The Boy Scouts
My experience with scouting is a bit unusual. I had no experience with the boy scouts until I was in 9th grade. Many of my friends were in a very active Explorer scout post, and they invited me to join. Their reasoning was that they occasionally had parties, and they all liked my girlfriend. I joined the post, and promptly broke up with the girl, and they were stuck with me. Sandy Nelson, where are you now?
You advance in scouting by getting merit badges, but to earn a merit badge you had to have attained the minimal status of Tenderfoot. To reach that level you had to complete tasks that I considered beneath my dignity – make a drum out of a rolled oats box, learn some Morse code, and other small tasks that I did not want to take time to complete. Or I was too lazy, which is a distinct possibility.
As a result, although I took on many merit badge classes, I could not actually be awarded the badge. I really enjoyed the fire-fighting class. Holding a full on hose and blasting a hole in a snow bank on the other side of the parking lot was really cool.
The result of my badgelessness suited my growing appreciation of irony. All of my friends had Explorer uniforms weighed down with pounds of merit badges, as they were old hands and had been doing this sort of thing for years. Some had attained the rank of Eagle Scout, which is a tremendous honor and accomplishment. Some had gone beyond to the very difficult earned status of admittance to the “Order of the Arrow,” which got you a sash to wear over the uniform. I had great respect for their efforts, but no desire to emulate. As a result, when we appeared somewhere in an “official” capacity, you had this row of highly decorated scouts and then me, resplendent in a lovely dark green but naked uniform.
We had lots of terrific activities, supervised by a few fathers who invested enormous amounts of energy and time to provide fun and educational experiences that created memories to last a life time.
The big fundraiser for the year, and the only one, was a Christmas tree stand. At Thanksgiving we would journey to Oshgosh, Wisconsin, and camp down in the gym of an old school. We spent the weekend cutting down an enormous supply of Christmas trees from a farm. I referred to the owner as “Johnny Pineseed,” which he thought was delightful. For the month of December we took turns at the stand, which was located in the parking lot of a local SuperValue grocery store. As it was often cold, being Minnesota, we had a small trailer (owned by the troop) with a potbelly stove where we could make popcorn. It was hard work, but also fun.
In the summer there was an annual canoe trip into the wilds of Canada, using several canoes also owned by the troop. I have always been so impressed by the fathers who sacrificed weeks of their vacation, all of it for most of them, to go camping in the literal wilderness with a dozen or more teen age boys. This was not camping in areas created for the purpose, but the same kind of camping I did with my family. No rest rooms or showers, no picnic benches, no accommodations of any kind – usually just a small island in one of thousands of lakes, reached by paddling down rivers and completing several portages. We caught Northern Pike in such quantities that I eventually grew sick of it.
One year this trip was actually much longer. After the Canada expedition, we were entered in a canoe race down the Mississippi River, with teams of scouts from all over. I talked my parents into loaning me our Desoto wagon for the entire trip. For the race, I was not deemed a good enough canoeist to be in the race, but instead was the team manager, charged with ferrying relay teams of our paddlers from one check point to the next. It turns out I was much better at hustling a Desoto wagon down dirt roads at breakneck speeds than I was at paddling, so this worked out well. In a spirit of glory, I used rolls of white tape to place the 201 numbers of our troop on both doors. When I got home I pulled the tape off the doors, and it brought with it most of the paint, down to the primer. I was very fortunate that my father thought this was funny.
At the end of the trip we invited a troop from Florida to stay in our homes. As hosts, we took them out for a day of water skiing. Most of us had years of experience and thought we were pretty good. As it turns out we were mere posers compared to these guys!
Another trip involved a lot of running of rapids. We portaged around some of the worst, but took on many of them and got to be pretty good. One was called “Dead Man’s Falls,” which should have provided a hint. Only the most experienced were allowed to run this one, and as the rest of us were completing the portage we saw one of our own canoes float by, it’s back “broken” where it had been bent backwards around a rock. The two boys in the canoe were OK, but we lost the canoe and a lot of equipment. It was a sobering lesson in the power of Mom Nature.
Because our troop was so large and well-equipped, we evidently had a lot of pull with some people. In the fall we attended Minnesota Gopher football games. We only had two duties. Just before the game we raised the flag for the National Anthem, and this was tricky because it had to be raised around a projecting ledge on the building, and if the wind was blowing you had to wait for a breath of calm so as not to snag the flag. At the end of each game we were assigned to hold ropes along the sidelines to deter fans from running on to the field at the end of the game. Not sure how effective we would have been had a large group actually wanted to run on to the field, however.
The game I remember clearly was against Iowa, a game played each year for a bronze statue of a pig called “Floyd of Rosedale.” Minnesota was leading by not much, and at the end of the game the Gophers had the ball and were running out the clock. We were assigned to the Iowa sideline, where the Hawkeye players vented their rage at the opponents – large men screaming obscenities and about to fight anyone they could find. I was terrified. When the game ended the entire Minnesota team came sprinting across the field to claim the trophy, which Iowa had won the year before, and I grew even more terrified.
At the end of each game I’d look up in the stands, where scouts from other troops took on the odious task of walking all of the rows of seats with large trash bags picking up the detritus of the game, while we went home. Sweet deal.
Not all of the lessons were positive. I recall doing parade duty at an Aquatennial Parade and listening to a scout “leader” from another post go on an absolute rant when a marching group went by that had both white and black participants. I’d never been around a true racist in my life, and I was so appalled by what he had to say and the hatred that oozed out of his pores. Later a float went by with a pretty black woman on it, and his comments about her were sickening. Possibly the first time in my life I kept my mouth shut. Probably shouldn’t have.
After I “graduated” from scouting my experiences were less positive. I walked into a meeting for a HOG chapter at a pizza parlor, and to get to the large room where we met you had to walk through a smaller room. Here was a group of scout leaders. They were all in full uniform, including the khaki shorts and short sleeved shirts, with various badges denoting whatever. This is not a flattering look for fat adult men, and as I walked through in my black leather jacket and black helmet they looked at me like I was some sort of thug. To me, they all looked like child molesters.
And now we have the Boy Scouts of America trying to deal with homosexuality. Like many groups, they are starting from a place of ignorance and hypocrisy and hatred, and it will take many years for this all to calm down and go away. Many people have been hurt in this slow evolution, and more will be. It is very sad, but not unusual. We seem to make social progress in such tiny steps, each one marked by pain and suffering.
In one of my books, (I think it was No Corner Left Unturned) I referred to the Boys Scouts as a homophobic organization. I don’t recall the context, as the essay must have been about something else, and I wrote it as an aside and an obvious truth. Later I received a scathing review on Amazon’s web site for that phrase. The writer urged people not to buy the book based on one-half of one sentence!
I think scouting has a lot to offer, for both boys and girls, and I hope in time it can rise above this current idiocy to provide great experiences.
Copyright 2014 David Preston