February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
A memoir of Boy Scouting in the youthful days of the movement
The Boy Scouts of America, I am surprised to discover, is seventy-five this year, a wintry age for something so perpetually associated with the springtime of life. I never think of the Scouts without remembering my boyhood heroes of long ago, Theodore Roosevelt and Sir Robert Baden-Powell. One became President and the other a lord, but both remained in many ways boys all their days. And then I remember that I am, in age, close on the heels of the Scouts; they were going on sixteen and I was twelve when I joined in 1926. I bought the Handbook for Boys (price, forty cents), with two Scouts signaling on the cover, learned the motto (“Be Prepared”), the sign, the salute, and the way to tie some dozen knots, and then I was sworn in as a tenderfoot, lowest of the low, in Troop 3, Beaver Patrol, in the basement of the Second Congregational Church in New London, Connecticut. Apparently it did not concern me that the very same year I had been confirmed in the Episcopal church a block away, but their Scout troop, in my boyish opinion, did not amount to much.
My parents seemed untroubled by this bit of apostasy and outfitted me in full kit, some of which I have just dug out of a trunk in the attic and set up on a table as an aide-mémoire . There is a shirt of thick, tough khaki, with what used to be called Stanley breast pockets, detachable BSA buttons, and the once-exciting words “Boy Scouts of America” embroidered in red over the right-hand pocket. There are patches and stars, and merit badges on a sash, an impossibly short web belt, a bugle on which 1 can still give an unsteady rendering of “Assembly,” and a still functional hatchet.
This is a very creditable job of souvenir-saving by my late mother and father, who even tucked away some of my childish letters of the time. The one thing I miss is the hat, because I am sure it was that broad-brimmed, khaki campaign hat that made me join up. Worn at a devil-may-care angle, it suggested the manly feats that older Scouts, mature chaps of thirteen and fourteen, could scarcely be persuaded to describe. Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, wore the hat, which he had copied from the broad-brimmed headgear of his erstwhile enemies, the Boers. He had worn one as the colonel commanding the British garrison in the siege of Mafeking. So my mother, an English-woman, told me. She had been in London, a girl of sixteen, when news came on May 18, 1900, that Mafeking had been relieved, when London went mad with joy, and when Baden-Powell suddenly became England’s most popular hero.
That wonderful hat was also worn by Theodore Roosevelt, who any boy could tell you had been weak and sickly as a youth and had gone camping and ranching in the West. There he had grown strong and courageous enough to return and lead his Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill (wearing the hat and glasses, I noted, because I also had to). Other grown-ups, too, wore the hat, like the artist and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton and the author and illustrator Daniel Carter Beard, who led the Boy Scout movement in the United States. (It is a curious and endearing fact that so many artists, amateur and professional, like Norman Rockwell and Baden-Powell himself, have been active in the movement.) None of these others, however worthy, quite stirred my imagination like Baden-Powell. His tales of tracking and camping in enemy country in India and Africa soon led me to abandon The Rover Boys, The Boy Allies , and James Fenimore Cooper’s twig-bending Indians.
Baden-Powell learned tracking from experts, as in this example I find in his biography by William Hillcourt. In 1896 Baden-Powell, then a brevet lieutenant-colonel, was involved in trying to put down an uprising of the Matabele tribes-men in newly formed Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe but still at odds with the Matabele). The tribesmen formed great war parties of often over a thousand men each, called impis ; between fierce onslaughts some of them would hole up in the little, stony hills or kopjes in an area called the Matopos. Reconnaissance was difficult, and Baden-Powell himself, with a Zulu scout named Grootboom, set out alone on the perilous mission of finding an impi . One day, riding through an open, windless, grassy plain, they came upon a few downtrodden blades of grass, and, following them, some small sandal prints in sand. Women, from their size, and on a long journey, or they would not have worn footgear.
“Grootboom looked about him and suddenly gave a ‘How!’ of attention. A few yards off the tracks he picked up a leaf and sniffed it. It was the leaf of a tree that did not grow in the area but some ten or fifteen miles distant. It was damp and smelt of Kaffir beer.
“From his observations Grootboom worked out his deductions: It was evident that women had been carrying beer from the place where the tree grew (the Matabele stop up the mouths of their beer pots with leaves) and had passed this way at four in the morning (a breeze had blown at that time strong enough to carry the leaf for several yards). This would have brought the women into the Matopos about five o’clock. The men would have drunk the fresh beer before it turned sour and would, by this time, be Very comfortable if not half-stupid.’” On this slender evidence and thoughtful reasoning, Baden-Powell and Grootboom followed the women’s tracks, found the large impi in its kopje , and raced back with their information.
It was rather a step down from this kind of adventure to the exercises we conducted at Troop 3’s meetings in the church basement in New London. We tied bowlines and clove hitches, and we moved heavy objects around in slings. I still have a board in the cellar with mounted samples of knots, the end of each rope whipped. First aid was a high priority, with someone playing the victim of a broken bone or a near drowning. There was map making, in which you learned all manner of symbols for different kinds of terrain and other features, not to mention the fact that the symbol for our Scout badges was merely the fleur-de-lis that marks north, borrowed by Baden-Powell. We learned to box the compass, and a great deal of time was spent in sending and reading our juvenile messages by semaphore flags.
