Stan's Peace Battalion
THE first time I met Stan, he was drilling Boy Scouts in marching. I was hesitant and callow, and just joining the Scouts. He was standing in front of a line of khaki dressed boys, lean, tall, straight-mouthed, flinty-eyed, telling them to sharpen up. I was a little doubtful. This is not what I had wanted Scouts for. I wanted to hike and camp. But Stan was somehow compelling. His commands were not modest requests. He was definite. He was also the assistant Scoutmaster.
And he was not long back from the war, in which he had served as a bombardier, entering service just out of high school. After training he had flown first out of North Africa, later out of Italy, and finally from England, sometimes in raids so massive it took well over an hour after take-off just to gather the formations before heading east over the English Channel.
That was all behind him, of course, or it was supposed to be. He had become a college student. In his spare time, he had nonchalantly stepped into a central role in Troop 8, Loantaka Council, BSA.
None of us loved the marching, but still Stan had no trouble impressing us. In fact, he could make even a command like ``right flank, march'' seem vital enough so that we truly wanted to execute it precisely and not wither under his unsmiling gaze. But at any Scout meeting, we were always relieved when the marching was over and we got down to serious business, like building a three-rope bridge from the balcony of the Presbyterian church gym over to the basketball backstop and then walking back and forth on it.
It was not all that long before we did less marching, and finally almost none at all - just enough to manage a smart color guard at a district camporee. And we did go camping.
Under Stan's guidance we used to go out on Friday nights, on what he called infiltration hikes, through the woods, over remote swamps on catwalks put there by the power companies to service their high tension lines, by starlight and moonlight, and sometimes in the rain. We set up camp near midnight, driving tent stakes and fastening ropes and poles by feel, because it was absolutely vital to do it without lights.
WE often camped far from water, practicing what he called ``water discipline,'' sometimes boiling our scant supply, scooped from an unknown spring, by setting our steel canteens in the coals until the water had bubbled for at least a half hour. In North Africa Stan had been limited to a quart of water a day for personal use and incidental drinking. He said they used to save a little each day until they had enough to take a bath in a helmet. By contrast, we were always filthy and smoky enough by Sunday to be glad for a lavish soak in the tub at home.
Many times we had too much water, skyloads full of it, but Stan was not discouraged by this, and we sat snug in our tents, whittling and playing hearts. Stan had lived for months in a large tent with wooden walls when flying out of England. He was used to it and soon we were, too.
Sometimes we went out in snow. We camped in trail shelters, and would stand our pants, stiff with ice, against the wall when we crawled into our sleeping bags, taking our boots along so they wouldn't freeze and be impossible to put on. One night it went down to ten below zero, but we had piled leaves around us and slept comfortable enough under Stan's watchful eye.
In the morning the cocoa he fixed was too hot for me, so I set it down to cool for about a minute and found it ice crusted. The eggs we broke into the frying pan sat there, egg shaped, without their shells, only slowly melting down flat. We ate even faster than usual that morning. Somehow the early cold always made us laugh more than usual.
Typically Stan joked and quietly bantered, and occasionally told us, in a mild voice, of his life in the war. I think I remember, after forty years, almost everything he said.
AT the time, I wondered why he would put up with a gang of boys. He was busy with his studies, but still he would camp with us perhaps two weekends a month. He was courting someone, though he was careful to shield her from our boisterous eyes. Most of all, he had been places and done things that gave him an aura of remarkable heroism to us, though he never sounded heroic about anything. And he never gave us the feeling he was putting up with us, even at our most obstreperous.
Being boys, I don't think we thought about his motives a whole lot. Not long ago, though, someone remarked to me that he had landed at the St. Louis airport only forty-eight hours after being on patrol in Vietnam, and he found the experience so profoundly disorienting that it took him a long while to get over it.
After all the years, this set me thinking about Stan. All his guidance and companionship had probably, after all, been good for him, too. We had been a bridge, perhaps, back to normality, his small peacetime battalion of boys, eager to be undomestic, uncontrolled, free from suburbia, out where we could cook questionable meals pungent with cedar smoke and joke around the fire at night, feeling perfectly at home with Stan.
For him there had been no tension, no deep fatigue, no preparation to make another long, terrible flight to Germany - and, as all the crews hoped, at least limp back again. But he was still close to the familiar smell of canvas and the weather and innocent male companionship.
And there was a chance to see some of his skills in a peacetime context, relaxing without schedules in the simple openness of the woods. I like to think it meant something like that to him. He did so much for us, easily, offhandedly, impersonally, without asking anything in return. Perhaps, after all, we did a little for him as well.