Cub Scouting: Where a Boy Becomes A Cub
posted by Jon on 4/07/03
I was eight years old. I slumped in my chair; a form lay in front of me in the dining room table. Every few minutes, my mother peeked into the room to check on whether or not I had signed it.
For two and a half hours, I had held out. The form was a membership application to the Cub Scouts of America. My parents somehow came across the notion that my after-school time would be better spent doing anything other than playing Nintendo. That's where parents go wrong these days, I think. They believe that their child doesn't get enough structure at school, and should be forced into soccer practice, piano lessons, or church youth group activities. I suppose they have the right idea -- introduce the "doing things you don't want to do" theme early into one's life, so that he or she has more time to get used to it. I'm not sure if that makes me feel any less sad about it, though.
I had promised myself I wouldn't give in, even though my mother grounded me to that chair until I agreed to sign the paper. The basement door was open, and from my seat in the dining room I could see downstairs to the TV shelf, where my Nintendo sat. It was taunting me with its bay door open and its "Silent Service" cartridge protruding like a stuck-out tongue.
When you have Silent Service, there's no valid reason to venture into the real world.
That was just about enough. I scrawled my name on the dotted line and dashed downstairs, leaving the office chair spinning slowly in my absence, hoping to drown my conscience in the vast video game ocean of severely pixellated aircraft carriers, blocky sound effects, and poorly-rendered tactical maps of the South Pacific.
And with that, my long, bizarre journey in Scouting began. Even from this vantage point, I'm still not sure whether or not I should regret it. All I can say for sure is that it's probably the strangest series of experiences I've ever been a part of.
"The Cub Scout follows Akela
The Cub Scout helps the Pack go
The Pack helps the Cub Scout go
The Cub Scout gives goodwill"
I didn't have to look that up. I know it by heart, ten years after I was forced to memorize it and recite it at the commencement of every Scout meeting. There must have been at least five of these mottos, each of which we had to memorize. That was the first strange thing I noticed about Cub Scouts -- the only other place I was exposed to such dogged memorization of passages was in Sunday school, and I already knew that was a cult. It wouldn't have been so bad if I had gotten the impression that there was a rhyme or reason to them all. In case you're wondering what the Law of "Akela" is, it states, "Be kind to others". One should grow suspicious of a group of people if it comes up with its own lingo for the purpose of making it harder to understand, which is why I don't trust algebra teachers or people who speak foreign languages.
One thing that I did like about Scouting was the spiffy uniform.
Hey, shut up. This shirt is awesome.
It doesn't take much to give a kid a sense of importance, and the uniform was more than enough. I felt like some sort of soldier, and even though Boy Scouting of America will swear up and down that it is not a military-oriented organization, I can't think of any other reason to give survival knives to eight-year-olds. Now, the Swiss Army knives were cool. The basic ones usually consisted of two knife blades and a pair of scissors, but some includes miniature saws, toothpicks, magnifying glasses, watches, etc. The Swiss army was a rather pointy phallic symbol of sorts; we were always jealous of whoever had the thickest one. These knives, while certainly dangerous, weren't at all a combat weapon befitting a military man. But we were also encouraged to obtain large, violent-looking knives that looked like something Crocodile Dundee would dundee crocodiles with. I don't know why; we were a bunch of little kids from the suburbs that couldn't find an excuse to use a 5 inch blade if we tried.
Another thing that was immediately apparent was the social fiber of my fellow Scouts. In the stagnant morass of boyhood, it takes a certain sort of kid to sift all the way to the bottom. That kid finds himself in Scouting one way or another. Now at the tender age of eight, this isn't as apparent, as the world usually hasn't been given enough time to mesh him into a miserable pulp.
I say "usually" because of one kid: John Smith.
By the way, this is not a name used to protect the innocent; that actually was his name. I'm going to use real names in this article, because I believe in fair and accurate reporting, and because most of them probably can't read anyway.
John Smith was a lot like a desk lamp -- very bright, but zero social skills. He complained about anything and everything. During one of our den meetings, my mother stopped by to bring us some snacks, and he yelled at her and called her a bitch for getting a flavor of potato chips he didn't like. When we were assigned an art project and I drew a picture of a flying robot-knight with a blood-tipped sword, he screamed something about hating violence, crumpled my paper into a ball, and started chewing it.
Yeah. Chewing it.
Now, this sort of shit normally wouldn't fly, but John went to the same school as I did. Many times I would see my teachers talking amongst each other in hushed tones while shooting concerned looks at him. I'm sure they had plenty of wordy labels for him, but "fucked in the head" was sufficient for us eight-year-olds. I was his best friend, but he was far from mine, which is always awkward. He always hung around me because I was the only one who wouldn't kick his ass.
