Troop 39 – The Tower Troop

The History of the Monkey Bridge and the Tower Troop

Structure Erected for Scout Exposition Raleigh 1960 (As related by Ed Johnson)

The traditional signal tower was a scary thing. It was not very stable, and you didn’t dare put more than one or two scouts on one. Troop 39’s design was different. The design was brought down to us by our old ASM who had gone on to be a Boy’s Life editor. He got the design from a scout troop in Rhode Island and wanted us to try it out to see if it was any good. We built it and found it to be incredibly sturdy. We could put as many boys on it as could possibly fit. Materials for the bridge did not seem to be a problem. We always seemed to have someone, a scout dad, who had contact with someone with a stand of young pine trees. A stand of pines is always in need of thinning to make room for the remaining trees to become larger. We would go into a stand with a bow saw and cut down straight trees that were about 5 inches in diameter at the base. A tower requires a dozen 20-foot poles and a number of shorter ones. We would truck these back to the church and use drawknives to skin off the bark.

Using these sap-laden poles was tough at first because they were heavy. In a few months the poles would dry out and one boy could easily lift a twenty-footer. These poles were strong, lightweight, and flexible — ideal for building this sort of tower.

I challenged the tower crew (we were practicing for the Scout Exposition at the Reynolds Coliseum) to put the tower up in under five minutes. That’s from everything on the ground to the tower erected and a bow on top. I promised them all a milkshake if they did it. One day I timed them at four minutes and fifty seconds! They got their milkshakes.

One day after I had returned to graduate school, I was walking by the church and saw some of my old scout buddies. They showed me a model of a large monkey bridge they wanted to build for another Scout Exposition. The bridge would anchor at either end then rise up to one of Troop 39’s 20-foot towers in the center. They wanted my help to oversee the construction. It seemed like fun and I urged them to make the thing larger and run the bridge up and over two towers. The key thing we needed was a large long rope to act as the bridge’s foot rope.

Someone had connections to the Naval Shipyard at Norfolk and I got permission to go up and bring back anything I wanted from the surplus yard. I drove my VW Beetle up and found a length of about a hundred yards of 3 inch manila hawser, some huge blocks (as in block & tackle) a couple of threes and a couple of twos, and a lot of smaller rope. I filled the entire inside of the VW with this gear and piled as much on top as I could and came home.

We did a trial run and built the bridge behind the church. it began at the walk on the east side of the church and went across where the parking lot is now to the east property line. Altogether, it was something over two hundred feet long. We worked out all the kinks behind the church and finally got it as we wanted.

We were ready to build the monkey-bridge using two towers plus large structures at either end. We carried the materials over on a large flatbed truck on Friday afternoon and began to set up. Digging the anchor holes took a while. It was early in May and a cool cloudy day. It took several hours to get it assembled so we had to finish it Saturday morning.

We wanted this to be a hands-on demonstration that scouts could actually get on. Since a monkey-bridge can be unstable (if the ropes are not really tight, you can flip over in mid-bridge and be dumped on the ground) we rigged up an overhead safety line. Anyone who crossed the bridge was connected to the safety line by a rope around the waist. All-day there was a long line of scouts waiting for their turn to cross the bridge.

It was a big hit.

drag left and right to see all the photos below.

Triumph of the Towers

This appeared in a local newspaper, probably The Chapel Hill News. Authored by Troop 39 scout Jock Lauterer, circa 2004.

Much attention has been focused here of late on the national epidemic of obesity — particularly among teens. I for one can testify it’s no fun being an adolescent wide-load.

Although my sainted mother insisted that I was just “husky,” I knew better. .

And so did my buddies in Troop 39, where only the lean, mean Scouting machines could make the elite “tower team.”

And therein lies the tale.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the historic troop from the University Methodist Church was famous for a humongous contraption kept stored in the red-clay crawl space beneath the sanctuary, lugged out pole by pole, and erected on the lawn behind the church (now a parking lot and preschool playground).

The select group of skilled Scouts, usually high school-age boys, assembled two 24-foot tall signal towers, made from pine poles and held together with nothing more than rope lashings.

How I admired those big, strong older guys like Vance Barron, Bob Spearman, Bill Aycock, David Radford, Charles, Bill Crook and Bill Graham as they effortlessly muscled their way up the vertical poles.

Between the two towers, they erected a rope suspension bridge, or “monkey bridge,” and all this was staked down securely on either side.

It’s enough to make insurance agents lose their actuaries — though I never heard of any kid falling off the thing; it clearly was a risky venture. I can only imagine the nightmares scoutmasters Ed Johnson and Lamar Hicks must have had.

But back to Mr. Lumpy and the tower team.

I know when the 3×5 black and white snapshot was made because in “May 1960” Foister’s Camera Store was still stamping the date in the top center of the white crinkly-edged frame.

You can see for yourself two spindly structures connected by ropes and festooned with flags; there are figures atop each platform, and one boy, at almost mid-point between the two towers, making his tentative way along a suspended rope with only shoulder-level ropes for safety.

C’est moi. And if you think I’m scared, guess again.

At the moment my mom made this photo at N.C. State Fairgrounds where Troop 39 had erected its famous towers and monkey bridge for the Boy Scout Exposition, I was deliriously happy.

I had finally made the tower team.

And here’s how chunkamola transformed himself into a lean mean tower-buildin’ machine.

On the way to Eagle, a Scout must earn a Physical Fitness merit badge, and in the process, get in shape The moment of truth came when the boy presented himself before an adult merit badge counselor to perform a set number of push-ups, sit-ups and the dreaded pull-ups.

There in old Woollen Gym, I . hung by my arms on the pull-up bar as counselor Bill Peacock waited for me to start my exercises.

“All right, son,” Peacock said, “You can start now.”

“I yam,” I croaked weakly, still vertical.

Peacock advised in a kind voice, “Maybe you should go home and practice.” He did not say “some more” because it was painfully obvious that I hadn’t practiced at all.

And so I did. There on an iron bar in the low branches of the big maple in the front yard of our Pritchard Avenue home, I practiced pull-ups every evening after supper in the dark so no one would see my pitiful workouts.

I cut out candy bars, and for two meals a day I consumed Metrecal, which tasted like ground-up chalk in chocolate milk. But it all worked. I lost weight. I beefed up. I was ready to try out for the tower team.

And I had learned my rope lashings and was strong enough to help lift the four interlocking tripods of the tower. But could I make the climb that had always defeated me?

I took a deep breath, grabbed the middle pole with both hands, and straddling it with my legs, threw myself into the ascent, calling on my new muscles developed over three months of pull-up practice out there in the dark.

Ten seconds later, huffing and I pulled myself up the main pole of the tripod, threw one leg over a horizontal pole, and stood upon the crossbar 18 feet off the ground. As I gazed down in wonder at the churchyard below me, a wave of triumph, affirmation, and confidence washed over me.

To this day, 44 years later, I still get a rush just being off the ground. Even the simple act of mounting a stepladder to clean the gutters makes me grin inwardly with private pleasure.

So I’m a height junkie. Now you know why.

And a belated happy 94th Scout Anniversary Week (Feb. 8-14) to all Scouts everywhere young and old.

Jock Lauterer teaches at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill.