Two years ago, instead of my usual column, my Christmas gift to you was a short story titled “A Winter Tale.” It was based on a story I’d read as a boy, in a 1921 Boy Scout Yearbook passed down to me by my father, who had also been a Scout.
Many readers quickly wrote to me about how much they’d enjoyed it. Several months passed, till my wife Linda suggested that maybe it might make a good beginning to a longer story. Still, I put that idea aside for several more months (after all, your letters kept coming in and needed answers). Linda mentioned the idea several more times over the ensuing months until one day in the spring of 2012, when I thought, “Hmm… Maybe she’s right—she usually is.” So I started writing, and writing… It took more than a year. What emerged is a complete 100,000-word manuscript of a tale titled “The Mantooth Bone” (I’m in the “agent/publisher-seeking” mode at the moment).
“The Mantooth Bone” continues the tale of Eddie Stevens—hardly the kind of kid who’d turn out to be a mystery-solver, local hero, super-Scout, and boyfriend of the feistiest red-head in middle school. Heck, he’s a short, bashful, absent-minded computer nerd who suffers from “morning hair” 24-7. Besides, Eddie’s convinced himself he’s an “oops” kid, and this makes him even more withdrawn.
Going well beyond Scouting, the tale becomes larger. Ultimately it’s a story of how Eddie breaks through his secret sadness just as his father suffers a devastating injury from which he must fight his way back. There’s also is the underlying mysterious death of his Scoutmaster’s wife that Eddie uncovers, climaxing in a near-death struggle, but raising the question: What are the consequences of saving the life of someone who’s just tried to kill you?
Chapter 2 (below) picks up immediately after Eddie decides the troop he wants to join. If you remember the original story, just start reading. If not, or you’d like a “refresher,” go here first – http://netcommissioner.com/askandy/2011/12/a-winter-tale/ – then come back and read on.
Here’s Chapter 2 of THE MANTOOTH BONE…
…At the front door I kick off my snow boots and swing it open. Snuffy’s already at the front door, wagging his tail and trying to jump up on me. I can see my parents turning toward me from in the kitchen. “Hi Mom! Hi Dad! Guess what troop I picked! I picked…” and that’s as far as I get.
“Glad you’re home, Eddie,” my dad says from the kitchen. “C’mon in here for a minute. While you were out on your hike, your mother and talked it over. We think, if you really want to be a Scout, how about you join the troop where we go to church? I know it’s a little farther away than where those other troops meet, but one of us can drive you there, so that should work out okay.”
“But that’s not…” and I’m stopped again. Dad points to where I should sit, Mom sits down across the table from me, next to Dad. We sort of look at each other with our mouths shut for a minute, just staring across the pine tabletop covered with the white supper dishes and the blue coffee mugs that match the color of the kitchen’s walls. Today’s newspaper is there, too, in assorted piles, with the crossword on top, finished with a pen, with no cross-outs, like my dad always does.
“I think you’ll find that Scout troops are the same pretty much everywhere, Eddie,” Dad starts in. “It doesn’t really matter what troop you join, because they all do the same sorts of things: hiking, camping, and the like. I know Max was in Troop 5, but why not join the one at our church? After all, you already know the Sunday school teachers there, and probably some of the boys from Sunday school getting ready to start thinking about confirmation, which you’ll do in just a couple of years. I see that look on your face, but why not give it a try? I’ll bet it’ll be just fine, okay?”
Like I really have a choice here. I feel this blackness right behind my eyes; it’s not going away. I’m feeling sorta—what? Limp, I guess, is the right word. I’d like to say “this really sucks” but I already know that’s not gonna work, and Mom hates that word anyway.
“OK, Dad, I’ll try it, if you say so,” and I slowly get up and go to my own room. I guess I could have argued back, but when Dad makes up his mind about something, that’s usually the way it is; end of story. Not that he doesn’t care or anything; he’s just used to making decisions. That’s what he does on his job all the time, so it’s a pretty solid habit with him.
“Eddie, don’t you want some supper,” my mom calls after me. “I can warm up the casserole for you,” as she gets up from the table and starts putting their dishes, forks, and coffee mugs in the sink. That’s always puzzled me. Why do we wash dishes before we put them in the dishwasher? Isn’t that the dishwasher’s job?
