What I Learned In Boy Scouts

At the age of 11, something of a geek, unwelcome on any sports team, so dreamy at home my family thought I was deaf, I joined the Boy Scouts. What else was there for me? School was like prison, I was not athletic, I didn't own a bike, I was too young for girls, and the other suburban Boston recreations--shooting baskets, breaking streetlights--held no interest. Troop 25 was perfect.

If anyone had asked me what my passions were, I would have said building fires, climbing cliffs, going on long hikes in the woods, snoozing under the stars in my Army surplus sleeping bag and swimming "bollocky"--naked in Boston parlance. I fantasized about firing guns, paddling a canoe and leaving home--not running away in anger but just walking off, staying away for months at a time, living on beans. In my fantasy I was not a student preparing to enter the Roberts Junior High but a hawk-eyed Abenaki Indian in a birch-bark canoe with a rifle in his lap, paddling up a river in Maine: geek dreams.

In Troop 25 I found other geeks and misfits--giggly boys, outright depressives, lunatic hikers, skilled swimmers and gun nuts--spaz class in khaki. One boy loved torturing frogs, another was clearly an arsonist, one collected Nazi memorabilia (and was eventually jailed as a bent cop). No rich kids. One boy was obviously gay, though the usage was unknown. In suburban Boston in 1952 he was known as a "percy," but he was a geek like us and no one bullied him, because we knew we were a motley crew, not a team.

Being a Boy Scout gave us no bragging rights. In some respects it was like belonging to a Masonic lodge. At school we didn't talk about being Scouts. The athletes would have mocked, the girls would not have swooned, the teachers did not care. I wore my Scout shirt and badges to school one day because I had a patrol meeting afterward, and my algebra teacher (a tyrant named George P. Sullivan) singled me out, saying, "Hey, Generalissimo." Around 1953, St. Francis Church (we gathered every week in its recreation hall) co-opted Troop 25 to pray "for the conversion of Russia." One of our successes, perhaps?

The murky origins of the British Scout movement--Lord Baden-Powell, the Boer War, imperialism, jingoism--had their counterparts in the Boy Scouts of America in anticommunism and the Christian ethic. But politics was beyond us, and religion seemed dreary and punitive. We suspected the Boy Scout organization of being hypocrites and bureaucrats; we were not ideologues, "values" were not part of our mission; we were exuberant boys who had been sidelined for our oddness and our risky interests. What occupied us most as Boy Scouts was becoming adept with fires, guns, knives, tents, ropes and boats. Learning survival skills in the outdoors, prevailing in the woods and the water, was our mission.

Earning a merit badge was a straightforward business. You studied the relevant pamphlet, you learned the skills (Morse code, fingerprinting, Indian lore, first aid, whatever) and then you were given a test, one on one, by a local expert. A certain number of merit badges allowed you to move up a rank. I see from my Eagle Scout certificate that I qualified in 1955, when I was 14, three years into my Boy Scout membership. I am pretty sure I dropped out after that.

After a couple of years at Camp Fellsland--very inexpensive, another incentive to be a Scout--I earned the Red Cross lifesaving certificates. I learned gun safety and how to shoot accurately. I learned to row and paddle, and how to right a tipped-over canoe. And other skills: cooking, identifying animals from their tracks, bird watching, knot tying, camping, simple stargazing, woodcarving, map reading. I also learned dirty jokes and sex talk, and got my first loud lesson in racism--the head of the camp separated two kids fighting and sent the black one home, ignoring his complaint: "He called me a n-----!"

We knew that was wrong, but no one cared what was in our hearts, which is why I liked being a Scout in spite of the Boy Scout bureaucracy. For the lifesaving skill alone I am grateful. As a lifeguard, I have pulled lots of strugglers out of the water and have saved myself on many occasions. One almost fatality I rescued years ago was my brother Peter, who was sinking in a strong current in a creek in the Cape Cod Great Marshes. Rowing is still one of my recreations. Map reading has stood me in good stead. A knowledge of knots is invaluable, and of cooking and fire making; and how can you say you belong anywhere if you don't know the names of your local plants and animals?

The Boy Scouts had flaws. Of course there's an honor roll of former Boy Scouts, but there is also a rogues' gallery. Yet all those different boys together, learning survival skills, was an enrichment. The Boy Scouts' greatest virtue was that it was inclusive--anyone could join, or so I thought.