He stood no more than five feet six, a bit of gray hair fringing the bald dome of his head. He must have been in his fifties, an old man to have sired my friend Ron who was 12, like me. He talked and acted old-fashioned.
He was our scoutmaster, Ralph Kirkpatrick.
No relation to the harpsichordist of the same name.
When we moved to Kenosha in 1957 and I joined Troop 27 at the Methodist Church, Mr. Kirkpatrick—none of us boys would have called him Ralph—still drove his 1950 Nash, the bulbous bomb manufactured locally. Behind the Nash he towed a trailer with a ten-foot green plywood box. That box held enough tents, cook kits, water cans, axes, and incidentals for our whole troop of nearly forty boys.
A funeral home sold him a huge old Packard for fifty dollars—on the condition that he would use it to haul Boy Scouts. From then on, it was the Packard that towed the long green box trailer, when needed.
In winter, we went on hikes, Klondike Derbies, and other tests of our ability to out-gruel any challenge. In summer, we did a troop campout almost every other weekend.
We went to Fox River Park or the Public Hunting and Fishing Grounds at Lily Lake. Each patrol of six to eight boys had an assigned space where we pitched our two-man explorer tents. We cooked on charcoal stoves some dad had fabricated from steel barrels cut lengthwise, with metal legs added.
We worked on skills like pioneering, axemanship, firebuilding, knot-tying, and wigwag signalling with red and white flags. We tramped through marshes, orienting ourselves on a contour map using Boy Scout compasses. We searched out edible wild plants.
At night we ranged the woods in wide games, tagging one another in dark thickets and meadows. Afterward, around a fire of blazing logs, we sang songs, presented skits, and told ghost stories.
Ralph Kirkpatrick orchestrated our fun in minute detail. Everything we did notched points so we could advance in rank from Tenderfoot through Second Class, First Class, and all the way to Eagle Scout. Older boys were taught to lead and mentor the younger ones.
One Saturday in April we traveled south in the Packard, without the trailer, to hike the twenty-mile Lincoln Trail, a jaunt that led from the restored pioneer village at New Salem, Illinois, to the state capitol in Springfield. We stayed overnight in an old Civilian Conservation Corps barracks.
Sunday morning, we started in the dawn chill, wearing spring poplin jackets and Boy Scout caps. Snow came down in tiny flakes, blown by a whirly wind from the north. If you live in the Upper Midwest, you know the kind of snow I’m talking about.
At mid-point on the route stood a country store. We asked very politely to use their bathroom. Some of us bought candy bars while we waited our turn to use the facility, under the staid gaze of old farmers gathered round a pot-bellied stove. A radio played gospel hymns.
Back on the road, the snow blew straight sideways. A few boys had brought earmuffs or stocking caps. Those without gloves at least had pockets to jam their hands into.
We walked fast. Exertion generates heat.
We reached downtown Springfield in mid-afternoon. Mister Kirkpatrick awaited us with a hearty smile. The storm had moved on. Only a few flakes drifted down in watery yellow sunlight.
The Illinois State Museum stood close at hand.
“This is one of the great museums,” said Mr. Kirkpatrick. “You don’t want to miss this.”
We went floor by floor, viewing life-sized dioramas of prehistoric man and the tribal life of plains Indians. The walls were festooned with woven baskets, arrowheads, and old costumes. It was very thorough, archeologically speaking.
At sundown, we piled into the Packard and started back toward Kenosha. On today’s roads, it would be about a four-hour drive, but that’s because we have an Interstate Highway System. In those days it took five hours, in good weather.
Only the weather was not good. We were driving north into a major blizzard, the storm that had already brushed us with its fingertips.
At midnight, traffic stood still. The Packard halted in the middle of a busy intersection, the Yorkville Y (or Wye) in the Chicago suburbs. We sat idling in a line of cars as the lights changed from red to green and back to red, over and over.
Ralph Kirkpatrick shut off the engine, took off his cap, and went to sleep. He advised the rest of us to get some shut-eye, too.
There were I think eleven of us Scouts in the seven-passenger car. That was before seat belts and shoulder straps. Young boys being made of rubber, you could cram almost any number of them into a given space.
Some slept, but I stayed awake. I worried that our parents expected us home long before. No telephone booth was in sight, no way to get a message to them.
I also worried that traffic would start again, and we would be obstructing it, our driver asleep at the wheel.
After forty-five minutes, the traffic did resume its flow. At that very moment, our scoutmaster sat up in the seat, put his cap on, started the car, and drove forward.
Before long, we reached the portion of I-94 that had already been completed. The Packard slithered up the long curve of the ramp, its rear drive wheels slewing left and right on the snow-covered pavement. The rear end of the car slumped off the edge of the road. Mister Kirkpatrick touched the gas lightly, and the heavy beast—ballasted by one scoutmaster and eleven boys—regained the road.
I got home at four a.m. and went straight to bed.
When I woke Monday morning, Dad had already left for work.
Mom hummed contentedly as she fixed a quick breakfast.
“Weren’t you worried about us?” I asked, stacking up my books for school.
“Worried?” Mom said. “Oh, no, not at all. We knew you were with Ralph.”
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer