Be Prepared

As a young boy, my imagination was fueled by books such as “Robinson Crusoe”, “The Coral Island” and “The Swiss Family Robinson”.  I was consumed by the sense of adventure and mystery that these books evoked.  Many a lazy summer afternoon was spent dreaming of navigating the Amazon on a canoe or trekking through the Himalayas.  These were just day-dreams though and for a boy growing up in a city, these were mere fantasies.  However, there seemed to be something tangible and within reach for an adventure-seeking boy and that was the Boy Scouts.  My brother had become a boy scout when I was in second grade and I was intrigued by the whole thing.  For starters, he wore what I thought was a cool uniform.  Shirts with shoulder loops in which one could stick the beret.  The beret itself, worn jauntily with the scout badge affixed to the front.  The brown leather belt with the buckle in the shape of the “fleur-de-lis” boy scout emblem.  The scarf with our school colors and a woggle to fasten the scarf.  Stockings that were tied up with garters. Oh, I forgot the rope and the whistle.  Did I mention the pen-knife?

I would watch my brother go off to school on Saturdays dressed smartly in his scout uniform and when he returned, he would let me borrow the rope and the scarf.  He taught me the basic scout knots – reef, bowline, clove hitch, sheet bend and sheepshank.  I practiced the knots and learned their applications.  I looked through the scouting books he brought home and learned the basics of first aid – the scarf was versatile,  I could make a sling out of it or an ankle brace.

A 1977 edition of the Scout’s Pathfinder Annual that I bought on abebooks

What I looked forward to the most was his stories of scout camps.  In my mind, the closest I could come to experience any form of adventure would involve attending a scout camp.  Roughing it out in the great outdoors, sleeping in a canvas tent, the night sky adorned with the constellations, log cabins and campfires with roast potatoes and sausages sizzling on a stick.  The latter was not a figment of my imagination but was a regular feature in the “Pathfinder’s Annual”.  These were hardbound books published in the UK and had various articles on scouting.  There were sketches of boys in the process of building a bridge using staves, making tea in a kettle suspended from a tripod over a campfire.  And yes, cooking sausages skewered on sticks.  My brother had borrowed a couple of annuals from his friends and I read them cover to cover, several times.

The Scouting movement was started by an army officer (and later Lord) Robert Baden-Powell.  He had started his military career in India and later saw action in the Boer War. He drew upon his experiences to write books on military reconnaissance and scouting which became popular with boys and the Scouting movement was started in Britain in 1908.  The movement came to India in 1909 and the first troop was established in Bangalore.  The Girls Guide movement was started by his sister – Agnes Baden-Powell.

Fr Biscaro and Mr. Bhat – two stalwart Scout Masters. Photo credit – “Faith & Toil” by Christopher Rego

When I finally joined my brother’s school, I had the opportunity to join the Cubs.  This was meant for boys in grades 4 thru 6.  My brother had not been a cub and after attending a couple of meetings, I found it too tame.  Here I was, already well versed in the art of tying knots and bandages, the cub world seemed boring and childish.  Now my brother was a Scout’s scout.  He had attended Jamborees and Jamborettes.  He went away on private camps, just him and 3 other friends to Annie Besant Park in Dodballapur (40 Km from Bangalore) for a couple of weeks at a time and spend time hiking, mapping the Park using triangulation and using their scarves for semaphore signals. They would subsist on meagre rations and return sun burnt and famished but looking like he had the best time in his life.  There are distinct stages in the Indian scouting hierarchy – Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class and President Scout.  The last one is the highest honor one can achieve in the Indian scouting fraternity.  (Girl scouts are referred to as Guides in India).  My brother should have been a President Scout, but he did not swim. That meant, he could not fulfill his swimming requirement for First Class and our Scout Master was quite strict in this regard, there were no alternatives offered in our school.   He did not mind though, he was in it for the fun of Scouting.  

So when I joined 7th grade and was eligible to become a scout, I signed up the very first day.  My excitement had been building up and my enthusiasm was contagious, a few of my friends signed up too.  Our Scout Master was Mr S.G. Bhat, a gentle soul who was also our Hindi teacher.  Our Scout room was interesting, it was a long room without any windows.  Mr Bhat’s desk was at the far end of the room, there were a couple of bookcases and few benches.  The walls were adorned with paintings.  Rumour had it that these paintings were the handiwork of Italian prisoners of war, imprisoned by the British during the Second World War.  I think it was more likely the efforts of a priest who had been a Scout Master.  Mr. Bhat had a nice singing voice and he taught us the Indian Scout and Guide Flag song – “Bharat Scout Guide jhanda, ooncha sada rahega” (The Indian Scout Guide flag will always fly high) and the Scout Prayer “Daya kar daan bhakti ka” (which I think roughly translates to “Grant us the gift of devotion”).  I breezed through the tenderfoot tests in record time.  I now fit into my brother’s old uniform and wore it with pride on Saturdays when our Scout meetings were held after our weekly tests.

