SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
February 16, 2014

Merit Badges (the Nightmare of Scouting, Part I)

 

I’m thinking it must’ve been 1973 or ‘74. We were still in the little brick duplex on the corner, and my room was on the far side of the house next to the door leading to the garage. One night shortly before I went to sleep my dad came into my room and sat down on the bed next to me. “We just got a call from Mrs. Anderson,” he said. He seemed very serious.

            I could feel my guts twist slightly. Mrs. Anderson lived directly across the street from us. She was a nice enough lady — a short, pudgy woman with a pageboy haircut, a large nose and a sharp laugh — but her son, Erik, who was my age, was a compulsive liar, a burly blonde thug with a cold and vicious temper. He was an eight year-old sociopath is what he was. He was also my best friend at the time.

            Erik had a knack for getting me in trouble for things he’d done around the neighborhood, while getting off scot-free himself. I couldn’t think of anything bad I’d done lately, but I never knew what that little fucker might’ve told his mom. It could have been anything, from setting a fire to beating the deaf kid down the block with a stick to tearing up Mrs. Greene’s prize-winning garden (again). I had no idea what to expect this time, but from the look on my dad’s face and the sound of his voice I knew it couldn’t be good. “Yeah?” I asked, trying and failing to appear casual.

            “She wants to start a Cub Scout troop at her house,” he said. “She’d be the den mother. Erik would be in it, and Tim Hansen, and Chris Van Boxtel and Dave Neuman and Glenn Shamrig.”

            “Uh-huh?” They were all kids from up and down our block, and all more or less friends of mine merely by virtue of living on the same block. “well, that’s great,” I said. I didn’t seem to be in trouble for anything, but I still didn’t like the way this was going.

            “She was hoping you might like to join too.”

            My guts gave another twist. “Ummm, no, I really wouldn’t. I’m sorry.” Even that young the idea of joining any kind of club or organization seemed repulsive to me. I’d seen those dorks around school in their little Cub Scout uniforms and never wanted anything to do with them. I was already target enough as it was. They looked foolish in their dumb collarless shirts and stupid yellow neckerchiefs. Who the hell wore neckerchiefs, anyway? What the hell was that all about? And knowing them as I did they were never the sharpest tacks in the box. Buncha easily duped dead-eyed Christian hoods, when you got right down to it. Those — and all the kids in school who were just a little off somehow — were the kids who willingly joined Cub Scouts. It wasn’t just the kids involved. I didn’t like the outdoors, always hated the very idea of camping, and despised their fake morality. I knew what those kids were like, and knew long before that moment it wasn’t for me.

            “But aren’t they all friends of yours?”

            “Sort of, I guess. But I really don’t want to be a Cub Scout.”

            My dad was quiet for a moment. He was smart enough to know he couldn’t force me into something like this, and if he tried things wouldn’t end well. Unfortunately he was also smart enough to know I was susceptible to psychological tactics. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “She needs one more boy to join or it won’t happen. I know you don’t want to do it, but she really wants this to happen, and if it doesn’t they’ll all be real disappointed. But it’s your decision.”

            I began scouring my memory, trying to come up with other kids in the neighborhood who would make for more viable scout material. Like that deaf kid maybe, or that kid two blocks down who ate bugs. I bounced a few names off him but it was no go. “She’d really like it if you joined,” he said . . . Just think about it, okay?” With that he stood and left the room.

            With what you might call “less than glowing enthusiasm” I accompanied my parents to a local department store the next weekend, where a corner of the third floor had been turned into a small scouting headquarters. There we picked up a collarless blue shirt, a pair of official uniform pants, a few starter patches it would be my mom’s job to sew onto the shirt, an official manual which I was supposed to memorize, and a stupid yellow neckerchief. Next to the counter stood one of those teen mannequins dressed in full Boy Scout regalia. Neckerchief, cap, and a chest full of pins and badges and other pointless self-important horseshit. I was in the habit of punching mannequins as I passed them just to see if they’d react, but this one I wanted to wrestle to the ground. I wasn’t happy with any of this, and it was obvious.

