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0916blog

On My Honor

Being a Boy Scout is one of the things that shaped my life, good and bad.

I really loved being a Cub Scout and then a Boy Scout, before I got jaded and cool. Before I was old enough for Cub Scouts, I’d go to Brownie meetings with my mother, who was a Brownie leader and I was the only boy as I helped make tiny, clay ash trays. That could have had a pivotal impact on my life.

We did a lot of pledging.

Hard to imagine, but at the start of the monthly Boy Scout troop meetings, like a little soldier, I proudly wore my official khaki-colored, quasi-military uniform, gave the official three-finger Scout salute, not to be confused with the New Jersey single-finger salute and said the pledge of allegiance and then joined my fellow Scouts to proclaim, “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty, to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

And then, to be perfectly clear, all of us Scouts promised to be “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”

Times have certainly changed. To do my duty to God means what, exactly and to what God? Duty to country has a very different connotation in this day and age and to keep myself “morally straight” with “straight” the operative word. I don’t know what “reverent” means now so I’m sure I didn’t know its meaning way back. It’s like when I was a wee boy reciting the pledge of allegiance in school and not knowing the words but mouthing them anyway with gibberish like “pledgeallege.”

The current Boy Scout website also carries a warning ad that unfortunately was nowhere to be found in olden years. It notes that “victims of Boy Scout abuse have suffered tremendous emotional damage” and that Scouts who were abused should go to boyscout-abuse.com and that time is limited to file a lawsuit.

Wednesday nights, once a month, Boy Scout Troop 259 met in the gym at the Memorial School. It was cavernous place, almost like a cave and everything had a weird, loud echo, making sounds more ominous and intrusive, including recitation of the Scout pledge and pledge of allegiance, something that today seems right out of a Trump rally.

A highlight was when Scouts were presented with their latest merit badges for everything from cooking and personal fitness to civics, whatever that meant, and lots of other skills.

There was a manual outlining the requirements for every merit badge and how to complete them. Some of the badges today seem pretty lame, like orienteering, which is described as a group of sports that require navigational skills using a map and compass to navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain whilst moving at speed. Participants are given a topographical map, usually a specially prepared orienteering map, which they use to find control points. Sounds like way too much work.

Another current badge focuses on textiles, another on soil and water conservation and two more on traffic safety and salesmanship. I have to sit down to deal with the excitement.

We also learned about a lot of other things that had to do with the outdoors, including how to pitch a tent, make a fire and my favorite, how to tie knots, as I could tie a square knot, clove hitch or a two half stitches knot with the best of them. Learning how to tie various kinds of knots has not turned out to be very useful although a two half stitches knot helps when I have to tie the trunk down so the lawnmower doesn’t fall out.

The most merit badges usually went to Clayton Hall, everybody called him Clayton and not Clay, whose father was the Troopmaster. I suspect chicanery as I think Clayton, who was a plump boy, was the first in the troop to make it to Eagle Scout, the pinnacle of Scouting. Maybe Clayton really did do all the things you needed to do for a merit badge and then have an adult, like your father, the troopmaster, sign that you really did the stuff. Maybe not.

After the presentation of badges, the Scouts split up into two sides for a game of bombardment in which the goal was to hit an opposing player with a kickball. During breaks in the game, some of us dared to sneak into the girl’s room hoping to see I don’t know what.

I was always proud to be called up and get my badges, even though they always paled in light of the number of badges that Clayton got. They weren’t hard to earn but some took time. A special ceremony was when a Scout reached the upper limits of Scouting, earning a Star, Life or Eagle Scout badge. I made it pretty high to Star Scout and then joined Explorers before quitting because it was no longer cool to be in Scouting.

If you really had a lot of merit badges, like Clayton, your mother sewed them on a sash that you wore, although I never had that many to need a sash.

The merit badges are different than in my day. Today, there’s even unofficial “spoof” badges, just for fun, from an on-line, family-owned company that is not related to the Boy Scouts of America.

There’s a spoof badge for tattooing where you learn all about tattoos and then design one on a cantaloupe, pigskin or synthetic skin, whatever that is. There are spoof badges for social distancing where you learn to sew a face mask although it isn’t clear if you are supposed to wear a mask.

Another spoof badge is for “finger carving” with a picture of a knife cutting a finger, to celebrate those Scouts who couldn’t carve without cutting themselves. A “crop dusting” merit badge portrays a Scout passing gas on the farm and a napping merit badge is of a Scout napping.

When I was young, Cub Scouts wore a goofy blue beanie with silver piping that always fell off your head. The uniform was the same blue and silver. The Boy Scouts had hats that were more military-looking that stayed on your head and the uniforms were khaki, again similar to the military. I’m surprised they didn’t give us simulated machine guns just like the soldiers used.

There were very clear rules about everything from where to sew your troop’s number on the uniform, which was on the right shoulder; to where to put any of the other awards, which was below your left breast pocket. I don’t know if there were penalties for violating the patch laws other than being ostracized form the troop.

It was always a thrill when my mother sewed on the patches that I was so proud to have earned. The official Scout neckerchief also had to be held in place with an official slide, and I was most proud when I actually carved a lion’s head slide out of wood.

I don’t remember the uniform and accessories as being expensive but then again, I didn’t know the cost of anything except for an ice cream from the Good Humor truck. Today, it gets pricey with a total uniform, complete with pants, slide, cap, belt and socks for $150 to $185.

President Woodrow Wilson signed a Congressional charter on June 15, 1916, that allowed the group to be recognized under Title 36 as a “patriotic and national” organization. That would be the same President Wilson who was a racist and oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. His legacy came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.

Scouting today seems like such an anachronism. Sad.

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer