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What I Learned from being a Boy Scout - Elf M. Sternberg
What I Learned from being a Boy Scout
In 1979, I was a Boy Scout. I had the uniform with the neckercheif and cap and the whole package. I was 13 years old and naive and didn't really know much about how the Boy Scouts was organized. My mother, fresh off her divorce from my father, thought I needed exposure to a wider range of peers and proper moral instruction than what I was getting at school, so I went.

I don't remember a whole lot. The troop leaders were a married couple, the wife doing more work than the husband. They had a tiny living room we would all meet in when it rained, and I remember the musty smell and that they had a lava lamp.

What I do remember most was what made me quit.

There were two boys in the troop who stood out to me. Pete and Mike. Pete was the troop bully... a big kid, soft in the middle, prone to glowering menace and self-aggrandizing tales of scoring beer and porn. Mike was, like me, a bit of a nerd-- he liked to read, and I was willing to forgive him his love of Westerns because at least someone else in the troop always had a paperback in his back pocket.

Mike and I also bonded over our names. His first name was "Michel," whereas my parents had saddled me with "Mathieu." (You always wondered what the 'M.' stood for, didn't ya?) But whereas my mother always pronounced my name like she'd just missed a sneeze, and my father, bless his heart, just said "Matthew," Mike's mom was heard more than once using the soft, fully Francofied name. This earned him endless teasing from Pete, as well as unfounded accusations of being "fruity."

One day we heard that Mike was in the hospital with a broken arm and a black eye. Pete had attacked him with a baseball bat. The incident had happened at Pete's home while no one else was there.

Nothing happened to Pete. I learned, later, that Pete had accused Mike of coming on to him-- which was absurd, because Mike wasn't gay, and Pete's sad concept of the "bad boy" image he cultivated made him ever less attractive.

Instead, based on Pete's accusation alone, Mike was expelled from the Boy Scouts.

I learned, even later, that the reason for this patently unjust turn of events was that Pete's father was one of the wealthiest guys in town, was the main BSA sponsor in our city, and had threatened to pull his support if there was even a whiff of censure directed at Pete.

That year, the Boy Scouts taught me about the sociopathy of wealth. They taught me that all those pretty words in the Boy Scout Oath didn't mean a thing when facing arrogant power. I learned the lesson of Thucydides, already old when he wrote it down 2400 years ago: "The strong do what they can. The weak endure what they must."

Current Mood: thoughful

5 comments or Leave a comment
elfs From: elfs Date: May 24th, 2013 07:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
To be fair to history, although the local troop didn't censure Pete, the school he went to did act: he was kicked off of the school sports team, and he was required to get counselling before the school would let him back onto campus the next fall.

And leaving the Boy Scouts wasn't a big deal for me either. It was almost summer: I was scheduled to spend the summer down in the Florida Keys with my father, and after that year I was being packed off to a boarding school with its own social and moral structures, no BSA there, so quitting was relatively low-cost.
elfs From: elfs Date: May 24th, 2013 07:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's also kinda remarkable, now that I think about it, just how much that year influenced me. Everything about it: from this incident through the last year of middle school Book Club, to the summer in the islands, my dad's first crazy year of his divorce, his brother's boat-- I have repeatedly mined this one year, over and over, for material for many of my stories.

Edited at 2013-05-24 08:14 pm (UTC)
shunra From: shunra Date: May 25th, 2013 03:08 am (UTC) (Link)

That's infuriating.

The dynamic is still ongoing - and far too many organizations purportedly dedicated to educating (in various sense of the words) children are actually playgrounds maintained for rich men's children.

The part where one accepts that it is not fair, it is not going to be fair, and on one is about to make it fair - that's the part that I'm still not over.
mejeep From: mejeep Date: May 24th, 2013 11:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I too was boy scout as a teen. The local scoutmasters were too lazy to help anyone with any scout activities like merit badges or camping or hikes.

I'm rather sure the local neo-nazis were in my troop, which disbanded long long ago.

I take an odd pleasure in wearing my Boy Scouts olive-drab garrison cap at the ex army-base where I volunteer for the science center/museum because
- the BSA is still mostly anti-gay, so I wear it in protest that they cannot deny I was a scout and I'm proud of the good things MOST scouts practice, regardless of the upper ranks' agenda
- the Boy Scouts is a para-military organization. The uniforms and conduct is similar to the army, on purpose. That's the closest a hippie-boy like me's ever getting to the army!
edichka2 From: edichka2 Date: May 25th, 2013 02:57 am (UTC) (Link)
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