By Ed Staskus
The week we went to our last Boy Scout camp at Lake Pymatuning State Park wasn’t any seven days longer than any other summer camp we had gone to, but since it was going to be our last camp, my friends and I were determined to make the most of it, stay up most of the time, lengthen the days and nights, mess around in the woods and water, raid the girl’s side, and play mumble the peg.
We weren’t supposed to, even though all of us had jackknives and some of us had fixed-blade sheath knives. “No mumbledy peg,” our scoutmaster told us in no uncertain terms, in uncertain English, in his strong Lithuanian accent, speaking through his Chiclet teeth.
One way we played mumble the peg was to first pound a twig, a peg, into the ground. We threw our knives at the ground, flipping from the palm, back of the hand, twist of the fist, and every which way. Whatever the other scout did, if he threw it backward over his head, and it stuck, you had to do it, too. If you failed, then you had to mumble the peg. You had to get on your hands and knees and pull the twig out of the ground with your teeth.
The other way we played was to stand opposite each other with our legs shoulder-width. Taking turns, we would flip and try to stick our knife into the ground as close to our own foot as possible. The first toss was always in the middle, but when the other guy got closer, you had to get closer, and the closer and closer it went. Whoever stuck his knife closest to his own foot, and the other guy chickened out, was the winner.
If you stuck the knife into your own foot you won on the spot, although nobody ever wanted to win that way. It was why everyone who had not gotten their first aid merit badge and was going to get in on mumble the peg at camp, took the class at the park ranger cabin a half mile away. It was taught by an older scout who wore leopard-print camouflage pants and shirt. One of us read from the only available Red Cross manual, while he was the hands-on guy.
It was the only book-learning merit badge on the program. Sticking our noses in a book at summer camp was the last thing anybody except the bookworms wanted to do. They read what somebody else dreamed up about fun. We dreamed up our own fun.
We were going to look for Bigfoot and nab him if we could. He was the hide and seek world champion, but we knew he was somewhere around the lake. What we were going to do with him once we got him, none of us knew. We thought, if we did find him, and he was friendly, we would ask him where he lived and what he did all day.
“His name is Sasquatch,” the cammo-clad scout told us, looking like he thought we were retards.
There were more of us than Bigfoot, or whatever his name was, for sure. There were seven of us, first-generation immigrant children like all the boys and girls at the camp, and we were all Eagle Scouts. None of us had earned any Palms, though, since none of us had gotten more than the twenty-one merit badges needed to get to Eagle, but all of us were going for twenty-two, since Ginty’s dad had brought two canoes. We were looking forward to it after we heard what getting a canoeing badge was all about.
What it was about was getting out of a canoe in deep water and getting back in without capsizing, then performing a controlled capsize, and swimming, towing, or pushing a swamped canoe fifty feet to shallow water. In the shallow water, empty the swamped canoe and reenter it. Back in deep water, rescue a swamped canoe and its paddlers by emptying it and helping the paddlers reenter their boat without capsizing.
We were all about that.
We had searched for Bigfoot at camp before, but sporadically, never having a plan. This time we had a plan. We brought flashlights, we had a map of the landscape north of our camp, and a compass, and we made sure all of us had sharpened our knives just in case Bigfoot tried to mess with us.
It would put Troop 311 on the map.
Seven years earlier Bigfoot had terrorized a weekend Cub Scout camp at the park in the middle of the night. The scoutmaster was jolted out of a sound sleep by the screams of his boys. He stumbled out of his tent to find the 11-year-olds crying and running around in circles. Using a whistle and a flashlight he got them to stop and form a line. He then asked them what was going on.
It turned out four of the boys had been woken up suddenly by a loud noise. Their tent started to shake. They thought it was a prank being played by their friends, until the tent was ripped from the ground and thrown into a tree. A creature bellowed at them. It was Bigfoot. Two of the boys immediately shut their eyes. The other two were mesmerized by its glowing eyes. They couldn’t look away.
The beast was satisfied with scaring them and left. The scoutmaster searched, but only found the tent high in the tree. He built a fire and gathered all the boys around him. In the morning he cut the camping weekend short.
Troop 311 was the Lithuanian American scout troop on the east side of town. Our headquarters was the community hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, just off East 185th Street, the principal road, and the spine of Lithuanian life and culture in Cleveland. Our group was all 15 and 16 years old, and scouting was phasing out of our minds and lives.