“Nah, it’s okay, Mom,” I call back over my shoulder. “The guys had lots of food for all of us this afternoon. Besides, I’ve got homework for Monday and isn’t an ‘NCIS’ rerun on tonight? I’d like to watch it before going to bed.” I know she’s way older than me, but I still think Ziva’s really hot, and I like the reruns she’s in. Gibbs is a cool dude—sorta looks like my dad, except my dad’s way taller. I’m only about five feet tall and Dad’s well over six. I sure hope I get that early growth spurt, like Max did. He’s six-foot-four, like Dad. Even Mom’s nearly six feet tall! Then there’s me. Brown hair, brown eyes, skin that tans, like, in two seconds, but Dad and Max are both blond, blue-eyed, and burn to crisps in the sun! When people see all four of us together for the first time, they always think Mom and Dad each had a son first and then got married. Mom and Dad and Max always think this is just a riot! I don’t.
“OK, Eddie, we’ll watch it together,” my dad calls after me. “If you need any help with that assignment, I’ll be in the family room.” But first he gathers up the newspaper and puts it on a chair, then takes the rinsed dishes and stuff from Mom’s wet hands and starts putting them in the dishwasher racks.
Later, while we’re watching the show, Dad does another crossword, Mom knits, and Snuffy curls up next to me on the couch. It’s still chilly, so we throw some logs in the family room’s fireplace. I love that fireplace. Mom wants Dad to convert it to gas, so we don’t clutter up the family room with pine to start it and then oak logs later, but I really like that we use real wood. Sometimes on cold winter nights we even roast marshmallows over the flames, and that’s the best ever.
It’s Tuesday night. Dad and Mom get home from work later than they usually do. I’m getting my new Scout uniform on—I figure I’d better eat supper wearing it or I’ll be late to my first troop meeting over at the church. My mom sewed the patches on in the right places this time, not like my old Cub uniform, when I was just seven, that she had to re-sew because she didn’t check my handbook for where stuff was supposed to go. I felt really lame the first time I walked into a pack meeting and saw all the other kids wearing their patches and badges in places different from me. I figured they didn’t know what they were doing till I got it that it was me that had it all wrong. Anyway, I know these are right. I checked ‘em myself in my brother Max’s old Scout Handbook.
My dad drives tonight, because he wants to meet some of the leaders. He says a couple of them are Sunday school teachers, too. I think maybe I should tell him some of those teachers are real Napoleons, and we all hate Sunday school, but I’m figuring this isn’t the best time for that.
We walk into a big and noisy basement room, full of Scouts. At the front, the two flags—the American flag and the troop’s—are standing where you’d expect them to be, but there’s something different. In my old Cub Scout pack, the pack flag had a lot of streamers and ribbons tied to the top of it, from awards the pack had won. This troop flag is, well, just the flag on a pole in a stand; no ribbons. What’s up with that? Well, maybe they have a scrapbook or something instead. But I’m still wondering about some other stuff, like when I Googled “Troop 22” in our town and found—nothing. No troop website, or Google citations, either.
In the middle of the room there’s this big guy, with a belly about the size of a Mack Truck—you can’t even see his belt or buckle. He spots us and marches over in big black boots with his blue jeans tucked into their tops and a way too small uniform shirt that looks like its buttons are gonna pop and then rocket across the room any second now. Then I get these big teeth in my face—big as the tiles on our bathroom floor—in this weird grin like he’s trying to look all happy but hurts somewhere at the same time. “Glad to meetcha, lad!” he barks at me. His breath is weird. It smells like—what? Gummi Bears?
“Uh, I’m Eddie Stevens, sir,” is about all that comes out. My left hand goes out, for a Boy Scout handshake; he sticks out his right. It’s the size of a catcher’s mitt.
“Not so fast there, Freddy! In this troop, we use our right hand; none of that sissy left-hand stuff here!” Then he grabs my own right hand and starts yanking it up and down like he’s pumping water. “I’m Mister Sprockette, and I’m your Scoutmaster!” he bellows through his toothy grin. “Welcome to my troop!” at a decibel-count that could bounce off the back wall of the room. His pink bulby nose is so close to my face I can count the wet black hairs in his nostrils.
