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Rants from the Hill: Scout's honor

How I earned the excommunication merit badge.

 

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

One of Henry Thoreau’s many prose lines of pure poetry (his poetry, by contrast, is as prosaic as the side of a milk carton) sings that “the bluebird carries the sky on his back.” It is a line almost as lovely as the bird itself. The mountain bluebird, which is the state bird of Nevada, is a year-round neighbor here on the Ranting Hill. Of course the profusion of bluebirds here may be due to the unfair advantage my daughters and I give them by mounting nesting boxes not only on our property but also (illegally, no doubt) on the public lands surrounding our home. There is hope in this small gesture of nailing little wooden homes into the tangled arms of junipers out here in the far reaches of the high desert.

Unfortunately, not all my associations with bluebirds are positive, for a bluebird restoration effort was my final merit badge project before being ejected from the Boy Scouts. To be more precise, I was formally excommunicated from scouting before managing to earn the cultishly named “Arrow of Light,” a rite-of-passage symbol which sounds like a cross between a cheap appropriation of Native American mythology and a thinly veiled secularization of a fundamentalist religious ideology. I realize that in saying this kind of thing I’ve stepped over an invisible line in our culture. Who rags on the Boy Scouts? Especially among those of us who deeply respect outdoor experience and wilderness skills—not to mention less practical character attributes like trustworthiness and honesty—there is something sacrosanct about scouting.

Photograph of the author's daughters placing a bluebird box in a juniper snag.

 Before failing to become a Boy Scout I was, under duress, a Cub Scout. I made it just far enough to become a “Webelo,” which is Scouting’s equivalent of a “tween,” a boy no longer a cub but not yet whatever was supposed to come next. A man? A bear? An eagle? A fake Indian? (Webelos are referred to as a “tribe,” a designation my Native American friends fail to appreciate.) To make matters worse, “Webelos” was given the “backronym” of “WE’ll BE LOyal Scouts,” which served as yet another reminder that the fundamental principle of the organization was unremitting conformity and respect for authority.

I submit as further evidence of this the “Cub Scout Promise,” by which we were compelled to swear allegiance to God and country and to “obey the Law of the Pack,” which sounded vicious and scary. Worse still was the “Scout’s Law,” which enjoined us to be “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Is this a reasonable standard for any kid? I suspect most parents would be satisfied with “Look, you don’t have to be reverent or brave. Just stop hitting your brother.”

As a boy I took seriously the moral imperative to achieve that long, aspirant list of noble traits—which is to say that I was from the beginning doomed to failure. The rhetoric of scouting invoked a weirdly “courteous” version of self-determination, even as in practice it required utter conformity. Scouting emphasized hierarchy and respect for authority, and it seems clear enough that profoundly anti-authoritarian nature lovers like Emerson and Thoreau—never mind Thomas Jefferson or Cactus Ed Abbey—would have made abominable Boy Scouts, an observation that provides me genuine comfort.

Back in those days there was a lot of pressure on us little scouts. Lots of performance tests and social comparisons and merit badges earned or, more often, endless strings of minor failures that prevented the earning of badges. In retrospect it all seems sufficiently ridiculous. Who even knows what it would mean to receive a merit badge in “Composite Materials”? Who really cares about achieving the “Coin Collecting” badge? (Better to earn the considerably more useful “Lifesaving” badge, so you can attempt to rescue your numismatist friends as they die of boredom.) How were we supposed to keep our priorities straight as we aspired to earn points in an organization where “Dentistry” and “Nuclear Science” had equal value? How were we to decide between “Insect Study” and “Welding,” between “Truck Transportation” and “Space Exploration”—all of which are actual Merit Badges?

It seems to me that “Wheelie Popping” or “Talking to Girls” or “Not Getting Your Ass Kicked by the Neighborhood Bully” or even “Fart Detection” would have been more useful than most of these merit badges. The value system of the entire enterprise appeared arbitrary and oppressive. If the camel was made by a committee, scouting seemed to have been created by a committee consisting of a Baptist missionary, an accountant, a government bureaucrat, a hippie back-to-the-lander, a marketing agency executive, a cigar store Indian, a New Age charlatan, and an undercover cop.

If you are speculating that the unhealthy energy around my not-so-warm-and-fuzzy memories of scouting suggests that I’m protesting too much—that I’m trying to cover something up—you are correct.

 One lovely June my all-white “tribe” of Webelos was on an extended camping trip in the mountains, where we were commanded by Scoutmaster Williams, a man who took the “master” part of his moniker seriously. Master Williams was a “drop and give me twenty” kind of leader, though it was common knowledge among the boys that beneath his goofy uniform and hyperbolic Davy Crockett rhetoric was a plain old suburban dad, a henpecked, three-martini lunch, lawn-mowing, golf-playing, mid-level sales guy. While the forest smelled of pure freedom, being there with Master Williams was a highly regimented and competitive experience. We boys wanted to explore the woods, play hide-and-seek, scramble up rocks and go fishing. Under Master Williams’s leadership, our experience was instead the opposite of play.

