True Funny Stories About Music Lessons...
How Summer Camp & Prayer Turned Me Into a Halfway Decent Piano Player
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“Scout Shinn, Where Are Your Pants?”
When I was 8 years old, I was one of the worst piano students known to mortal piano teachers. I stared out the window, dreamed about baseball, and drove poor Mrs. Graham, my 70-year-old piano teacher with whom I had a lesson every Saturday morning, to distraction. I even wore my fielder’s glove to a lesson one day.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like music – I did – but all those old guys like Bach and Brahms and Beethoven just didn’t match up with stars such as Joltin’ Joe, Scooter Rizzuto, Stan the Man, Ted Williams, and guys like that. I lived and breathed baseball, and my daily piano practice was a rude interruption into the world of home runs, stolen bases, and off-the-wall leaping catches.
My folks were patient with me – more patient by far than I deserved – and yet they insisted that I put in my required half-hour per day of piano practice. My older brother, Garland, even typed up an “I promise to practice” document and made me sign it. (It resides to this day on the wall of my music studio.) My seat put in its required half-hour on the piano stool, but my mind spent more like five minutes on scales, chords, and thrilling pieces such as “Left Thumb, Right Thumb”, “Swans On The Lake”, and the ever popular “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”. The musical situation, in short, looked bleak, and at 8 years of age I seemed destined to spend my life in the pursuit of baseball dreams.
But life is stranger than fiction, or so I once heard some wise-looking adults observe, and the summer between my 4th and 5th grade years brought a turn of events which was to change the direction of my life.
My best friend, Willie McTavish, who had come to our school during our 4th grade year directly from Scotland, decided to join the Boy Scouts, and I thought that sounded like a great idea too. We heard that after the meetings were over, baseball games were held with all Scouts participating. I asked my folks if I could join – well, actually, I begged my folks – and they said I could join as long as I kept up my homework and my piano practice.
I promised that I would.
I basically lied.
And so Willie & I joined Boy Scouts the summer of 1946. Our den mother, Mrs. Goldsberry, had a wonderfully big basement we met in after school once a week on Thursdays, with all kinds of nooks & surprising crannies to explore and hide in. Willie discovered a short, narrow door behind the furnace, which led from the basement to the alley behind the Goldsberry’s house. In those days some people used sawdust as fuel for their furnaces, and the door was where the sawdust would accumulate when the sawdust truck dumped a load into the slide bin right off the alley that ran behind their home on College Way. Willie thought it would be fun to try to climb up the shoot, since it was summer and no prospect of a sawdust delivery was in sight. He talked me into joining him in the climb, which proved to be a poor decision.
We negotiated the turns in the shoot, and happily didn’t encounter any sawdust. What we did encounter, however, were wasps, or yellow jackets, which were spending a blissful summer vacationing in the sawdust shoot until two Boy Scouts rudely interrupted them. Willie had generously allowed me to go first up the shoot, ostensibly so he could ride shotgun for the den mother and other threats to our little adventure. In the darkness of the shoot I could not see the wasps, but I heard them as once or more passed my face, and I yelled “Willie – watch out! There’s something in here!” The warning came too late. Willie felt the message in his left hip before he heard mine. As he screamed, he also let go of the sides of the shoot, and slipped in full-voiced terror back down the shoot, rolling into and through the little door behind the furnace, landing in a heap at the feet of Den Mother Goldsberry.
Meanwhile, I had motivation of my own, and I scampered up the rest of the shoot to the opening in the alley faster than a speeding bullet, setting a new record for short climbing, then sprinted around the corner, arms flailing, through the yard, and back around to the font door of the basement with a wasp’s patrol in hot pursuit. Once through the door and in the safety of the entryway, I stopped to regain both my breath and my composure before re-mingling with the rest of the Cub Scouts, most of whom were busily engaged in various craft projects, from Moccasin making to clay forming to knot tying. There was a commotion, however, in the corner of the basement, close to the furnace. Seems as though Mrs. Goldsberry had caught a Cub Scout trying to escape through the fuel shoot, and was instructing him earnestly in the morality of the Boy Scout code.
