Sunday, September 12, 2010

My Other Family

I was a pretty active kid in middle school, high school, and college -- swim team, theatre, speech team, baseball, and just messing around with friends -- but from the time I was 10 and a half until my sophomore year of college, there was an unbroken thread running through my life: Troop 82 Providence and Scoutmaster Donald C. Dewing.

Don founded the Troop in 1927 and was its only scoutmaster until his death in December 1988, just hours after attending a Troop meeting. Don was the heart and soul of 82 and, more than that, he was a friend, mentor, guide, and father figure for the almost 1,000 boys who passed through the Troop's ranks. When I joined the Troop in the summer of 1979, some of the assistant scoutmasters had themselves been scouts in Troop 82 in the 1940s. In many cases, it was a family affair with multiple brothers having passed through the ranks and then returned with their sons, at least one of whom was explicitly named in honor of Don Dewing.

We spent at least one weekend a month at the Troop's cabin in southern Rhode Island where we swam in the pond, were warned not to fall into the well, visited (or tried not to visit) "5023 in the Valley" (the eternal name for any latrine that the Troop used in recognition of Don's license plate number and the fact that old plates always got hung up on the outside of the latrine), and played "Manhunt", "Capture the Flag", and "roofball". At night, we sat around the campfire or, if it was winter, around the long central table as Don would read stories that always had a lesson of some sort at the end (case in point..."A Message to Garcia", which Don always pronounced "Gosha" and used to illustrate the virtues of initiative and self-reliance). There were trips to Mount Monadnock and Mount Chocorua, bus trips to Washington, DC, games in the basement of the Troop's home at Church of the Redeemer, and even one evening where the Troop was turned out to help search our section of the city for a young girl with learning disabilities who was lost.

We camped for two weeks every summer at Yawgoog Scout Reservation, spending the first week at Campsite Wuttah (the giant "82" banner stretched between two trees along the lakefront proclaiming to everyone that 82 was in camp) and the second week at Campsite Dewing, given by the Troop and supporters in honor of Don's more than 50 years as scoutmaster. While that was one summer before my time with the Troop, I'm told it came as a complete surprise to Don when it was unveiled and formally inaugurated in front of more than 1,000 scouts and their families during the Sunday parade in the summer of 1978.

After five summers as a camper, I then spent five years as a staff member at Yawgoog, first as a lifeguard and then as the assistant director and director of the Ashaway Sailing Center, or as we on the staff preferred to call it, the Yawgoog Yacht Club. While I loved being on staff, the highlight of the summer was always the two-week visit by the Troop, during which my buddies would come hang out or I'd spend an evening or three sitting in the leaders' tent, often snagging a slice of contraband pizza, and enjoying the opportunity to sit with the adult leaders and other senior scouts.

And with that rank and age came responsibility. I learned how to lead by watching the older boys and the adult leaders and then advancing in rank and responsibility from just a member of a patrol to assistant patrol leader to patrol leader (go Screaming Eagles!) and then eventually to Senior Patrol Leader, the senior position a scout can hold who hasn't turned 18 and moved into the ranks of assistant scoutmasters.

The Providence Journal's coverage of the Eagle Scout ceremony for me and Philip Speare with Don congratulating Philip. I still cringe at the thought of the speech I gave. One should never actually use the phrase "when the going got tough, the tough got going" seriously but I was 15. What the hell did I know?

More so than almost all of my friends from school, I had and still have a stronger connection to those boys, now men, because of the time and adventures we enjoyed together. We worked on projects together, swam and fought and tormented each other (usually in a good way). It was a camaraderie unlike any other I can recall because it was built over 10 years of shared experiences, seeing each other every Tuesday night for Troop meetings, searching for firewood, pitching tents, racing to be the fastest to tie knots or run an obstacle course, or win the award for best costume at Halloween.

