My father grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, on the St. John’s River. He was born into a large, traditional Southern family, and raised with a rough-and-rally mindset.
“When I was a little kid, from when I was maybe 7 to 11, every summer I went on camping trips with my boyscout troop. Now these trips weren’t just my troop – all the troops in my school would go to the same place up in the Carolina mountains for a week or two. We did a lot of fishing, hiking, boating – that sort of thing. So every evening around dusk, the boys in the older troops would send us younger ones off in search of a ‘left-hand smoke shifter’ that would theoretically shift all the smoke to the left side of the fire pit. Supposedly it was this wooden wing-like contraption – it didn’t really make any sense at the time that something like that would just be laying somewhere out in the woods but they described it to us in great detail and every night we would trek through the woods in search of the thing and every night when we came back without it, we would all sit around the fire pit roasting dogs and such and whenever smoke would blow into an older boys face on the ‘right side’ of the fire circle they would whoop on us. Which was stupid because, first of all, of course no such device exists and second of all there’s really no right or left side of a circular pit when you think about it but we were little kids! When all the older boys and leaders and everyone you look up to tells you to go bring back the thing or else you’re gonna go try and find the darned thing!
Another kind of tradition in the troop was the snipe – this flying bird-like creature thing that was really rare and if you captured would supposedly bring you good luck… Actually I don’t think they ever really told us what it would do, but they had us all believing that if we found the thing everything would be hunky-dory dandy. It wasn’t really like the left-hand smoke shifter though cause they wouldn’t send us off looking for it, we’d just kinda keep an eye out for one when we were out hiking or canoeing or whatever. I quit boy scouts not long after that – not because of that, but anyways… it wasn’t til a year or so later I found out the whole thing was a hoax. I really wasn’t that upset about it when I found out. I think we knew at the time they had us out on a wild goose chase, but no one would say it. Those were some of my best memories from being a kid, running around with my friends in those woods.”
Although this tradition of troops sending young boys off into the woods in search of legendary objects and creatures may simply seem like a cruel hazing-type prank, these missions seem to reinforce the values that are fundamental to the entire boy scout organization. The boy scout law, which my dad would often list off throughout my childhood, goes: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. As well as fortifying those values in demanding their success, respect for those in charge, woodsmanship and a sense of adventure seemed to come out of the nightly concentrated search for the invented object.
I thought the difference in approach between the left-hand smoke shifter and the snipe was interesting. The search for the left-hand smoke shifter seems as though it was an impossible mission given to the young boys that was designed to foster bonding between them, much as college fraternities’ hazing activities are meant to do with the pledges. The legendary snipe, however, seemed more like a symbol of hope that drove the boys to continue pushing forward through their outdoor activities despite any fatigue or despair.
The entire trip served as a rite of passage; my dad described a vast separation between the boys in the older troops and the younger boys who were tricked and tasked with fantastical missions. Though he quit the scouts before receiving whatever achievement allowed one to be considered a ‘true’ enough scout to be ‘in’ on the secret of the snipe and the left-hand smoke shifter, he seemed to value the time spent with his friends searching for the legendary snipe and left-hand smoke shifter over the actual reality of the things. Had he stuck around just a little longer, he would have soon learned the secret of the left-hand smoke shifter and become a full-fledged member of the troops in the eyes of the older boys. Or who knows, maybe he would’ve found that snipe.