Living

The Best Girl Scout Leader in the World

The Girl Scouts uniform

Girl Scout Motto: Be Prepared

The Girl Scouts is an early twentieth-century organization founded by women, for women. Being a Girl Scout from 1969 until 1974, from second grade through sixth grade, gave me experiences that changed my life. Much of the credit goes to the leader of Troop 1050, Linda Ewell, a no-nonsense woman who worked tirelessly to provide activities that developed self-reliance, exposed us to the out-of-doors, and created opportunities for us to become aware of our communities. I loved and respected Mrs. Ewell, as we called her, for being fair, stern, and wise. She was supported by women who worked as assistant leaders or once-off volunteers, including my mother who worked in the toddler tent at our annual Girl Scouts day camp held near the fairgrounds in Hunt County, Texas.

Mrs. Ewell once called me on my bullshit. It was over an argument with my tent mates about canned vegetables, and I was vehemently opposed to corn. My favorite canned vegetable was green peas, though green beans were a strong second. My two tent mates were united behind corn. Our leader said something like, “Suzanne, you have a strong personality, but you don’t always have to be the loudest voice.” It was as if a light bulb went off. I understood something new about choosing my battles and being a better tent mate.

Our troop cooked out and went camping all over northeast Texas. Sometimes we stayed in primitive bunkhouses with campground bathhouses. Just as often, we pitched tents in the woods and dug our own latrines, holes in the ground with a sheet suspended from a tree branch for privacy and a shovel nearby to “flush” by scooping earth over our waste.

Mrs. Ewell borrowed our khaki canvas tents from the central Girl Scouts’ supply depot in Dallas, and probably other equipment too: fire grates and large pots, oil lanterns, flashlights, and an emergency medical kit. We brought our own sit-upons, sleeping bags, and dunk bags, made for dipping our dishes in boiling water after every meal. Troop 1050 consisted of fifteen girls, I think, though it might have grown to eighteen at times. We traveled in station wagons, six or seven girls in each vehicle. Mr. Ewell transported equipment and supplies in a pick-up truck with a camper on the back, though he rarely stayed overnight. Our troop leader had five children of her own, including a daughter my age, Leslin, who remains a dear friend after all these years.

Bridge over the Sabine River

Not all of our outdoor ventures were overnighters. The first outing I remember was a cookout in a field near the Sabine River. We made our own personal stoves out of metal Crisco cans that our parents washed out and saved. We used a can opener to punch holes around the bottom of the can for ventilation. We had to wait in line for Mr. Ewell to cut an oven door in each can with large, sharp metal shears. We gathered twigs and sticks to make little teepees of wood. I’m pretty sure we used matches to light our individual fires. We were eight years old, still Brownies, and I, at least, was an obedient child focused on getting everything right. Once our fires were going, we sat the cans on top of them. The bottom of a used Crisco can is just the right circumference to fry a personal hamburger. We ate, cleaned up, and sang songs until the mosquitos came out at sunset.

Grill made out of a can

For five years, I was a Girl Scout, and did all the Girl Scout things, cooking out, camping, singing songs around campfires, earning badges as a troop and on my own, visiting nursing homes and assisting with community food drives, and, of course, selling Girl Scout cookies. It was the 70s, and we were still living in the era of door-to-door sales. I remember being in third grade and pairing up with Holly, another Girl Scout. All by ourselves, we knocked on strangers’ doors and took orders all over the neighborhood known as Reavilon. Payment for cookies, which cost fifty cents a box, was due upon delivery. When the cookies arrived, we loaded up Holly’s wagon and pulled it around to collect the money. The worst problem I remember was an old guy who never had any cash, so we had to go back to his house three times.

Our troop used the profits from cookie sales to attend events, like the Ice Capades, a magical, eye-opening spectacle for an uncultured kid like me. Traveling to Fair Park Coloseum in Dallas, our troop sat in the balcony overlooking the ice ring, and the music, light show, and costumed skaters mesmerized me. Our troop also went to Dallas every year for the regional Girl Scouts SWAPS Day. To participate, we each made little trinkets or art objects we could attach to an oversized shirt with safety pins. The object was to circulate at the event, make new friends, and trade our trinkets for other Girl Scouts’ trinkets.

SWAPS stands for “Special Whatchmacallits Affectionately Pinned Somewhere or Shared With A Pal.” An older Girl Scout made a SWAP out of used keys; and they were the hot item one year, like treasured throws at Mardi Gras. But the older Girl Scout didn’t like anything I had pinned to my shirt and wouldn’t trade. I never got a key. The best trinket I ever made was a small doll of beads and thread that, in retrospect, resembled a worry doll.

My sash, though I never sewed all my badges on it.

When our troop wasn’t traveling or camping, we worked on badges and service projects. We earned badges in roller skating, sewing, first aid, art and design, babysitting, reading, photography, ceramics and clay, swimming, puppetry; so many badges, including cooking, which involved lessons with a home economics instructor in a high school kitchen classroom. I remember her lesson about lettuce, how to bang it on the counter in order to loosen its core for easy removal. We were instructed to shred the lettuce by hand because using a knife would bruise it, which isn’t necessarily true.

We made gifts for our mothers on Mother’s Day and our fathers on Father’s Day, and we made handmade cards for friends and family at Christmas. We went caroling at nursing homes, and we also performed skits throughout the year, like the story of the three little pigs.

In the summer, there was Girl Scouts day camp where knee socks were required. First thing in the morning, our camp counselors would dust our socks with puffs of yellow sulfur powder to keep the ticks away. Other bugs we caught and collected in cages made out of milk cartons and screen to create a bug zoo. We made macramé holders for hanging plants. We made lanyards and leather wallets.  

One time it rained while we were camping, and water seeped inside our tent. My tent mates that outing were Terri Nalls and Emmaleta Beane.

One time around the campfire, a bug flew into Mrs. Ewell’s ear, and she had to go to the hospital late at night. We were all so worried, but the doctor removed the bug, and Mrs. Ewell was fine.

After five years with Troop 1050, Mrs. Ewell retired as our leader. We were moving on to seventh grade and middle school and transitioning from being G.S. Juniors to G.S. Cadets. I don’t know if any of the other girls found a Cadet troop to join, but my days as a Girl Scout ended. Looking back, I appreciate Linda Ewell’s leadership and dedication more than I ever could have as a young girl. We lost her too soon, in 1993. Speaking for the members of Troop 1050, she was the greatest Girl Scout leader in the world.

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