The Boy Scout camp nurse is a vision. She’s blonde and gorgeous. But last night feels like a bad dream. I recall feeling a little ill. Maybe I had a bad marshmallow. I mention my sick feeling to the Scoutmaster, the crusty can-do C.W. My mistake. A stretcher is quickly and efficiently constructed with some tarp, spare logs and rope. A detail of four scouts is dispatched to bring me to the camp field hospital. “I can walk,” I tell them. “No, you can’t,” they insist. I am banging along a bad trail through the woods before I can blink. It’s likely four merit badges were earned that day, not one of them mine. But I got to wake up with the nurse. So, it was a win-win.
She takes my temperature. I have a fever, all right. But my body temperature is normal despite my wicked thoughts. “Just rest a little while,” she advises. I watch her walk around the room. I could rest like this forever. I recall mosquitoes buzzing in my ear, a scratchy sleeping bag and the smell of warm pungent farts trapped in a small tent. I am in no rush to return to camp.
I am a pretty horrible Scout; there’s no use denying it. I like to run in the woods and swim in the lake. I don’t mind shooting BB guns at targets or trying to shoot a bow and arrow. But my woodworking skills are horrid. The basement of the First United Methodist Church in Salisbury, North Carolina echoes with hammers pounding out masterpieces in wood. My creations are not among them. My birdhouses would be condemned by any competent inspector as unfit for avian occupation. My Pine Wood Derby cars are in need of permanent pit stops. I have yet to competently tie the neckerchief, foreshadowing my problems tying neckties later in adulthood. I know the Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” But I always feel hideously underprepared.
I want to fit in. So, I try to fold the flag. I recite the pledges. I earn badges. There’s a badge for just about everything. So, if you stink at 75 things, you might still get 15 badges in offbeat skills like ham radio or essay writing. I have a collection of these lesser known badges on my uniform. Other scouts are always asking me, “What’s that? I’ve never seen that badge before.” I blush and stammer out an explanation. You have to really dig deep into the handbook to find my obscure not-ready-for-prime-time-badges, but they’re in there.
I’m fascinated by knots, but can’t seem to remember them. “What kind of knot is this?” asks the assistant scoutmaster, holding up something that could be a hangman’s noose or the practiced effort of a first mate on a merchant marine ship. “That is a knot I could probably never untangle, sir,” I tell him. “That is true and also wrong,” he explains. He goes on to tell me the name of the knot. Then he unravels it quickly like a magician and creates a new one I can’t name either.
It’s bizarre that I feel compelled to try to continue the family Scouting tradition with my two sons. But I do. Andrew suffers through an early bout of cub scouting in Pennsylvania during third grade. We are given a wooden block and told to help him create something with that block as one scouting project. We own no power tools, have no wood shop and lack any carpentry skills.
I look over the block. “You know what. I think it’s perfect the way it is,” I tell Andrew. “Draw a face on it and call it Blocky.” We think of subcontracting out Blocky to someone with more skills and power tools. But that wouldn’t be right. We settle for having Andrew not go to the next Cub Scout meeting where all the boys will be showing off the wonderful wood carvings their fathers have built in their wood shops while they watched cartoons or played video games in their rooms.
We get permanently derailed by the Pine Wood Derby debacle. All the other cars have been meticulously constructed and painted. “Were you allowed to watch your dad build your car?” I ask one kid. “No,” he says glumly. “I was not.” The dads are happily showing them off and talking about them. We subcontracted some of the construction to a friend at work. Then we had Andrew paint the car himself. It’s a sad little vehicle. But we’re kind of proud of it. When it races, though, it goes off the track every time. The night features a super-sized Pine Wood Derby car competition. These cars are not legal in legitimate Pine Wood Derby races, but the dads who were building the smaller cars got so into the project they created larger, more elaborate cars that could be raced just for fun. It’s a bit of a nightmare. Andrew is done with Scouts after that, and I don’t bring it up again with him.
Avery gets a short dose of Cub Scouts in first grade. It goes as well as it did with his older brother. Not good. When Pinewood Derby season is about to start, we check out gracefully. We cite “too much homework” as our official reason for quitting the Scouts. But “not enough woodworking skills” would be our testimony in open court.
It’s a pity. There’s something in scouting that I like. Something old fashioned and worth keeping. There’s a geeky optimism to it that I admire. An Eagle Scout who builds something noble and purposeful that benefits his community- like a recycling station. A group of boys gathered around a campfire at night bonding together under the stars while roasting marshmallows. It’s wholesome and good. Beyond the recent political disagreements within scouting about whether a gay person can be a scoutmaster (it seems obvious to me they have and can serve as scoutmasters without incident), the ridiculous looking scout shorts and the hideous, mustard yellow Weblo uniforms worn in the awkward in-between years after Cub Scouts and before Boy Scouts, there’s some nugget of purity I admire.
When Superstorm Sandy blasted New York City last year around this time, I was (kinda sorta) prepared. We had extra water. Flashlights and batteries. An emergency radio. I never got my uniform coated in badges or made Eagle Scout the way some boys did, but something survived the long nights in the hot tents watching the silhouettes of tree limbs dance and menace like wild animals. Some Swiss Knife mentality lives on in a dim, determined way.
My old Scoutmaster CW probably considered himself a dire failure when it came to keeping me involved in scouting. But something of that scouting spirit survived in a small way. I know Blocky would feel a surge of pride in his wooden heart, if we had only been able to carve him one.