Jeff Phillips: The Scary Scouts

October dusk makes me think of the woods, and sometimes memories emerge of my time in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts of America. These are marked with a few lessons regarding the sinister possibilities that lurk within certain individuals.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of the players.

The first time I perceived that I could potentially be murdered was when I was 8 years old, living in a suburb of Pittsburgh. My rank was that of a Wolf, just above Tiger, still below Bear and Webelos, and our troop went on a weekend camping trip in northern Pennsylvania. The dads got their kicks from perpetuating a rumor that an escaped convict from a nearby penitentiary was hiding out in the woods near our campground. They were elaborate with this prank. They recorded fake radio broadcasts and played them back to us, and we kids weren’t smart enough to realize it was a tape player. We lay awake at night, in fear that if we left the cabin to go pee in the outhouse, we’d be snatched up by the violent convict. On the final night of the trip, as we gathered around a big bonfire, one of the dads snuck off and put on a Jason hockey mask. He also grabbed himself a hatchet, to better commit to it with a deadly prop. During a quiet moment, he came running up from a thick pocket of trees with the weapon held up high. Everyone scattered and screamed. I remember thinking this is when we all die. This is it. The hatchet looked like a very capable instrument. My pounding heart reminded me I had blood to spill, lots of it. I remember the panic being a quick flash that flowed into a sort of resignation into inevitability. I remember feeling a sense of community while looking around at my fellow scouts, all experiencing the same terror. It was almost tinged with a weird giddiness, we’re getting murdered and there’s not much we can do about it, but we’re going down together, right? The dad soon took off his mask and let out a big belly laugh. It was Mr. C. Oh geeze, Mr. C, you had us going. You had us going real good.

As I progressed in scouting, making the jump from Cub to Boy Scouts – we were living in Maine at this point – I caught wind of behaviors that were a little more deranged. On one camping trip we stayed in a big cabin with many different rooms and bunks. The troop leader’s son, R, pulled aside a smaller scout, O, while the rest of us were eating dinner in the mess hall, tied him to a bedpost in one of the cabin’s rooms and whipped the kid repeatedly with his belt. No one heard the leather snaps nor the howling. After some time, R released O. O hid in a closet while R joined us for roasting s’mores around the campfire. It wasn’t until we returned, and O emerged, sobbing, with red welts across his face, neck, and his chest, that O revealed details of the brutality. R was questioned. He at first denied it, as though O had some crazy vendetta against him. Eventually R confessed and was suspended from Scouts for one week. Being the troop leader’s son he probably received more leniency than other scouts would have had they gone berserk with a weaponized article of clothing. O, understandably decided to leave the Scouts for good. R didn’t seem to understand the terror he caused. When he was back after his week off he was yucking it up as usual. His goofy, crooked grin haunted me for years as I wondered if he enjoyed whatever rush of power he felt when dishing pain on someone who, as a younger scout, probably looked up to him. There wasn’t much outcry from the other parents. The troop leader was a rotund, thick mustachioed jolly man, and perhaps had used his charm to keep the scandal hush.

Many years later we learned in our local paper that R had been arrested when the person to whom he sold his prescription of Oxycontin died from an overdose.

The person that gave me the most creeps we’ll call H. He was redheaded, gangly, and in his twenties. He had made it through as an Eagle Scout several years before. He truly loved scouts and volunteered much of his time helping out at our troop meetings and camping trips. He loved cheesy jokes. His favorite act would be to interrupt a meeting while shrieking “the squirrels are after me!” He’d repeat the line until everyone asked why, so he could follow up with the punch line: “they think I’m nuts.” During this time, my family took a summer trip back through Pennsylvania and we randomly ran into H at Hershey Park. He was wearing his Boy Scout shirt, which was soaked. My brother said hello to him and H suppressed a giggle and said “now you can tell everyone I went on a wet ride.” More giggles followed from H.

When I was well into college my mom sent me a news clipping from our local paper. H had been arrested for possessing sexually explicit material of a minor. His photo online in a registered sex offenders database didn’t vary much from the shifty eyed, thin mustachioed individual who’d concern you if you saw him alone at a playground. Even those distinguished by the highest scouting honor may have darker motivations.

My brother and I didn’t last much longer with the Boy Scouts. I quit about a year into it, when I was 13. We found the troop leaders chose too many odd moments to be sticklers. One time we were standing at attention and a moose ran by, so the troop leaders got giddy and pointed and ran toward it, saying moose, moose! Then they lectured us because we all got excited when they did and ran to see the moose. We were told to never, ever break rank! During another outing, one of our fellow scout’s mom, who we’ll call Mrs. M, emerged from the woods in a panic. A few of us were hanging out at the campsite, she cornered my brother and demanded his bar of soap. She had poison ivy all over her! My brother, not eager to have her rub poison ivy all over his bar of soap for him to later rub on his own skin, pretended his soap was locked up in his plastic trunk and he had lost the key. Mrs. M was cross-eyed, and those eyes were darting all over the place as she accused my brother of breaking the number one rule of scouting: Be Prepared! We wondered why she wasn’t prepared with her own toiletries, but didn’t dare pose this question while she squirmed, as though her skin were melting, in a seething rage that none of us had a bar of soap to offer. We couldn’t hold our heads high as models of generosity that day, but none of us were stuck using a bar of soap that some lady rubbed all over her poison ivy coated legs.

There are over 80,000 Cub and Boy Scout troops across the United States. The example of R’s abuse involved one of those troops. Statistically speaking, they wouldn’t be alone in what has been condoned. In fact, prior to 1994 there were some 2,000 reported cases of abuse within Boy Scout troops.

I worry that some might use the example of H to support a reinstatement of a ban on homosexual troop leaders, and I hope my recounting of H isn’t misconstrued as a call for that. I firmly believe that for an organization whose primary mission is to “prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes,” such discrimination is out of line. Moral superiority would be better served in reacting to actual behavior. Abuse in the form of a belt whip should result in expulsion from the organization, regardless of relation to the troop’s leadership. Spreading a rumor of an escaped inmate was a thrilling campfire story, but electing one of the leaders to run at us with a hatchet? That may not have been the best judgement. I can’t shame them too much, I can easily see myself in my future dad bod joining up with such a prank and chortling until the line was crossed. As for H, he’s a difficult one to prevent, and it was never revealed that he did anything inappropriate to any scouts. For all anyone knew, he was just an Eagle Scout who valued his time with the Scouts and wanted to give back. And that shouldn’t be excluded, either. Awareness and attention, however, should be part of keeping any community honest, safe and able to calibrate when something aberrant occurs. And perhaps that motto Mrs. M liked to remind us of should be applied to more than soap: Be Prepared!

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