Good judgment comes from experience.
Experience comes from bad judgment.
A friend of mine is a sheriff that I met at a convention of sheriffs in Las Vegas. I sat next to him at the banquet and learned that he was also a Scoutmaster in his free time. He said, “I’m not sure why I’m a Scoutmaster. I have no idea how to tie knots.” That is when our friendship blossomed. I explained that I know how to tie thirty-two knots at last count, and that I would be happy to share that knowledge with the boys in his troop.
He arranged for me to join his troop during a weekend campout. I had donated all of my camping equipment to a Scout troop in Texas when I moved to Indiana to care for my aging parents. My friend gladly loaned me a small tent, a sleeping bag, and an air mattress for the Friday and Saturday night I would be spending in the woods. His son, soon to be an Eagle Scout, had everything set up for me when I arrived. All I had to do was toss my duffel through the door, and I was “home”.
As is usually the case with young boys, the process of setting up camp Friday night was “less than organized”. When I suggested moving the picnic tables closer together and setting up a tarp over the tables, that idea was dismissed as unnecessary. (Ok. Fine.) I woke up bright and early on Saturday to grab a cup of coffee before I began teaching them the joy and beauty of using a simple rope to make your life so much easier. But first… they had to make breakfast. Again, the process was not as smooth as the movement of a Swiss watch. Then they wanted to take a hike to satisfy some requirement the boys needed to achieve the next rank. Then… there was lunch… and I was easily on my fourth cup of coffee before they boys decided they would sit still for my presentation.
I keep a small duffel filled with numerous six-foot lengths of rope for just such an occasion. Each boy gets his own rope while duplicating the apparent sleight of hand that results in the desired configuration. No surprise, I began with the Square Knot, which is one of the easiest and most basic knots the boys are required to know. Not bad. Then I decided to teach them the Taut Line Hitch which comes in very handy if you want your tent supports to remain snug. You can tie the knot first, and then adjust the tension afterward. Half way through that exercise the boys are already getting distracted and not paying attention. (Ok. Fine.) I’m not going to force anybody to listen, so I abruptly terminated my lesson.
Sunday morning I awoke to the sound of… rain. Lots of it. I can already picture which areas of the campsite will be impassable because of mud. But I have many years of pioneering experience. I pull the large box of plastic trash bags out of my duffel, and with small cuts for the head and arms, I have a very effective, improvised poncho. I stick about six more bags in my pocket and exit the tent in search of my morning cup of coffee. There is a very sublime joy when all around you are losing their heads… and you don’t have to. Several of the boys walk up to me, soaking wet, impressed with my waterproof outerwear. After allowing myself a sarcastic comment that goes over their head, I pull a trash bag out of my pocket and fashion a plastic poncho for them. No doubt, this is a process they will repeat in the future. I drink my coffee and stand amused with the effort the boys are putting into making breakfast. I can’t tell if the eggs are being scrambled or boiled. It only takes thirty minutes before one of the boys says, “Can we move the tables together and set up a tarp over the tables?” See? They are trainable.
Although I was never quite sure who was supervising the project, eventually the tables were moved, and a tarp was secured on three corners. A young boy was standing near me holding a rope to the fourth corner in his hand. I continue to drink my coffee, maintaining my best poker face. He asks, “Can you help me?” Without flinching I say, “Yes. Tie a Taut Line Hitch.” He sheepishly says, “I don’t know how to.” I respond, “Sure you do. That’s one of the knots I taught yesterday.” Long pause. “I guess I wasn’t paying attention.” I take another sip of coffee. I relish the moment. Still with a poker face I say, “Well… you shouldn’t have to hold that for more than a couple of hours.” Right there! That was the happiest moment of the weekend for me. Then I said, “Or… I could show you how to tie a Taut Line Hitch right now.” His face brightens, and he is now very eager to learn the magic of bights and hitches. A few moments later, the tarp is secured to a nearby tree, and he can now go in search of breakfast.
No matter how brilliant the teacher, nothing is learned until the student is ready.
I took a moment to remember my Scoutmaster when I was a boy. Louis Murphy. The man grew up in rural Kentucky, and he was a modern day clone of Davey Crockett. Thinking back, I am in awe of how much he took the time to teach me. I am merely paying it forward, just as I promised him decades ago.