Monday, July 11, 2011

A Wood Badge Ticket for the Twelve-Year-Old Inner Scout

Boy Scouts of America Wood Badge is the best leadership training ever. And I've had a few during my professional career and church experience. In spite of some modern cultural controversies, the values of Scouting are timeless and invaluable.

I've had a life-time of experience in Scouting as my Dad was a professional Scout Executive. Yet it was only at my first Wood Badge course four years ago that I learned that a large part of Lord Baden-Powell's motivation in organizing the Scouting movement, war hero that he was from the Siege of Mafeking, was to create a world brotherhood that would help promote World Peace. He was devastated by the horror of the Great War, reinvigorated in the 20's by the enthusiasm of the boys in the Scouting movement he had initiated, but then finally dying with broken heart during the Second World War - his dreams for world peace seemingly lost. That same lost feeling has come upon me at times in Scouting when we humans fall short of our ideals.

I had wonderful opportunities growing up. Summers at Scout camps run by my Dad, access to innumerable Scouting activities, and adventures no other kid could have. We had a wonderful Cub Scout Pack due in large part to my Dad's efforts. I so looked forward to being a Scout and going to camp with my Troop. Maybe my expectations were just a little too high.

My first week-long camp was  Parsons on Dabob Bay, the west side of Puget Sound. I was ready days ahead and up long before dawn the day we were to leave sitting in the big plush chair in the living room beside my backpack holding my new Scout bugle that was my birthday present. It ended up as one of the worst weeks of my life.

You may think me overly sensitive or a typical homesick twelve-year-old, but it was more than that. Our Scoutmaster tried hard, but was absolutely clueless. Let's call him Sam. He was a big, fun-loving guy of the sports world type. He had sons older than me who were athletes. In fact, his assistant that week was his twenty-one-year-old son just back from a church mission to South Africa. He caught a squirrel at camp, skinned it, roasted it, and ate it in front of us. Maybe it was some kind of tribal ritual.

That wasn't the worst of it. The older Scouts hazed and bullied us younger kids. It was all promoted and enjoyed as jovial good fun by Sam. "Boys will be boys," of course. One night Sam stirred the troop on to break into the dining hall and steal food to have a fight with the camp staff. Those guys didn't react too badly and cut it off. The thing was, the camp staff as promoted by Scouting, was a lot of fun. They would sing and act out skits in the dinning hall and campfires with good Scout spirit along with the training they gave us in the program activities. Sam couldn't seem to distinguish one kind of "fun" from the other. The culmination came building up to the last day getting ready for camp-wide patrol games and competition. Sam was so excited, he talked up the idea of forming one super patrol with just the best athletes and tough guys in the troop so we could beat all the other troops. It was a literal "win all you can!" moment. If you haven't figured by now, I was not one of the boys chosen for super patrol. I never liked competitive sports and I've had my trouble with competitive Scouting.

Parsons can be (well, is usually) a very damp place. It only got damper at nights as one of my buddies and I would weep ourselves to sleep. We were in bunks next to each other and I actually said those clammy words, "It's OK, Steven. It will be over in a few days."

What saved me that summer was that my Marine uncle, recently returned from Viet Nam, was on the camp staff. Obviously that was arranged by my Dad although not for the specific purpose of my comfort. I went to find him at the water front and told him some of my troubles. In response to the idea of "super patrol" he said, "That's not right!" He intervened and I don't know what he said to Sam, but I was sure glad to get home when that week from heck ended.

Next year at Omache wasn't much better except that I wasn't youngest Scout. Poor Huey had the dishonor of his underwear up the flag pole. They were threatening worse and the camp staff was just about to call the Snohomish County Sheriff as darkness fell and their search after his disappearance hours earlier proved fruitless. Then he appeared out from under one of the wooden tent platforms where he'd been hiding from our older Scouts for hours missing his dinner in the process.