The summer after second grade, we went to Cub Scout summer camp. It was fun as hell, except if you were John Smith. He was a rather round fellow, and it pained all who witnessed it to see him struggle through an obstacle course. I personally thought it was a blast; my friends and I went through it multiple times to see who could get the best time. Not John. He REALLY didn't want to do it, but he finally got the balls to give it a try. The first obstacle was a series of tires hanging from a post that he had to jump in and wiggle through. He timidly crawled in, thrashed in futility for a while, then went limp and started wailing. The spectacle was not unlike a mouse being squeezed by a boa constrictor. Now, most anyone would recognize that nothing good was coming of this and get him out of there, but the bitch who was in charge of the course demanded that he finish. I could have sworn that she somehow enjoyed the sight. Loud wailing eventually gave way to quiet sobs, then pitiful silence. After what seemed like an eternity, another Scout leader eventually saw what was going on and came to help him. It was almost too much to watch -- this was supposed to be fun, and seeing this touchstone of childhood euphoria be perverted in such a way messed me up for a while.
As we rode the bus back into town, all I thought about was how this world wasn't as perfect as I thought it was. I stared at him on the way back as he started screaming something about a lead-based fluid getting in his eyes and him going blind. For the first time in my life, I was weary of it.
* * *
Once you reach the pinnacle of Scouting, you can move within your rank and file as many spaces as you wish.
The ladder of Cub Scouting goes: Tiger, Wolf, Bear, and two years of Webelos. I joined Scouting as a Bear, and the next year my family moved to Woodstock, Georgia. It's technically a suburb of Atlanta, but far enough away that one cannot hear the tornado sirens. It was here that my Scouting experience was to take a nosedive into absurdity, confusion, and outright oddity.
Now, at this stage of my life I was still too innocent to think anything of Webelos. I didn't care that it was pronounced "we blow." But looking back, I really want to find the guy who thought of that name and kick his ass. "WeBeLoS" was supposed to be an acronym for "We Be Loyal Scouts." What well-adjusted non-sexual deviant would involve himself with an organization concerned with young boys, found a program, and come up with an acronym (which is a real stretch, by the way) for it that sounds like the act of sucking a guy off?
In addition, our uniforms consisted of an Army-like shirt, a pair of too-short shorts, a neckerchief, and a hat with a symbol on it that looked like a peeled banana. Even while studying the issue objectively and in all seriousness, I can't accept a completely innocent answer.
You've got to be fucking joking me.
My fondest memory of Webelos was the Pinewood Derby, which to most kids was the reason to be a Cub Scout. The car kit that each Scout is issued consists of a small wooden block, a pair of axels, and four plastic wheels, and the idea is to make a car that will reach the bottom of a guided ramp the quickest. I had actually participated in the Pinewood Derby my first year, but the car was just about the gayest thing you'd ever see. I had cut the block so it looked like a triangle, spray-painted it black, glued the top half of a Lego man on top, and painted "BAD" crudely on the front. It lost in the first round, which crushed me, because I must have spent 45 minutes on that thing.
I was a true competitor, and that loss only served to make me more determined to win the next year, which is quite easy to do if one gives it a little thought. I finally came up with the idea that if the car had more weight, it would go downhill faster. So I carved a large hole in the bottom of the car and glued a bunch of nails inside. This one was going to kick ass.
The competition operated on a double-elimination bracket system. Not that I needed that second elimination. I won every race by a landslide up to the championship race. When I won the race that clinched third place, I got so excited that I dropped my car on its rear wheel when I went to pick it up. I turned it over and stared in horror at my cracked axel. It wouldn't even roll right, but I put it in the championship race anyway, and lost embarrassingly. The only thought that saved me from complete misery was that I had one more year to win it.
"One of you will win this event. The rest of you can use this as fodder for your shitty nostalgia Internet article ten years down the road."
A year passed, and I couldn't wait. I didn't just want to win this one. I wanted to craft the greatest Pinewood Derby car the world had ever seen. I wanted my fellow Scouts to gaze upon my weighted, triangular masterpiece and feel compelled to avert their eyes. I wanted to have my car featured on the cover of Boys' Life magazine with myself proudly beaming at its side. I wanted to win first place unquestionably, and I wanted anyone who was foolish enough to race me to weep tears of blood.
It really was the greatest car I had ever seen. It was curved at the corners so as to make it more aerodynamic, and I had packed even more nails into its chassis. To top it off, I gave it a two-tone paint job. And this time I was not going to drop it.
