When Oliver Jensen Was Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, And Reverent

Berets! If there had been berets in 1926, Scouting would have lost out to the pool halls.

Comparing my old Handbook , published in 1925, with one of over a half-century later shows how much Scouting has changed while striving to promote the same goals of training for citizenship and building strong and able bodies. In the new one the writing is visibly simplified, even though many of the fields covered are more complex and sophisticated, and the illustrations more useful. A long chapter of old-fashioned games, like Scout’s Nose, the Crab Race, and the Besieged City, has vanished from the new Handbook , as has an inspirational chapter called “Chivalry,” urging us on to emulate the character and morality of knights of old. A long homily on courage as required in modern times, written by “Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Honorary Vice-president, Boy Scouts of America” in 1911, is gone as well. It probably would be laughed at today. A page of pictures of currently fashionable heroes of American history in the new Handbook speaks volumes about the attitudes and interests of Scouting. “Know Our Country’s Greats,” says the headline, and here is the carefully picked list: Thomas Edison, Dwight D. Elsenhower, Robert E. Lee, Martin Luther King, Jr., Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, Matthew Henson (Peary’s black companion on the trek to the North Pole; Peary himself did not make the list), Susan B. Anthony, John D. Rockefeller, George Meany, Samuel Gompers, Chief Plenty Coups, Padre Junipero Serra, Daniel Boone, Harriet Tubman, Alexander Graham Bell, Whitney Young, Jr., Albert Einstein, Walter Reed, Samuel Clemens. Four blacks, one Founding Father, two generals, two women, two labor leaders, two industrialists, two inventors, a Spanish priest, and an Indian war chief—a band carefully weighted by ethnic groups, races, religions, and genders. No Washington, no Lincoln, no really noted Indian, no Adams, no Jefferson, no Roosevelt.

One might gloss and argue this list for many pages, but I must get back to the important matter of the hat, which shows, if anything, greater change, or perhaps reflects in some way class and ethnic shifts. There are now four official hats, from which any Scout may make his own selection: the old broadbrim; a field cap (which was once called an overseas cap); the wide-visored cap now favored by many workmen and farmers; and, for heaven’s sake, a beret. If there had been berets in 1926, Scouting would have lost out to the pool halls. A Scout may have been all that the Scout Law asserted, which in our memorized order was “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent,” but I am pretty sure that Beaver Patrol, Troop 3, would have indignantly rejected that last as a “sissy hat.”

Appearances are no doubt less important than inner strength, virtue, and so forth, but they have influence, and if you study the picture on this page you will see that even Baden-Powell, in the midst of the siege at Mafeking, rather fancied a natty look. It was a matter of appearance, I am afraid, that ended my career in the Boy Scouts about when I was turning fifteen, not an Eagle Scout yet, but on the way. I remember how it happened as if it were yesterday. 1 had come down from a Scout meeting to the trolley stop at New London’s main square, the Parade, and stood there waiting for a car, looking for all the world like an outfitter’s mannequin—shirt, badges, neckerchief, sash, shorts, khaki stockings up to just below my knees. From my web belt dangled a knife, a coil of rope, a hatchet and flashlight. The hat, supported by somewhat outsize ears, topped off a round, almost chubby face and gold-rimmed glasses. (This is a postmortem description it must be understood.) 1 was only inspecting the drugstore’s show window when fate brought two rather excessively pretty girls into the scene. I turned. They looked at me, and looked some more. They began to giggle, tried and failed to keep straight faces, and then burst into the drugstore almost overcome with mirth.

I have to say that I stepped over in front of the store’s long outdoor mirror and suddenly understood what they were laughing at. Maybe the Scout movement is on to this problem, maybe long pants and berets help when this moment of truth arrives, maybe the magical hat of my early youth now suggests only Smokey the Bear.

The Scouts did a great deal for me, my understanding father said, but he offered no objection when I took off the hardware, the badges, and the hat that nißht, and never wore them again.