Sure he was a crook, but he was also the greatest scout leader ever!

by Terry Hargrove

The Boy Scouts. I know that’s a fragment, but sentence fragments remind me of a rope that needs tying, and everything I learned about rope tying I learned in the Boy Scouts. I have a son of my own now, and there’s no place I’d rather see him suffer through life’s mysteries than in the Boy Scouts.

I was in the scouts for five and a half years but never advanced beyond Second Class. I wasn’t interested in all that merit badge stuff, I just liked camping and hiking. It seems that today you never hear about the scouts unless there is some horrible revelation about the Scout Leader, but not in my childhood. The only disreputable Scout Leader we had, Mr. Ragsdale, stole all our tents and equipment, but before that, he taught us how to tie a palamar knot, and that saved us more fishing tackle in the long run than the cost of seven second-hand army tents. He also taught us how to bake potatoes in a fire and some wonderful curse words we’d never heard before. OK, the last part I’m not too proud of, but at least one of the guys in my troop went to Hollywood and became a scriptwriter, so his mastery of profanity became a marketable skill, a skill he wouldn’t have learned if not for the Boy Scouts. But the greatest gift Mr. Ragsdale gave us, was the knowledge of justice. Clarence Darrow was wrong. Justice lives.

My favorite scouting memory is from 1967. Mr. Ragsdale took us to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. I think there were 16 guys in my group, but that weekend we were joined by a dozen other troops from Tennessee and Kentucky. There must have been 200 scouts, and they gave us a tour of the cave. Our guide, young Mr. Wilcox, showed us the remains of a poor Native American who had been crushed by a stone hundreds of years before.

“We call him Lost John,” joked young Mr. Wilcox. “We’ve enclosed his skeleton in glass, and he remains our top exhibit. Everybody wants to see the dead Indian.”

Mr. Ragsdale was ashamed of the treatment of this young explorer, who died alone in the dark so long ago. After the tour commenced, he and my brother stared at the display for long moments, as the polished glass reflected two sad, reverential faces.

“It ain’t right, boys,” he said later, as we crawled through mud and squeezed between continent-sized slabs of rock. “Any more’n if you or I ‘uz to be killed in this here cave. That young Indian needs a proper burial. He don’t need to be in a glass case for us to oggle. It just ain’t right, and these things have a way of evenin’ out.”

“We think Lost John serves an important function,” smirked young Mr. Wilcox. “He’s a piece of history frozen in time. We gave him a proper service.”

“It ain’t right,” repeated Mr. Ragsdale. “I’m sorry I brung these boys to see it.”

That night, the Park Service allowed all 200 of us to spend the evening inside the cave. We rolled out our sleeping bags on the gray clay and settled in as best we could. In our foolishness, we asked for a ghost story. Young Mr. Wilcox gave us one, and it remains the most terrifying tale I had ever heard.

It was about a boy, our age, who became separated from the others in his group, and wandered the cave, not knowing how long he’d been lost, for how could he know without the setting of sun and moon. He lived on bats and spring water and, as the long years rushed by, his skin became translucent. His eyes expanded to the size of dinner plates and he forgot how to talk as he wandered the catacombs looking for someone. But on those rare occasions when he saw a light in the distance, it hurt his monstrous eyes, so accustomed to the dark they were. So the Translucent Kid waited in the dark, waited for someone to get close, to stagger near, so he could grab him with his frightful hands.

“OK, boys,” said a smiling, young Mr. Wilcox. “There’s your ghost story. Go to sleep.”

Like we could. Then he turned the lights out. It was dark. Now, I’d heard the word “dark” before, but until I was in a cave, I didn’t know the meaning of dark. This was a dark that didn’t get better. This was the dark of death. This was the terrible dark that the Translucent Kid wandered around in, the dark that swallowed Lost John, the murderous, primordial dark.

“I can’t see! I can’t see!” I screamed.

“Shut up, you idiot,” spat my brother. “You’re in a cave. It’s supposed to be this dark.

I could hear movement. My brother was doing something, but I couldn’t tell what. Then I heard him grunt, heard the swish of a cotton sleeve, then, far away in the dark, a shriek of surprise and muttered cursing. That night, in the dark of Mammoth Cave, the game of Blind Throwing Cave Floor Clay was invented. There was only one rule: don’t, under any circumstances, turn on your flashlight. That made you a target.

Our game went on for perhaps 30 minutes, before young Mr. Wilcox threw the giant breaker and flooded the area with light. We shrank from the sudden illumination, covered in guilt and clay.

“What’s going on here?” demanded young Mr. Wilcox. “I want you boys to go to sleep! I’m going to cut this light out and,…and…”

He realized his mistake, but it was too late. Our eyes adjusted to the harsh white light, and each of us, 200 scouts and at least one righteous Scout Leader, possessed a clay ball and a focused aim. When young Mr. Wilcox cut the light off, the air sizzled with a furious barrage, and one passionate scream, several octaves lower than a typical Boy Scout’s.

“This here’s for Lost John!”

Mr. Ragsdale took us home the next day, and absconded with our tents the following weekend. We didn’t care. Lost John was removed in 1976, when a Federal law was passed that prohibited the display of Native American remains. He was buried in a secret location. I don’t know if they ever found Mr. Ragsdale, but I hope he got away. Some lessons can’t be learned in school. I never saw young Mr. Wilcox again either, but my older brother assured me the Translucent Kid probably got him.

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