The best of times, the best of friends

Girl Scout Troop 454 was a close-knit community of classmates. Our glory days in the latter half of the 1950s and early 1960s seem, in retrospect, to have been the perfect time to be a Scout.

Few mothers worked outside the home, and our leaders - among them my own mom - ushered us through the sewing, cooking, good grooming, and housekeeping badges in good order. Nor were nature, knots, bicycling, first aid to animals, or most other badgeable skills beyond them.

We held our weekly meetings in the basement of our neighborhood grammar school, within an easy walk of our homes, and camped in the bucolic, glacial terrain south of Rochester, N.Y. The parks were never too full for us, and we could pitch our canvas tents pretty much wherever we wanted.

In those days, there were no massively humming RVs to squeeze between.

In a sense, our green beanies, uniforms, and sashes were just another set of clothes for us. We'd have hung out together in any case, and when we weren't busy being Girl Scouts, we kept our close friendships alive in hundreds of other ways. But our unity as Troop 454 has stuck with us all these years, perhaps because we learned more about one another as Scouts than we did in most other ways.

A case in point: I was Betsy's special guest for two glorious weeks one summer on her family's vacation island in Georgian Bay, largely because she had noted on a recent 454 camp-out that I was the only other troop member who had not bothered to change her clothes over the weekend. (So much for our good- grooming badges). I was Betsy's kind of fuss-free summer companion, and how else would she have known it?

The troop began to unravel as we entered high school. Several girls moved away, and the rest of us gave up our old Scout nicknames - Soot, Stickem, Schnag, Hawkeye, Gundy - to assume more dignified and datable personae.

But, as I said, our unity as Troop 454 somehow stuck - to the extent that six of us and two of our leaders recently converged on Rochester for a reunion, driving and flying from Vermont, Virginia, Rhode Island, Florida, and Indiana for the occasion. Two of us, both based in Indiana, had spontaneously planned the event over lunch in Indianapolis one day.

I was the only one with a childhood home to return to in Rochester. My mom still lives in it, and since she was also one of our leaders, she automatically yet willingly became the event's official hostess, providing a refresher course on what the hospitality badge was all about.

Although some of us hadn't seen each other in 40 years, we regrouped as 454 in a heartbeat. There were few lulls in the conversation as we caught up on one another's lives and reminisced. We admired carefully saved badge sashes (do they still make such beautiful and colorful patches for pressing a few leaves or skiing down a hill?).

We tried on Betsy's hat, and fingered Candy's pins. Sue E. had even brought along a diary she'd kept one camp-out weekend. She read straight from the penciled original to a rapt audience. This was, after all, our shared history she held in her hands.

As we listened, we remembered more and more: how one of our fathers, helping set up the camp, had cut his finger and gone to the hospital for stitches; the stray dogs who'd invaded the tents; the way we'd tripped and stumbled on the gopher holes liberally dotting the field; and how we'd pictured burglars and ne'er-do-wells skulking in the nearby woods. (Little wonder none of us had dared venture to the latrines after dark.)

We'd gotten into trouble for traversing an off-limits rope bridge over a ravine, and then secretly crossed it again.

And we'd consumed prodigious amounts of the sort of food we try to keep our own kids from eating. Sue faithfully recorded in her diary even this embarrassment of empty caloric riches, perhaps our backlash against the tedious nutrition badge. Then, with her flashlight batteries waning, she'd concluded: "The best camp-out ever!"

It was the best reunion ever, too.

Maybe the second one, which we've already started thinking about for next summer, will bring back a few more members and memories of 454 - the troop that hasn't disbanded after all, only let a few decades lapse between meetings.

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