            Okay, two weeks later, the day of our first den meeting (or whatever the fuck it was called) I was expected to wear my uniform to school in order to show my “pride” in Scouting. I wore the damned uniform, but only so I wouldn’t have to change in the bathroom before heading to the meeting after school. I slunk my way through the halls all day and tried to hide myself at my desk in the hopes no one would notice. At least there were enough other kids sheepishly wearing their own uniforms, so I wasn’t alone. In fact there were more than I realized, including a few surprising faces, kids I figured were too smart to fall for it. It seemed joining the Cub Scouts was as much a given in Green Bay as playing Little League in the summer, going deer hunting in the fall, or wearing green and gold during football season. I didn’t do any of those things, either.

            The one advantage to being a Cub Scout I found was that on Wednesdays (and I don’t know how the hell this was arranged) we were allowed to get out of school fifteen minutes early so we could get to our meetings on time. So what the hell? At quarter to three I packed up with the rest of the dummies and headed for Mrs. Anderson’s house.

            The six of us sat on the floor in a circle around Mrs. Anderson in their basement rec room, with its shag carpeting, dark wood-paneled walls, and fake leather couch. Erik, as mentioned, was a nasty little lying bully. Dave wasn’t exactly a big dumb oaf, so much as he was just a big oaf with no sense of humor. He just seemed confused most of the time. Tim was a scrawny little semi-retarded kid from a few houses up the street. Every time he came over to my place — and I mean every single goddamn time — he broke something. Worse, he broke something of mine. I got to thinking he did it on purpose. Chris wasn’t exactly stupid, but he was a slightly fey, flat-faced gay kid. That he was gay was something that only became clear in retrospect many years later. Back in ‘73 he was just a bit delicate and soft. And Glen, yeah, he was just a big dumb oaf with blond hair and tiny eyes. We were now all part of that proud scouting tradition.

            After showing us the proper way to tie our stupid neckerchiefs and letting us practice a few times, then having us recite the Official Cub Scout Oath (“I promise to do my best and do my duty to God and my country as long as they both shall live,” or something to that effect), she explained what the whole game was about.

            We were Wolf Cubs, see? The little diamond-shaped patch over the left breast pocket of our collarless shirts featured a wolf. It was our job to successfully complete a series of tasks as outlined in our handbook, things like carving a piece of wood into something recognizable, helping out a neighbor with some yard work without asking for pay in return, identifying several species of local birds, crap like that. With each completed task we got a checkmark in Mrs. Anderson’s book. Once we had enough checkmarks we’d be promoted to Bear Cubs, which meant another diamond-shaped patch would be added to our shirts. Then we had another series of tasks to do, at which point we’d be made Bobcats (I think I’m getting the animal order mixed up here, but you get the idea). Then upon earning one more badge, we’d be promoted from Cub scouts to Webelos. I never knew what the hell Webelos were, and it seems they’re pretty irrelevant in scouting terms — just a stepping stone from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts.

            But none of that matters. The usual meeting went like this. Every Wednesday after school we would gather in either Erik’s basement or Tim’s basement, because Tim’s short-tempered obese mother had agreed to be a co-den mother whenever Erik’s mom had something better to do. There would be a quick inspection to insure our uniforms reflected, um, “pride.” Then we’d recite the oath and the pledge of allegiance. Then the acting den mother would have some kind of wholesome activity to offer, usually some kind of artsy-craftsy nonsense involving wood and macaroni and shellac. As soon as the den mother left the room for a moment, the insults and sucker punches would begin, and half-finished projects (often mine) would be destroyed. Erik set a small fire once and blamed Tim. Another Time he ripped a gash in the couch with a pocket knife and blamed me. And Chris got socked in the back of the head a lot and never said a word about it.

            Then once the meeting was over and we all headed outside, we never got further than the front yard before one of the six was singled out, randomly it seems, and three or four of the others would set upon him and kick the shit out of him. Over the course of the next months we all got our turn at this, including Erik (which surprised me, given he was usually the instigator). The following week we’d all be together in someone’s basement again as if nothing had happened.

