April 1953, a brand-new Boy Scout, I walked for the first time into a troop meeting. I’d been a Cub Scout, earned my Webelos Badge (Arrow of Light, it’s called today), and had just turned 11 years old. I was taller than most boys my age, and more shy than most. Painfully shy, a characteristic that wouldn’t leave me for several more years.
The smallish downstairs room of the church across the street from Hudson County Park in North Bergen, New Jersey, was filled and busy with Scouts doing things Scouts do. Some were to one side, taking instruction in knot-tying from an older Scout in a solid dark green uniform (a member of the Explorer post of the same number as the troop, I later learned). Others were huddled in planning, in their patrol Corners. The Scout who seemed most in charge—the Senior Patrol Leader—was checking his watch and conferring with several other obviously senior Scouts. It was happily noisy, but not a din. And, to my consternation, and I’m sure my father’s, too, for he was with me that evening, there were no adults in sight!
Where are the leaders? my dad and I silently asked one another. Surely, some adult must be in charge, just like the Cubmaster and Den Mothers in my former pack? But the only person who seemed to be in charge was this Scout—the Senior Patrol Leader.
He raised the Scout sign. The Patrol Leaders were first to spot this; they fell silent, returned the sign, and I saw them nudge other Scouts near them, so that within the briefest of moments, the whole roomful of Scouts was silently raising the sign. I wondered how this happened, having become inured to the inevitable shout, “Sign’s up!” in my former pack. But it seemed pretty cool, so I did the same.
The Scout in charge came right over to me. “Hi, I’m Charlie, Senior Patrol Leader. And who might you be…? “Uh, I’m Andy, and I just graduated from my pack, and…Uh…well…” I stammered. “Oh, OK!” he said, “Then you want to have a talk with Bill!”
“Bill?” I wondered? Which Scout is he?
Charlie introduced himself to my father, just as he’d done with me, and directed us both to a little L-shaped corner of the room, where there was a small desk and a few chairs. “Bill,” Charlie announced, “I’d like to introduce Andy here to you… Andy’s a new Scout. And this gentleman is his Dad.”
From behind the desk he rose, a big man, and came around it. Bending down just a little, he extended his left hand, grinned, and said, “Hi, Andy. I’m Bill, and I’ll be your Scoutmaster if you think you’d like to join Troop 5.”
“Bill”? I’d never in my life called any man or woman by their first name! Everyone else was Mister This or Missus That or Uncle Whozis or Aunt So-and-so. Teachers were Mister and Miss. My Pastor was…Pastor. The cop on the beat was Officer. Even the local grocer and his wife were Mister and Mizz. And any man or woman whose name I didn’t know right off was still Sir or Ma’am. Always. And you’d dare not better biff up!
Bill? Can I really call a grown man like him Bill? Well, yes I could, because every Scout in the troop called him Bill.
Wilfred C. Bohling was born three years before Baden-Powell published his first “Scouting for Boys” book—1904—in upstate New York, Clinton County, where his family owned a farm. But he was an engineer by profession, and beginning in 1930 lived in North Bergen, New Jersey. Troop 5, chartered in 1916, was reputed to be the first troop in what was then the North Hudson Council (some 90 years later, it’s a part of the Northern New Jersey Council).
When I first met him, Bill was 53 and had already been Troop 5’s Scoutmaster for well over two decades. In 1966, when the troop celebrated its 50th Anniversary, Bill was still deeply connected with the troop. He was, after all, one of the troop’s earliest Eagle Scouts.
Bill was a large, but not overstuffed, man. He had a large head, and equally large teeth, and showed every one when he laughed, which was often. Kind and kindly to all Scouts, never gruff or overbearing, always praising and in search of the good in all of us Scouts, he had our admiration, respect, and deep affection. Without ever asking for it. He was the only man, at that time in my young life, with whom I could talk without stammering.
Flash forward 50 years. I’ve just joined a new council. Meeting lots of new Scouters. One in particular stood out: A “Scouter’s Scouter,” if you will. A true gentleman, and a guy who “got it” on what Scouting’s all about. About 15 years older than me. We struck up a conversation, reminiscing about how we’d each been Scouts in a model troop, that was Scout-run, Scout-planned, and with lots of Scouting stuff to do. We talked about how we almost never missed a meeting, simply because they were fun and we learned stuff. We talked about our patrols, and I mentioned that I still had my original patrol flag—the one my Scoutmaster presented to me when I was elected Patrol Leader. We talked about our Scoutmaster, about how he was always there, on every hike and camp-out, every summer camp, and always the kind of man we looked up to and wanted to be like when we grew up. Then we each asked: What was your Scoutmaster’s name? Bill, we both said, simultaneously. Yes, we’d both been in the same Troop 5… 15 years apart. And Bill was Scoutmaster to us both.
Is there a moral to this? You bet. And you already know exactly what it is, because you “get it,” too!
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