Harmless pranks? A lot of Scouters think so. This is supposedly part of character development to learn to laugh at yourself, toughen up, and be welcomed as part of the group. Scouters go on and on about where that fine line is between appropriate and inappropriate pranks. I am idealistic enough to think the line is already clearly set out in "A Scout is: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind . . . ."

Well, it all came back to me at the recent Wood Badge course. I was Troop Guide for the Buffalo Patrol. It was a great course all around and the Buffalo were especially great! All the participants and staff really were good Scouts, but there were a few pranks. The silly, stuffed buffalo my mom had given me some years ago because of my Department of the Interior work ended up missing from our Buffalo Patrol table top decorations. It wasn't a big deal and kind of hard to figure out because as our first "Envision" Wood Badge together with Family Camp, there were a lot of spouses, in-laws, and cousin connections. The disappearance was probably linked to one of those relationships and intended as playful fun.

One morning as we Buffalo filed into Gilwell Field as the second-to-last patrol, we faced center, immediately sensing something odd with all the other patrols watching us. We looked behind and there was our buffalo, in a baby doll's dress, hanging from a structure built by the pioneering activities at Camp Evergreen.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Cummings
I was stunned and turned to go retrieve the buffalo pausing only slightly because as a Troop Guide I was supposed to let the patrol do things. And as I paused, one of the Cub ladies in the patrol went and climbed up the webbing, retrieved the buffalo and the note, and headed down the back side of the structure where there was a rough ladder. She slipped on one of the last rungs and ended up a little bruised, treated later by our nursing staff with ice packs as she sat in the comfy chair. When she got back to the patrol in Gilwell formation, she handed me the buffalo and the note. I folded the note and stuffed it in my pocket without reading it. I was a bit annoyed with all that bad feeling of my first Scout Camps barreling back at me. I said out loud, obviously upset, but I hope not too angrily or rudely, "hangman's nooses are NOT appropriate in Scouting." When we got back in the instructional big top, one of the head staff read a note that was a copy of what I had shoved in my pocket. The woman who had climbed up got ahead of me in explaining that we had intentionally not read the message at Gilwell so we would not escalate as we attempted to put it behind us. The Course Assistant Scoutmaster said that he was only the messenger but the point seemed to have been made. Later, the Troop Guide for the Foxes told me that it was two half hitches and not a noose. Technically correct, perhaps, but still a little disconcerting at the sacred field of Gilwell.

Things brightened up a bit after lunch when the Fox Patrol received via quartermaster mail, a large stuffed gorilla with a note subtly explaining that hopefully they would learn something with the 800-pound gorilla hanging on their patrol flagpole. One of our "Buffalo Gals" explained that her Wood Badge beaded husband who was at Family Camp with the kids had won that at some corporate retreat and had found just the right opportunity to get rid of it.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Cummings
That was good enough for me- a clever and good-natured way to address the pranks. Later in the week, the Senior Patrol Leader for the course explained that there had been some complaints about other pranks and addressed it by telling a story of his troop some years back when a Scout was picked on until another Scout took the responsibility to tell the other boys it was not a good thing to do. That was a good way to address it and the missing items soon miraculously reappeared.

It isn't so much that the culture of Scouting has changed all that much or gotten obnoxiously P.C. It seems to me that the values of the Scout Law, universal as they are, always should have been a deterrent to negative pranking as opposed to uplifting fun. One of the differences now is that there are a lot more women leaders in Scouting which tends to diffuse a bit of the uncontrolled testosterone of the sporting field or militarism that occasionally creeps into Scouting.

And whatever the historical culture, the current Guide to Safe Scouting clearly states:
All members of the Boy Scouts of America are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the principles set forth in the Scout Oath and Scout Law. Physical violence, hazing, bullying, theft, verbal insults, and drugs and alcohol have no place in the Scouting program and may result in the revocation of a Scout’s membership in the unit. [emphasis added]
I dunno, but "theft" seems to be "theft" which tends to make it difficult to find an exception for theft "in good fun." Consider it this way, how is a boy without a solid family, religious, or moral background going to know to distinguish stealing patrol totems from taking some Scout's new pocketknife? Adult leaders should be the ones to set the proper example of Scout values.

