Sunday, December 14, 2014

Moses Byington, the Tidewater Girl Scouts and My Crime Characters

What do Moses Byington (a 1918 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy of Annapolis) and the Girl Scouts of Tidewater Virginia have in common?

Pull up a chair by the fire in my den, share a pitcher of Broken Hearts, recipe by Sheila York, and I'll tell you…

It was dawn after one of the worst hurricanes that ever hit Tidewater Virginia in decades. The low-lying city of Norfolk was either under water or frozen in shock at the devastation. Traffic stopped, streetcars stalled, even the world-famous Naval Base was almost at a standstill.

Two high school girls reported at sunrise at the site of Camp Apasus, the Girl Scout Day Camp of the Virginia Tidewater Girl Scouts.

Why? Because we cared. We were junior camp counselors, Melissa Warfield and I, both honor students at Granby High, Senior Scouts who tried to live by the Girl Scout Promise: "On my honor, I will try, to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Laws."

Melissa, a gifted person in outdoor survival skills, would serve later as Dr. M.A. Warfield, Director of the King's Daughters Hospital in Norfolk. I would follow paths of teaching and administration in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Rhode Island and Manhattan, devoting one year as Norfolk Director of the Girl Scouts, under the leadership of the inspiring Georgie Harris, a dedicated public servant, who had trained both Melissa and me, as well as hundreds of other young people, in the arts and skills of outdoor living and surviving, both at the day camp and the regional Camp Matoaka, on the beautiful tree-lined shores of Lake Prince, near Suffolk.

We learned a lot in those years—the meaning of service, sharing, discipline, responsibility, self-knowledge, innovation, creativity, loyalty—the Girl Scout Laws were as a bible to us: "I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, responsible for what I say and do, respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, and make the world a better place, and be a sister to every Girl Scout."

Your word was your bond in living that close to nature—open to the elements after a storm, a hurricane, unseen dangers.

When you are raising the roof of a canvas tent to shelter children—you have to work in perfect concert with your peers. There is no room for grandstanding or self-absorption in the deep woods, where underneath wild beauty lurks danger—spiders, poisonous insects, snakes, dark leaves—a hundred species of wild life.

Activities near one of the most powerful naval installations on the planet—where friends, relatives, neighbors were often employees of the U.S. Navy—were permeated with a visible and symbolic presence to us Scouts. Patriotism was as much a part of daily life as breathing!

So, how does this fit into the Crime Writer's Chronicle???

The combination of this heavy naval presence and background, combined with family tales of my relative, Moses Byington, inspired my early drafts of crime fiction, centering around a band of men who had served in the U.S. Navy. The scope included an ex-Navy SEAL, an ex-naval Commander, their women, and extended to other areas of service, such as the NYPD, Tennessee and Rhode Island police, sheriff units, the CIA, the White House and various posts in the nation's capital. And as time passes the circle has widened to include Manhattan psychiatrists, a governor's wife and a raft of other professionals.

To any serious writer, one's characters are as real as the people who inspired their existence, the wonderful professionals I was privileged to serve with—on the shores of Lake Prince and Chesapeake Bay.

As the Girl Scout song goes, "Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver, the other gold."

T.J. Straw


  1. Thelma, loved this, having been an avid Girl Scout myself. Some of those experiences stay with us forever, don't they? And pop up in our minds in the most unexpected ways. Thanks for writing it.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Triss. I KNEW there was something special about you! Once a Scout - always a Scout... the training shows... Thelma

  2. Loved this post, Thelma. I was a Girl Scout too, but was a Camp Fire Girl leader for 10 years. I loved working with all the Indian symbolism--think that kind of rubbed off in my Tempe Crabtree series. I lived in Norfolk (first few months of my marriage) and then in Navy Housing in Little Creek VA for a few months while Seabee husband was stationed there. Also experienced hurricanes both times.

  3. Loved hearing from you, Marilyn. We might have crossed paths in Norfolk!!! I used to read all the Campfire Girl books - what a treasure we got in those early days - I feel sorry for the women who missed out on both the GS and the CG. How wonderful that your mind transferred your knowledge into your Tempe Crabtree books. Thelma