Being a Boy Scout myself, I could not tell a lie.
So I didn’t. I didn’t say anything at all. Cub Scout McTavish tried to tell Den Mother Goldsberry that he had an accomplice, but she was much too busy scolding him, so he finally resigned trying and just gave me a sideways glance, and not a kind one at that.
By August, however, Willie and I had made up, and plans were being made for the great scouting event of the year – Camp Ugwam. Both of us were as excited as 9 year old boys could be about the prospect of going away to camp for a solid week, something neither one of us had ever had ever done.
Camp Ugwam was the official Boy Scout camp of the region, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at nearly 6000 feet elevation, complete with its own mountain lake, appropriately named Lake Ugwam. True to the Boy Scout code, we did our best to be prepared, and packed all our essentials in our suitcases at least two weeks in advance – flashlight, collapsible drinking cup, rope for typing knots, Scout Manual, 3 or 4 dozen Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny comic books, fielders glove, decoder ring (for sending secret messages – we each got one by writing in to Captain Midnight and enclosing a cereal box top), the Official Major League Baseball Guide, 1947 edition (so we could memorize batting averages and ERA’s while we were away from the radio), and since Willie had a larger suitcase than I, he even took his bat.
As prepared as we were, when the day arrived at last for us to pile into the Scoutmaster’s mini-bus for the trip, (which was a pre-World War II school bus that had been used during the war to transport troops in and out of Camp Flint in Auburn where several hundred soldiers were stationed), our Mothers pointed out to us that we might need a change of clothes. Luckily, they had each packed another suitcase for us with all the stuff Mothers pack – pants, shirts, sox, umpteen pairs of underwear, extra sweaters – that sort of thing. It was reassuring to have along, but since I already had my Scout uniform on, I don’t believe I opened that particular suitcase until the last day of camp, when I suddenly remembered what Mom had said about changing clothes daily. I think Willie opened his earlier, since his Mom had mentioned something about putting in some extra spending money if he needed it, and I believe he did need it the evening of the first day.
The bus was packed, and us younger Scouts who had boarded the bus first soon relinquished our choice seats at the back of the bus to the older Scouts, presumably out of respect for rank, but actually out of fear of being beat up. So Willie and I and a couple of other Cub Scouts spent the trip sitting in the isle on the floor of the bus, so the only scenery we saw as we traveled beautiful Highway 80 up toward Donner Summit was the lower limbs of older Scouts.
I guess the curves in the winding forest road were too much for me, because I threw up somewhere between Red Dog and You Bet (now abandoned ghost towns left over from the gold rush of 1849), much to the disgust of the older Scouts.
“Geez, Shinn, thanks a lot! We get to smell puke from here to camp!”
“Oh yuk, Shinn barfed. Stop the bus!”
“Good grief, Shinn, we’re not even to camp yet, and you throw up like a baby!”
After the bus was more or less cleaned up and I felt somewhat better, we re-loaded for the final leg of the journey to Camp Ugwam. At that altitude even in August, the air was a little cool, so our Scoutmaster-driver had everyone shut the windows and he turned on the heat. I think I would have been OK if it wasn’t for that heat. It did something to the remaining scent of throw-up that was downright sickening, and as hard as I tried to hold it back, I threw up again.
There were groans around the bus when they heard me heave, but the reaction was much quieter than the first time, since the warm odor of left-over puke had gotten to most everyone else, too, and as I brought my head up off the floor I caught a quick glimpse of one of the older Scouts trying to roll his window down in time, but he didn’t make it. Scouts were slouched all over the van, pea-green faces, eyes closed, some making faces, some holding heir noses, some joining me on the floor.
We drug ourselves out of the bus again at Soda Springs, and lay on the ground under some big pines while the Scoutmaster hosed out the van at a Flying A service station across the road. He was in a fairly poor mood when he returned, and warned us not to get back in the van until we felt perfect. We were already an hour or so behind schedule, and one Scout said he had heard that if you were late on your first day, you had to wash dishes all week while the other Scouts were playing.
