The Girl Scouts of America turns 100 this month and while I wasn’t very enthusiastic at the time, I am now proud to say I was once a Girl Scout. People are surprised at how much I learned (aside from selling cookies). Part of the reason was our leader, Mrs. Schilf, who I write about for this column last year as the Girl Scouts prepared for the centennial celebration (Daily News, Oct. 2011):
We learned how to cook hobo stew in a hole in the ground long before television was flooded with reality shows on how to survive in the wilderness.
It was Mrs. Schilf who taught us that, along with other skills. She was our Girl Scout leader, who also went by the nickname Yogi. She was unlike many leaders of that time, who favored sewing and building gingerbread houses over toughing it out in the forest.
For those of us sensitive types who preferred our adventure from library books, Mrs. Schilf was about as warm and cozy as Clint Eastwood from “Gran Torino.”
She was tall, wore her blond hair short, and was never without Girl Scout regalia, especially a windbreaker crammed with badges and shiny pins.
Before we headed out on camping trips, some of us held our breath in fear as Mrs. Schilf reached her hands into our duffel bags to pull out what she considered contraband: pillows, chocolate bars and handheld radios.
“Girl Scouts make their own music,” she would say. As for the candy, the last thing she wanted was 20 hyper 11-year-olds suffering from fructose-induced stomach aches.
Once we reached a campground, our instructions were sharp and clear. We assembled tents with a precision reserved for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We established safety zones around the campfire, always made sure there was a bucket of water nearby, and kept the kindling in a dry place.
After an exhausting first day of setting up camp, we turned in early. Mrs. Schilf would settle into her sleeping bag to doze off under the stars, while some of us cried in our tents. Tears dripped down our faces as we picked foxtails out of our socks and tried to figure out a way to sleep without pillows or radios to soothe away our homesickness.
Just before daybreak, we could hear the sound of wood being chopped as Mrs. Schilf used her hatchet to make kindling. She tapped on our soggy tents that sagged down to our noses under morning dew and barked: “Up and at `em girls!”
Despite her gruffness, Mrs. Schilf kept us safe and she knew the importance of balance. In between teaching us how to tie bowline knots, we learned how to boogie board at Refugio State Beach. Once, we walked along creeks within Leo Carillo State Park while she talked about the importance of conservation and we happily picked up cigarette butts, aluminum cans and other trash along the way, knowing we were protecting rare fish, birds and amphibians.
When our camping weekend ended, we always left the area cleaner than when we found it. That was part of the code. And when we were dropped off back at our homes, we were different: smarter, stronger, and brimming with confidence.
When I became a teenager, I quit the Girl Scouts as many girls do, believing then that makeup and daydreams of escaping my hometown were cooler than assembling old tents and tying knots. But the values I learned as a scout stayed with me. In college, friends would brag about camping trips that included beer, pot and air mattresses, and I would think of my Girl Scout leader, who would certainly have disapproved.
When the Girl Scouts of America recently announced plans to celebrate its upcoming centennial, I thought about those like Mrs. Schilf who voluntarily lead troops of girls into adulthood and teach them skills to survive almost anything.
And over time, I realized that Mrs. Schilf taught us that to value and respect nature and the environment was to value and respect ourselves, a lesson that is never too old fashioned for any young girl to learn, no matter from what era.