When my stepson came home from school one day all excited about joining Cub Scouts, I didn’t realize how my life was about to change. My wife, an actual blood-relative to my stepson, refused to go to the interest meeting, citing that she had been a Cubmaster before and had already learned her lesson under absurd circumstances I’m not at liberty to divulge. “Besides, this will be a good way for you and Farzad to bond,” she suggested. So I naively agreed to go. My wife is an angel, and here I was rushing off to somewhere she feared to tread. “You probably shouldn’t mention my name,” she said as I was leaving. I didn’t realize that the main order of business at an interest meeting is to pressure parents into agreeing to be Scout Leaders. I’m proud to say I steadfastly resisted and did not volunteer. I was overworked and underqualified, having never myself progressed beyond Tenderfoot during my brief six months in Scouting twenty years earlier. Yes, I firmly held out—for almost a month before agreeing to be an Assistant Cubmaster “on paper.” I wouldn’t really have to do anything, I was assured.
While still a Webelo, my stepson and his pack (42) were invited as guests by local Boy Scout Troop 420 on their first Scouting campout late one October, and I agreed to tag along. The Scout motto is “Be Prepared!” But nothing, I mean nothing, prepares you for weekends in the woods with groups of adolescent boys. It’s not called “in the wild” for nothing. The Assistant Scoutmaster, who said he wouldn’t be going, gave me the details. We’d be camping at Tallaha, a permanent Boy Scout camp with cabins containing bunk beds, and our hosts would cook for us, so we didn’t need to take much.
The Scout Law notwithstanding, this Scout Leader proved not to be Trustworthy. First of all, the “cabins” weren’t what I expected. They had roofs, but the walls were solid only halfway up. The other half was screening all the way around. It was a cold and breezy night inside as well as out. There were indeed bunkbeds, but judging by the stains and the sags, the mattresses must have been at least fifty years old. Secondly, we learned after arriving that our meals were not going to be provided. So off we went to the nearest grocery store for hotdogs, buns, ketchup, mustard, chips, and for dessert, marshmallows.
Anyone who’s ever camped with young boys I’m sure cringed at the word “marshmallows.” But this was my first time. The boys delighted in setting the puffy confections on fire and then running around with their sticks ablaze. Flaming marshmallows of course turn black, melt, and fall off the sticks they’re on so that soon our campground was a sticky minefield, and shortly after that everyone’s shoes were afflicted with hideous gobs of goo, and then the floors of the “cabins,” and then everything sitting on the floors was ruined. A Scout is Clean. A Scout is Thrifty.
After this first campout, the other overnight outings mostly run together in my head. Boys constantly practicing wrestling, karate, and judo on each other because they were mad to be fighting all the time. No sleeping the first night. A lot of time spent setting up and packing up, on meal preparation and cleanup.
But two campouts do stand out, both cancelled in progress because of weather. The first was cut short by a thunderstorm with gale-force winds and the threat of hail and tornadoes. My nylon pop-tent was contracting so violently that it looked like a wind-played accordion. Two Scouts—whose parents, suspiciously, did not answer their phones—spent the night on my living room floor. And then there was the deluge campout when it simply would not stop raining. We stood under a canvas canopy and periodically pushed up on the sags above our heads so that pooling water would run off and not collapse our cover. By the time the Scoutmaster had had enough, the field around our cars was flooded, and we spent an hour pushing our cars out of what was now a mud pit. Just like in a comedy film, I actually got splattered all over by mud from the spinning rear wheels of a car I was pushing and arrived home looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger near the end of Predator. The very next day I came down with the flu.
The main attraction of being involved with Scouting for me was of course the opportunity to share activities with my stepson. But I was involved for so many years that eventually I was asked to help out with our troop’s week-long summer camp even though Farzad was with his father a thousand miles away. June in the Mississippi Delta is sweltering, and even darkness brings no relief from the oppressive steam bath. Of all the buildings at Camp Tallaha only the PX was A/C’d, so I thought up a lot of excuses to go there, and it took me a long time to find exactly what I needed in these blissfully cool environs.
That summer our troop shared a campsite with another troop unfamiliar to us, and at one point the other troop’s leader informed me, a stranger to him, that he was leaving to get hamburgers from McDonald’s, and he indicated I might just keep an eye on his charges though he was sure they’d be fine unsupervised. It was during this interim that his boys got some valuable experience creating an explosive homemade torch fashioned from a hairspray can. A Boy Scout is Brave.
My boys and I spent a lot of one day cleaning the mud-smeared floor of the dining hall. Too much mud for a mop to work, so we hosed the entire floor, swept out the water with brooms, and then we mopped. The floor looked pretty good, too, until the next meal when just as much mud as before was tracked in.
When my Scout Leader relief showed up, she asked me what I liked best about the summer camp experience, and I said, “The meals.” When I asked her what she liked best, she said, “I like helping young men get a solid start on achieving their full potential in life.” What a great answer. Boy, did I feel like a heel: small, petty, inadequate, and embarrassed. After I heard her much better answer, I thought to myself, “For me it’s still the meals.”
No, I was not prepared. I wasn’t qualified. I wasn’t even Cheerful. On my honor, I probably didn’t do my best. But I did go. I was Loyal and tried to be Helpful. And I survived enough campouts and enough meetings, banquets, and boards of review to see my stepson go from Bear Cub to Eagle Scout.
And it was worth it.