“Hey, don’t you have a brother, Mark or Mike or something?” he asks. “That kid, I remember! Strapping lad, he was! Hard to believe you’re his brother! He was in one of those other troops! Well, at least you’re joining my troop! Even if you are a shrimp!” Yeah I get that a lot. Oh, well, here we go again…
“Mister Sprock, I’m Jim Stevens, Eddie’s father,” my dad speaks up for the first time. “What time should I be back to pick him up?”
“That’s Sprockette! And you can pick him up at nine, sharp! But not so fast there! We’re looking for a good Assistant Scoutmaster! How about it, Timmy?”
“Well, I’ll think about it,” says Dad with a cautious look. “See you at nine, Eddie.” He pats me on the shoulder and he’s out the door.
Mr. Sprockette turns around to where the Scouts are playing a loose game that looks like a combination of basketball and dodge-ball. “Line up!” he hollers. “We gotta get started here! Lots to learn tonight!”
He tells me to stand over at the end of the line of Scouts—there are maybe two dozen of ‘em—and then he leads us all in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Scout Oath and Law. I already read the first couple chapters of Max’s Scout Handbook. Isn’t a Scout supposed to be doing this stuff? That’s what Sean did when I visited Troop 5, where he’s the Senior Patrol Leader. Well, whatever. It’ll be okay, I guess.
“Alright! All of you on the floor, in a circle around me!” Mr. Sprockette shouts at us. Then he spends the next hour standing over us, teaching us how to tie knots. Well, not teaching, really. More like doing the knots so fast you can’t figure out what his catcher’s mitt hands are doing, and then he shouts at us—spit flies out of his mouth like wet fireworks each time—when we can’t do what he just did. As if we can even see over the top of his Mack Truck belly. Boy, I think, this is really weird.
“OK, we’re done for the night!” Mr. Sprockette announces. “Better know those knots next week, because I’m gonna test ya!”
At least I get to know the Scouts to my right and left. Todd and Frankie. Todd’s been in the troop about three weeks—he was the “newbie” till I showed up tonight. Frankie’s been in for three years and he tells me he’s just made First Class rank. Todd and Frankie shortened the Scoutmaster’s name; they call him “Mister S.” But it sure sounds like “Mister Ass.” They may be right. We’ll see…
“So how’d it go last night, Eddie?” Lamar’s asking me. Lamar Washington’s family lives two houses away from ours. We’ve been in the same classes at Winthrop School since kindergarten. I’ve gotten to know his older brothers—Louis, Leroy, and Leon—pretty well, and even his two younger sisters—LaRhonda and Latoya—too. Louis and Leroy are in high school now, and star athletes. Leon’s at Amherst-Ballard Middle School, where I’ll be going next year, and he’ll graduate into high school in a couple more months. Latoya’s not in school yet; her mom and dad call her the “family rug rat.” LaRhonda, like most girls, is pretty much a pest. She’s in third grade and never leaves me alone. Every time I go over to Lamar’s house, she spots me coming up the driveway and always gets to the door first. “Eddie! You’re here again! Eddie, come play with me! Come see my dolls! Come have pretend tea with me!” Like I said, she’s a pest.
“Gotta tell you, Lamar, it pretty much sucked.”
“I thought you were gonna join Troop 1 or Troop 5. But you’re in 22. What’s with that?”
“Well, it was my parents’ great idea; mostly my dad’s. He wasn’t a Scout, so I guess there’s no way for him to know good from sucky.” Then I tell Lamar about what went on in the troop meeting, and the more I think about it, the more I think maybe I don’t want to do this at all.
“Maybe my dad was right. Maybe I should just play sports instead. I mean, just ‘cause Max made Eagle doesn’t mean I hafta!”
“Nah, ya gotta give it more than one try, Eddie. Heck, I don’t even get to try at all!”
“Yeah, I forgot,” I admit. “I’m sorry your dad’s so into Little League like he is. That doesn’t give you much choice, I guess.”