            Given the meetings were filled with inspections and recitations and pre-planned activities (and beatings), it seemed we were supposed to be doing all that other crap to earn badges on our own time. Well, I’m sorry, but I had other things to do. Like homework and my regular chores around the house. And I wasn’t about to miss the Early Show on Channel 5 to go out looking for chickadees and nuthatches. So as those other losers earned checkmark after checkmark in Mrs. Anderson’s book, all I got were increasingly desperate words of encouragement from her. (I guess she got some sort of bonus or something for the number of badges earned by her charges.)

            They got their revenge, though. If I wasn’t willing to improve my citizenship skills by wasting my spare time looking for birds or carving a piece of driftwood to look like Maury Amsterdam, then try this one on for size, smart guy.

            The Girl Scouts of course raise money by selling cookies. School organizations raise money by selling candy bars and the like (really good ones, too). They sell things people don’t necessarily need, but things they want. When it came time for the Cub Scouts to raise money, they wanted to make a point by being a bit more practical. This is why every eight year-old in the troop was handed a large shopping bag and told to go door to door around the neighborhood selling cheap generic light bulbs.

            Do I even need to begin listing everything that’s wrong with that idea? And to top it all off, we were expected to do this in uniform.

            There were prizes awaiting the one who sold the most light bulbs, and competition was fierce. Given that we all lived on the same block, though, it was simply a matter of whoever hit the street first. I waited a couple of days. In fact I only went out one day before giving up. I was not a fucking door-to-door salesman. And I was most certainly not a light bulb salesman. After struggling to knot up gumption enough to even knock on a stranger’s door, my pitches usually went like this:

            “Um, you need any light bulbs?”

            “No.”

            “Okay then.”

            As my fellow scouts returned repeatedly to the Anderson home to refill their shopping bags with more light bulbs, I sold one, to an old woman a couple of blocks over. I think she felt bad for me. I think it was during those weeks when I began seriously considering making a bolt for it. Mrs. Anderson had got her troop up and running, which had been my only reason for joining in the first place. I’d done my part.

            My god, then there was the Halloween party. We gathered in Tim’s basement and his fat mom turned off the lights and went into that tired old Halloween party standard, reading that poem about some guy being dismembered, while she passed around bowls filled with things supposed to replicate assorted body parts (cooked spaghetti for his veins, liver for his liver). But when his head reached me, I stopped. It was a cabbage, yes, but there was something else on it. Something I recognized in the dark. The cabbage was wearing my gorilla mask. I’d saved and saved to order that mask from the Johnson Smith Co., and found an excuse to put it on every few days. It wasn’t a great mask, no, but I loved it. Here though I could tell something was wrong. “Where’s his hair?” I asked in horror. My mask had a big mop of tangled black hair that left it looking more like a Wild Man of Borneo than a gorilla, but still. My mask was now bald.

            When I got home later that afternoon, still in a rage, I confronted my mom about it.

            “What the hell is Mrs. Hanson doing with my mask?” I asked.

            “Oh,” she said. “She came down here this morning and asked if she could borrow it for something she was doing for the Cub Scout meeting.”

            “Yeah, but where’s his hair?”

            “What?”

            The stupid fat bitch had taken something that wasn’t hers and ruined it. Now I was starting to understand where her retarded son got it from.

            The desecration of my gorilla mask was it. After that I stopped wearing my uniform to school, and wasn’t in such a big rush to get to the meetings on time. More and more often I found other things that needed doing on Wednesday afternoons and didn’t bother with the meetings at all. What exactly was I getting out of it, anyway? A sense of good citizenship and a respect for god and country? What part of citizenship, god, or country was to be found in weekly four-on-one beatings? Well, okay, quite a bit. But maybe that’s the wrong question. Besides, I was already having trouble with the whole “god” business for other reasons. Maybe a better question would be “why would I subject myself to beatings and having my things taken and ripped apart week after week? And why would I set aside so much time for people I really didn’t like that much?” Didn’t make any goddamn sense. At the end of the year I formally resigned from the scouts, and by “formally” I mean I just stopped going altogether. In any case I was glad to have that ordeal over with. And I’m proud to say that in all my time there I never earned a single badge.

            The following spring I told my mom to include my uniform in a garage sale she was putting together, where I sold it to some other poor dumb sucker for a dime.

 

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