By Bruce A. Smith
Gottman and Beck were two fourteen-year old guys that I traveled with on a cross-country Boy Scout trip in 1966. We journeyed to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico from our homes on Long Island, New York to spend twelve days back-packing in what the Ranch staff called, “God’s Country.”
Perhaps you can guess this story. We’re camping out and a bear went into Gottman and Beck’s tent and scared the living daylights out of them. True. But it’s important to know why it happened.
Our Boy Scout troop was composed of an eclectic group of forty scouts from all over from our Nassau County Council, and everyone had to be at least fourteen to qualify. However, most of the scouts were older. I was sixteen and most of the guys were my age or at least fifteen, with a few at seventeen.
We were mostly strangers to each other, and even though we were fairly close in age Gottman and Beck were clearly different. They were the youngest and the smallest. They were also the least sophisticated kids on the bus. Worse, Beck’s father was one of our four scoutmasters. As a result, Gottman and Beck were pariahs.
Hence, they clung to each together. They were a complete pair, so much that they seemed to morph into one person. We even called them by their two names together – it was always “Gottman and Beck.” They would even be assigned to duty rosters together as if they were one person, doing clean-ups, collecting firewood, cooking meals. Of course, they were tent mates, too.
Another quirky aspect of our troop was the presence of Courtney Willard. Courtney was a weird scout. To begin, he was seventeen but an “old” seventeen, and bursting with teenage angst. He was a loner, perhaps one of those lost teenagers who was too cool to be a Boy Scout but nevertheless still clung to his scouthood even though he most likely hung out at his neighborhood candy shop, slouched away his day, and smoked cigarettes. Some parental figure probably stuck him on our Philmont bus because they didn’t know where else to put him that summer.
I was a loner, too, and Courtney and I were the “left-overs” when camping partners were selected. By default, we became tent mates. But Courtney pulled his weight, and even though we never became friends he was a decent camping buddy.
Gottman and Beck did okay, as well. They never lagged behind on our daily treks, which sometimes were tough 12-20 miles hikes with full packs filled with days worth of provisions. They never told a funny joke or razzed any of the other guys, but they never whined, either, which put them in good standing with me. In fact, our ten-man patrol was a tight group, and this made the events at a site called Cimmaroncito all the more surprising.
Cimmaroncito was a cross-roads type of camping cluster in the sprawling Philmont ranch, which was over 120,000 acres. Philmont has over 20,000 scouts traipsing across its landscape every summer, and Cimmaroncito was one of those places where a number of trails and hiking parties intersected. The night we were there we joined another dozen scout groups. With all this traffic Philmont maintained a ranger station, food depot, and even had a little country store where we could buy candy bars, soda, and potato chips.
Cimmaroncito was high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and nestled in a lush, alpine-like valley. It was the epitome of “God’s Country,” a green, unspoiled wilderness, and a refuge for my troop – who had just come from a night of “dry” camping – a form of back-packing away from any services, rangers, or even water.
As a result, we were excited to arrive at Cimmaroncito to get new food – mostly dehydrated stews, veggies, and pastas – and more importantly get a hot shower.
Cimmaroncito was manned by several rangers who greeted us as we arrived in late afternoon. They told us about the services, and said we were invited to take as long a shower as we wanted but we had to bring plenty of firewood to stoke the burners for the next day’s group.
They also warned us about the fire risks, and asked us not to build our campfires too high, as they didn’t want the woods and its dry tinder exposed to any errant sparks. Further, to protect the pristine landscape, we were instructed to pitch our tents on the wooden platforms Philmont had established, and build our cooking fires in the stone circles designed to minimize fire risks.
But chief among their concerns were the bears, as Cimmaroncito was a mecca for them as well. As a result, we had to hang our food caches from tree branches, and not bring any candy or food stuffs into our tents.
After supper, Courtney and I decided to go for our showers, along with our patrol leader Danny and his brother Jimmy. Gottman and Beck stayed at the campsite to clean-up, and were kept company by the rest of our crew and our scoutmaster, Mr. Henderson, a wise and generous man who was an English teacher during the school year.
After a wonderful 45-minute shower I felt transcendent. I could feel my body getting toughened and strong with all the miles, and it felt good. Our foursome was in a similar state-of-mind, and we radiated a sweet camaraderie, a brotherhood even.
In the midst of this reverie, Courtney blurted out: “You guys’ll never guess what I did to Gottman and Beck!”
“I have no idea, Courtney,” I said. “Whaddaya do?”
“I put some ‘Insty-Grape’ jam under the floor boards of Gottman and Beck’s tent platform.”
“Ah, no Courtney, you didn’t,” I said.
Danny called him an asshole for pulling a stunt like that. Dan was not only our patrol leader, he was also the only one who used cuss words without recrimination.
By now we were walking down the trail back to our campsite and saw a campfire blazing sky-high with about thirty scouts and several adult leaders standing around it.
“Must be some scouts from Los Angeles or California,” I joked. “They don’t think they have to obey the rules!” I mused. Danny and Jimmy commented on how dangerous it was to build such a large campfire. Then I returned to the matter of the grape jam under Gottman and Beck’s tent.
“Courtney, that sweet stuff is gonna attract bears like you wouldn’t believe,” I said.
“But, that’s the point!” he rebutted. “The bear will scare the daylights out of Gottman and Beck.”
“Geez, Courtney,” Danny chimed in, “that’s all we need is to have Gottman and Beck scared out of their gourds by some stupid bear smelling the grape jam and snooping around. They were doing okay, too, but now they’re probably gonna want to run off and see their mommies…”
“Or get switched to the patrol that Mr. Beck is leading,” offered Jimmy.