Lamar’s dad’s been a Little League coach for, like, forever. He coached Louis, Leroy, and Leon when they played, and now it’s Lamar’s turn. Good thing Lamar really loves baseball, ‘cause I really don’t think he’d have much of a choice. The best thing is Lamar’s really skilled. He’s been starting pitcher for his team ever since we outgrew T-Ball. Talk about an arm! Lamar’s awesome. Sometimes though, his dad will start him as a centerfielder, ‘cause he can throw screamers from the outfield straight to the catcher at home plate and never miss. Lamar will practice in his back yard for hours, pitching bucketsful of balls through an old tire that’s been hanging from a tree branch out back for years—probably since before Leon was even born. But no Scouts for Lamar; it’s Little League or else, in his house. His dad said he could do Cub Scouts, and we were in the same den, and that was a lot of fun. But Boy Scouts and risk missing a Little League practice or game? Not a chance. Too bad. I think he’d be a great Scout.
“So, you wanna pitch, and I’ll catch for you?” I finally ask him.
“OK, Eddie, let’s do it. I can work on the strike zone corners that way, and I don’t have to lug the balls back-and-forth when you’re here.” So I borrow Leroy’s old catcher’s mitt and that’s how we spend the afternoon, even though it’s pretty chilly out in the back yard. But Lamar only practices for accuracy; no fastballs. We tried that once and his pitch turned into a fast curveball that I couldn’t catch. It hit me were no guy ever ever wants to get hit. So, no fastballs or curves; just the strike zone corners. He’s so good with his aim, and so consistent with his windup that we all gave him a nickname—“The Washing Machine”—last season. It stuck.
Lamar’s a good guy and I’m sorry he won’t be in Boy Scouts with me—if I stick it out, that is.
The next Tuesday rolls around way too fast. Dad’s traveling again; London this time, I think. Tough to keep track; I think it’s Gatwick Airport. He’s a construction engineer; builds airport runways. Sometimes I get to go with him, if the airport’s close by and he has to do a site inspection on a Saturday. I always like those trips. It’s just Dad and me, and he shows me a lot of stuff that’s cool to learn about, like about how runways are built, and how to use a slide-rule, which he still prefers over calculators. The one he uses was his dad’s—my grandfather’s.
Dad doesn’t hug a lot, like Mom does, but he sure knows his stuff and how to teach it. “My son, the information sponge,” he calls me sometimes. Yeah, I guess I am, and I’m sorta lucky, too, ’cause whatever I read I can remember like it’s right there in front of me, even weeks and months after.
Supper’s fast tonight because it’s just Mom and me, and Snuffy gets the scraps—but not from the table. I actually like helping Mom with making supper and stuff. Hey, I’ve made my own lunches for school since second grade. Works better for Mom and Dad, too, ‘cause they’re always real rushed in the morning, chugging cups of ugly black caffeine while I get Snuffy walked, then me off to the school bus, and both cars out of the driveway in opposite directions.
Done with supper, now it’s take out the garbage and the recycling, some more homework, and then into my uniform and off to the troop meeting in Dad’s car but with Mom driving it. Beats Mom’s minivan. Yeah, that minivan was important when Max was younger and I was just a baby an’ all, but now? Dad’s car is much cooler. It’s an English car—a Triumph. It’s a 1973 TR-6 he rebuilt in our garage from the frame-up. Has its HISTORIC license plates, too! I was his helper when he rebuilt her. Well, more like parts-holder, for spark plugs, the carburetors, wiring harness and distributor, lug nuts, exhaust manifold, tailpipe, and stuff like that. But Dad talked about everything he was doing while I got to watch and listen. It’s dark green—British Racing Green, he says. With a 2.5 liter straight six engine, fifteen-inch wheels, and four-on-the-floor plus overdrive, it really hauls butt! I think Mom secretly likes driving it a lot more than the minivan she won’t part with. She wants him to put a roll-bar in it, but Dad says that’s not original to the car, so he won’t do it. They don’t argue or anything, but I know there’s this little sort of air-gap between them on this, like some other stuff, too. They like each other a lot, though; they’re just not all gushy about it. When we all watch TV together they always hold hands, and that’s sorta nice, but they’re not kissy-kissy all the time, which is good, ‘cause that can get a little embarrassing, especially if we’re out somewhere.
