Nerdjacking Old Glory
Father’s Day, and I awoke with the memory of a certain Cub Scout campout, dad and lad, ca. 2006. This was at the height of the gay scoutmaster controversy, and I was already fed up with the BSA, anyhow. As I saw it, they were just a bunch of military recruiters—and the worst of the lot because they worked for no pay but the love of the game, and they spent years getting to know your children’s patterns and desires before any straightforward pitch even began.
It’s not that I didn’t like the military—heck, I was in the military at the time, which is exactly what brought me to the Scout campout. It’s just that I didn’t like a number of the people in the army, particularly the True Believers, and the former Scouts, with their longstanding declarations of loyalty to certain white bread notions of God and Country, were pretty far along in their walk. On the enlisted side, they came in with some rank, and they already knew about marching and the proper wear of uniforms, etc., so they were always made to look good.
Today I’ll allow that my abhorrence of the Scouts may have been a case of the sour grapes—I had always wanted a tribe, and affiliation ever eluded me—but said abhorrence existed nonetheless, and I already had a long habit of making fun of former Boy Scouts. They were such easy targets with their red handkerchiefs and earnestness. But my favorite point about them, which I still stand by in most cases, is that going on a trip with a strongly-identified adult Boy Scout, especially a camping trip, is about the quickest way to ruin a vacation. They’re fine, these man scouts, helpful and positive, as long as they’re in charge and everything’s working according to plan. But if for some reason they are unable to pack every weird little tool on their list, it’s like they just don’t know how to handle themselves. And if they do have every piece of equipment in order, you’re still screwed. Your trip will be broken down into increments before you even leave home—someone assigned as cook and dishwasher for each meal; and if there are children coming, proper and equal marshmallow rations packed for distribution to each at campfire time. Every seam will be sealed, sure, but you’ll also be subject to umpteen lectures about the importance of this. Your shit will be hauled up into a tree in a bearproof box even if you’re in the middle of a cornfield in southern Iowa. Trenches will be dug with fold-up shovels, rain flys everywhere, weather forecast be damned, and immediately upon arrival a mandatory briefing on the location of the tourniquets and emergency flares. When the place is finally set up, you won’t just chill and see what comes. The Scout will enlist you in some kind of test so he can show off his competence at something that has nothing to do with anything. You’ll spend frustrating hours trying to make fire with a dowel rod or halve playing cards with an axe at a distance of thirty feet. Who the hell cares? It’s just nerdjacking wrapped in Old Glory, and not until three days later when you’re folding up your tent do you realize someone forgot to pack the fun.
Somehow, in my 2006 mind, the Scouts made the military this way—not vice versa. Maybe this is because in the army, I saw firsthand the complex reasons for people’s membership, and the precariousness of even the most seemingly simple of operations. It was clear to me that the army didn’t have its shit together, so it was easier to blame the seemingly seamless Scouts for any inflexibility and earnest patriotism that somehow made its way into the ranks. Obviously, it was those white suburban former Scouts who brought that shit in. My unit was neither white nor suburban, nor particularly straight, so those few BSA boys from Brookfield made an easy scapegoat.
Anyhow, I got to the jamboree (or whatever the big campout was called) ornery as hell, stressed about my waffling gay girlfriend, which stress I could not speak freely about, and a little irritated that I had to spend two nights with the Scouts instead of merely putting in two eight-hour drill days. There was no extra pay for the extra time, my truck was overheating, and I thought the whole thing a raw deal. How did I of all people get tasked to this? And, for that matter, why were our tax dollars tasked to it? In any case, the other medics didn’t show up, so it was just me and hundreds of boys from Milwaukee out for a summer fling. They had their tents organized by unit, and I couldn’t stand them already.
I think I was supposed to provide real medical support in case anyone was injured. But I was also, for some weird reason I don’t remember, supposed to teach first aid to anyone who came by needing some points for their patch. And for this purpose I was attached to a certain group of Cub Scouts who had set this up to fulfill their duty to the jamboree, and I don’t know how I figured all this out, but pretty soon I was setting up to live with them for the weekend. Since I was in the real army and most of our equipment had been lost or misappropriated or lent to a company that was headed to Kuwait, I didn’t have much to set up. Just a sleeping bag, which I think I put on some skids I found en route, and some dirty gauze, a foil blanket, maybe a few cravats, Vaseline, and some saran wrap. The kids, with their fully stocked aid packs, thought this was hilarious and wouldn’t leave me alone about it.
