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Monday, February 25, 2013

… --- … in the Valley

A sunny day in Feb“Jeeez, let some light in here, will you!” I exclaim to Brett de Vries as he asks me into the living room. Now far be it from me to disparage a man’s Man Cave, but these dismal days of February the entire Valley is a man cave as far as I’m concerned and it seems a shame to shut out what little Valley light there is. In the days before his new window shades, I used to tease Brett that I was going to bring a lawn chair, set it up on the shoulder and watch whatever was playing on his big screen t.v. All I’d need would be a box of Jujubes and a bag of popcorn for me to have my own walk-up theatre.

Brett is working from home today, tells me he’s set up in another room and motions me into the kitchen which, I guess, doubles as his home office. Makes sense to me: every office should have a coffee maker and a well-stocked refrigerator. I’ve been asked to stop by and discuss a little journalism project Brett has in mind for The Ripple. We discuss business over a proffered cup of coffee and some hardtack-like fare, some distant kin of biscotti, I believe. The brief business we had to discuss didn’t take long, so I thanked my host as he guided me through that darkened living room to the door. I said good-bye and walked out into the gray Valley day wishing I had brought my sunglasses.

A couple days later I was walking by the de Vries’s and noticed the shades open on both the big front windows. No sooner did I think Brett had decided “Let there be light,” than the roadside shades abruptly closed. Now the last thing I want my Valley neighbors to think is I’m trying to spy on them as I walk by and I make a point to avert my gaze when I pass by their homes. No sooner had I thought, “How embarrassing,” than the shades opened again…then shut…then opened, shut, opened….  “Good one, Brett,” I thought as I smiled and waved at the house.

It doesn’t take much to set my head humming with thoughts when I’m out in the Valley, and before you know it, I’m composing a blog post as I stride along. Just the opening and closing of a window shade a couple of times and The Ripple’s readers are victims of the inspiration. That opening and shutting of the window blind immediately put me in mind of the signal lanterns used at sea to flash messages from one ship to another or ship to shore. And messages reminded me of the code the sailors used: Morse code. And that in turn brought back memories of my teenage years in Scouting.

The Boy Scouts. I learned some valuable life skills in the Scouts, many, come to think of it, having to do with fire: how to lay a “one match” fire; how to spark a flame using flint and steel and fine mesh steel wool as tinder (you’ll have a real hot fire real fast!); how to use pitch from a Ponderosa pine as an accelerant; and how the dead lower branches of evergreen trees (“squaw wood”) make excellent tinder. Once the fire was ablaze, you made camp stew from the ingredients you backpacked from home. Water from the creek in summer; snow melt water in winter. You learned how to camp in the rain and snow; you learned how to be miserable and not whine too much; how to right a capsized canoe, bail it of water, roll back in over the gunwale, and paddle the fifty feet to shore in the canoeing pond. Knots, too,…bowline on a bight ( a life skill, important like algebra, I’m told, but have yet to use)… how to knot together two lengths of rope with the old reliable square knot (“left over right; right over left”) instead of a “granny” if you can’t tell left from right. Lesser things, also, like how immersing the hand of a sleeping tent mate in a pan of warm water led to embarrassment for him and a few demerits for you.

I should have been a better scout, I guess. My younger brother Kevin is an Eagle Scout and that’s no little accomplishment; to achieve the Eagle rank takes dedication, commitment and just plain hard work, none of which was a priority to me in those scouting days. If it wasn’t fun and adventure, you could count me out. My rise in the scouting ranks ended one merit badge short of  Star. The signature merit badge? Citizenship in the Home. No fun and adventure there, especially if you were the household rebel as I’m afraid I was in those days. My scouting experience fizzled at that juncture, and I moved on to other pursuits, a shift of interest most likely toward those who were former Girl Scouts.

My Scouting career ended at the rank of Scout First Class. One of the requirements for the First Class rank was to master Morse Code. (The Boy Scouts have since dropped this requisite and included it as a requirement for the Radio merit badge.) Morse Code, for those of you who stalled at Tenderfoot, is a code of frequency and duration: dots shorter and dashes longer (WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT!) and each letter of the alphabet is rendered as a series of dots and dashes. Twenty-six different configurations of short and long set to memory was one task the aspiring First Class Scout had to fulfill. I can’t remember the number of hours I spent memorizing the coded alphabet, but I’m sure it must have taken weeks.

Each aspiring First Class candidate had to prove he had learned the code and could pass a proficiency test. The test had to be administered by a qualified adult, someone familiar with scouting, a dad, older brother, or relative who was involved in the organization either as a leader, assistant, or chaperone. Dad was to administrate my test when the time came.  Bona fide Morse Code messages were sent using telegraphy which employed signaling devices, namely the telegraph key. None of us scouts had access to these devices, so we had to use optional methods. Brett’s flashing his shades as I walked by reminded  me of how my Morse Code test was given: by flashlight.

The night of test taking came. I gathered together a writing tablet, a couple of sharpened pencils, and arranged them on a small writing desk in the corner of the living room next to a window that offered a view up our long driveway. Dad changed out the batteries in the testing instrument, made sure the device worked, the switch, and that the beam of light was of sufficient amplitude. Then after a few words of encouragement, out he went into the dark. I remember a bit of test anxiety as I took my position, pencil at the ready and awaited the first flash of light, which, I recall, seemed a long time in coming. But come it did, and soon I was able to distinguish the short flashes from the long, the darkness between the letters…dit dit dit dahh dahh dahh dit dit dit….

I can’t recall the content of the message that night but believe, excepting a few errors, I did get the gist of it and passed the test, and Dad signed me off. Whatever the message was, though, didn’t really matter. Dad was out there in the night down that long driveway signaling me from out of the darkness. And we were communicating….

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  1. This post brings back memories for me. I did the semaphore option to get first class when I was a boy scout. However, I had to learn morse code later when I was a scoutmaster so I could teach it to the boys.

  2. - .... .- -. -.- ... .--- .. -- TMJ