Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Joys of Scouting

Roon crossed over into scouting recently and I became a leader in the scout troop: I am the senior patrol advisor for the Funky Ninjas. This means I'm responsible for standing around drinking coffee and yelling such precious nuggets of wisdom as Who left their plastic spoon on the table? If you don't keep your plastic spoon then you'll be eating your ice cream with your fingers tonight, freaking spaz!; the incessant plea of put that knife away; this sage advice: peeing in the woods means BEING IN THE WOODS not standing five feet from your tent under a streetlight while half the troops in the council are pulling in to set up camp, spaz! and the classic WHAT. THE. HELL. ARE. YOU. DOING?!!
Our troop attended the annual Lincoln Pilgrimage, camping at New Salem, a living rendition of Abe's hometown and birthplace. We camped in a slough by the parking lot after snaking our way through the maze of campsites in the dark watching people put up tents in the glare of halogens and hearing snatches of conversation like "Well it's gonna be a long weekend if you two are fighting all the time" and "Stakes? Tents have stakes?" Grinned like a stuck pig the whole time because our troop is old school. We don't use inflatable tent furniture, pop-up dome tents, and portable gas grills. We sleep on the ground in Vietnam War era canvas a-frame tents, make the boys do all the work, and we cook over an open fire. Our camp looks like a set piece from "Follow Me Boys."

Cub Scouts always felt like an obligation to me. It was alright but for the most part, the boys were snarky and high on sugar all the time, could barely tie their shoes, much less get a project done, and didn't listen to me if their life depended on it. Which is fine. We had a great time anyway but the adults involved do get the feeling, eventually, that they're a breed of specialized volunteer babysitters. Scouts is different.

First of all, all the scouts refer to each other as Mr. So one scout will call out to another who has, for instance, gone off toward the latrine in a hurry and say "Mr. Skidz, I hope everything comes out alright!" I hardly ever heard them call each other by their first names. Oddly, this eliminates nicknames which I kind of miss as I was prepared for a slew of monikers. I even tried to label a couple of kids, like my favorite Ninja, a 5th grader whose hormones are biding their time, a kid as small as a second grader. I love this kid cause he's always smiling, always throwing himself into the crowd, and kills himself to keep up on hikes even though he's literally walking twice as fast and twice as far as everyone else because he's half their size. He never shuts up, seems to bilocate all over the campsite, and has a voice like a cartoon squirrel. I think he eats sugar coated helium pops for breakfast every morning. I tried calling him squeaker and thinmint but the scouts wouldn't have it: as much as they tossed him around and made polite fun of his helium voice, the boys in the troop fully adopted this boy, never made him feel bad about lagging behind because of his size. At the end of the hike, this kid was beat. He really had walked twice as far as anyone else. His feet were killing him and he was exhausted. But, as always, he was all smiles. Even when he told me he was dead on his feet, he smiled.

And here's the astonishing, amazing thing about scouting. One of the other boys, a ear or two ahead of Squeaker, took a hard fall early in the day. Our first aid scout patched him up but you could see in his eyes that it hurt pretty bad. Then we hiked five hundred thousand miles and he never complained. At the end of the day, this scout, injured and tired, heard Squeaker complaining and without even thinking about it, hauled him up for a piggy back to the campsite.

There was an article in the Trib today about how Scouting is working hard to make itself relevant. As Scouting nears it's 100 year anniversary (2010) it faces dwindling numbers and criticism for some of the principles by which the organization is run.

The biggie: Boy Scouts excludes openly gay men from becoming scoutmasters or leaders in a troop. Although I'm not going to be carrying a sign anytime soon, I don't agree with this policy. I think the times are generally past the days when homosexuality is considered uncommon. It's becoming part of mainstream culture, losing it's taboo, except in certain highly fraternal cultures--like Scouts. I've had some gay friends, work friends. One of them was so flamboyant he made Rip Torn look like an Amish preacher. I didn't know the other guy was gay until he mentioned it one day. In both cases, I loved these guys like all my friends. They worked hard, treated people fairly, and stood by their principles. In both cases, these guys were legendary managers and everyone who worked for them became their friend. They would have been great leaders in any organization and would have done a great job as scout leaders.

The thing is, we don't sit around talking about sex in scouts. And a Scoutmaster is so busy ordering people around and cooking dinner and organizing a campout, they don't have a lot of time to exhibit their nascent sexuality. This weekend, even when the boys were finally asleep and in their tents and the men sat around the fire to bullshit with each other, even then we didn't talk about sex. This may come as a big surprise, but men, generally, don't sit around talking about their sexuality. We talked about leadership, cigars, writing, gear, our own legendary car wrecks, old jobs, and the efficacy of spaghetti dinners over golf tourneys for raising money. We didn't talk politics, religion, or our respective tendencies when getting it on. It just doesn't come up.

Of the 14 boys I hiked with this weekend, I couldn't tell you if any of them are gay, if they're Mennonite, or if they believe in God and I just don't care. When you see them working together, teaching each other, helping each other; when you see one of them cheerfully binding some other kid's wound--with great skill; when you sit around the fire and listen to them tell stories, bust each other's chops, and talk about what they learned on their hike, you realize that the program is great. That these kids will do well. That they will easily and happily join in, help out, organize.

What really struck me was how the new guys took to it. My son, who's future appears to involve a lot of lounging, some flopping, and a propensity for couches, worked his butt off. I can barely get this kid to take out the trash without having to pay him off but when he was made the bungie carrier while the troop assembled their enormous tarp, he was into it. Through out the weekend, he pitched his tent, unpitched his tent, gathered firewood, cleaned the campsite, loaded and unloaded the troop trailer, and various other jobs. He pitched in, without me screaming at him. He took responsibility and he acted independently on it. At the same time, I saw the other scouts just assuming positions of leadership. I mean, they jumped in and took control. They were quickly able to take on a task, grab some other scouts, organize the thing, and follow through to getting it done and done right. These guys, as much as they desperately want to push their online kill ratio in Halo 3, are also becoming leaders. It's obvious when you're with them. And the merit badges they earn are all lessons in living in the real world, they're all about civic duty, character, honor.

I'll happily defend a program that makes that happen. I look forward to when the organization finds its way to 21st century policies like any other but their arcane policies are minor when compared to the good they do. Find me another organization that's generated these kinds of principled graduates.

Please save me: my children are trying to kill me.

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