Anyway, I’d found the knots from last week in Max’s old handbook, then found an awesome animated knot-tying website, so I worked on doing them a couple of times during the week when things were quiet, and I think I know them pretty good.
I get to the troop meeting about ten minutes early, look for Todd and Frankie, and walk over. Good luck for me, maybe: Looks like they’re in the same patrol.
“Hey. Todd. Frankie. Okay to hang with you guys?” I ask.
“Yeah, sure,” they both say.
“How’re you doing with those knots?” adds Todd. “Here’s some rope. Want to try ‘em?”
We all practice the knots together, and we’re all pretty good. Bowline, sheep-shank, sheet-bend, square, and a couple others. Then we join in on the basketball-dodge-ball game till we hear “LINE UP!”
There’s Mister S, bathroom tile teeth, Mack Truck belly, wet-haired nose, and those big, black, lace-up boots, standing in the middle of the room, his hand in the air with the three-fingered Scout sign, bellowing “SIGN’S UP!” loud enough to crack concrete and drive a bus through the hole. Then it’s the Pledge, Oath, and Law again, and I’m still wondering: where’s the Senior Patrol Leader, like in Troop 1 and Troop 5.
Time for the knot-tying test. Mister S lines us up, gives us each a six-foot long piece of white nylon rope that’s had its ends melted so it doesn’t come apart. It looks to be quarter-inch, and it’s braided; not three-strand laid. He tells us, “OK, time for the TEST! Here’s what you’re gonna do: You’re gonna tie the knot I tell you to, and drop it on the floor in front of you as soon as you’re done! Then I’m gonna check it! Anybody who takes longer than ten seconds, or who ties it wrong is OUT and gets to sit over there!” He points to the floor near the side wall of the room. “Spread out a little. Give yourself some working room. Ready… BOWLINE!”
I flip one end of my rope into the first loop, then weave the other end up, through, around, back down, tug, and drop the rope. Then fast, I look up and down the line. Other ropes are dropping, too. Others not; four Scouts are still struggling.
“TIME!” Mister S shouts. “You, you, you, and you, you’re too slow! Hand me your ropes and go sit over there! Now, let’s see what we have here…” He picks up the tied rope of a Scout about four to my left. “WRONG! Go sit with the others!” He picks up another, farther down the line. “WRONG! Don’t you idiots know ANYTHING?! Go sit!” Then three RIGHTs in a row, and he turns around and heads down toward the end of the line where I’m standing. Another RIGHT, then another. Then a WRONG. Then me… “RIGHT! Not bad for the newbie!” and he moves to Todd, next to me. “RIGHT!” Then Frankie. “WRONG! I ought a cut that First Class badge off a your shirt RIGHT NOW! Go sit!”
I watch Frankie. His shoulders slump, his face sags, his eyes get big and glassy-like. He’s thirteen and he looks like a five year-old whose dog just died.
“OK, pick up your ropes and get ready… SHEEP SHANK!”
I throw the three loops, stretch them out, then a quick overhand loop around each end, and drop the rope. “TIME!” He picks up my rope first. “RIGHT! Not bad, kid. Arnie, right?” Then down the line. A couple WRONGS and three more RIGHTs. Now it’s just Todd and me and two other Scouts; the rest are sitting dismally on the cold concrete basement floor.
The next one’s a no-brainer, the square knot. I’m still in after Mister S calls time and walks down the line. Todd’s out, and so is another; it’s just me and one other Scout; he looks about the same age as Frankie, but man, is he ever big!
“Ready… SHEET BEND!… TIME!” Mister S checks both our knots lying on the floor, dropped at the same time. “You’re both RIGHT! It’s a TIE! OK, we’re gonna do a tie-breaker! Pick up your ropes and untie ‘em! Here we go… SAME KNOT—BEHIND YOUR BACKS! GO!”
Instead of dropping one end to sling it around my back like the big guy next to me does, I keep both ends in my hands and flip the whole rope over my head, jump-rope style. Behind my back, I make the U, wiggle the free end up, around, and under itself, tug, drop the rope behind me. I look to my left. The big guy’s still trying to tie the knot.
