The way the lady sounded over the phone, she wasn't too happy; and what she wanted to know from Scoutmaster William H. Fairlie was:
"Did you see what my son brought home? And, what are we supposed to do with it?"
Her problem: a 14-inch lizard.
Boy Scouts in Saudi Arabia may not have forests and streams and a few other things, but they do have—well, let's see. . . .
There was that time when they were camped at the base of a remote radio tower, and Fairlie showed them the bulletin:
"Uncle Joe is lost."
Fact is, "Uncle Joe" is always getting lost. He is an inflated rubber mattress, with a small balloon tied to one end, to simulate a lost person. To earn advancement in tracking, the Scouts must try to rescue him.
This time, though, they looked and looked; followed the usual signs that people leave: three rocks here, an arrow there, some pieces of wood farther along—but Uncle Joe was nowhere in sight.
At length, they came upon a group of Bedouins. Some of their youngsters had found Uncle Joe, and carried him to their elders to find out what he was.
Once a month, the Scouts go on these overnight hikes into the desert: to places like the Shedgum plateau, with its series of underground ravines . . . to 'Ain Dar, with its natural caves and wells . . . to "Camp Cobra" (so-named by the boys because there are snakes in the vicinity) . . . to Jebel Shmal (a jebel is a hill, or mountain; shmal means north).
Let's follow one of these trips from the beginning, as the boys pile their gear and themselves into sturdy trucks that ride on fat sand tires. There's no natural firewood where they're going, and no potable water, so they're taking plenty of both. A few have tents; most of them, only sleeping bags.
Now, they're off—up the road, and out across the open sand . . . and, in a couple of hours, here's the camp site. It's a jebel area, so they find a place between a couple of these hills as a shelter against wind and blowing sand.
Camp is set up Indian style—the boys in a circle, Fairlie in the center, so they'll all be together. Everybody understands that, from now on, the "buddy" system will be in effect:
Any boys leaving the camp area must be in groups of three. They must have canteens full of water, good headgear as sun protection, and something to eat, if it's only a candy bar. It's all part of the training in desert survival.
Before long, there's dinner to cook . . . and eat . . . and kits to clean. As Fairlie can tell you:
"Sand is good for cleaning kits—and saves water."
The sun has barely dipped below the horizon, when—visitors? Sure enough. A camel caravan is approaching.
"This isn't unusual—it happens very often," Fairlie assures you. "They'll stop to visit and have coffee with us. We may not understand one another fully, but there's mutual good fellowship. Our visitors seem to enjoy it, and so do we."
If no visitors, there's the council fire . . . maybe a "snipe hunt" . . . skits by each patrol . . . group singing ... a weenie roast. At 10 o'clock, it's "lights out," but they can talk until 11.
The morning bugle sounds at 6:30 or 7:00 . . . more cooking . . . breakfast . . . more kit-cleaning . . . and, now, the morning hike.
It will be eight to ten miles, and this time they're going to work for advancement in compass work. As a starter, Fairlie tells one of the boys:
"Jeff, you're to walk 300 yards north, 200 yards east, and 50 yards south. If you do it right, you'll come to a stake."
Jeff does pretty well: finishes close to where he should. The hike also calls for wild life observation; and, let's face it, there's not too much variety. Just the same, the Scouts are asked to find or show evidence of seven different kinds.
"There are lizards, and every now and then a desert fox," Fairlie lets you know; "and small owl-like birds, and the kangaroo rats — they sit up like kangaroos.
"We see desert spiders four or five times the size of the U.S. species. Because- there's so little variety, we accept even ants and beetles as wild life examples during hikes.
"Sometimes, we'll encounter locusts; and, when we see them in large numbers, we carry the word back to the locust-control people so they can go out and destroy them."
Well, how about snakes?
"We see harmless varieties, but I've never seen one that would hurt you. As a precaution against possible rattlers, though, we camp on sandy ground. The rattlers like rocky places."
And, so the day goes . . . games, sports, working on Scout problems, and then the final chore: cleaning up the camp area so it's at least as tidy as when we arrived. Around noon, we head for home.
At their "home base," the Scouts do much the same as Scouts in the States—within limitations. Considering the subtropical climate:
"We don't," Fairlie mentions, "have takers for snow skiing."
Nevertheless, there are about 85 merit badges that Scouts can earn. There's the Persian Gulf for swimming, life saving and boating; and there are pools in the Aramco communities. First aid, scholarship, citizenship, safety, music, camping, and astronomy top the list of badges earned in Saudi Arabia, just as they do back in the States. But the exotic location of troop activities offers some unique merit-badge opportunities to Aramco's young scouts: geology, weather, and soil and water conservation are tailor-made for the climate and terrain of the country; and world brotherhood is a natural for scouts living in a foreign land.
The boys got a big kick last winter from an unexpected visit by several of His Majesty's young sons who are Scouts. The Dhahran troop entertained them at lunch and played them at basketball.
Like Scoutmasters everywhere, Fairlie gives due emphasis to the serious side: good citizenship, living up to the Scout Oath, and the other character-building phases. But, there's no lack of light moments—like that time at Jebel Shmal.
"It was in the middle of the night, and we were all snoozing peacefully in our sleeping bags, when I suddenly became conscious of something moist against my cheek. Right away, I was awake—looking into a pair of eyes that seemed as big as dinnerplates!
"I bounced up like a springboard—and found it was only a camel: just curious."