Civil Disobedence at Abrams Creek

by Paul Shaw

Toward the end of my time with the Boy Scouts, our little Alabama troop spent two weeks in the Abrams Creek campground at the southern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, pitching our tents across the trail and up a ways from the creek. It was, as it is today, a site for primitive camping which catered mainly to trout fishermen.

It was 1968, the same week that Bobby Kennedy was shot. My father and I, with two others, were driving back from Highway 129, approaching the turnoff onto the narrow track which led to the Ranger's Station when we heard the news. It was an era of war, assassinations, and city violence. News reports reeked of events involving Martin Luther King's shooting, the counter-culture movement, anti-war protests, and riots in the streets in the northern cities. It was a decade of societal violence run rampant.

We listened to the radio and turned it off, very little being said as we absorbed the news of the shooting. We turned onto a narrow road which led to the Abrams Ranger Station and entered a small field which served as a parking area. We got out and walked across the grass toward the creek-side trail which entered the woods and led to the campsite, all thoughts of civil and uncivil disobedience leaving us far behind. Abrams was a refuge during that time, blocked from the world. Few knew about that area and we saw almost nobody who wasn't with our troop except for the occasional fisherman who would walk the stream-side and wave at us.

A young boy moved into our town and, at the age of 12, joined the Scout troop, only to encounter one patrol called the Rebel Rat Raiders whose motto was "do everything the hard way." It was my patrol. I was patrol leader, or had been in earlier years. In 1968, I was out of school and the Scouts, and was a new Assistant Scoutmaster. I therefore share blame for the mire of what the poor lad encountered.

Greg Hattaway was the kid's name (it just came to me after so many years. When you learn of him, you will be surprised I ever forgot it). He was a little towheaded Yankee kid with amazing spunk and good humor, scrawny of build with a long face. His being from some godforsaken state up North. (Weren't they all, to us Southern kids, molded by generations of adults who had themselves grown up under childhood influences just like ours?). We thought his manner of enunciation sounded funny, in a grating sort of way.

As was our custom, we pitched the Rebel Rat Raiders' patrol tent some yards from the narrow trail, constructed a picket fence made of sticks, raised the Confederate flag on a makeshift flagpole in the front, and demanded that every kid who approached our sacred headquarters salute that flag. To the side of the tent door, I stuck a cast iron Maltese Cross-shaped grave marker into the ground. It had a raised relief of the Confederate flag on one side and Latin words on the other. Standing two feet tall, it made a good entrance ornament. This was the Boy Scouts of America, but the America we knew was the South, the Deep South as we called it, disdaining even those from such hostile climes as Birmingham, 120 miles north of our hometown.

Every morning, we'd gather the boys for the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer from Mr. Bagwell, the Scoutmaster. He was a fine, Christian man, a university professor and former overseas missionary whose influence was largely ignored by our motley lot. Following the prayer, we members of the Rebel Rat Raiders would march the group over to the Confederate flag, stand them at attention and have them sing Dixie as best they could. None of us knew many words to it, but we liked the sound of it, as did Abraham Lincoln, I had read. As a melody, it was played often in the White House.

Inspired by the justification of the tune's history, and picking the partiality we preferred, we would have the boys sing the first verse, salute, and leave. Throughout the day, when passing our tent, the boys were required to salute the flag.

To our dismay, Greg Hattaway proved to be a confirmed Yankee. True to his heritage, he would have none of those Confederate goings-on. He resisted.

Walking past our headquarters tent, he'd avoid looking at our flag, never making the required snap to attention and quick salute, as the others were so eager to do. The others were Southern boys, having been raised in the midst of a defiant heritage, some still sporting the cheap Confederate uniform replica caps held over from the Civil War Centennial a few years prior. The product of proper raising, they exhibited no hesitation in complying with our requirement. Greg's impudence was the cardinal sin, rousing us to action at each occurrence. We determined to break and transform him into a respectable Southerner.

In those years, there was a pipe stuck in the hillside on the left as you entered the campground area, a stream of cold spring water running steadily from it. At each display of disobedience, we'd grab Greg by the arms and feet and, holding him horizontally, pull him slowly beneath that pipe's icy discharge, drenching him from foot to head. He'd squirm as the cold water hit him, and laugh at us when he gained his release, running dripping down the trail, distancing himself from our revered yet snubbed flag, his brazen temperament unmoved by our efforts. This went on for days, he gaining nothing from our educational attempts, as far as we could tell. In time, it became agonizingly apparent that he had become too easy to catch, almost willing in his submission to the tortuous spring water treatment.

At the pinnacle of desperation, we assembled the entire troop at dawn on one particularly cool morning, with the exception of that stubbornly insolent little Yankee kid, standing them at the edge of frigid Abrams Creek. Peer pressure would do it, we were certain. Having been properly indoctrinated, the troop complied when we ordered them to march into the clear, running water, they progressing until they were about crotch deep, creeping unsteadily across the slippery bottom, whining and hollering with every arm-flapping step.

The rebellious little Yankee was then summoned to the scene. Standing warm and dry upon the bank, Greg was told that his fellow Scouts would have to remain immersed until they either froze to death or until he gave a ringing rendition of Dixie and saluted that flag. The boys in the stream wailed at him to comply, and to do it fast. Shivering in the icy water, their plight would surely spur him to action. We eyed him carefully, our positions bracketing him lest he run.

Yes, there it was! A hesitation and fidget for the first time in a week, the scoundrel seemingly disturbed by the pleas of his comrades. All present were about to witness the conversion of a die-hard, damned Yankee kid. He who had dared enter the sanctity of our Southern stronghold with such irreverence was about to experience a sudden revelation, courtesy of the Gospel of the Rebel Rat Raiders. By God we had him now!

Greg faced our esteemed flag, then wheeled about and marched into the stream next to the other boys, passed them by and headed for deeper water. He went under with no complaint, the water cutting a raw swirl around his chicken neck, and told us that's where he'd stay.

The boy had gotten the best of us. We recognized a brave, stout-hearted soul of conviction when we saw one. We gave him a free pass to do whatever he wanted in regards to the flag and singing. He never gloated over his victory, but the other boys saw a new hero in their midst, that skinny boy who sounded funny to the Southern ear. We should have saluted him.

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