Mister S barks, “TIME!” and then, “Hey, kid. How’d you do that?” he says to me. To the other, “YOU LOSE! Go sit with the other LOSERS!” He picks up my knot. “You got it right; you WIN!” He stops; looks puzzled; shakes his head. I decide that this isn’t a good time to show-boat—or even smile.
The Scouts sitting on the floor are mostly silent, except for Frankie and Todd, who are grinning and giving me thumbs-ups. OK, now I can smile back.
“How’d you let this new kid beat you all?” Mister S turns to the Scouts hunched over, sitting on the floor. “He hasn’t even earned his ‘Scout’ badge yet! That reminds me… Ernie, you come with me! You kids can play ball till I’m done here!”
“Uh, it’s Eddie, sir,” I mumble. Does he ever get anybody’s name right? We walk over to an old, beat-up wood desk in the back corner of the room. It has two even older-looking wood chairs—one in front; the other by the knee-hole. They both look like somebody got ‘em off the Titanic, they’re that beat up and ready to fall apart. Mister S points to the chair in front and tells me to sit.
“Got your handbook?” he asks. I show him Max’s old one, that I brought with me tonight—if I decide to stick it out, I’ll buy my own sometime this week. “Good! Your father gave me your application last week, so let’s go over some stuff!” He has me stand up and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance, then do the Scout sign, show how to salute, and do the Scout handshake, but with the right hand like he insists on instead of the left like the handbook says. “Left hand is for sissies!” he tells me again. We do a couple other things, like describe the Scout badge, which I can do and I even know what the two stars next to the Eagle’s wings mean, which seems to surprise him. “OK, you’re done. Next week I’ll give you your Scout badge, so you’d better be here and on-time or I’ll flunk you and you’ll do this all over again.”
Oh, whoopee! This is just so much fun—NOT! I go home with Mom that night quiet, but grinning inside. I nailed that knot! And he didn’t know what the stars on the Scout badge meant till I told him
I usually catch the 7:05 school bus that stops two doors down from our house. But Thursday morning I miss it ‘cause Snuffy refuses to poop till the last minute. I get him back in the house, grab my book bag and run down to the next block, where I know another bus stops a few minutes later, and jump on. There’s Todd, sitting by himself in the third row.
I sit down next to him. “Hey,” I say.
“Sorry it wasn’t you who won, at Scouts the other night,” I tell him, and I mean it; he’s a good kid and I like him.
“Bummer,” he says. “But how’d you do that thing behind your back? Mister S does that to us all the time when he wants to make sure nobody wins. Nobody’s ever done what you did. We thought it was great. You should a seen the steam coming out of his ears when he checked your knot. I thought his head was gonna explode!”
“Confession time, I guess. My mom and dad say I’m ambidextrous, and I guess I am, for some things. I play lacrosse and my coach always puts me in as forward cause I can switch hands on the stick and hurl goals from the left or right side, doesn’t matter—confuses the defense guys on the other team.”
Todd asks, “Can you write with both hands, too?”
“Nah, not so well. But in art class, I can do pencil drawings either way, which is good sometimes when I need to draw mirror images that I want to match. And it made the piano pretty easy to learn, when I was a little kid.”
“Jeez. That’s neat, Eddie,” Todd says. “So that’s how you did that knot, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t exactly have a lot of time to think about it; I just did it. But how about we don’t tell Mister S. Never know when I might need that again.”
“You mean Mister Ass, don’t you?” Todd grins. I grin back.
Maybe I’ll switch to this bus. It’s a little far, but I’m a runner anyway, so no big deal. Mom and Dad won’t mind—heck, they probably won’t even know—because they’re usually out the door and into their cars like two minutes before me, anyway. Besides, on my regular bus there are guys from Troop 1 and Troop 5, and there’s this sort of awkward thing between us because I’m in a totally different troop and not the one I wanted to join, and we all know it. Yeah, riding with Todd’s gonna be OK…
Merry Christmas & Happy Scouting!
Have a question? Facing a dilemma? Wondering where to find a BSA policy or guideline? Write to email@example.com. Please include your name and council. (If you’d prefer to be anonymous, if published, let me know and that’s what we’ll do.)
[No. 376 – 12/25/2013 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2013]