Shelly Weil stands in the cavernous, wood-framed mess hall at Ten Mile River Boy Scout Camp in upstate New York, ready to get things moving. Surveying the boisterous crowd of men who are laughing and conversing animatedly, the 80-year-old lifts his right arm with three fingers raised.
Immediately, Weil's gesture is noted, and word quickly spreads through the room. "Sign's up!" they whisper to each. "Sign's up!"
Flashing the Boy Scout sign is a time-honored technique used by Scout masters to hush a gaggle of rambunctious 11- or 12-year-olds. Apparently it works for octogenarians, as well. Within seconds, 63 men are standing in silence, hands raised in similar fashion.
They call themselves Arrowheads, Boy Scouts of years past from Brooklyn -- many of them current or former Long Islanders -- who have been gathering here every year since 1964 to relive their summer camp days. Late last month, they arrived from as far away as California to celebrate a milestone: their 50th reunion. It was a nostalgic, three-day stay at the campground, near Narrowsburg in western Sullivan County. There, they slept in plain bunk beds, practiced Scout skillslearned when they were kids and participated in a solemn ceremony to consecrate a bond that began a half-century ago. They also took time to remember 72 of their members who have died; their names posted on a sign in the mess hall.
The Arrowheads, who hail from all parts of Brooklyn, belong to the national honor society of Boy Scouts known as the Order of the Arrow. For years -- mostly in the 1940s and early 1950s -- they spent summers at this 12,000-acre camp as Scouts and then later as staff members. Ten Mile River is the largest Boy Scout summer camp in America.
"It was the most exciting thing in my life," says Al Yanofsky, 80, of Merrick, recalling his scouting years. "It was like you were a pioneer, getting out in the woods, building your own fire. How could any kid from Brooklyn not like that?"
The lessons learned were even deeper. "Not 80 percent, but in 100 percent of everything I do in my life, I am guided by the principles I learned in scouting," says Weil, a longtime Elmont resident who now resides in Delray Beach, Fla. The Arrowheads take seriously the values stated in the Scout Law to be "trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."
Most who attended the reunion were aware of the controversy regarding the Boy Scouts' policy barring homosexual adult leaders -- a position many of the Arrowheads disagree with -- but that debate wasn't on the reunion agenda. This was a time for reminiscing.
Once a secret society
The Order of the Arrow was founded in 1915, five years after the Boy Scouts of America was established. Now it numbers 180,000 current and former members across the country, according to the Boy Scouts of America website, scouting.org.
When Yanofsky, Weil and their fellow Arrowheads were first selected for the order, it was a secret society with its own code words, oaths and dramatic induction ceremony. A re-enactment of that ceremony was the climax of the reunion, with Weil dressed as an Indian chief, complete with headdress. In front of a flickering campfire set indoors (a concession made for members who can't take the cold anymore), he intoned the "sacred oaths" of the Order, as four "recruits" stood before him, heads bowed.
That may sound somewhat theatrical, but these veteran Arrowheads wanted to pay homage to the honor society because of its lasting impact on their lives. Many are retired from long and successful careers; among their ranks are judges, doctors, attorneys, educators and accountants.
Karl Bernstein, 79, of Woodmere, spent 11 summers at Ten Mile River. When asked how scouting affected him, he fished into his pocket and pulled out his laminated Eagle Scout ID. "It's the first card in my wallet," he says. While achieving scouting's highest rank is not a prerequisite for being a member of the Order of the Arrow, about half of the 63 Arrowheads who made it to the reunion are also Eagle Scouts.
For Charlie Harris, Scout training was a life saver. Harris, 85, who now lives in Coram, went from being a Scout to joining the Marine Corps (before eventually becoming a physical education teacher in the Longwood School District). As a platoon leader in training in Quantico, Va., Harris saved the life of one of his men. While out on maneuvers, Harris explains, one of the men was bitten by a poisonous snake. "I had [earned] the first aid merit badge" in Scouts, he says. "I knew what to do."
A stretch for city boys
Like all trained Boy Scouts, the Arrowheads have a slew of things in common. They can name the different trees in the woods; the species of bird that just flew overhead. They can build a fire without matches and plot their way home with a compass. Mastering these skills wasn't easy for city boys. In the 1940s, one of the required merit badges was bird study. "You had to be able to identify and know the habits of 40 different species of birds," recalls Mitch Strauss, 82, who lived in North Woodmere for many years before moving to Highland Beach, Fla. "What kind of birds did you see in Brooklyn besides pigeons?"
But despite their urban upbringing. they became proficient at each new skill and have kept them sharp. Even Arrowheads with arthritic hands can still tie knots with aplomb, as demonstrated in one of the reunion competitions.
When the first reunions were held in the 1960s, the Arrowheads were in their 20s and 30s, new to the suburbs and raising families. "We would go horseback riding, canoeing; we'd camp out," recalls Yanofsky, who started attending the gatherings in 1967. "Now, you have guys that creak a lot. We mostly sit around and talk."
They also give back to the organization that gave so much to them -- specifically to the camp, which is operated by the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts of America. "I love their spirit and camaraderie," says John Restrepo, 35, the current camp director, who was a guest at the Arrowheads' Saturday night reunion ceremony.
The Arrowheads have donated a total of $93,000 to the camp since the late 1980s. This year's donation was used to purchase two new sailboats, essentially reviving the camp's sailing program. Arrowhead funds also helped create the Ten Mile River Camp museum, an impressive on-site facility that helps tell the story of the camp that opened in 1928.
Ties that bind
Although the annual reunion is all male, wives socialize at a yearly dinner following a Florida bird walk and on a Caribbean cruise out of Fort Lauderdale. But their families know the most important bonding experience for these former Scouts is back at camp. "This is a defining experience for my father," says Yanofsky's daughter, Deborah Cohn, 51, who also lives in Merrick. The Arrowheads, she says, "have a commitment to each other that spans their lives."
At the closing ceremony, Mitch Strauss was introduced as one of the nine surviving Arrowheads who attended the first reunion in 1964. Looking around the room filled with lifelong friends who shared their summers, even into their winter years, he summed up the feelings of fellow Arrowheads, saying, "How magnificent it has been."
Weil, in his Indian chief garb, nodded in agreement.