Billy Dan

It’s about 1969. Scout Troop 60 piles into the theatre at Glynco Naval Base in Brunswick, GA. In the movie world Westerns are big, and heroes ride off into the sunset. An unknown title is on the marque. “McKenna’s Gold”. What could possibly go wrong?

This was our annual Thanksgiving Scout trip. A Friday through Monday. We were out of school for break. Billy Dan, our Scout Master, took advantage of the opportunity.

Glynco was a naval airship base during WWII that housed the US Zeppelin fleet. By the late 60s the blimps were gone, but the hangers were still there. You can’t even begin to imagine how big these structures were. Whatever huge building you’ve ever been in, this was bigger. Your biggest NFL stadium is about one third the size of these things. Eight blimps, side by side in pairs, could fit into one hanger.

Wooden framed with a metal skin on the outside. Doors on either end tall enough for a space shuttle on the launch crawler to fit through.

“You could put a lot of hay in here,” my Dad would say.

We stayed in the old barracks on base. The bunks, the showers, everything about that place had the old military feel to it. And smell. Some of the guys found an elastic birth control device hidden under one of the mattresses and made a water balloon out of it. Some of us were naïve. Billy Dan laughed until his belly shook.

We spent the day on Saturday going down the coast a ways to Jacksonville to tour a battleship and an aircraft carrier. The USS Roosevelt. All day going up and down narrow steps. Stepping through small doorways. A trip to the bridge. A look over the rail from the main deck. Most of us had never been anywhere more exciting than the county fair in McDonough.

Then it was back to the base and supper in the mess hall. What were we going to do then? We couldn’t build a campfire. There was no place to swim.

Somebody said, “Hey, let’s go see a movie.” We had passed the theatre on the way in.

If it wasn’t free it must have been cheap. Billy Dan and the other leaders agreed to the idea. A western was showing. Everybody likes a good western. Seemed perfect for a bunch of boys. Troop 60 and about 15 sailors, who were probably not much older than some of us, grabbed some popcorn and sat down for the show.

You gotta remember that 1969 was about the time that movie ratings were being used for the first time. Nobody worried much about ratings. Not every movie was rated anyway, and McKenna’s Gold was one of them. I mean, what could you possibly get into with Gregory Peck and Telly Savalis? If Gregory Peck was in The Guns of Navarone, one of the best all-time war movies ever, McKenna’s Gold had to be good.

And it was good. Cowboys. Banditos. A secret gold stash hidden in a forbidden canyon protected for centuries by the Indians. Everything was going smoothly up until about halfway into the story. Then things got interesting.

Gregory Peck and the gang make camp by a waterfall, the way I remember it. The lake is pure and clean. And the next thing you know, right up there on the big screen, the women are stripping down and swimming naked in front of about 25 google eyed boy scouts.

It was the best movie we ever saw. Ever.

We found out later that Billy Dan got kind of nervous about the whole thing. What would these boys go home and tell their Mamas about what they did while on the Scout trip to Brunswick? I know I never said a word about it right up until now.

Big surprise that the next night after supper when we were asked what we wanted to do for our last night on base, we all wanted to go to the movies.

From the time I was 11 years old up until about 17, Scouting was a huge part of my life. Bigger than baseball. Nearly bigger than church. More fun and more interesting than anything else I had going on.

And I tell you this to tell you that Billy Dan was a huge influence in my life.

Seems like he headed up Troop 60 for over 30 years. We met every Tuesday night in the Scout room at the Old Gym. Summers we swam and camped out at Glen Mitchell’s lake. One week every summer we were down on the Flint River at Camp Thunder. Coldest lake I ever swam in. Thanksgiving trips to Glynco. A weekend in February at the Winter Cabin. What kid wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Influence comes from a lot of places. Teachers. Coaches. Preachers. For me, it was Billy Dan. He was the only adult whom, as a kid, I was allowed to call by his given name. Hundreds of Hampton boys knew him that way. He was not Mr. Gibbs. Not Mr. Billy. Not ever. Just, Billy Dan.

Every year at the winter cabin, he told the story of the lost boy who lived in the woods around the cabin. He had become like a wild animal because he had been in the woods for so long. He would steal turkeys from a local farm and bring them back to the cabin to kill and eat them. And, most importantly, he didn’t like anyone staying at the cabin because it was his. We laid in our sleeping bags on our bunks as Billy Dan told this story. It was dark. The only light was the fire in the stone fireplace.

“Hush up boys. Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

Billy Dan had a string rigged up that went down through the floor next to his bunk, outside around a tree limb, and back to one of the hinged wooden shutters. He would reach down in the dark of the cabin, pull on that string, and the shutter would creak open and close.

“He’s coming in boys. Run!”

But it all wasn’t just about the laughter and good times. If you got out of line, he made you run through the belt line. Swatted on your backside by your own peers. If you needed help with a merit badge, he was the first one to spend time on it with you. If you were close to giving up, he knew how to push you through to the end.

I think we all need someone of influence in our lives besides our parents. Someone to tell us the difference between right and wrong. Someone who makes a boy want to uphold honesty and integrity and courage. Someone who knows what it takes to Be Prepared for life. Someone unafraid to bow his head in prayer. Some adult who knows how to take some pretty goofy boys and let them be boys, and at the same time challenge them to become men.

I should have thanked him for all that. Maybe I tried once. Feeble words. Should have thanked him a million times. I still wear my Eagle Scout ring. Billy Dan, if you’re listening, I owe you. And, thanks for the movie.