A week before the race was scheduled I called my Scoutmaster to tell him all about my car, and how it was going to take first place for sure. I must have gone on for two minutes before he cut me off.
"It, uh...it was tonight. You missed it."
I pulled the phone away from my ear, held it in front of me and stared at it, incredulous. My knees trembled. After a few moments I dropped the phone and slowly walked upstairs, where I cried myself to sleep three hours before my bedtime. Nothing made sense. Nothing mattered.
It might sound to you that I need to keep this in perspective, but I don't think I do. Granted, halfway across the world there were kids my age that ate old leather boots and worked 20-hour days in salt mines. But this was the Pinewood Derby, goddamnit. A child does not view things objectively, and though age has matured my logic and ability to perceive things rationally, the scars remain.
* * *
During my second year of Webelos, my pack rode a bus up to South Carolina to help clean up the aftermath of a devastating hurricane that recently swept through the area. Now, this didn't sound like much fun, so to make it more appealing to a group of eleven-year olds the Scout leaders announced a contest: whoever could find the most unusual item amongst the wreckage would win Atlanta Braves tickets.
There were at least two things that were terribly wrong with this. First, it resulted in everyone searching for a human corpse instead of actually helping with the cleanup. Secondly, and more importantly, the thought of this was revolting. We were poking around in a place where several people had recently lost their lives, and nearly everyone's home had been destroyed. Rather than treat it as such, though, we made it a playground for our wild and wacky scavenger hunt game.
To be clear, though I recognized the perverseness of what was taking place, I wasn't about to miss out on a graveyard-desecrating romp such as this; after all, the Braves had just traded for Roberto Kelly. I ran through the pitifully devastated remnants of humanity, opening overturned refrigerators and searching through piles of rubble. I got what was coming to me, though, when I lifted a large metal sheet to see what was underneath. It was badly rusted, and when I lifted it a cloud of rust blew in my face. It got in my eyes and hurt like hell, to the extent that I could barely see. I had already worked my way a good distance from the rest of the group, so no one was there to help me. I staggered to my feet and began wandering in the direction I thought most of the group was, though I didn't really have any clue of where I was going. I could only squint my eyes open briefly and every few seconds.
It was all worth it, as long as I could see Roberto Kelly grace the diamond once before I die.
After about an hour, I had managed to blink most of the rust out of my eyes. It still hurt, but at least I could see. A highway was within sight. so I headed towards it, then walked in the direction I thought the rest of the pack was. After a few minutes, one of the Scout leaders passed and recognized me. He offered me a ride.
I climbed in the back seat with his son, a fellow Scout. His wife sat in the front. Together, they made the most dysfunctional group of rednecks I had ever seen. As soon as I buckled my seatbelt, the man's wife stared at me with disgust, then screeched at her husband for giving me a ride. I wasn't really sure why, but it's now apparent to me that she had a violent mood disorder. She smacked her husband in the face while he was trying to drive, causing him to nearly veer off the road. He hit her back. I spent the rest of the five-minute drive watching them domestically abuse each other, and by the time we finally arrived, both were bleeding. I looked across the seat at their son; he was sobbing uncontrollably. Neither parent seemed to care.
I didn't have an overwhelming amount of respect for Scout leadership up until this point, but this just about did it in. It was baffling to me that the parents would have no shame in beating each other and making their son cry, and that this man was entrusted to help guide boys in their journey to manhood. I wasn't really mad, or even all that sad. Just taken aback. I had never seen anything like that before.
When I reunited with the other Scouts, I learned that my friend had won the tickets for finding a dog skull. The skull was celebrated as a "great find", and was being held up by the winning Scout like a trophy. True, it was only a dog, but that dog was likely once held dear by someone; maybe someone who had recently perished along with it, and here it was, being paraded around like some fucking door prize at a carnival. Morbidness ruled the day.
* * *
They say that Scouting opens the door to a wealth of new experiences, and that you will leave it enriched and enlightened. Well, that much is true. The shit I've gone through in the name of Cub Scouting has definitely helped to dent my persona into what it is today. Like I said before, I don't really know for sure. It played the primary role in shedding my boyhood innocence (well, that and the Sears catalog with all the bra models in it), and perhaps I should be thankful for that. I think "strange" is the word I'd give it. Or maybe "Cub Scouts". Wait, no, that's two words. Shit.
"I, (name), promise to to my best
To do my duty
To God and my country,
To help other people
And to obey the law of the Pack."
-Jon got kicked out of Scouting because he said, "They should call it BOIS scouts" one too many times.