Boys and adult leaders came and went, moved away, headed to college, and got married. But Don was always there, fiercely dedicated to his boys, the Troop, and Scouting as a whole. Shortly after I joined the Troop, my family moved to a new house right around the corner from Don and I often found myself over at his house visiting or helping with projects. On snowy days, several of us would gather to shovel Don and his station wagon out and then enjoy cookies and soda in his basement as we warmed up and dripped melting snow all over the place. His office in Narragansett Council HQ was on the other side of my high school's athletic fields so I'd often drop in to say hello when school was done for the day. When my parents separated and then divorced when I was 15, Don was there for me as a stable anchor in my universe, serving as a sounding board when I needed to talk, never judging, and always with a kind and caring word for my parents when he saw them.

Don left us midway through my sophomore year of college. I'd talked to him a week or so before about getting together for lunch over the Christmas break. When I landed at the airport following my flight back from Minnesota, my mother broke the news to me that Don had died two evenings before. Sitting in the parking lot at Logan Airport in Boston, I couldn't stop crying. Returning to Providence, the first thing I did was walk around the corner to Don's house where I found 3 or 4 friends from the Troop gathered to sort through Don's memorabilia, slides, photos, and more. Sitting in his small study where I'd spent so much time over the years, I wept again, a friend's arm around me and another friend saying, "It's OK, go ahead. We've all been doing that for the last two days." 

Days later, there was a funeral service. The church had to open another wing to accomodate the overflow crowd and it was still standing room only with more people outside unable to get in. I sat in a pew next to a former member of the Troop. He had to have been in his 50s, we'd never met before, and the two of us wept along with hundreds of other people. Then the current and former scouts gathered by the gravesite and quietly sang "Gather 'round the Dying Campfire", the melancholy song of love for Camp Yawgoog that we would always sing to close out every campfire during those summer weeks.

Don never married. He never had children of his own. Instead, he devoted his life to helping raise and guide almost 1,000 boys over the course of 61 years. Don was no saint, of course. He could be irascible, impatient, and demanding as he asked for the best out of us. He never did it for the money or the acclaim. Instead, I believe he did it because it was his calling, like some who become priests or know from an early age that they're supposed to be doctors so they can heal people.

For some boys, Scouting and participating in Troop 82 were just things to do because their parents signed them up. I'm not sure what lingering memories or connections they might still have. But for many of us, Donald Cushman Dewing was much more than just the leader of a Tuesday night activity. He became a beloved member of our families and, in our own way, we were his family. Losing him was a terrible blow to us in the same way losing a parent or grandparent might be. The Troop forged on for a few more years and then, eventually, faded away. However, the memory of Don Dewing remained, along with the family he helped to create.

Gather 'round the dying campfire
Lift your voice in song
Sing the praise of old Camp Yawgoog
Sing it loud and strong

Scouts and scouters stand in friendship
'Neath the starry skies
We will long remember Yawgoog
As the years roll by.


Jamie said...

What a wonderful and heartwarming tribute this essay is to Don, Troop 82 scouts and scouting in general. Looking through your pictures and reading your words puts me in mind of a Shakespeare play in which a king or a pretender surveying his brave comrades in battle says something like: "these brave (men) ... this band of brothers. " Kevin Branagh starred in the movie version and I can see and hear him now. I'm going to find that play and the proper quote because every time I look at the pictures of Don and his boys I think of them as "this band of brothers." Thank you for your stirring words and for your fabulous pictures on the Troop 82 website. - Jamie Carlson (Don Carlson's Mom)

Jamie said...

Chris, I found the Shakesperian quote I was looking for. It's in the play Henry V:

"From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; "

That's you guys!

-Jamie Carlson

Randonneur said...

Chris, I enjoyed reading your tribute to Donald Dewing very much. I was deeply moved. I had the privilege of getting acquainted with Donald in the early 1960s: My father had been a member of Troop 82 in the 1930s and greatly admired Donald. Dad was not very impressed with my Boy Scount Troop in Houston, Texas, so he arranged for me to join Troop 82 for a week at Tawgoog during the summer of 1963. It was a great experience. The following year (after I had moved to Connecticut and joined a troop that lacked spirit and dynamism), I joined Troop 82 again to attend the National Jamboree in Valley Forge. I am pleased to have participated in a small slice of Troop 82's history with the legendary Donald Dewing! -- Carroll

Chris said...

Thanks for sharing those memories, Carrol!