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My Years as a Boy Scout and the 'Values' of Scouting

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I admit it. I was a Boy Scout.

Not only was I a Boy Scout who achieved the middling rank of First Class Scout, but I also passed through the entire run of Cub Scout ranks. I recall, proudly, at 11 or so, crossing some sort of bridge (not symbolic: but small, rounded, and wooden... as for a rock garden) to graduate from Cub Scouts to the larger Boy Scout world into which I so longed to tie knots.

I admit it, but I also hate to admit that I was ever a part of any organization that discriminates against participants on the basis of sexual orientation, while at the same time purporting, according to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) website, to provide "a program for young people that builds character, trains them in the responsibilities of participating citizenship, and develops personal fitness."

The BSA's widely publicized and well-criticized position against gay participation fits a particular definition of "character" closely allied with the subject matter of its programs. The successful scout often subscribes to a certain version of moral and patriotic identity. This sees its best manifestation, for instance, in service-oriented Eagle Scout projects, and its worst in the narrow expression of "values" whose emergence at the dawn of scouting in the early 1900s have more in common with nineteenth-century dreams of colonial empires than fun-based camping trips (even if Robert Baden-Powell and others supposedly rejected militarism in scouting.)

A famous early scouting myth involved American newspaper man and BSA founder W.D. Boyce encountering an "unknown Scout" who came to his aid in London. The myth is as reliable in its particulars as that of George Washington and the cherry tree, but most interesting is where Boyce supposedly went after his stop in London: safari in British East Africa.

British. East. Africa. 1909 anyone?

Today, conservatives see the possibility that the BSA may drop its discriminatory policy as an assault on its "values." Here is part of the statement from Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in protest of a possible retreat by BSA from its official policy of discrimination:

The Boy Scouts has for decades been a force for moral integrity and leadership in the United States. Sadly, their principled stances have marked them as a target for harassment by homosexual activists and corporations such as UPS which are working to pressure the Boy Scouts into abandoning their historic values.

(Just for fun: replace the word "homosexual," with "Black" or "Jewish" and see how this plays...)

This most recent development appears in the heels of a pioneering Maryland Cub Scout pack that was forced to rescind its own non-discriminatory pledge as it was meant as a local repudiation of the national policy. A report indicates that BSA's action to lift the ban, though, would fall far short of ensuring the right to gay participation. Rather, local chapters would have local control of the issue: which presumably would allow those who see homosexuality as blight upon the otherwise besmirched morality of Scouting to continue to continue this institutionalize prejudice. (A similar local-rule scheme once support entrenched discrimination against Black scouts into separate "colored troops").

Even so, I admit it.

I was a Boy Scout, although I long ago repudiated most of what I was taught there because I became suspicious of these "values." Don't get me wrong: I had fun. I learned to sail. I have never questioned the utility of these skills, yet I have indeed considered the ideology behind their use and the value set prescribed by the organization.

It all started, well, I am not exactly sure how it started, but I found myself a Cub Scout in elementary school, my mother dutifully taking me to den meetings once a week where I moved excitedly in my uniform through the gymnasium, working to memorize "The Law of the Pack":

The Cub Scout follows Akela.
The Cub Scout helps the pack go.
The pack helps the Cub Scout grow.
The Cub Scout gives goodwill.

Akela, I seem to recall, is a sort of guiding leadership force. Cub Scouts use the themes of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (where Akela is the wolf pack leader and defender of Mowgli). Akela, the wolf, defends honor in the best British manner, and so it is no surprise that Baden-Powell, founder of the British-based Boy Scout Association (precursor to the BSA), might look to Kipling's allegories of the natural order to structure his junior scouting mythos.

(Hmmm... A writer whose fictional worldview becomes the basis of an organization's future ideology. Did L. Ron Hubbard know about this?)

Akela, as a sort of invisible spirit, may be the leader of the scouting activity, and then, magically, when a scout is at home, the spirit becomes invested in the person of his parents (presumably the father, when mom and dad are both home). It's not hard to see the logic of the moral order maintained in the structures of the organization and in the family structure that the young boy will be taught to follow: there is always a leader you must serve, and he has your best interests at heart. The 1908 Scout Promise, the original version, has the boy say "I will do my duty to God and the King."

As an elementary student more concerned with the colors of the uniform patches, I didn't pick up on any of this, translated as it was to 1980s Delaware.

I do, though, remember the flashlight.

The monthly troop meeting: My name is called as winner -- yes, winner -- of a raffle prize. I am honored with a small flashlight, emblazoned with official Cub Scout imagery. It works on only two "D" batteries to produce a glow slightly dimmer than complete darkness from the almost invisible bulb. I run to the front of the gymnasium, the beaded tassels on my uniform swaying as I move. I've won! Me! I feel Akela filling me with his lone-wolf power trip.

Look at all the goodwill I can now give, and to whomever I want... I hatch plans to shine the light on each of my non-flashlight equipped, exiled-from-Akela Scout friends at the earliest convenience.

I do not, though, consider a most un-Scout-like interruption to these plans: my crying younger sister, Lisa, who sees in my flashlight -- won by raffle, no less, when my name was called! -- a Holy Grail kept from her by this strange group of uniformed boys always chanting on about this wolf spirit.

Her screaming nets a trip to a scouting supply store, where she achieves her own flashlight through the graces of Akela -- at this point my mother -- wisely purchasing a cessation of hostilities.

I found this the height of indignity.

Where was the honor in Lisa's acquisition of the official Cub Scout-flashlight? Even so, I flicked the beam of device in the back of the car as we drove home -- wait, does this thing even work? -- and saw her infinitesimal glow answer mine.

At this moment, Akela gave me the beginnings of wisdom that would take years to fully emerge: Lisa's flashlight didn't at all diminish mine. She could have one too.

And just what is this scouting all about anyway? (And why exactly did Lord Xenu stick the thetans around volcanoes, of all places?)

These answers came some years later as I spent one week each summer in Boy Scout sleep-away camp. Camping for my parents (from the Bronx and Brooklyn) seemed as foreign as the entire culture of Allentown, PA (where we now lived) might have seemed to their grandparents arriving at Ellis Island decades earlier, and so I took these opportunities without question: to smell the woods at dawn, to shoot bow and arrows into haystack targets, and to hone my considerable skills with a .22 rifle... all the while recalling the morning lineup for Reveille and the endless singing of patriotic songs over institutional food that would make WWII ration packs seem delectable.

I happen to see Red Dawn on video at a friend's house some years after its release. I project myself deep into the picture, and I realize my survival skills would serve me well. I would know how to make a fire, shoot a weapon, become friends with Patrick Swayze, and if need be, tie knots over the burning corpses of my Russian enemies.

I quit the Boy Scouts soon after.

I can still tie a clove hitch, but unless BSA enshrines non-discrimination as a "value" of scouting as a start to a large discussion about the place of scouting in the 21st century, I can't be proud of much else for all my years with Akela.