“And that’ll screw up our schedule and everything,” Danny retorted.
Courtney was saddened that no one was enjoying his attempt at a practical joke, and he continued to try to convince us that his jam move might be funny. No one believed him.
By then we were passing another campsite, and again were startled to see another roaring campfire with a ton of scouts standing around it.
“Must be more scouts from California,” I laughed.
“Or Jersey,” Danny said. “Our cousins live in Trenton and they love burning things down, too. Right, Jimmy?” The two brothers laughed, but I wasn’t sure what the family secret was exactly.
After passing the second fire, Danny got Courtney to agree to remove the grape jam from Gottman and Beck’s platform.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Danny counseled, and Courtney demurred.
We then entered our campsite, but found it empty and dark.
“Where the hell is everyone,” queried Danny. “Hey, anyone here?” he called out, but there was no answer.
In response, I decided to build our own campfire, and Jimmy helped. Danny went off with Courtney to fix the grape situation, and when the flames of our fire reached a few feet I added some larger logs. With the extra light our guys came running back, followed by a dozen strange scouts and a few adults.
“Gottman and Beck were attacked by bears! Gottman and Beck were attacked by bears!” they shouted over and over. They were nearly hysterical as they circled Jimmy and me.
Danny and Courtney joined the circle and their faces dropped when they grasped the seriousness of the situation.
“What happened? Where are they? Are Gottman and Beck, okay?” Danny asked over a cascade of voices and shouts.
Russ, a solid fifteen-year old from our patrol pushed forward and answered our questions.
“Yeah, Gottman and Beck are okay, kind of. They’re down at the ranger station at their infirmary with the ranch staff. They were crying their eyes out. A bear came in their tent when they were lying down, and they started screaming, tore though the back of their tent, which collapsed on the bear, who then went crazy and ran off into the woods.”
“The bears went completely nuts, too!” another member of our patrol offered. “We could see them in the trees at the edge of our camp site!”
Oh, my Gawd,” I muttered.
Then the crowd parted and Mr. Henderson entered the circle. “Boys, do you know anything about this?” he asked.
I looked at Danny, then Courtney, who was looking at the ground. Then Danny looked at me briefly and then turned towards Mr. Henderson. Danny caught his eye and nodded with his head to join him away from the group for a little private conversation. Danny wasn’t a super scout – he was seventeen and still only had the rank of first-class – which I had gotten when I was thirteen, but Danny knew a lot about tough fathers and what to do when trouble hit the fan. It was clearly time for Danny to step up to the plate and tell Mr. Henderson what had happened with Courtney and the grape jam.
At the fire I filled in the power vacuum and asked Russ to give us more details.
“Well, I was in my tent when I heard Gottman and Beck screaming and the bear roaring, so I got my knife and flashlight and went outside. Gottman and Beck were running through the woods like crazy people – screaming all the time. I tried to chase after them, but I didn’t want to get too close to the bears, so I shouted for everyone still here to follow me and we went down to the next campsite – the Los Angeles guys, I think – and told them what was happening and that we needed protection and that they had to build up the campfire and all that. Soon a bunch of those guys were going to all the other campsites and telling them what was going on – and everyone could see bears in the woods. I started throwing rocks at the bears, but the scoutmaster there told me to stop because he said it would provoke the bears or make them angrier – but I was just trying to scare them away and keep us safe. I was frightened, I guess. Everyone was. The guys who left to warn the others had flashlights and long sticks, and went as a group – everyone was staying together. Soon the rangers got here and one even had a rifle!”
Without a word, Danny, Courtney and Mr. Henderson slipped into the shadows and away from the campsite.
An hour later, Mr. Henderson returned. He told everyone that the rangers were armed and were patrolling the campsites. He said we should feel safe, return to our tents and go to sleep. As I crawled into my sleeping bag I saw him and Danny stoking the fire. I was nearly asleep when Courtney came in and pulled his sleeping bag out.
“Where ya going, Courtney?” I asked.
“I gotta sleep in Gottman and Beck’s tent. I just cleaned up the jam, and I gotta put the tent back up. There’s a broken pole, but I think I can fix it with a stick.”
“Whew, Courtney. I hope you’ll be safe.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
Courtney made it through the night, and the next day, although threatened with being sent home to New York, he was given a reprieve. I think Danny must have prevailed on Mr. Henderson to show mercy, and Courtney stayed with the patrol. Not too surprisingly, he was a model scout for the remainder of our time in Philmont.
The next day Gottman and Beck rejoined the group as we pulled out of Cimmaroncito, and they too, showed restraint. They never said a word about the incident that I ever heard, nor plotted revenge against Courtney.
But, as we hiked past the ranger station I could see the vestiges of the full bear rampage from the night before – overturned garbage cans and flipped metal food cache boxes, with bags of flour and dehydrated meals torn open strewn all over the place.
One little bad practical joke had caused all of this, and there didn’t seem any way to patch it back together so that Cimmaroncito could return to its idyllic calm. I certainly hoped no other scouts would be attacked or traumatized in the days to come. But, the ripple effects of Courtney’s jam joke were enormous, as were the potentials for more unrest.
I suppose having Courtney sleep in Gottman and Beck’s tent was a sublime act of traditional frontier justice, but what if the bears had come back and attacked Courtney, or even killed him?
What then? Would Cimmaroncito have been closed to all hikers for the rest of the season? Would the rangers be compelled to shoot or relocate all these bears? If anyone was injured, how devastating would the legal difficulties be for the Ranch?
With the hindsight of fifty years of worldly wisdom, it’s now easy to imagine that one little packet of jam could have brought Philmont to its knees.
1990, revised 2017
Bruce A. Smith