We had a great Beaver Patrol when we went through the course a few years back. One day at Gilwell, we surprised and "pranked" staff and the rest of the troop by responding to, "Is there a Beaver in the house?" by snapping out the backside of the Oregon State Flag with its golden beaver and doing a little puppet show version of "Back to Gilwell" singing for our little beaver puppets in high, squeaky voices.  Another morning, noting that the Bobwhites were living up to their less than glamorous reputation by singing rather weakly, we moved to stand behind them to sing their verse with them. As we went back to position for the chorus, the Bobwhites moved behind the Eagles for their verse and then each patrol in turn went behind the next one to help fortify each patrol's verse. It left our Senior Patrol Leader in tears (the good kind). That's the kind of "prank" I enjoy.

So here's my new Crusade. I want to promote Safe Scouting to avoid hazing, bullying, and theft in all forms and to establish clearly that it cannot be in good fun. I don't mean to be a self-righteous, overly-sensitive grouch, but I think fun and even pranks can be enjoyed in a positive way to promote the Scout Oath and Law as the values of Scouting that we can share as patrols and troops united for good fun and daily good turns in service to others. Roasted squirrel, underwear up the flagpole, and hanging buffalo just aren't good enough for me. And they shouldn't have to be for any Scout.


  1. (Anonymous/M) Hazing in Scouting? Oh, dear, tell me about it...As big-city kids, my younger brother and I had no experience with scouting. As a Mom, I ran my big mouth (when called to work in Cub Scouting)about why the Church had to have Lord Baden-Powell's militaristic nonsense as part of the boys' program (it went over well). My boys' father, a superb competitive athlete raised in the ghettos of Southern Cal, with not an outdoorsy bone in his body, sat out the fight. When my oldest son (near-sighted and uncoordinated) finally entered scouting, he was, with another "weaker" boy, the butt of some serious hazing (they are around your age and I only NOW am finding out how serious it was). Peeing on their faces, while asleep in the tent, was the mildest of what I hear about. The perpetrators and the victims were all, at one time or another, sons of bishops (SOB's for short). It nearly drove my oldest out of the Church. Fortunately, my sons have not given up on Scouting for their own kids (we have a huge majority of boys). They and their wives have worked their butts off to see ALL the boys get their Eagle Scout rank early. Two of them in the last two weeks, in fact. There is hope! But the culture has to be reformed a bit, without getting too sissified.

  2. Most of my Scout camp experiences were quite good, but that was largely due to the fact that the boys in my troop were, for the most part, quite good kids. We all remain close friends today, 20 years later.

    However, at my second scout camp, we camped next to another patrol who were quite obnoxious. They were always loud, especially after lights out, they dug a sauna, and verbally attacked us on a regular basis. These problems culminated with them hazing one member, including tying him to a tree, throwing ice cold lake water on him, throwing knives at him (although never hitting him), and finally, urinating on him. We watched most of this unfold, but none of us had the courage to stand up to these bullies. Unfortunately, the same was true of their Scoutmaster, who watched and laughed, and untied the boy after his ordeal was done.

    Shortly thereafter, I read in the news that the B.S.A. had been sued because of a hazing incident that happened at a Scout Camp, and that the case was ultimately settled. I don't know if it's the same incident, but based on the timing and the description of the abuse, it seemed the same to me at the time.

    It may have been because of that incident, but for the next two years, during any camping trip, hazing was not tolerated by the leaders, but more importantly, by the boys.

    To summarize, I think you are right, and the principles of Scouting can never be in line with hazing or bullying.

  3. There is definitely a fine line between pranks and jokes. In my book, a joke is one where everyone laughs, no one is offended or hurt. A prank is intended to cause harm or make someone feel belittled. Hazing of ANY sort should never be tolerated by a scout leader, male or female. Shame on those who laugh while their scouts are humiliating one of their own.


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