Out in the town we occasionally marched in civic events, quite far back from the open touring cars that carried the ancient veterans of the Civil War. Another town activity for Scouts was a game called Noticing. You had a minute each to study four busy shop windows and then turn away and recite as many of the objects in them as you could memorize. The real fun, however, was woodcraft. In the woods not far from where I lived, we went out observing and noting down birds, plants, and various species of tree. You were supposed to find six wild animals—which took awhile in domesticated Connecticut. My friend Smitty and 1, fulfilling a requirement for first-class Scout, went on a fourteen-mile hike along the back roads to Niantic, a nearby town, making a rather sketchy map as we went. It rained lightly most of the way, with poor effect on the map, but we finished. We practiced cooking outdoors, eating out of mess kits, but the blessed censor blots out the memory of what we produced, or possibly actually ate.
Then there was astronomy. Quite a lot, I recall, was made of learning certain major constellations and important stars, which I had mainly forgotten when, fifteen years later in the Navy, I had to learn them all over again. Since I have forgotten them a second time, I try not to get lost in the woods after dark, although I do remember that the moss on tree trunks grows mostly on the north side, which gets no sun. And if I can find the Big Dipper, I can locate Polaris, the North Star.
The lore of the wild was all well and good, but what was really drilled into us was the necessity of doing “a good turn” at least every day, with running errands for one’s mother excluded. Two likely deeds of benevolence were suggested in my Handbook : helping old ladies across the street and giving up one’s seat on the streetcar to the aged and infirm. The old ladies of New London were annoyingly spry, even when you practically lay in wait for them, and would be halfway across the intersection, waving their gloves imperiously at cowering motorists, before I could catch up with them. The streetcars that took me some five miles each way from home to the Second Congregational Church in the evenings were lightly patronized, facing extinction with plenty of empty seats.
Camp, of course, was the heart of the matter to the founders of Scouting, who meant to transform pasty-faced youth and incipient cigarette smokers into rugged outdoorsmen skilled in handicraft, wise in the ways of nature, and familiar with the life of the frontiersman. So it was stated in the Handbook , and so we tried to be in our summer Boy Scout camp, called Wakenah, where all the troops in the area gathered under canvas on the edge of Gardner’s Lake, and whither 1 went with my pup tent, my bedroll of army blankets, flashlight, compass, bugle, and other impedimenta. This was real woods, which I approached my first summer with apprehension but enjoyed beyond any expectation. My first year, according to a postcard my father saved, I passed such tests for first-class Scout as “cooking, law and order, map making, map reading, judging, nature, and swimming.” What “law and order” was, memory availeth not, but that ominous-sounding “judging” turns out, I discover in my old Handbook , to have been exercises in judging “distance, size, number, height, and weight within 25 per cent.” The main events I recall were racing in canoes and an effort by all eight members of the Beaver Patrol to build a small log bridge without nails. We felled and trimmed young trees, notched some parts to fit in other parts, braced it, and lashed everything together with manila line. The bridge got you across the brook but it quaked like an aspen.
My second year at Camp Wakenah, attested to by the large “W” patches sewn on both shirt pockets, 1 remember as the Year of the Bugle. It must have been preceded by a Winter or at least a Spring of Pain for my family, even though I learned to play the bright, shiny thing in the relative solitude of the tower of our house. Thus I became the camp bugler, arising by alarm clock at dawn to dash cold water on my face and flex my lips for a while until I dared attack the “Reveille” call. The upper notes are a little hazardous if the performer is not wide awake. This was followed at set intervals by “Mess Call,” “Assembly,” “Sick Call,” and similar quavers and blasts until the sunset (“Retreat”) and lights-out (“Taps”). To this day 1 have great sympathy for the poor, nervous military buglers on whom falls the duty of playing this long, repetitious, and somewhat limited tune at great funerals and other state occasions. All the world is waiting for them to blow it, that being just what they are likely to do under all that silent pressure, especially when reaching for that high G at the end. Like the fatal glass of beer of the proverb, the bugle led me to the cornet, and its elongated sister the trumpet, and the school band and orchestra. That was all very well at the time, but never since being camp bugler at Wakenah have I enjoyed either the same instant authority or general early morning loathing it brought me. The next camp I attended, for two seasons, was a wonderful private one where you could learn to ride horseback or study up to pass school entrance exams—but we were summoned here and there by bell ringing. And 1 am told that at some Boy Scout camps I have been replaced by a recording. Probably it is activated by a computer and never misses a note, which must take some of the fun out of camping.
The Boy Scouts of America at seventy-five is, in the modern argot, “into” everything of the computer age—the environment, ecosystems, conservation. From the slender British-style movement of 1910, it has grown like wildfire, reaching out to both younger and older youth, to Campfire Girls, and to other races and ethnic groups besides the predominantly white Anglo-Saxon boys of the 1920s. In The Boy Scouts: An American Adventure , the new American Heritage book by Robert W. Peterson, I read that in America today there are, working up by age groups, 140,000 Tiger Cubs, 1,603,000 Cub Scouts, 1,170,000 Boy Scouts, 800,000 Explorer Scouts, and some 1,130,000 adult leaders, mostly unpaid volunteers, as the movement enters its jubilee year.
Altogether it is estimated that over 70,000,000 boys have passed through Scouting. The organization itself has moved with the times. In what we called the Great War, American Boy Scouts collected peach pits for use in making gas masks; they saved tinfoil and sold Liberty Bonds. Their British brethren served as coast watchers against German incursions, releasing men to join the colors, as it was phrased then. Nowadays Scouts collect wastepaper, aluminum, and glass for recycling, and they have gone beyond our Arbor Day tree planting to serious efforts in fighting erosion and pollution. They restore vast numbers of littered and mistreated urban parks to their natural beauty.
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.