Scrub pine, aspen and khaki army tents covered the hillside that sloped down to a blue mountain lake. Midway up the hill stood a flagpole, with 100 uniformed boy scouts surrounding it. Old Glory had just been raised. Suddenly, the scouts came to attention again and extended their right arms, palms outward, in a salute. The bugler triple-tongued a call. Up the pole to a place just below the Stars and Stripes went a black flag with a white swastika.
This was in the mid-1930s, when I was 17, and most of us, in our youthful innocence, still regarded the swastika as an American Indian symbol. The emblem of the Order of the White Swastika was the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor for the scouts who went to Camp Russell in Woodgate, N.Y. A scout had to be somebody special, to do something truly outstanding in the judgment of his leaders and his peers, before he was voted into the order. When a boy had proved himself, and had gone through the order's solemn initiation, he felt that he had accomplished something really worthwhile.
Then, invariably, he would aim for something even more worthwhile—elevation to Second-Degree White Swastika. Second-degree scouts were a proud breed; they were the doers, the ones we all knew would be leaders in college and in later life. To join them, a scout had to go through an entire summer of sacrifice. My buddy, Gene Palmiter, and I picked as our second-degree project the carving of a pair of totem poles. We called them "Hippocrocolions," because each had the head of a hippopotamus, the body of a lion and the tail of a crocodile. For hours each day, while other campers swam, played ball, hiked or loafed. Gene and 1 went at two big logs with mallet and chisel. One hot, mosquito-infested afternoon, I said what we had both been thinking, "Suppose after all this, we don't get voted in?"
"That's not the point," Gene said. "We're supposed to do something that'll benefit the camp. Whether or not we get in, we've done something."
I agreed with him. But there were nights when I lay awake and wondered if I could survive such a disappointment.
Finally we finished our Hippocrocolions and learned that the second-degree braves were in council. The next day, a counselor named Frank took me aside. "Be at your tent after retreat," he said. "Don't tell anybody, even your partner." I nodded, wondering if Gene had made it, too.
When Frank came for me, the scouts I lived with were at a songfest in the mess hall, and I was alone in the big conical tent. "Just your blanket and moccasins," he said. "Strip down and put away your clothes." When I was ready, he blindfolded me and led me down a hillside trail. I could hear water lapping when we finally stopped. I recognized the camp director's voice. "From now on, candidates, you must observe the silence of the Indian brave," he said.
I felt something greasy being applied to my face, then someone guided me out onto what seemed to be a wooden dock. "Step down," Frank said, "and grab the gunwales." I stumbled blindly into a canoe, almost upsetting it, and crouched in the bottom, feeling water against my heels. Frank climbed in after me.
Ten minutes later, he beached the canoe on sand. Once more he led me along a trail, this time for about 20 minutes. Then he took off the blindfold. We were in a clump of aspen; 1 could hear their leaves rustling in the breeze. There was a trace of purple in the western sky, but otherwise it was dark.
"Listen carefully," said Frank, who was now wearing a blanket, moccasins and an Indian headdress. "You will stay here until the sun makes one full circle. Tomorrow at this time, we will come for you."