SI Vault
Jerry Cowle
May 23, 1977
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.
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May 23, 1977

Before Hitler Abased The Swastika, Boys Took On An Ordeal To Wear It

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A burly farmer walked up to me, carrying a shotgun. "What in hell are you doing here?" he yelled at me. His little pig eyes burned from one of the fleshiest, reddest faces I'd ever seen. I huddled there, wishing I could disappear into thin air. He leaned his gun against the tree, then stood over me, massive legs apart, callused hands on his hips. "Don't you know how to talk?" he asked. "Are you crazy or something?"

I looked at him imploringly. But he shook his head and said, "Half naked, sitting here all painted black and red. You got to be some kind of nut!" He grabbed his gun. "Get the hell off of my property right now, and I won't turn you in to the state troopers. O.K.?"

I felt my face and looked at my hand. Black and red. I must look weird. I looked him in the eye and shook my head. I was scared, but I couldn't take the chance of being tricked. "I ought to fill you full of buckshot right now!" he said roughly. "But I'll be back with the troopers, and they'll take care of you. The judge'll make you talk all right. Now don't you move from this spot, or I'll shoot you, sure as I'm standing here." Then he went crashing off through the woods.

I spent the rest of the afternoon fearing that the farmer would return, but he never did. Finally the sun set, and I knew the end was near. Right after dark, Frank came. He smiled, held out his hand and said, "Shake, you made it!" I remained seated.

"Come on, you can get up now." This time I believed him and stood up. We shook hands, and I felt very proud of myself. I had endured. I had passed the test of Indian manhood.

Frank blindfolded me, and we went back to camp. There followed a session in an authentic Indian sweat lodge, with hot stones and cedar branches, with cold water poured over the rocks to make the most fragrant steam I had ever smelled. I was still blindfolded, but I could sense the presence of my fellow initiates. The ceremony was simple and touching. Now we were second-degree members of the Order of the White Swastika.

Off came my blindfold, and I saw Gene grinning at me from across the fire. One of the leaders painted swastikas on our chests so the whole camp would know about us tomorrow morning. Then we feasted on sandwiches and cocoa and filed silently back to our tents.

Camp closed down three days later, and we all went home. Gene was nursing a cold he'd picked up. A week later, I started my senior year at high school and noticed he was absent at roll call. His mother phoned to ask me to visit him in the hospital. The cold had turned into a sinus infection.

I went down to see him, and we spent an hour recalling the summer. "See you back in school," he told me as I left.

But I never saw him again. A week later, I came home from school to be met by my mother, sad-faced and troubled. "Gene died today," she said.

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