‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – The assassination of Robert Kennedy, Consulate cigarettes and Scout Camps.

The title to this week’s tale may appear a little confusing, but all will be revealed if you read on. I must have been part of St. Stephen’s Scouts for longer than I remembered, and it was probably two or three years from 1966 until June 1968. I enjoyed my time at the Scouts and it was a good group to be a part of.

Scout Beret 2

They must have seen something in me, as I quickly rose up the ranks to patrol leader. This pre-adolescent time was the beginning of a tumultuous period for me and for many of us becoming teenagers. The Scouts provided a good framework to challenge us in a safe environment and my dealings with the Scouts and the leaders were always positive. Children in the 1960s grew up with television and we were bombarded by films about cowboys and red indians. Looking back, they were quite violent for modern sensitive tastes and we all played with guns and bows and arrows. We often re-enacted what we saw and scalping was always part of it. However, neither I, nor anyone else I know ever grew up putting such things into practice. The Scouts channelled the adventurous side of, in those days, boys. We were provided with uniforms, rules of behaviour, rituals and adventure. I loved my uniform and wore it with pride. I tried my best to follow the guiding principles, at least whilst I was a member. Scouting had its own language, ‘woggles and neckers’ and most of all, it gave us a reason to own a sheaf knife, tie knots, build fires, go camping and play in the woods and countryside.

Whilst I was a member of the St. Stephen’s Scouts we went on a number of camps and all were eventful. The nearest camp site we went to was the Wyke Camp site at Backstone Gill Lane at Bardsey. This site is still there and I checked to see if it was before I started to write this. The website now shows quite fantastic facilities, but in my time I don’t remember there being many buildings. It is a nine acre site and it was close enough to Leeds, but far enough out of the way to make you feel you were right out in the countryside. The tents we had were quite large, sleeping about three or four scouts, but without fitted groundsheets. Of course the first task was to set up the tents. Now when I first started I didn’t have much of a clue, but we were all in the same boat. The leaders would come around and help, check guy ropes and generally keep us organised. My first experience was a weekend camp, arriving on Friday and leaving on Sunday, so there wasn’t a lot of time after setting up the camp for much on the first day, apart from a meeting, rules, introduction to the ablution block and then a game of searchlight in the dark. It was great, no parents, no worries and no girls, what more could a boy want? The game finished, cocoa was served and then bed.

Wyke Camp

I am not sure what month this camp was, but during the day it was clear sunlight with a bright blue sky, but once the sun set the temperature plummeted. Now for those thinking I was a wimp, I ask you to hold those thoughts for a moment. My sleeping bag was not a thick one and, to be honest, only the shoes had been removed before getting into it, so I was fully clothed. My coat was spread over it, as was a spare blanket that my mother had sent me with. I had been embarrassed, but she had insisted. I can only thank her in hindsight. The night was bitterly cold and it was a truly uncomfortable night’s sleep. When cold, you pull yourself into a ball to try and preserve any heat you can. My head was deep inside the sleeping bag, but even being near to suffocation was better than the bone hurting cold. I don’t believe that it was any better for anyone, apart from maybe the leaders who knew more about what to expect and what to bring.

Camps of any sort, whether school or Scout ones, share one thing in common and that is that when one child wakes, it is only seconds before everyone is awake, whether they want to or not. This camp was no exception and the first rays of morning light roused one boy and the dawn chorus of loudly chatting scouts soon followed. I awoke and was horrified to find that my blanket over my sleeping bag had a thick layer of white frost on it. Eventually I had to get out of the sleeping bag, put on my damp, icy shoes that had been left outside near the flaps and, arms folded, as I tried to maintain some warmth I staggered off to the toilet block.

Scout shirt 2

The leaders were busy with breakfast and they knew a hot fry-up was the thing. Fried bread, bacon, eggs in a sandwich certainly was well received even though it was not something I was used to. Our mouths smoked as the steam condensed on the frigid air and we stood around eating, moaning and stamping our feet to bring some life back into them. The Saturday was the same as the Friday had been, and the clear blue sky was soon warmed by the sun. After washing, at least a token one, a soccer game was organised and by the end of that the air was warm and so was the scout troop. A busy programme of skills training and exciting activities followed and the night saw a repeat of the first one, followed by a equally freezing night. The Sunday was similar, but this time we had also to pack the tents, carefully supervised, to ensure it was done properly and that socks etc were not folded up in the tents. We also had to ensure that the camp was clear of rubbish and that the toilet blocks were clean. In the early afternoon our parents collected us and an exhausted, but happy bunch of lads returned home, thankful for a warm bed and a hot bath.

