In elementary school, I remember friends nudging me to join Cub Scouts. They had weekly meetings, they made fires and played with knives and went camping and did community service. It seemed like the cool thing to do. Kids even wore their uniforms in school sometimes.
Then, in fifth grade, we moved up and became Boy Scouts. I remember crossing over that bridge and thinking I had made it to the promised land where all seemed to grow – the kids, their facial hair, the hikes, the knives, the adventures. And, of course, they all brought the nudey magazines, otherwise known as “bass masters,” to summer camp, so that was a plus too.
I was really on a high, strutting my stuff around these older guys that were talking about moves and sensations I could not even fathom at 11 years old. What this one did with this girl by the lake, what the other one did in the wagon, how this feels and that feels. It was a baptism by fire, a coming of age, the corrupting of youth, a rites of passage, a loss of innocence – whatever you want to call it – as I absorbed more dirty jokes about females, the LGBTQ community that wasn’t called it back then, and every culture, ethnicity, and religion you can think of. I was just happy that they let me hang around them and didn’t bully me. Because when you’re younger and they’re older, the greater the likelihood of that happening. Not that it’s right.
Anyway, when I got to middle school and those older boys, juniors in high school by then and having no desire to pursue Scouting’s highest rank, dropped out, clearly more interested in tying on a new sex position in the back of the minivan than securing a sheepshank. What’s more is that no one wore their uniforms to school anymore because that made you a loser. Who was in Boy Scouts? What were you, a fag?
What had changed? Well, for starters, in middle school you become wildly self-conscious. You want to be accepted so much by your peers that you recreate yourself in another person’s image. So, Scouting isn’t cool anymore, okay. Let’s all drop it.
And that’s pretty much what happened. When you get older, though, and you look back on your time you realize how formative those years were. I was reminded of this again a couple weeks ago. First, after a former student invited me to participate in his Eagle Court of Honor, I wanted to show him some of my artifacts from scouting that I hadn’t seen in 15 years. So, my father and I went through old patches, neckerchiefs, awards, and a myriad of other stuff from both of our times in Scouting (my father achieved the rank of Life, one off from Eagle; my uncle made Eagle).
And we talked, not about how much the Mets suck or about how this politician is full of it or about this plan for the future, but about a time when life was much simpler, when a weekend didn’t consist of this person’s birthday or this person’s wedding or this vacation. When I was young, when he was younger, and life was as simple as popping up a tent in some upstate ghost town, collecting wood, and starting a fire.
I shared as much with my former student, his father, and his scout master later that night. And I continued, saying that you start to see as you get older just how important scouting is for some kids. No, I get it, it’s not for everyone, especially those who are against rules and uniformity and a chain of command. For me and I know for many others, though, the experiences we had on those trails growing up led us to become the adults we are today; that is, respectful, empathetic, unabashed leaders who confront and overcome any affront or challenge they may face.
Did I recognize this at the time when I was 14 years old making my Eagle as soon as I could to avoid the shame of being a Boy Scout in high school? No, I was trying to fit into a new place and all scouting would’ve gotten me was a swirlie. Yet, my parents pushed me to do it, telling me how great it looks on a college resume and how it opens me up to a network of other Eagles. And they were right, cajoling me with what I needed to hear to get through it even if those were fairly fickle reasons to pursue the honor. What can I say? I was an immature kid in dire need of peer acceptance.
After high school, though, how I viewed scouts and how others did seemed to change. I remember when a guy on my floor freshman year noticed I was wearing a Philmont belt – Philmont being a scouting ranch in Cimerroncito, NM – and we got to talking. Turns out he was an Eagle Scout too. And there were others – proud of their accomplishments, conscious of how tantamount it was in their lives even if they did not know it at the time.
Just guys chatting about camp, ziplines, merit badges, drunk dads, and Girl Scouts at the camp next door – our smiles redolent of a time many of us rushed through in fear of being ostracized by our peers, a time we can never get back.
Not that they ever mattered anyway.
It just took me a while to figure that out.
And no one called any of us fags.