I wanted to go home.
But within the hour we were on our way again, this time with all the windows down, sitting on wet seats in a freshly hosed-out bus. Shivering almost felt good, now that the warm smell was gone, and we knew we had only a few minutes until we arrived at Camp Ugwam.
It was an exciting moment as we pulled into the legendary camp. There was a large sign welcoming us to “Mysterious Camp Ugwam.” I wondered about the “mysterious” part, and worried a little. As the bus snaked its way through a complex of teepees and rustic buildings and evergreens we saw another sign over the entrance to a rustic building which read “Ugwam Lodge”, and another that pointed toward “Ugwam Memorial Field” and still another with an arrow on it pointing to “Lake Ugwam.” Still another sign read “Ugwam Trail” and another read “Ugwam Midnight Survival Test”, which scared the merit badges out of me.
The bus came to a stop in front of the Ugwam Registration Teepee, so we all piled out and signed in, check our spending money with the pleasant-faced fat lady in charge of the canteen.
There were at least a hundred tents scattered through the pines within a radius of a quarter mile from Ugwam Lodge, and each tent held four campers. Willie and I were assigned to Teepee 34 along with two other Scouts from a different town, so as we moved in and got settled, we began to get acquainted. We learned that one of the boys was 12 years old and fresh out of reform school – he was sent there for beating up other Boy Scouts, he said – and the other boy was a chubby little 9-year old (Willie and I were both 9 too) who had a bed-wetting problem, and was as scared of his “friend” as we were, so it didn’t take long to determine who the boss of the teepee would be.
It wasn’t me, it wasn’t Willie, & it certainly wasn’t the bed wetter. I knew I was in for a long week.
Rock – the teepee boss from reform school – announced that he would rather sleep on the bed assigned to me, since it was nearest to the door of the tent and he would be getting in later than the rest of us. That certainly sounded reasonable to me, and since Rock had already moved his stuff onto my bed, I readily agreed. Rock seemed to be pleasant enough as long as things went his way, so we all dedicated ourselves to making sure things went his way. It wasn’t as though we were exactly afraid of him, but he was older, at least a head taller, and his upper arms reminded me of Tarzan. But I was sure he was a nice guy at heart, and if it took a king-clave arrangement to make the friendship work, so be it. Camp doesn’t last forever.
Or so I thought.
As it turned out, the rumor about washing dishes all week as punishment for being late was not true, and soon we found ourselves in Ugwam Mess Hall, which was certainly an appropriate name. The camaraderie of a dining room full of enthusiastic Scouts, the coziness of the Lodge with it’s huge rock fireplace crackling cheerily, and the comfort that came from eating our first (and best) meal of the week quickly erased our memories of the bus trip and our apprehension about the rest of the week.
Boy, were we ever wrong.
The insistent bleating of a bugle burst rudely into our little 4-Scout tent at 6:30 sharp, abruptly ending our first cozy night’s slumber. Little did we know that this was to be the only uneventful night of the week. Rock, our ex-con tent leader, snorted and mumbled that he was going to sleep in. We let him be and headed for breakfast. We knew, from stern announcements the evening before, that during breakfast each tent would be checked for neatness, cleanliness, and of course, beds made up in the prescribed Scout manner. We giggled about how Rock was about to get it.
We underestimated Rock.
After breakfast we all lined up for personal inspection of our uniforms, hair, teeth, and other Scout parts. Much to our surprise, Rock was there, looking spiffy in his brand-new Scout outfit. The Scoutmaster team in charge of inspecting tents announced that all tents were approved, except Teepee #34, and would Scout Shinn please come forward.
“Scout Shinn, why wasn’t your bed made?” the stern-looking Scoutmaster inquired.
“It was – hones it was! I made it before breakfast – honest!” I pleaded in wide-eyed innocence.
“Then why does it look like you just got out of it? No effort at all was made to straighten it out.”