Further camps followed a similar pattern, but never quite the same temperatures. On one occasion we attended a camp with lots of other scout troops. I am not sure where it was, but it was next to the river, probably the River Wharf, but I’m not certain. It was set on a large site, but I don’t think it had any buildings. I know that trenches were dug for the toilets and everything was done large scale. I do recall a big rope-swing over the river, the weather was good and hot so many of us swam. I also remember some canoes and I think there was raft-making with planks and drums of some sort.

Small scale camps were organised through patrols and when I became a patrol leader I was expected to organise one. I seem to remember that there were two patrols on this camp. It was the weekend of the 5th June 1968. How do I know? It was the weekend after the Wednesday that Robert Kennedy was assassinated and it was the major topic of conversation. The camp was at Wyke and the planning was the same as the others I had attended. I didn’t know it then, but this was to be my last scout camp and the end of my scouting.

I was thirteen by now and probably it is the age when you either go further into the scouting movement or you leave and find new pastures to occupy your time. I was at Roundhay School and heavily involved in rugby, and taking a more than keen interest in the girls that inhabited the school on the other side of the bushes. The camp started out like any other and the Friday night events and food were a hit.

Consulate 1

There was a time when my friend and I sneaked off to have a quick fag. Now I have spoken about my experience with Woodbines on my paper round, but somehow I had succumbed to a second attempt. Menthol cigarettes were seen as an easier introduction, so we had a packet of Consulates and we tried them on the lane outside the camp. They proved to be less horrific than the Woodbines, but not by much and I was pleased when I was able to stub it out and return to the camp. Somehow smoking in the countryside, with the air warm and the birds singing didn’t match the image of being an adult smoker as shown on TV, but clearly, I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was.

We returned without anyone being the wiser. Being June, the temperature was decidedly balmy and Friday night was uneventful. Saturday proved not to be so benign. Breakfast was uneventful and then a soccer match was organised. This was the start of the troubles. The game was played with spirit and gusto. No mercy was asked for or given, when tackling an opponent. My Seconder went in for a fifty-fifty ball and he was caught on the ankle. There were two sounds. One was his scream and preceding this was a snapping sound that I can still hear. He lay writhing on the ground and his ankle was not the same as everyone else’s. I have never been a doctor, but I had no difficulty recognising a broken ankle. There must have been a leader with us and the seconder was calmed and instructed not to move under any circumstances and within fifteen to twenty minutes an ambulance arrived, as well as his distraught parents. Within a further twenty minutes the ambulance left, taking the boy and his mother. His father followed on in the car. This incident shocked us and cast a pall over every boy and the leader that was there.

The rest of the day went without incident and the evening meal raised the spirits. A searchlight game was organised and I was on the catching team. We decided to use the light on one of the boy’s bikes. It was dynamo powered so we turned the bike upside down, and by turning the wheel, we could power the light and by moving the bike we could move the searchlight around the camp area. It worked a charm, and we started catching people quite easily. Soon there was a crowd of the boys who had been captured and they stood around the bike whilst I turned the pedal. One of them became a bit over excited and pressed inwards. He knocked the bike and it lost balance and I lost hold of the pedal and my hand was caught by the gear teeth of the pedal and pulled under the chain and trapped between the chain and the gear teeth. Now of course when the pedal stopped the light went out and no one knew what had happened. No one apart from me. One finger was crushed under the chain and the nail was split and there was some blood. I didn’t know this at the time as I could only feel my trapped hand. Boys were pushing and knocking into each other and the bike, which caused me additional discomfort. Eventually a leader and a torch appeared and my predicament unfolded. There was blood, bicycle oil and grease and I wished I hadn’t seen it. The leader realised there was only one way to free my finger and that, I can assure you, added to the pain. My finger was released from the chain by the turn of the pedal, but it was still stuck between the teeth. Gentle but firm pressure was used to prise my hand out and then some bandaging was done. A phone call went home to my parents and there was discussion as to whether an ambulance was necessary.

Scout belt from 1968
My original Scout belt. I still own it after fifty-two years.

By this point my embarrassment was worse than the pain, so I was pleased when the ambulance was deemed unnecessary. Within half an hour I was picked up and taken home and the camp continued without the Patrol Leader and the Seconder. Of course, I now realise I got off lightly compared to my Seconder, but I was supposed to be in charge and it was my responsibility. I believe that the rest of the camp was uneventful and the next week I returned to the scouts, embarrassed and nervous. Afterwards I lost my drive for the scouts. My heart was never quite in it and within a few weeks I stopped. I believe it would have happened anyway, but that camp was the catalyst.

My sons have attended scouts, both in Wrenthorpe in Wakefield and here in Perth, Western Australia and I have always tried to assist. The leaders have all been wonderful and I am staggered by the way they so willingly give their time.

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