The Finest Kind (Phil Nelson)

After reading of the adventures of Bernie Lerner, Bill Dixon, Marv Antonoff, Dick Weidman and Dan Riviera, I thought of the many characters of the Brooklyn Scout Camps who also deserve to be mentioned. Chief among them was my best friend and best man at my wedding, the incomparable Jesse James Wolfensohn. Yes, James really was his middle name. Jesse, in addition to being an Eagle Scout, Vigil member of the Order of the Arrow and Shu Shu Gah Lodge Chief, was an expert in virtually all scouting skills. He rose through the ranks to become Scoutmaster of Troop 256. In 1944, Jesse was the Administration Director of the (old) Division 2, one of the two kosher camps in the Brooklyn Scout Camps, Division 1 being the other. I was the Program Director. At that time, equipment, such as rope needed for splicing and other pioneering needs, was difficult to obtain. Taking the challenge, Jesse and several of us drove from D-2 to the QM shack in Tahlequah at 2 AM in his 1939 Dodge, affectionately called the Flying Yarmulke. About that Dodge, the only way it could get started was to have it parked at the top of a hill and have it roll down as you stepped on the gas. Needless to say, the trip was successful in that we managed to confiscate (as opposed to steal) enough rope to last that camp season and possibly several seasons thereafter. Apparently it wasn’t missed because we never heard anything about the break-in at the QM shack, but we did learn there was a severe shortage of splicing rope in the other divisions. Jesse was an eccentric from an eccentric family. Rules were not for his family. An example of this was his mother driving up to visit him, along with his younger sister and brother, on a weekday evening when visitors were not permitted. That evening, Jesse, in the garb of Allowat Sakima, was at Rock Lake preparing for an OA first night ceremony along with me as Meteu. We had planned an elaborate extravaganza using Rock Lake as the background along with canoes. When we started our yips to signal the coming of the candidates, we heard the responding yips from the service road side of Rock Lake. This caused all sorts of confusion. It was Jesse’s family stopping on the service road to investigate the noise and torch lights. They heard the yips and answered with their own yips. Jesse didn’t sleep on a bed. He rigged up a hammock in the Iroquois cabin where he slept and renamed the cabin “The Casbah”. The hammock had a history as well. It was obtained on a day off outside the watering hole on the Pennsylvania side of the Lackawaxen bridge called Jungle Jim’s. The bartender had been particularly nasty to us so the hammock was confiscated as a reprisal. In 1944, the camp season was a banner one, Division 2 was filled all four periods and our songs at the Tahlequah camp fires were from the hit Broadway musical Oklahoma. Of course, we changed the lyrics. When Mat-v Antonoff came to our 37th Brooklyn Arrowhead annual TMR Reunion (the first one he attended) upon greeting me, he sang the lyrics to one of the songs he remembered as a camper fifty-six years ago. Getting back to Jesse, I never tire of telling the story of Jesse’s tap out. It was 1942 and Camp Deerslayer was on an overnight hike at the Old Ranger site. Everyone suspected that the tap outs for the OA would be that night. All those who hoped that they would be elected felt their chances would be slim by being away from the camp. However, the ritual team sent Bert Becker, the legendary hikemaster of D-2 to tap out a candidate who had been elected. Bert was the acknowledged master of all the obsolete trails at TMR. The camp had a mini tap out ceremony at the Ranger site and Bert in his Indian regalia, late at night, tapped Jesse out. Leaving the camp, Jesse followed Bert, who seemed to lose his way circling various trails. Finally, in exasperation, Jesse made himself understood in sign language and showed Bert the right trail back. As a camper, Jesse was the ultimate rebel. Although he was an Eagle Scout and Patrol Leader of his bunk and likely got the most votes in the camp for Arrow membership, he was not tapped out. It was evident that he was not liked by camp staff. They considered him to be a wise guy and he appeared to rub them the wrong way. They failed to recognize his worth until his fourth year as a camper. He quickly earned his Brotherhood and Vigil Honors in the minimum time and became a legend in the lore of TMR. Jesse was one of the organizers of the Arrowhead group that celebrates its 40th consecutive annual reunion at TMR this year. Jesse loved TMR so much he requested that his ashes be scattered at the Indian Cliffs, which was honored at the 24th annual reunion. If you knew him or ever came in contact with him you would never forget him. He was one of a kind - the finest kind.