The younger kids didn’t know anything. The older guys who were still scouts were Explorers, in it for life. We knew this was our last camp at Lake Pymatuning. Next year we were hoping to go out on a high note at the 12th World Scout Jamboree at Farragut State Park in the Rocky Mountains.
“I will bust a gut if we make it there,” said Linas, our camel train’s crack wise.
The first thing we did when we got to Lake Pymatuning late Sunday morning was haul our stuff, clothes, sleeping bags, tents, food and supplies out of the fleet of Ford station wagons, Chevy station wagons, and Pontiac station wagons our parents had driven us in to the camp site. We set up our tents in a perpendicular line to the lake, hoisted the communal tent, dug a fire pit and a latrine trench. We built a 30-foot-high abstract frame sculpture out of dead tree branches. Everybody went for a swim when we were done.
The lake is partly in Ohio and partly in Pennsylvania, on land that used to be a swamp. It is named for Pihmtomink, the chief of the tribe who lived in the swamp. When the Indians were pushed off their land, and told to go somewhere else, the first farmers had a hell of a time. The swamp was infested by mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. Farm animals were eaten by bears and mountain lions or sank in quicksand. There was a massive flood in 1913. Finally, the Pymatuning Land Company bought all the land, thousands of men worked from 1931 to 1934, and built a dam. The lake they made is 17 miles long and 2 miles wide.
There’s a spot called “Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish,” where people throw bread to thousands of carp and Canada geese and birds of a feather rush around on top of the fish to snag their share of it.
Our scoutmaster’s tent was nearest to the lake. Vytautas Jokubaitis was a short barrel-chested man with blondish hair and a red face. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, the same kind that Robert Baden-Powell wore, to keep the sun off his face. But he usually had the front brim pushed up. That wasn’t why his face was red, anyway. He wasn’t a bad man, but he had a bad temper that boiled over at the drop of a hat. Nobody ever wanted to get on the wrong side of the scout oath, or scout motto, or scout code with him.
There was the devil to pay when that happened.
He was our Scoutmaster, or Scouter, so we called him Scooter since we couldn’t call him Vito. He didn’t like that. He was a grown man, and we were kids. He didn’t like us calling him Scooter, either, but what could he do? Besides, we never called him that to his face. He was a “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” kind of man.
He was from Alytus, the same town where my mother had been baby-sitting when the Russians stormed into Lithuania in 1944. She got out in the nick of time with her aunt and her aunt’s four kids on a horse drawn wagon with a cow tied to the back. By 1966 it had been 22 years since she had seen anyone from her family, who were all stuck behind the Iron Curtain.
When he was young Vito weightlifted and wrestled. Nobody picked on him, but he beat it out of the Baltics when the Commies showed up like tens of thousands of others, met his wife Onute in Germany, got married, and emigrated to the United States in 1949. They had three children, Milda, who was older than us and ignored us, Ruta, who was our age and eye-catching, and who we pretended to ignore, and a boy who was small fry and ignored by everybody except his small fry friends.
Vyto Jokubaitis organized Zaibas and the Lithuanian American Club in Cleveland, and had gotten medals, although he never wore them to camp. The CYO gave him the “Saint John Bosco Award.” We all went to Catholic schools, but none of knew who John Bosco was. He sounded like chocolate syrup.
Ona was just as industrious, and not about to be outdone by her husband. She ran the camp as much as he did, although she stayed on the girl’s side. She was the head of the Parents Committee of Zaibas, raised mounds of money for the Lithuanian Relief Fund, and was Outstanding Citizen of the Year in 1960. Cleveland mayor Ralph Locher gave her the award and a handshake in person.
They talked about Lithuania at the night-time campfire like it was the best place in the world, but none of had ever been there. Lithuania was like Bigfoot, something we heard about, but didn’t know if it was real or not. When they talked about the Baltic and the dunes, all we could picture were the dunes at Mentor Headlands State Park on Lake Erie. That’s what we knew. We didn’t know Lithuania from the man in the moon.
