part of something that was good. We repeated the Scout Promise. I can’t remember it clearly but it went something like this: “On my honour, I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and the King, to help other people at all times and to obey the Scout law.” I think that’s how it went. The Scout Law was in addition to the promise. There were ten laws. They began, “A Scout’s honour is to be trusted.” It went
on to talk about other acts and qualities. We remembered them by this little ditty: “Trusty, loyal, helpful; brotherly, courteous and kind; obedient, smiling and thrifty and pure as the whistling wind.”
We were always gagging around and we took the r’s out of the fourth law which was, “A scout is a friend to all and a brother to every other scout.” Our revised version was “A scout is a fiend to all and a bother to every other scout.” I figured the ninth law was one of the hardest. “A scout smiles and whistles under all difficulties.” No room for any complaining; no time for being depressed. Somewhere in all those duties was the requirement that we do a good turn to someone every day. But it was the first law, “A scout’s honour is to be trusted” and the tenth law, “A Scout is pure in thought word and deed” that really got to me.
If I were going to take this all seriously, I had to cut out this nonsense of cheating, stealing and besmirching my honour. I wanted to be trusted. I wanted to be pure and obedient. So I fell into line, as best I could, with the promise and the law. Now I know that one doesn’t get to heaven by keeping the Scout Law, but it simplifies life here quite a bit. You don’t have to hide. You don’t have to wonder at night, “Will I be found out?” or “Have I been found out already?” I never talked about it I just quit that stuff. I rose through the ranks of our troop. I became a patrol leader, then the troop leader. We got a new Scoutmaster, Lawrence Hicks, and moved from the onion factory into St. Paul’s gym. Scouter Hicks was keen for us to earn proficiency badges and advance through the levels of scouting. I got my Second Class, then my First Class, then, wonder of wonders, I became a King Scout. Bob and Ken Folkes, Gordie Lennard, Jack Manson and I had our picture taken on the lawn of St Paul’s Church, King’s Scouts, all of us. I think we were the first for the Dundas troop and we saw ourselves pictured in the Dundas Star.
Pierre Burton is quoted as saying, “Without the Boy Scouts I would have become a juvenile delinquent.” Maybe me too. Although I have a high regard for the Scouting Movement, looking back I chuckle a little at some of the things that don’t always work. Taught to paddle our own canoe, carry our own pack and earn lots of badges, we might think we can earn our eternal salvation too. Nope. That’s a gift that comes with the asking. And there are times when pride would keep us from asking for help when it’s exactly what we need. It’s interesting that there is no law in Scouting that says we have to be humble. It’s just as well for every badge we earn, every “all-round cord” that we merit, are all to be displayed somewhere on our uniform. They all say, “Look at me!” My grandson William has joined the Cubs. He’s caught on quickly and had set out to cover his sash with as many badges as he can earn in a hurry. “Grandpa, this one is for making my bed and keeping my room clean.”
So, even if Scouting isn’t perfect, it’s a great thing for a boy to be a part of. We marched with other troops in the Eaton’s Good Deed Radio Club parade down King Street in Hamilton. We marched, enviously, behind the Preston Scout House Bugle Band, wishing
that we, too, had a band. We went to camp at Drumbo which is west of Kitchener. There we slept in big bell-tents, ten to a tent and feet towards the centre pole. I learned it was wise to dig a hole in the ground for my hip before I climbed into my sleeping bag at night. The food was not great but we were always hungry and impatiently sang before every meal, “Here we sit like birds in the wilderness, birds in the wilderness, birds in the wilderness. Here we sit like birds in the wilderness, waitin’ for the food to come……” It was at camp in Drumbo that we were treated to a feat of skill that was beyond the ability of most of us. One of our guys, Bob Robinson, could vomit at will. Whether before or after lunch we would encourage him, “Come on Robbie, puke for us.” And he would. There was no badge for this art form.
We never went to the big Jamborees that Scouts attend today, we just didn’t have the money. We were content to enjoy the simple pleasures of a camp-out with a big fire,
stories and sing-songs. We didn’t always do things by the book. A scout was allowed two matches to start a fire. At one large camp gathering, we’d had rain and the wood was a bit damp. I was disappointed to see one of the leaders pour some gasoline on the wood to get it going. Well, nobody’s perfect.
I’m grateful to the scouts for helping me get over my tendency to get what I wanted by theft and deceipt. Later in life I became aware that I had skillfully developed a veneer whereby my flaws were much more discreet. Righteousness is not a natural characteristic for the human being. That’s why we need the gospel of forgiveness. However the laws and promises of the Boy Scouts played an important part in my social and moral development. When I was minister of a Sudbury church, I was invited to become chaplain to the Boy Scouts. I taught and examined candidates for their “Religion and Life” badge. I keep, in my closet, the beautiful chaplain’s stole they gave me. My uniform is long gone but, for sentimental reasons, I have kept my badges. Memories of camping and camp-fires, sing- songs and parades, competitions and earning badges are great, but it was mostly the friendships and the influence of the Scout law that I’m grateful for. Thanks, Lord Baden- Powell for founding the movement.