Scout Room – St Joseph’s Boys High School, Bangalore Photo credit – “Faith & Toil” by Christopher Rego

 I started eagerly on my second class tests.  One of the tests I remember is Kim’s game, based on Kim, the eponymous character of Kipling’s book.  The test was administered by a senior who placed about 20 assorted items on a tray, covered with a piece of cloth.  He then removed the cloth, let me look at the objects for a minute and covered it again.  I then had to write the names of the various objects.  It took some practice, the items were not consistent, they would be jumbled and replaced each time so I could not bank of the same set of items.  I also learned the Morse Code.  Seems antiquarian now in the days of cell phones, but we had to decipher messages by listening to the staccato emanating from the transmitter.  Now when I look back, I can see the appeal that Scouts held.  Numerous badges were handed out for various tests and these were usually sewn onto a patch that would be attached to the sleeves or pockets via push buttons.  The more badges one had, the more the bragging rights!  A badge that stands out in my mind is the “Ambulance Man” proficiency badge with the distinctive Red Cross.  My brother had earned one of those.  Treating bites by venomous snakes was one of the questions on the test.

Our Scout meetings were held after our weekly tests on Saturdays.  I started off as an Assistant Patrol leader and after a year became a Patrol leader. This involved teaching tenderfoots the various knots and helping them through their tests.  Either the first class or second class involved a cooking badge.  I cook a fair bit now but cooking at the age of thirteen for the first time, with the absolute basics was quite a challenge.  For a start, we had to light a fire using firewood.  We were supposed to build a tripod using three staves and suspend the kettle with a rope to make the tea. At least that was what the test called for, but I think we are allowed to simplify by using bricks and stones in lieu of the tripod.  I had to make upma ( a spicy cream of wheat porridge) and tea.  I pity the Scout Masters who had to taste our fare.  I ended up making a gooey upma, the white mess was decorated with flecks of black soot.  The tea was barely potable, but I passed the test!  We were given small pocket-books that had the list of tests and as we passed each test, either Mr. Bhat or a designated senior recorded the date and signed in the accompanying space.  Assisting Mr. Bhat as Scout Master were Mr. Joseph Xavier and Fr. Ambrose Pinto. Mr. Xavier took over after Mr. Bhat retired.

“Ropework” from the The Scout’s Pathfinder Annual

I did get to go to the much awaited scout camp, but that merits a separate post in the future!  Besides our weekly meetings, we would participate in competitions called Scout Rallys where we were tested for various skills such as signaling, first-aid and the speed and accuracy with which we could tie our knots.  Staves were lashed together to form tripods, stretchers or primitive bridges.  Our school would win these competitions fairly easily.  I was also sent to “Baird Barracks” in Bangalore to attend a PLTC (Patrol Leaders Training Camp).  This involved staying overnight in tents, nothing remote at all though when one considers that we were in the heart of the city.

The annual scout day at our school was usually on a weekday evening.  A bonfire was lit in front of the pavilion and we performed skits and songs.  My friend Jaspal recruited his older brother to teach us the “Bhangra”.  The Bhangra is a traditional dance from Punjab and his brother helped us tie turbans around our head and painted beards and mustaches to make us look like Sikh farmers.  The performance went pretty well.  I can’t dance to save my life, but I guess my fellow scouts more than made up for my mis-steps.

We were also called upon to render our services during the finals of the hockey tournament organized by our school.  The juniors competed for the Fr Eric Vaz Memorial trophy while the seniors competed for the Centenary shield.  Our school boasts of a rich hockey tradition with old boys such as Vece Paes, Albert Shaw, Anil Aldrin and Sandeep Somesh having gone on to represent the Indian national team with distinction.  At that point, the latter two were still in school and perhaps playing for our junior team.  Our job as scouts was to form a cordon during the prize distribution ceremony.  We held the staves horizontally behind our back and literally had to hang on for dear life as we were buffeted around by exuberant throngs of boys.  Students of the losing rival teams would take their ire out on us but it was generally in good sport.  The reward for our efforts was a coupon to eat a delicious masala dosa at Shanbhag restaurant on Residency Road, a short walk from our school.  The dosa tasted even better after our team had won!  

Bharat Scout Guides Emblem – Source Wikipedia

The other ceremonial occasion that we were involved in was during the laying of wreath at the War Memorial in our school.  We had to do the slow march as we accompanied the wreath to the memorial. This ceremony usually takes place on the annual Old Boys’ day which is usually the first Sunday of September. It commemorates the old boys from my school who laid down their lives in the line of duty starting from First World War onwards.

For all my enthusiasm about the Scouts, I was a scout only for a couple of years.  We had to choose a club formally in our 9th grade.  Mr. Bhat, the popular Scout Master had retired. I could not swim and hence likely not get my first class badge.  Many of my friends joined the Chemistry club and so did I.  I had a couple of misadventures in the Chem club, one involving an explosion while trying to make matches.  Three of my friends continued in the scouts and went on to become President scouts.  In retrospect, I wish I had continued in the scouts.  My high school was the last time I had the opportunity to participate in well organized and well funded extra-curricular activities that did not involve academics.  For whatever it is worth, I still remember some of my scout knots, I can recite the oath, I can signal “SOS” in Morse code and I do remember the motto – “Be Prepared”!  I try.

Featured Image – Tintin as a Boy Scout. Cartoonist Hergé was influenced by his experiences growing up as a boy scout. Image source – Pinterest

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