We got up early every morning, raised our flags on poles we had brought, did exercises in a field, made breakfast, and took a break after that. We washed out clothes in the lake and dried them on our tent lines. Scooter was focused on physical fitness, so before lunch we had to go on a forced march. We wore Lemon Squeezer campaign hats and uniform green knee socks and were burdened with backpacks full of responsibility. Our only consolation was being let loose afterwards to run and dive into the lake.
The younger scouts worked on merit badges in the afternoon. We were free to drift off, which we did, fooling around, exploring the shoreline, and mumbling the peg in secluded top-secret spots.
We did service projects, planting seedlings, and raking out the beach. We climbed trees and had our own “Big Time Wrestling” match with a Negro Scout Troop from Louisville. We went on more hikes before dinner. They were supposed to be short, two to three miles, but Scooter always took us out four and five miles. We hiked every day, rain or shine. We went on a night hike and got lost every which way.
“It’s like training to be a mailman,” Linas grumbled.
The last night of camp started after the campfire and lights out. A half hour later we snuck out of our sleeping bags, out of the campsite, and to the grove of crabapple trees on the other side of the girl’s side. There were plenty of last year’s old hard two-inch crabapples littering the ground that squirrels hadn’t gotten, and we filled our pockets with them. When we got close to the girl’s tents, we unleashed our barrage of missiles. They thunked the canvas and the girls woke up screaming. The next second, though, they were screaming mad. As soon as we were out of ammo, they rushed from their tents, led by the irate Milda, followed by the captivating Ruta, picked up the sour fruits, and started throwing them at us. We scattered and they ran after us, pelting us, but stopped when they ran out of fireworks.
Algis had a lump on his head where he got hit. We rubbed it to rub it away, but he said, “Cut it out, you’re making it hurt even more,” and that he was good to go. We went looking for Bigfoot, following the beams of our flashlights. We thought he had to be somewhere in the woods, away from the water, where there were tents and trailers all summer long.
Bigfoot was beyond any doubt a loner.
We knew he was going to be hard to find in the dark even though he was probably nine feet tall. He was covered head-to-toe in swarthy hair. We were hoping to find footprints, which had to be enormous. We tramped around for hours looking for him, but all we found was a skunk, who raised his tail before we backed off, and two racoons on their hind legs, peering at us from behind their masks.
“Maybe he avoids white people, since they chased off his ancestors,” Gediminas said.
“You think he’s an Indian?” Andrius said . We called him Andy since calling him Andrius annoyed the crap out of him.
“He’s got to be. Why would he live in the woods, all naked, no furniture or TV? Only Indians do that.”
“That makes sense to me,” Linas said.
Looking for Bigfoot turned out to be a wild-goose chase. We stumbled into tree branches, tripped over roots, looked high and low, left no stone unturned, but he wasn’t anywhere to be found. We trudged back to camp, tired and disappointed.
I don’t know what got into us. One minute we were sneaking back to our tents and the next minute we were sneaking up to Scooter’s car. It was a four-door Ford Country Sedan. After checking the driver’s door, it was unlocked, and quietly opening it, putting the manual gear into neutral, the next minute we were all at the back pushing the car down the slope toward the lake.
Nobody said a word when it got stuck in the muck. The water slurped up to the front bumper. Nobody said a word when we slouched back to our tents and threw ourselves down on our sleeping bags.
The next morning, we were woken up by ferocious bursts of anger and dismay. We were bum rushed out of our tents and lined up in a row. We could see the shipwrecked Ford down the bank. Scooter read us the riot act.
He gave each of us the third-degree, face to face, glaring, but nobody was talking.
“I will give you one last chance,” he finally said. “Whoever did this step forward, apologize, know that you broke the code of scouting, and we will forgive.”
We all knew that wasn’t possible. Scooter wasn’t one to ever forgive and forget. His face was getting redder and redder. It looked like he might explode. Then Linas stepped forward.
It was hard to believe he was going to spill the beans. He was the least tame scout among us. He was no chicken, either. He proved that every day. He had thrown down the mumble the peg gauntlet the first day and fended off all challengers. Playing the peg was forbidden but he played it more than anyone else and played it best, yet there he was, ready to tell all about pushing the car into Lake Pymatuning.
“Yes?” asked Scooter.
“I think it was Bigfoot, sir,” Linas said.
A version of this story appeared in Lithuanian Heritage Magazine.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”