By Roger Deem
No matter how inflated one’s ego might be, it is impossible not to have a touch of humility forced upon one’s self the first time the Pacific Ocean comes into view. The sweeping majesty of the world’s largest expanse of water makes a first impression like the impact of a wrecking ball.
And curiously, I experienced a similar greeting from Jacksonville’s Town Brook one Spring day in 1975.
I had reached the Life rank in Boy Scout Troop 107 at an early age and then languished at that level for three-and-a-half years as other distractions (i.e. girls, sports, etc.) commanded my interests. I never, ever doubted that I would become an Eagle Scout eventually but in my mid-teens, hormones had definitely replaced ambition as the central motivator in my life.
Then one day, Scoutmaster Joe Grojean gathered all of us with the Life rank and one by one began to question where we were on the path to Scouting’s highest honor. When his inquiring gaze turned my way, he glanced down at the papers in his hand, then back at me. The stern expression which crossed his face was the same he had worn the time he caught me and John Heinzman teaming up to swipe half of Wilbur Spink’s breakfast.
Bypassing the gory details of his ensuing harangue, the basic thrust of his message was to get off my padded backside and get to work! Fearing retribution through the paddle which was usually sitting nearby, I decided to get to work.
The biggest test which still awaited me was the Eagle Scout Service Project. While the benefit to the community was a primary purpose, the main goal of the project was and remains to test the leadership and organizational skills of an Eagle candidate. I was 16 years old and was really rolling now through my swelled-headed teenager phase. I wanted something big, something dramatic for a project. I wanted to show the world I was all growed up and could take whatever it dished out.
I was directed to Col. Vern Fernandes who was chairing the Jacksonville Sesquicentennial event the following year. In the first minute of my meeting with him at Elliott State Bank, I felt very much like Beetle Bailey in his first encounter with Sgt. Snorkel.
Vern started reading from a list of projects the city wanted completed in time for the celebration. One by one, I dismissed the suggestions because none measured up to the level I was seeking. Vern was becoming more irritable by the minute at this young whippersnapper who was poo-pooing his recommendations. I did not yet realize that only a person blinded by immeasurable youthful ignorance would have deliberately thrown gasoline on the fire that was Col. Vern!
Finally, he reached the end of his list and informed me this last project was too big for a boy–cleaning garbage out of the town brook. I nearly jumped out of my chair in my haste to say, “Yes! That’s the one I want!” Vern resisted the idea until I convinced him that anything I accomplished couldn’t make it any worse and there would still be time for the city to complete the job after I totally botched it.
I had no idea how much I had just bitten off. My only prior exposure to the brook was during my years at Franklin School when I used to hide down near the water during recess so the school bullies couldn’t find me.
I went out to make a preliminary inspection of the task that lay before me. I had traversed the roads adjacent to the brook all my life but had never noticed the litter. That day, I saw it all and it was depressing beyond belief. In particular, the stretch that ran parallel to Hoagland Boulevard between Diamond and Lincoln was so trash-covered it looked like the garbage room in Star Wars. It seemed as if 90% of the county’s population had been using the waterway as its own personal rubbish bin.
Fast forward to the end of the project: With a LOT of guidance from my father and the good will and support of five local Scout troops and one Cub Scout pack, we got the job done. I have to say the letter of recommendation Vern wrote to my Eagle Scout Board of Review remains one of the high points of my life. But the brook was still waiting to make its real impact.
I took and developed my own photos in those days. The day the project concluded, I was in my darkroom (which everyone else called the leaky basement) processing the “after” photos showing the project’s results. As one picture sloshed around in the developing fluid and began to fade into view, I noticed there was a pile of garbage bags stuffed to the gills sitting on top of the hill. I realized with dismay that those bags were still out there–I had forgotten to take them to the dump!
So I went out to the site and loaded the bags into my car. I stopped to take a final look at the finished project. As I surveyed the scene, I saw a pair of critters dashing through the now-cleared grasses. Though I did not recognize the breed that day, the image of what I saw is still vibrant in my mind and I suspect they were badgers. They looked like they were running free in a natural paradise, kind of like a happy couple in a margarine commercial charging through a pristine meadow towards each other.
It was the first time I saw the Town Brook as something besides an excuse to build bridges. For those happy, scampering critters, it was home. It was their paradise which so many of us had trashed like a teenager’s room. It was one of those life moments when one first perceives a world larger than the one he or she has occupied.
As I rapidly approach codger status, my appreciation for the natural world has grown and flourished through the years. I took my very first steps on that journey by the waters of the Jacksonville Town Brook.
The Town Brook Initiative of the Jacksonville Parks Foundation held a Town Brook History Contest in an effort to help reconnect the community to its waterways. The Jacksonville community has a long history and a myriad of connections with Mauvaisterre Creek and its urban tributary the Town Brook. The town grew up near its banks; the creek was used as a byway for travelers on the Underground Railroad; its waters were dammed to provide a water supply to support development; generations of kids grew up playing in the brook – hunting for snakes, looking for crawdads, exploring its banks. The stories, along with others, will be part of Brook Tales – a play written by Ken Bradbury and performed by his Lincoln Land Community College class. Performances May 17-18 (Saturday & Sunday) will benefit the Town Brook Initiative. Click the History tab to find out more, or to submit your story to the history project.