From the Archives, May 12, 2024

From the Archives, May 12, 2024

Johnny Roe Remembrance by Pat Bray

The following is a remembrance by Pat Bray (Parnell 1963-1968) of his friend, fellow Parnell staff member Johnny Roe, who recently passed. The photo here by Jerome Terrell is of the group mentioned below. the photo was taken at Latimer Reservation in 2018. The story on Johnny Roe was given by Pat Bray at the 2024 Eagle Recognition night.

Johnny as Fire Builder and Fire God Medicine Man

The 1960s were the Golden Age of Boy Scouting in Middle Tennessee. A significant number of teenage boys participated in scouting back then. In 1960 Boxwell Reservation moved to the banks of Old Hickory Lake. This “new” Boxwell was a vast improvement over the old camp in every respect: size, facilities, programming, and staff.

Staff selection was especially rigorous. There was no place for a well-connected teenager hoping to lounge about all summer with his buddies and get paid. The new camp director, Mr. Johnson, aka “Foxy” behind his back, was a stern leader who didn’t tolerate laziness or poor performance.  His often-repeated message to the staff was, This is no vacation for you!” Of course, we mocked that (again behind his back), but we knew for sure that he was dead serious.

Because the staff was hired based on demonstrable scouting skills, Johnny rose to the top. The core competencies necessary for hiking and camping were taught in the Activity Yard where Johnny soon became the director. In the mid-1960s the Activity Yard staff consisted of Johnny, John Bryant, Jerome Terrell, Wes Frye, Bobby Fike, Mike Ingram, and yours truly. These guys plus other Boxwell staff including Greg Tucker, Phil Roe, and Mike Rice would remain Johnny’s friends for 60 years! Johnny would become the prime mover for our annual reunions in recent years.

As expected, Johnny was given responsibilities beyond his day job at camp. The content of the Sunday night and Friday night campfires was expanded to become more fun and purposeful. Johnny was given a starring role in the Sunday night production.

But first there was the essential task of building the campfires. The fires had to be large enough, bright enough, and last long enough to accommodate the lengthy programs at two different locations. Johnny oversaw the building of both the Sunday night and Friday night campfires.

His trusty crew over time included me, John B., Jerome, and Wes. Wood had to cut and lugged to the two different locations. Power tools were not allowed. Each campfire was built on a limestone pedestal about three feet high. The firewood was then stacked another three feet in the shape of a pyramid.

Here was the engineering challenge: under no circumstances was the fire ever to roll off the stone pedestal. Rumor was that should that ever happen, then the fire builders—Johnny et al—would be fired. But Johnny’s fires never rolled; his record was perfect!

Perhaps others could have done this, but Johnny’s contributions were not limited to behind the scenes. He took center stage as the opening act on Sunday nights. At twilight the scouts would silently take their seats on railroad ties in the campfire area. At this point the campfire was not lit. Without introduction Johnny would emerge from the woods in complete Native American regalia including a full-length feathered headdress. The entire costume was the 1960s Hollywood ideal of what an Indian chief should resemble. Looking back, I suppose it was a rather clumsy form of culture appropriation. His elaborate attire was that of a Plains Indian and was not remotely authentic to what the Native Americans of Middle Tennessee wore!

But the boys bought into it and so did we (what did we know?). The willing suspension of disbelief was in full swing as these theatrics were quite convincing. At first Johnny would face in three directions away from the audience and shout some mumbo jumbo to the Rain God who gives us rain and the Earth God who…and so on. Finally, he would face the crowd and in his loudest and deepest voice exclaim, “Hail to the Fire God who gives us fire!”

And then suddenly from high above his right shoulder a ball of fire the size of a softball would come streaking down at a 45-degree angle and strike the firewood which would immediately burst into flames! This dramatic effect never failed to get a bunch of oohs and aahs from the boys and their Scoutmasters!

Despite having seen this spectacle countless times we on the staff were always impressed even though we all knew the trick. I am tempted to not reveal it and let you, gentle reader, go ahead and just believe in Johnny’s magic. But here goes: High up in a tree was a staff member disguised in dark clothes holding a kerosine-soaked roll of toilet paper. When Johhny gave the exhortation, the roll was lit and sent down a wire to the kerosine-soaked firewood which instantaneously became a huge fireball. QED!

Back then Johnny was full-scale Baptist, so we had to tease him about being such a natural for this pagan ritual. Of course, he was very good-natured about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if right about now the Good Lord might be enjoying one of Johnny’s command performances. I know for this reason and many others I will always smile whenever I remember Johnny, my dear friend.


1965 Parnell Group

Top row L to R: John Roe, Mike Rice, Congressman Phil Roe, Bob Fyke, Judge John Bryant, Dr. Pat Bray
Bottom row L to R: Wes Frye, Greg Tucker, Skip Dow, Jerome Terrell

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