Eventually, most of us suspected the sex abuse scandal would bleed over from the Catholic Church, where it scandalized and shocked everyone who knew nothing about why young men taught that sex was sinful might embrace celibacy and surroundings full of people who had the same psychological discomfort, to the Boy Scouts. Set up an organization full of impressionable young boys and it was like creating a magnet for abusive adults, and not necessarily sexually abusive, although the record shows there were plenty of those.
My own experiences with Catholicism had their fair share of abusive behavior from confused priests (including one relative who was described by prosecutors in an investigative report as a monster) but even though I spent some time in a seminary, no one ever assaulted me sexually. I did have the piss pounded out of me a few times by the immensely physical Irish priests who ran the place, but that came with the turf, you know? It was their version of discipline. Very difficult discipline.
I let go of that years ago. Now I find myself stepping forward to say something positive about the Boy Scouts of America for reasons deeply embedded in my young boy psyche, with its need for woods, animals, camp fires, bad food, leaky tents and what substituted for real adventure in the world of Altoona, Pa. in the 1950s.
We were never actually bad boys, you know, the young men of the 1950s. We were too ignorant to know what to do about girls, who seemed to be everywhere but not many of us could figure out why. A little later in our teen-dom, that possibility arrived like a thunderstorm and sent us prowling into the night looking for anyone who would smile back. But that’s not for this story.
Like just about every Catholic boy in my age group, I signed up for the scouts the same way patriots signed up for the army. Actually, my father thought it would be good to keep me busy after he witnessed the kind of behaviors I exhibited when I was not. Like I said, I wasn’t bad. But I was drawn to all kinds of mischief at home, in the neighborhood, in the ward, in that part of town and anywhere else I could get to. I would take his hammers and pound hundreds of nails into any available wood just to do it, because I had watched him do it and it seemed so cool. The side or the house wasn’t the right place, but it was available, as were the hammers and nails. So I hammered.
“Holy Jumpin’ Jaysus!” was such a common response I thought it was my name. It was much later in the life that I learned he was basically the same way as a child, and so were my three sons. You had to fill your time with something purposeful. Scouting, with its array of uniform things, handbooks, awards, tools like knives (all real boys loved knives) and its fascination with building fires, all that was for me.
I have in my life seen some scout leaders in action who gave me pause. But not as a young boy. They were pretty much exactly what they were supposed to be, role models with rules and standards you simply had to learn and exhibit to advance in the corps. I made it to a certain level, but nothing you would call a parent about. One of the lesser Native American tribes, I think.
But I really did learn how to make a campfire burn even if it was raining, put a tent in the right place, paddle a canoe, use a Hatchet to split firewood without cutting off my fingers, the whole range of outdoor skills. I knew how to wrap cheap hamburger and sliced potatoes into a little aluminum pouch and toss them in a fire until they were cooked. I knew all about powdered orange drink and why you didn’t want too much of it. Pooping appropriately in the woods and cleaning myself with leafs that were not actually poison ivy, that was a good practical skill.
Most of my leaders faded into history, save for one, who came late in the scouting game for me but who made all the difference. His name was Mr. O’Brien, and he moved into the scoutmasters job straight from the U.S. Army, were he had been a drill sergeant. Man, he could make you leap into action. He did that by treating all of us, from the tiniest to the biggest, as though we were men. He had spent his career doing that, and he knew it worked. Ten mile hikes were nothing for him. We learned how to carry our tents and the rest of the stuff we needed on our backs. We walked till we dropped then walked some more.
Most importantly, he made sure no one picked on anyone else and he did that by putting a glare on you that would melt ice on the side of a hill. He never actually had to do anything, but you had the sense that he, like a lot of guys who spent some wartime in the Pacific or Western Europe, maybe had killed a few of the enemy. He was not to be tested.
He gave good advice. One one winter’s hike, my shitty shoes froze and my feet turned bright red. So I sat by a raging fire to warm everything up and thaw them out.
“Madigan,” he said, glaring at me, “You’re going to set those shoes on fire and probably your feet too. Don’t sit so close.” I, of course, ignored him, and I still remember the way it feels when you realize your actual shoes are shouldering. Much later in life, my favorite saying became, “I would’t walk across the street to piss on your shoes if your feet were on fire.” I used this with some relish on my many young enemies. I knew what it meant. They didn’t. That didn’t matter.
The Boy Scouts let me develop a little sense of confidence in myself just when I needed it the most. Sure, the tents got moldy and we slept in puddles and got colds and scorched many a pair of cheap shoes. But we came out of it with some character. Maybe just little like Mr. O’Brien, and we didn’t have to go to war to develop it.
“On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty for God and my country…”
That was a pretty good thing to remember and works as well today as it did then.
I am so sorry to see the trouble the Scouts are facing, because for me, there was nothing there but scorched shoes, bad food, long hikes, the approval of an actual drill sergeant and the firm knowledge that I will never be lost in the woods. Or the city for that matter.