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How a scoutmaster helped shape my life

by on October 03, 2019 2:31 PM

There isn’t a monument in Bob Crain’s honor in Port Matilda. There should be.

Because, arguably, no man did more for the youth of that town than the late scoutmaster who founded Troop 59 and then ran it for close to 40 years.

They called him Duck for his distinctive way of walking and his highpitched voice made him a favorite target of imitators, but no one can deny his contribution to the young males of that leafy borough than Bob Crain, especially in the 1950s and ‘60s when scouting was at its zenith.

He oversaw the Cub Scout Pack, the Boy Scout Troop and Explorer Post 59, which probably amounted to 50 or 60 boys from childhood all the way through adolescence and all that entails.

A World War II veteran and a confirmed bachelor, Bob poured his life into the scouts. He took us on swimming outings at the Glenland Pool in State College and the YMCA in Altoona. He took us on hikes. He taught us close order drill and the Manual of Arms, once forming a drill team from among those of us who mastered the close order drill commands. We were his little soldiers. He proudly marched us in the annual parade that was a feature of the Port Matilda Fireman’s Carnival, barking out cadence as though he was on the parade ground at some military base passing his troops in review of some general.

And he was never prouder than the Friday night at Camp Mountain Run near Penfield when we won the weekly inspection award for having the neatest camp site. We never lost it in the five years I was there.

But Bob was more than that. He was a mentor, a leader and for someone like me who came from a broken home and had no father from the age of 12 on, he was a role model. He was someone I never wanted to disappoint.

He taught me responsibility as I became an older scout. One Friday night in February he had scheduled a hike to a hunting camp roughly five miles out of town. As it turned out, his work schedule didn’t’ allow him to accompany us so he entrusted me with the job of getting us safely from town to the camp.

Another Bob, my frequent partner in mischief, was on the hike as well. And still we got there unharmed. The next morning, because that Bob and I were the two oldest scouts on the hike, Bob the scoutmaster decided it would be fun for the other Bob and I to head off into the woods and after 10 minutes, dispatched the youngsters to catch us, take our shoes and send us back to camp in our stocking feet. He should have known better. Bob and I ambushed the little darlin’s, took their shoes and sent them slogging back through the snow.

We hiked home Sunday morning and by Sunday afternoon some irate mothers confronted Bob, who in turn confronted us. And after the mandatory dressing down we all laughed about it.

One of the great lessons he taught me had to do with the canoeing merit badge I had decided to try to earn at camp. After the first lesson, on a hot July afternoon spent kneeing on the wooden thwarts on a canoe for a couple of hours, I decided I really didn’t want that merit badge that badly. So the next day when it was time to head to the lake, I stayed back at camp. For a little while. Then Bob noticed me, asked what I was doing and I told him I quit.

“No you’re not,’’ he said. “You get your swim suit on and get down there to that lake right now.’’

I wasn’t going to challenge him so I went. There were 14 of us in that class and it was demanding. But at the end of the week, after lunch in the mess hall on Friday, they called out the names of five boys who had earned that merit badge. I was one of them and still regard that as one of my proudest moments — a lesson learned about perseverance in difficult circumstances.

But maybe the most vivid memory I have of Bob was the day he tried to ride the grapevine.

One afternoon at camp we went on a hike on an old fire trail. We stopped for a break and a few of us left the trail and went down over an embankment where we found a grapevine. So we did what boys do — started swinging on it. Some distance farther down the hill was a dead tree and we kept swinging out toward it, trying to see who could touch it. None of us could.

Then we heard Bob’s falsetto voice. “What are you boys trying to do?” he asked. When we told him, he said he would show us how it was done. We tried to tell him not to. The vine had gradually begun to pull loose from the tree and we kept cutting the bottom of it off so it cleared the ground. That didn’t matter to Bob.

He backed up the hill, got a good running start and launched. Out he went and it looked as though he was going to reach the tree.

Then there was a loud “Craaaaack.”

The vine had pulled free and Bob not only reached the tree, but he went flying past it and landed much farther down the hill, on his back.

At first we were impressed. Then we were scared because our leader was in pain. And there we were, a bunch of Boy Scouts, some of whom had earned the first aid merit badge, stunned and clueless. Finally we came to our senses, helped him to his feet and up the hill to the trail. We took his shirt off and his back was a mass of abrasions. We could handle that. We dug into the first aid kit, grabbed a bottle of tincture of iodine and liberally applied it to his raw wounds. They later said they could hear him screaming all the way back at camp.

But he took it in stride and Friday night at the awards ceremony he proudly walked up to the camp fire and accepted the inspection award — again.

As time went on I gradually grew distant from Bob. I discovered cars and girls and sports while he stayed with his scouts.

The last time I saw him he was at a restaurant where my wife and I were having dinner. He came over to our table, we chatted a while and he invited us to go to dinner with him some evening, his treat. I said we would. We never went. Life got in the way.

They say he died sitting in his recliner, his Bible in his hand.

I’d like to think he marched into Heaven in perfect step.


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