I hadn’t eaten yet and was ornerier by the minute. The whole place smelled like citronella, and I didn’t know where the dads were, but I figured they were gonna love it when they walked up and saw their first aid teacher was not the patriot they’d pictured but an irritable crewcut butch dyke with a fifth of Southern Comfort in her cargo pocket. I drank from this liberally, and when I finally heard the dads behind me, I was loaded for bear. No shit: Right at the very first second I hear them, these fuckers are trying to outdo each other with over-the-top swishy gay man impressions.
“Uh, uh, no he didn’t!”
“Oh, honey, he did.”
And, lads aside, I wheeled around to make those homophobic motherfuckers eat their teeth. I’d endured five closeted years in the military, but this was the breaking point, and I had to stand up for my excluded people, the closest thing to a tribe I’d found. I was kind of dizzy from the SoCo, which I’ve never handled all that well, so the first thing I saw was four Birkenstock sandals, which I remember vaguely registering but not quite comprehending. The legs above the sandals were tan, and one pair—had he shaved his legs? In any case, two men with wide smiles and perfect hair were offering me a bratwurst, and it quickly became clear that I was the prejudiced one. I’d somehow landed in the middle of an unabashedly gay Cub Scout troop.
Not all the dads were gay, of course—but a handful of them were, and this was clearly the organizing core. The other dads seemed nonplussed, and it was kind of hard to tell who was straight and who wasn’t, honestly. The kids didn’t care at all—they just wanted to do shit, and, Reader, I have never had a better first aid class. I would ask for a scenario, and instead of the usual army private response of “gunshot wound” or “broken arm,” I would get these crazy meandering fictions that the boys would in turn act out. They were at the archery range, and Tommy was shooting arrows into the air and one of them came down and hit him in the head, and when Cody tried to help him, he tripped on a stick and jammed another arrow through Tommy’s lung. At the same time, Chuck went into convulsions. It was awesome. They used words like “lung” and “convulsions” with relish, and their attention to detail was brilliant. We had sucking chest wounds and skull fractures and broken pinkies and scoutmasters with heat stroke. Raddest class ever.
Groups of boys came by, each enthusiastic as the first, and I gave them bits of foil blanket to tie onto a big walking stick where tokens from each demonstration were placed. I got to take some of the classes myself—the dads offered frequent long breaks—and let me tell you, you better hope you have more than a thirty foot lead if I have a hatchet nearby when you jack my wallet. That shit was dope.
So I completely forgot about the homophobic militaristic nature of the BSA until we were headed down to the Saturday night bonfire and someone handed me a program book. Shit, that’s right. I may have landed in an unbelievably cool scout group (1 Cor 10:31), but now it was time to pledge our allegiance and pray together and sing hymns and get a lecture about our duties to the nation. Reality check for sure.
Well, I can’t tell you what the head scout master in charge, or BSA chaplain, or whoever gave the homily, actually said. Our group was sitting in back, and the wind was carrying the speaker’s voice away, and the kids were hogpiling each other, and we couldn’t hear a word. The whole ordeal lasted no more than 20 minutes and ended with an older boy reminding us all to sort our trash for recycling. We went back to the campsite and played three absolutely killer games of capture-the-flag, and I was picked first for the teams every single round.
I left that weekend sort of fucked up. It was just hard to hate the Boy Scouts now that I’d been to a campout. I mean, wasn’t the bigger picture here that these kids and dads were away having a great time (without even a mom to cook!), and no one seemed to be left out of the fun, and we all learned about nature and old timey tools? Recycling was the only rule I saw enforced, and these kids were pretty gung ho on it to begin with. I don’t think many of the boys in those groups cared much about whatever the official BSA platform was. It may be what they were handed, but it wasn’t what they were taking home; and in that way I suppose it wasn’t much different from my Guard unit. People were finding their way in all sorts of ways, making the best of what they had, and most of the kids would end up dropping out long before high school and earnest military recruitment, anyhow. So it seemed the thing to do was just chill out, have another brat, and revel in the fact that Uncle Sam was underwriting the whole thing.
My favorite demo of the weekend was Wildlife Identification. I have a hazy vision of boys awarding me a scrap of leopard print faux fur to tie to my walking stick afterward. I wish I still had it. It does mark a certain lesson, even if I can’t discern every track in the book. Thing is, I’d grown up learning about wolves and about wolves in sheep’s clothing, but no one had ever warned me about sheep that from a distance look wolfy. I’ve encountered a few of them since.