“But I did! Maybe it was……….” I suddenly remembered Rock sleeping in, and started to explain. But Rock was in the line of Scouts right behind me, and then too, I remembered him switching beds with me the night before. My stomach sank.
“Scout Shinn, are you a Boy Scout?” questioned the gruff Scoutmaster. Sounded like a stupid question to be asking a Scout, but I thought I had better answer it.
“Well, Scout Shinn, have you ever heard that Scouts are neat, orderly, and follow directions?”
“Yes sir, sir!”
“And did you follow our directions to make up your bed and keep your tent orderly?”
“One demerit. Report to Scoutmaster Seaverson in the kitchen immediately. And see that it doesn’t happen again. Who else is in Teepee #34?”
Rock raised his hand righteously.
“Scout Riggotoni, would you be responsible for Test #34, and make sure that Scout Shinn does his duty?”
“Yes sir!” beamed Rock.
My stomach dropped a notch further. Now he was not only the ad hoc boss, he was the authorized boss.
The thing I remember most about washing dishes that first morning was the hot water. It was HOT, and I was miserable. I was missing the first morning of activities, and I knew that tomorrow morning I would be a day behind everyone else.
At lunchtime Scout Riggotoni put his arm around me and said “It’s OK, Shinn. It’s your first year at camp. We all have to learn.” That was sweet of him, I thought, and the head Scoutmaster apparently thought so too, as later I saw him pat Rock on the back in an apparent gesture of praise for helping a young, wayward Scout such as I.
The bathroom at Camp Ugwam – at least the only one we were allowed to use – was a long outhouse with perhaps 20 holes in a long bench, with no dividers between each “station”. I took one long stare in the doorway, saw some older boys gathered in a group at the other end looking at something and laughing loudly, and I decided I could wait until I got home.
It was a long week.
After lunch we had marching drills, and we marched left and we marched right and we marched through the trees and most everywhere. This was probably the easiest part of camp for me, since I had joined the school’s beginner band the year before as a trombone player, and already knew my left foot from my right, and what “about face” meant. Some of the other Scouts apparently didn’t however, as there were several head-on collisions before the drill was over.
After drill we were excused for the afternoon to pursue whatever recreation we desired. I desired to go home, and wondered how far it was over the hill and back down to Soda Springs. I figured I could use the phone there, and had visions of my Dad & Mom and big brother picking me up and calling me “Duane” instead of Scout Shinn. But the first evening’s warnings about the bears in the mountains outside the camp sufficiently dissuaded me from my vision.
Willie wanted to go swimming, and I thought that sounded good too. We pulled on our trunks, headed for the lake that was situated directly behind the lodge, and took a headlong leap of faith into the chilling waters of Lake Ugwam. As I hit the water I recalled that I sometimes got leg cramps at night in bed, and sure enough, in the rarified atmosphere of 6000 feet and the ice water of Lake Ugwam, my hamstrings in both legs cramped up like the Scout-approved knot I always wished I could tie. If you’ve ever had the glorious experience of having both hamstrings cramp at once, you will appreciate the fact that I was very fortunate indeed to make it to shore at all, even thought it was just a few feet away. That ended my swimming for the week, and the next five afternoons were spent trying to get some sleep, since the cramps, having been started by the 33 degree water, persisted each night thereafter, probably because of the elevation working on the freshly cramped muscles.
In any case, I knew I was not cut out to be a Scout, and daydreamed a great deal about low-elevation baseball fields, beds with firm mattresses, and bathrooms with doors on them. Willie, meanwhile, kept busy exchanging baseball data with every fan he could unearth, which included the head cook, a widow whose husband had once played 3rd base for the Portland Beavers of the old Pacific Coast League. That got Willie not only some fascinating baseball stores of the old days, but also a tasty preview of the desserts being prepared for the evening meals, since the widow lady was thrilled that someone was interested enough to listen to her baseball stories about her husband’s career. Willie’s curiosity was only exceeded by his energy level, and many a night when I was painfully trying to get my legs straightened out, I would hear this “whack – crack – swoosh – whack” sound outside Teepee #34. It was a moonlighted week on nights, and Willie got in some extra batting practice by throwing rocks up and hitting them with his bat. Why some Scoutmaster didn’t put an end to it, I’ll never understand, but no one ever said anything about it. Maybe the other campers and counselors thought it was a bear breaking tree limbs, or the ghost of some Indian warrior haunting the battleground where he had died a hundred years ago. Perhaps it added to the mystery of camp. As my cramps gradually subsided, I fell asleep wondering.
