May 11, 2010

A Writer Remembers His Boy Scout Days

News about the Boy Scouts has not been good lately. That is why the writer Paul Theroux knocked out an op-ed piece, "Troop Therapy," for the New York Times.

Reflecting on his 1950s boyhood, Theroux remembers,
But we were keenly aware that being a Boy Scout allowed us to shoot guns, build fires and take overnight camping trips on our own. In every sense it was revenge of the nerds. You have a curve ball; I can hit a bull’s-eye with my .22.

We were bookish, but in nonacademic ways. My interests were fingerprinting, Native-American skills and customs, rock climbing, map reading, canoeing and marksmanship. All of those represented merit badges that I studied for and earned. My Indian Lore badge taught me more about that aspect of American history than I was learning at school. And this wasn’t warmed-over “cowboys and Indians” fare: from the beginning the Boy Scouts taught respect for Native Americans, their values, as well as reminders of their victimization — indeed, their genocide.

Stifled by the hearty and the homoerotic in jock culture, I found refuge in the Boy Scouts, and an outlet for my love of hiking and swimming and solitude. It was important for me to separate myself from my parents. While other mothers and fathers cheered on their children at ballgames, we were on our own — two or three of us on an all-day hike, or target shooting up at the Stoneham sandpits.
Scouting taught him useful skills, independence, and a philosophical self-reliance:
Then, and later, when an adult mentioned the Scouts with a snobbish snigger, I would think: you have no idea. I also thought: you’re afraid to let go of your children. Liberated by the Scouts, I had the confidence to be independent and was allowed to discover my identity in a way that I never could have through team sports.
(I posted on my own Scouting experience earlier.)

Kind of related: former members of the Highlander Boys, a Denver-area youth group, remember good experiences in a group that died in the 1970s.
[Kurt] Davis recalls a rifle range, a camera and debate club, mess hall, basketball tournaments, tumbling classes and twice-a-year drill competitions. . . . 
Summer brought trips to the Highlander camp near Cold Creek Canyon. The kids slept in Quonset huts or field tents, depending on rank, rode horses, practiced riflery and archery, and fished for rainbow trout in Carter Lake. "Boy heaven," as Davis puts it.
The group was non-sectarian, inexpensive, and perhaps more racially integrated than Denver Boy Scout troops in that era, but its drill-team aspect became suddenly unfashionable during the Vietnam War era, when "progressives" shunned all things military:
In the late 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, the organization faced criticism for its military uniforms, the use of wooden rifles and its emphasis on military discipline and drill. Some referred to the boys as "young fascists."
Funny how the now grown-up boys don't remember it that way.

1 comment:

Heather Houlahan said...

Alas, they don't make scouts like they used to.

Coddled, ill-led, and oversupervised is what I typically see. While there are some good scout leaders out there, including several of my SAR teammates, I had many cringy moments when I worked in a mountain shop and tried to outfit and orient natural-born golfers (at best) to take other people's children into the woods without killing them.

As for separating from parents, it seems that every parent -- father and mother -- is obliged to hover over their issue at every scouting event, at least in the younger groups.

Very different from my husband's experience in the 1970's with a scoutmaster who was former special forces.

Myself, I parted ways with the Brownies by mutual agreement. I thought that sitting around making paper dolls was insufferable. They thought I was a pain in the ass. I returned to frogs and trees and swinging from grapevines, and they moved on to sell cookies.

The conflict between nature study/Indian lore and paramilitarism goes back to the very beginning of the Boy Scouts. For the most part, the former lost, but individual troops have varied significantly.