Twenty boys milled around the trailhead waiting to begin their hike. As a few made some last-minute adjustments to their backpacks, Josh walked back to the scoutmaster’s station wagon to see what was taking so long. As he peered in the window, he saw the scout leader’s pants down around his ankles. He was then shocked to see him take a syringe and inject something into his thigh. Josh stepped back to give him his privacy. Moments later, Mr. Pollard got out of his car, pulled on his backpack, and joined the boys. “Let’s go!” he called out.
It was a beautiful day for hiking in the mountains. Spring was in the air; and the boys were excited. It would be the first camping trip for many of them; most of whom were 11 or 12 years old and had only earned the rank of Tenderfoot. Milton, a 15-year-old Life Scout, took the lead. Trevor, a 14-year-old First Class Scout, took the middle. Josh, who was nearly 13 years old, a Second Class and the third highest ranking Boy Scout on the trip, brought up the rear with Mr. Pollard.
The goal was a campsite 10 miles away in the valley between 2 peaks. A dozen conversations ensued as they walked. They discussed the merit badges they would work on; the food they would cook over an open fire; and which female movie star had the biggest breasts. The youngest boys watched their compasses to make sure the trail continued north.
Approximately 5 miles along the trail, they reached a mountain top. The boys in front had already stopped to admire the view. Josh was eager to see it himself, and wanted to get on up to the top, but Mr. Pollard was moving slowly and breathing heavily. Suddenly the scoutmaster stopped; he cried out in pain, then fell flat on his back.
Josh yelled, “Help! Something’s wrong with Mr. Pollard.”
All the boys came rushing down the hill. Milton, the only boy to have earned his First Aid merit badge, pushed to the front and checked the scoutmaster’s pulse. There was none. “Pull off his backpack!” he ordered. Once the man was flat on his back, the 15-year-old felt again for a carotid pulse. Feeling nothing, he began CPR. The attempt to resuscitate continued for some time. Eventually he concluded that their leader was dead, and there was nothing more he could do. Tears welling in his eyes, he looked at the scouts crowded around him, and said, “He’s gone.”
A disquieting sense of fear descended over the group. Their beloved scoutmaster had died. None of them in their young lives had lost anyone close before. None of them had even seen a dead body. They were alone, scared, and on the verge of panic; they all began to cry.
The sobbing went on for several minutes until someone asked, “What are we going to do?” All eyes turned to Milton. Milton was unsure. He said, “I think we should wait here until some other hikers come along.”
Trevor said, “I think we should continue hiking; there will probably be adults at the campsite.”
Then all the boys began to argue over what to do:
“We should scream for help and hope someone hears,” – several tried this;
“We should build a smokey fire to draw attention,” – 2 boys piled up leaves and lit them;
“We should leave the body and backpacks and run the rest of the way;” – 4 boys stood up and shucked off their packs.
“We should fire 3 shots in the air; that’s the universal distress signal!” – “Good idea, but we don’t have a gun!”
The debating continued:
During it all, each boy – from time to time – would look at Mr. Pollard’s body and burst into tears.
Meanwhile, even though it was early afternoon, the sky began to grow dark with clouds. By and by, the hours passed, until the troop divided into 2 camps. One wanted to stay until help arrived; the other wanted to continue hiking and look for help. The arguing continued as pain and fear turned to anger. Josh would later relate that it felt like the troop had devolved into a state not unlike what happened in William Golding’s book The Lord of the Flies.
It seemed that they would never come to a consensus. Then it began to snow. That moved everyone to continue the hike.
The boys fashioned a stretcher out of 2 poles cut from saplings and 3 of the boys’ jackets. They loaded Mr. Pollard onto the stretcher, and 6 boys hefted him up each holding onto a jacket sleeve. They walked for about a mile, when they heard the sound of cars in the distance off to the east. A road was nearby. Another argument began.
“We should leave the trail and walk through the woods until we get to that road where we can flag down a car.”
“No, we can’t do that. We don’t know what’s in the woods; we could come to a cliff or a stream we can’t cross. Then we might not be able to find our way back to the trail. We should continue hiking until we reach the campsite.”
The arguing continued, until the boys who had given up their jackets for the stretcher began to complain of being cold. That became the deciding factor; they took off through the woods toward the sound of cars.
With no trail to follow they encountered greater challenges to carrying the body: steep slopes, thicket, and every few minutes they had to stop, ask everyone to hold their sobs for a moment, and listen for cars to make sure they were still heading in the right direction.
It was nearly dusk, they found the road. Twenty boys ran to the edge and waited. When the first car drove up they waved frantically. The driver ignored them and drove past. This happened 3 more times, and someone suggested putting Mr. Pollard’s body next to the asphalt. It worked — the very next car stopped. Finally, an adult could start making the decisions once again.
I heard this story 18 years ago (I have changed the names to protect the individual identities), and was deeply moved by the drama these young boys endured for the better part of day. The struggle for leadership amid the many painful emotions was heart-rending. It illustrates how important leadership training is and how it should begin at an early age. Schools rarely offer any such training. To my knowledge, only Scouts and the YMCA offer it.
NOTE: the Boy Scouts of America no longer allow troops to engage in any activities without several adult leaders.