The last night of camp was the climax of our Scout training, when all of us were required to go on the mysterious “Midnight Manhood March” through the forest. Just the sound of it gave me the shivers, and from the talk around camp, most everyone except the very oldest Scouts felt the same. The Scout leaders had done their very best all week to build up this event in our minds, and to make it as scary sounding as possible. I’m sure their motives were excellent, but in the minds of imaginative 9 year olds the images of dark trails at midnight and departed spirits of Indian warriors and bears and mountain lions and getting lost forever in the high Sierras was enough to make us yearn for the security of home and civilization. But that dreaded night was fast approaching, and the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I survived the night, the dawn would bring the bus and the return trip to the comfort and warmth and familiarity of home, with all it represented – like Mom’s cooking, the absence of Scout Riggotoni, and a bathroom with a door.
After dinner Friday evening we were instructed to retire to our tents, lie motionless on our beds, and prepare mentally & spiritually for the great test of endurance and bravery and resourcefulness that lay immediately ahead. None of us had the slightest idea that that meant – to prepare mentally & spiritually – so we lay on our beds and scared ourselves silly with thoughts of the worst that might shortly come to pass. I remember praying “Dear God, I know I haven’t been too good in the past, but if you will get me through this night, I promise to practice my piano lesson 30 minutes every day. Please, God?”
The dreaded event started with a campfire at 10PM. It began innocently enough, with singing and skits and a marshmallow roast. Then came story time, when each Scoutmaster outdid the other at relating stories of Indian lore, Scouts lost forever in the woods, and ghosts of Indian warriors who even at this very moment stalk the hills above Camp Ugwam, searching for a Scout who doesn’t follow orders and wanders off the appointed trail. Eyeballs grew noticeably larger, and the circle of Scouts moved imperceptibly closer in toward the campfire, and away from the darkness behind.
The last Scoutmaster was the best storyteller of all (they had apparently saved the best for the last), and he told an absolutely terrifying tale of the Indian warrior ghost who had ALREADY possessed the body of one of us Scouts around the fire. Without moving our heads in the slightest, we eyed each other suspiciously for any tell-tail sign that the fearsome Indian warrior might inhabit the body of the Scout next to us. As the story went on with tales of raids and scalping, I thought of my Dad, who was stone bald, and wondered briefly if what I had always been told was true – that he had a high fever as a teenager and lost his hair then – or whether possibly he had attended a Scout camp when he was nine in Missouri, and the 200 year old warrior Spirit had found him wandering slightly from the trail, and separated him from his hair.
I slowly raised my left hand to feel if my hair was still intact, and was please to find that it was still there – standing on end in stark terror.
As the storyteller was working the story to a climax in a barely-audible whisper, and every Scout eye and every Scout ear was glued on him in terrified attention, the shrill voice of the head Scoutmaster broke into the silence with “Quick, Scouts! Follow me! The final test of your courage has begun. We must begin our Midnight Survival Test and move along the Ugwam Trail quickly, as we have just received word that the dreaded Warrior Spirit is on the war path, and is close behind us!”
Approximately 76 million Scout goose bumps instantly formed a tight line behind the Scoutmaster, with the end of the line battling for a spot further up in the line. The survival of the fittest was no doubt at work, and the smallest nine year olds soon found themselves at the end of the line, with the smallest of the small at the very end.