I do not exaggerate when I say that we couldn’t dig a hole to take a shit without him turning the occasion into a competition—fastest hole, deepest hole, even roundest hole—and had there been a badge for meritorious dumping he would no doubt have adjudicated that contest as well. By the third night of the campout I had been forced to participate in so many competitions that I felt like an exhausted decathlete, only one whose events included boot waxing, dish washing, and melodic whistling. The only thing that pisses you off more than being forced to compete at whistling or scrubbing dishes is having your ass handed to you time and time again by the other boys, who seemed naturally to possess either the skills necessary to excel at such things, or the sheer drive to humiliate you in head-to-head competition. It may sound silly now, but at age eleven you just don’t want to be a loser every time, even if what you’re losing at is whistling or shithole digging. Why couldn’t I make that damned hole rounder?

On our third night Master Williams arranged yet another competition, this one to determine who could build the biggest, best, fastest fire using only a single match. This challenge had everything Master Williams liked best: implied masculine potency, a pretention to survival skills, the drama of a winner-take-all race to the finish, and immense potential for the utter humiliation of the losers. The idea was that we would each gather our own materials—tree bark, twigs, leaves, whatever—to first lay and then ignite a fire that would, if we were truly skilled, be the first to leap high enough to burn through a string that the Master had tied tightly between two trees.

Master Williams blew his whistle to begin the first phase of the contest, a mere five minutes in which we fanned out into the woods to collect whatever we judged to be the most flammable and therefore choicest materials. Already exhausted, I headed into a thick stand of brush beyond the muddy spot where my own leaky pup tent was pitched and began to rifle through the duff on the forest floor in search of something dry enough to assure victory. But everything I gathered was thoroughly damp; even spruce cones and the cups of acorns felt moist through and through. A feeling of dread gathered in me, my chest tightening and my breathing accelerating as the seconds remaining to find something ignitable ticked away.

When Master Williams whistled out the one-minute warning, I felt an utter sense of desperation and panic wash over me. It was in that moment of despair that I made an observation that would forever change the trajectory of my career as a scout. I noticed, sitting near the mouth of my little, green tent, the small, red can of Coleman fuel that we had used to refill one of the troop’s cook stoves. Grabbing the can I stepped behind my tent, squatted to the ground, and sprinkled some gas—and then a little more, just to be sure—onto the moist pinecones and twigs I had harvested from the forest floor. In that moment I was not thinking of my pledge to be “trustworthy.” I didn’t think about what I was doing at all. Something in the reptilian part of my 

Boyscouts at Farragut State Park, North Idaho, in 1967. Courtesy Flickr user pieshops@gmail.com.
brain just felt—felt that I couldn’t face another defeat after the embarrassing drubbing I had taken in the melodic whistling and poop hole digging trials.

Arriving at the group just seconds in advance of disqualification, I now had five more whistled-off minutes to align and lay a fire consisting of my pathetic little sticks and cones. I stooped to one knee and hunched unsteadily over the spot where I would be tested, trying with trembling hands to construct the ideal little teepee-shape that was rising in front of the more capable boys working to my left and right. But the harder I tried the more my little stick umbrella collapsed, and I could feel Master Williams’s critical glare fall upon me, even as a tidy row of twig wigwams materialized up and down the line. The tension was palpable, the concentration intense. I knew what was at stake. This was the decisive test of who I was and who I would become. To build a fire. It was the ultimate primal challenge, the critical rite of passage into manhood.

At last the final whistle blew, and Master Williams counted down from ten, as if NASA were launching an Apollo rocket right there in the soggy woods. We ten truck driving dentist lifesaving welding coin collecting insect studying wood carving astronauts prepared for blast off. Three .  . . two . . . one . . . ignition! Up and down the line I heard the synchronized scratch and pop of ten individual wooden matches as they were simultaneously struck. Each boy remained kneeling over his little stick tepee, cupping his precious flame with both hands and carefully lowering himself to touch the tiny flicker to just the right spot of bark or twig. The material had to be dry, the placement precise. That single, tiny, flickering point of sulfurous fire was all that stood between triumph and humiliation, and I guarded mine as a kind of eternal flame, one that would either be extinguished in a moment, or would burn brightly into manhood.

I balanced awkwardly on one knee, too afraid to shift position, and bent forward slowly, lowering toward my half-collapsed structure of twigs and cones, trying through sheer concentration to will that tiny flame to remain lit, trying one last time, in my little, collapsing world of inferior whistling and inadequately dug poop holes, to keep my hopes from being extinguished. I chose a promising spot in my stick pile and lowered the match slowly toward it.

I do not remember the moment in which the match made contact with my little pile of damp sticks. I do recall that the resulting detonation sounded like a concussion grenade, and that the rising fireball blew me backward onto my shoulder blades. There followed a welter of gasping and scurrying, and when I came to awareness I was looking up through swirling smoke at the face of Scoutmaster Williams, which wore an expression of genuine concern. I was coughing just a little, and the smell of singed hair was unmistakable.

“Son,” he said at last, “you’ve burned your damned eyebrows off. Are you alright?”

I nodded yes, though I didn’t have the slightest idea.

“You’re disqualified,” he added, flatly.

I don’t recall now whether I cried. The rest of my story is the unvarnished truth. Kicked-out scout’s honor.