The newspapers this past week recorded the filing for bankruptcy protection by the Boy Scouts of America. Even for those of us who’ve seen it coming for years, it was sad news. But only mildly sad. In a way, the development is just desserts. Or, perhaps, the extinction of a woolly mammoth, unable to adapt to a changing climate and demographics. Not to mention a deluge of charges of sexual abuse.
Life in Boy Scout Troop 6 in Syracuse in 1947 was more fun than a barrel of monkeys — which it rather resembled until our leaders called us to order each Thursday evening in the bare-bones basement meeting room of the Lutheran Church. The military-style report by patrols was much influenced by the recent war, in which our scoutmaster and his assistant had both served. We did a lot of dressing right, marching back and forth and right-about-facing, in spite of the fact that our beloved Scoutmaster, Doc Doran, seemed always to forget which foot we should be on when he hollered, “March!”
His assistant, Ed Taylor, was into knots, and thus, so were we. Anyone who tied a granny had to wear it around his neck for a while as a badge of shame. Square knots behind the back or behind the head; bowline around the waist with one hand; sheet bend; double half-hitch; taut-line hitch, sheepshank; timber hitch; and even a double carrick bend (which I’ve actually used twice in the ensuing 70 years). The Junior Assistant Scoutmaster Ed Kaish (hierarchy was important) led our calisthenics.
A local factory owner let us use his large forested property out near Chittenango as our outdoor base. We built a pretty good lean-to and an altar fireplace for cooking, and practiced orienteering through the woods. It was limestone country, full of deep, wet ravines, high cliffs and waterfalls. Beside the nearby highway was a white sulfur spring.
The troop initiation was to drink a tin cup of its water without spitting it out. It really smelled bad. On Sunday mornings before we headed home from weekends at camp, Doc invariably got us to church. He was a conservative Catholic (I learned decades later), but the church we went to was always a small, rural Protestant one. Friendly as the members were, they never sat near us. By Sunday morning, after cooking two days over an open fire, we all smelled like smoked sausage.
Woodmansee, Troubataris, Ryan, Werline, Rich, Bialy, Lange: We were the Shmoo Patrol (named after a mythical animal invented by Al Capp), and as different from each other as it’s possible for white boys to be. But at that age, we weren’t aware of that. I have no idea what happened to the others, or even if they’re still alive, but I’m sure none of us ever forgot the Scout Oath or Law.
When evangelicals propose posting the Ten Commandments on public buildings, I usually respond by recommending those instead.
Times, cultural values and people change.
Unfortunately, many institutions, especially those run by elderly conservatives, do not, and suffer accordingly. Religion, too, has a deleterious effect on institutions’ chances of survival. We forget, for example, that before the year 1000, Roman Catholic clergy routinely married. Then it apparently occurred to the Vatican that all those priests’ property was bequeathed, when they died, to their families, not the church. Suddenly, celibacy was a state ordained by God. And we’re seeing, as events unfold, how that’s turned out. In the same way, the Boy Scouts relied upon religious institutions for financial support, a major chunk of which came from the Mormon Church. When overwhelming popular demand arose for acceptance of gay scouts and leaders, the Mormons bailed, as was their right. But they took their beautiful money and church facilities with them.
It was the Death of a Thousand Cuts. First, the white conservative image suffered — just as it has, increasingly, in national politics. Then came growing pressure to admit gay kids and leaders, and children of gay parents. Then the departure of the LDS (having watched a few western ranch “faith gatherings” run by beefy white guys in fringed buckskin and cowboy hats, I couldn’t regret that. But the ranches and money went with them).
Then girls, to outcries of, “What’s becoming of Boy Scouting?” Those were all probably necessary accommodations to cultural change, but you could see the wheels starting to come off. Then, in the milieu created by revelations of epidemic clergy sex abuse and the #MeToo movement, came a trickle that rapidly grew to a tsunami, of charges of abuse by Scout leaders.
Today, I read this headline, which may not be entirely fair but it got the bottom line right: “Boy Scouts of America, an organization dominated by conservative Christians, has filed for bankruptcy after being overwhelmed by sex abuse lawsuits.”
The simple days of knot-tying and incinerating Spanish rice over open fires may be gone. And no Scout leader today would let Garo Troubataris arm himself for a snipe hunt with a nail-studded club (he damn near took off Larry Werline’s head with it in the pitch-black woods). But instead of lamenting what will never return, I prefer to enjoy the wonderful memories and recall the oaths we took so many years ago.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.