I repeated my prayer rapidly, desperately, this time raising the ante. “Make that an hour, Lord. I really will practice my piano lesson a solid hour every day if you just get me through this.” The darkness behind me was absolutely terrifying, and once I had gotten up the courage to look back, and saw the blackness behind that held every fear I had ever known, I vowed to never look back again, and kept my vow. I even raised my practice-time prayer-promise bargaining chip to an hour and a half, and threw in the offer to stop picking my nose as a sweetener.
The trail wound through the pines and firs, around huge boulders, under fallen logs, past the lake which we could barely make out in the light of the quarter-moon, and who knows where. The only lights were our little beams of Scout-issue flashlights each Scout carried. The outlines of the trees and branches and boulders and crags in the darkness conjured up images of all the stories we had just heard, and dug up a few more out of the recesses of our memories. My imagination added to the terror, as I visualized the movie I had seen the week before – Frankenstein Meets Dracula. No headless horseman could have added to my fear. It was already total.
From out of the darkness behind me came a silent hand which wrapped itself around my mouth, keeping my screams of terror private, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground with my mouth covered and three dark figures holding me down. Surprisingly, my fear subsided a bit, as I suppose it does when one moves from danger on to death. I supposed the figures huddled over me to be the Spirits of Indian Warriors about to take my scalp, but instead they took my pants. The largest of the three threatened me not to tell the Scoutmaster, or I was a dead Scout. Since I thought I was a dead Scout anyway, that really was a welcome announcement of a second chance at life. Perhaps I would survive after all. Perhaps my prayers ad been heard. Practicing the piano sounded utterly fantastic by contrast to my present state.
The three nightriders disappeared back into the darkness from whence they had come, and I sprinted back to the end of the line, which fortunately I could still see in the distance because of the flashlights each Scoot carried. I was so glad to be back that even though I was still at the end of the line and pantless, I actually kind of enjoyed the rest of the trek – like a person back from the dead might enjoy seeing the top half of the cemetery – which was relatively eventless compared to my recent descent into Hell and back.
As we marched back into camp, we lined up in front of the lodge for inspection under the glow of the outdoor lamps, which stood on either side of the lodge door. We stood at attention – 299 Scouts in full dress, and one standing in his underwear.
“Scout Shinn, step forward.”
“Scout Shinn, where in the world are your pants?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“You don’t know where your pants are?”
Snickers roll through the line of Scouts at attention.
“Why don’t you know where your pants are?”
“Well, sir, I had them on when I started the Midnight Manhood March.”
“More giggles from behind me.”
“You had them on when you started the Midnight Manhood March, but you don’t have them on now. Did you donate them to a cold bear, perhaps?”
Gales of laughter from behind me.
“Then perhaps they were taken by the Spirit of the dead Indian warrior?”
“Yes sir, I suppose so.”
Scouts now on the ground, holding their sides. Full grown Scoutmasters doubled over in hysterics.
Apparently the Head Scoutmaster thought that might be a good place to leave the issue, perhaps to instill fear into next years’ campers by a rumor that the Spirit of the dead Indian warrior not only scalps selected Scouts, but now also is into de-panting Scouts who wander from the trail. In any case, when he had regained his own composure and the volume of laughter had died down a bit, he dismissed the group, instructing them to go straight to their Teepees. I was extremely grateful for that, and I was the very first to go.
I was frozen by then, of course, having been without pants for the past half-hour or so, so when I got into our tent I immediately opened the suitcase Mom had so thoughtfully packed for me, put on two pair of pants, three shirts, a sweater, and a coat. Over what was left of my Scout uniform.
I crept into bed that way, and fell asleep praying “Lord, if you will somehow get me on the bus tomorrow morning without anyone seeing me, I promise to practice an hour and forty-five minutes a day. I really mean it, God, and if you could somehow make me invisible on the bus so the kids won’t laugh at me, I will practice two hours a day, and even on weekends. And if………………………………………”
Update: You will be relieved to know that Scout Shinn indeed did survive, and lived to keep his promise, more or less. He now teaches piano at PlayPiano.com in Medford, Oregon. Willie McTavish works for the San Francisco Giants in the PR department. Scout Riggotoni is a respected trustee and block leader at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California.
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