Trying to Belong

22 June, 2009

When I was 12 years old, we moved from Grand Canyon, Arizona (a small (less than 3,000 year round residents) and educated (more than half the families had at least one member with a college degree) one) and moved to a small town in western Maryland.  I moved from a school with 16 students per grade to one with about 200.  And I moved from an ecumenically open and diverse community to a northern lobe of the Bible Belt.  I felt a strong need to belong.

Since I had been in the Cub Scouts in Arizona, I, of course, joined the Boy Scouts.  It was a small troop (two troop leaders and around 10 scouts) which had been around for many years.  They owned a cabin out in the trash lands to the north of town.  We even had our own bus (a 1950s era school bus).  And no, I did not fit in.

I wasn’t a member of an evangelical Protestant church.  I wasn’t related to half of Washington County.  Once, while one of the leaders watched, I was beaten by two other scouts as they tried to make me say that I accepted Jesus as my saviour. 

The summer after I turned 13 (1979 (damn, I really am old)), we went to a scout camp up in Pennsylvania.  I have tried to find it on a map, but have no idea which one it was.  All I know is that we didn’t get there via the highway, it was in some low mountains, and there was a small, but long, reservoir held back by an earthen damn.

Before dinner (hamburgers cooked in an cast iron pan over open flames, Utz potato chips and baked beans), the scout leaders led us in prayer.  The prayer was heavy on eternal damnation, total surrender to Jesus, the whole proverbial nine yards.  I, along with another newbie (John (who was also an import (not a native))), sat silently.  We didn’t add any of the amens.   We just sat without disrupting what was, to us, a bizarre experience.

As we finished dinner, the leader who led the prayer (I seem to remember that he was an auto mechanic and preacher) called over the two oldest scouts and whispered some instructions in their ears.  They kept glancing at us (the newbies) and nodding.

The scout leaders left to go find a bar, and the older scouts decided to take us all on a snipe hunt.  They took us down to the lake and made some lame excuse about chasing the snipes toward us.  John and I discussed the situation quietly and decided that (a) they obviously thought we were idiots, (b) they were obviously planning to dump us in the mud we passed on the way over and (c) we were tired.  So we walked up to the road, walked back to our camp and went to bed.

At 4:00 in the morning, we were awakened by a flashlight shining in our faces and a voice calling, “They’re in the tent.”  Turned out that when we didn’t walk back past the mud (where they were waiting for us), the older scouts had gone to the spot they had left us and, not finding us there, walked all the way around the lake, searching for us.  Then, they panicked, contacted another scout leader and, within a half-hour, every scout in the camp was looking for us.  Before calling in the state troopers, someone decided to check the tent.

Guess who’s fault it was?  The scout leaders who, after the fire and brimstone pre-dinner sermon had left the scouts alone and gone to a bar?  No.  The scouts who left us by a lake, assuming we would take the muddy route back, and then panicked?  No.  The two 13-year-old kids lying, sound asleep, in the tent?  Yes.  Oddly, everyone thought that it was our fault.  We did not participate in any further activities.  Luckily, I brought a book, so it wasn’t a total loss.

We both left the scouts shortly afterwards.

I’ve heard, from many people, about the moral and spiritual values of scouting.  And the ones I learned as a cub scout — help others, be honest, be creative, have fun (safely) — were good ones.  The ones I learned as a Boy Scout — beat others to make them agree, abuse the younger ones, lie, cheat (I played cards with them.  Once), steal (I lost a good Swiss Army knife at that camp), blame others, ignore responsibility, and (most important) if I don’t worship the skydaddy and his son I’m not even considered human — are ones I have tried hard not to emulate.

I know that not all scout troops are like the one to which I belonged.  I know that there are some good people involved in scouting.  I also know that joining a group with which I have no cultural, emotional, intellectual, religious, or moral connections is not the way to belong.  There needs to be some sort of link.

My links are on the right.  Thanks.



  1. Billy, I moved to Hagerstown from MA to get married. I live near city Park. You are in PA now?

    By the way – your story reminds me of the story of Anthropologist Richard Leakey. I think he went through something similar at a boarding school.

  2. Thomas: No, I’m up in PA now. I lived in Sharpsburg from 1978 until 1985 when I went to college in NH.

    I had forgotten about Leakey. I do remember reading that years ago.

  3. I think that camp is in Perry County, it has the name Buffalo in it somewhere, if I’m not mistaken. Our civil war group was part of a program at a jamboree there a few years ago. I caught a newt and chased a couple of girls from the artillery camp with it. There was a lot of screeching and pleading for mercy, but it wasn’t a fast race as I am a cripple, and evasion was easy. When their mother upbraided me about it next day, my causing fear and anxiety in her porcelaine dolls with “that horrid creature”…until I mentioned that they hadn’t been so terrified of the local fauna that they couldn’t catch a black snake, sneak into our camp, and put it in my bunk. (I’d grown lax about such things since my Viet Nam grunt days, but after the electrifying reminder they provided, I now check everything when camping as in days of yore) Their mother hotly denied this until they started laughing. I laughed, too, hell, a good joke’s a good joke even if it’s on me. ‘sides, if ya can’t take it ya shouldn’t dish it out.

    Ah, the rite of the snipe hunt… when will the madness end??!!

    I am also a non fitter-inner. And I’ve never found it fun to eat someone else’s shit just because they had to. I found out about that at my intro to scouting when I was a kid in Germany.

    Have you ever heard of a European hamster? They are quite a bit bigger (almost a foot long) than the ones you buy in the pet store, they dig burrows sort of like ground hogs, and they are MEAN. I encountered one of those at a scout camp out complete with snipe hunt.

    We new scouts were being put to the test, and my tent mate, whose brother had been a scout, had been told about the snipe hunt. He had an idea, his mother was a nature nut and he knew about the hamster, so at dusk we took a shovel a bag, and one of the cooking pots and dug one up. Actually, several, but we finally caught one and bagged him and put him in the pot so he couldn’t get away, and hid it in the woods. We were posted with our bags and enjoined to shout “Here, snipe! Here, snipe”! and stay there until we caught something. We called as instructed until our seniors were gone, went to where we hid the pot, saw that the hamster was still in it, still alive and we also saw that it was very, very angry. We sneaked back to camp and hid until all the senior scouts were back at camp and laughing, and we dumped the hamster into one of our fresh bags and came walking into camp.
    What were we doing there? We were supposed to stay out til we caught a snipe.
    We caught one.
    You ain’t caught nuthin’. Get back out there.
    Yes we did, what do you call this?
    (Bag is jumping about, very disturbing noises issueing forth, therefrom)
    Martin dumped the bag right in their laps, and the response from both sets of varmints was, well, satisfying.

    According to the senior scouts and adults, we had been irresponsible, and the trick we’d played was cruel and could have gotten someone hurt. (As opposed to placing people in unfamiliar surroundings, in the dark, courting hypothermia, in an area known for wild boar, feral dogs, and uncleared bombs, ordinance, and land mines.)
    We could’ve gotten someone hurt. We’d shown we couldn’t take a joke.

    Apparently, neither could the senior scouts because after everyone went to bed, Martin and I got dragged out of our tents in out sleeping bags and stomped by persons unknown but easy to guess. Must have been doing their daily good deed.

    Among the myriad ways I disappointed my father was my lack of enthusiasm for scouting. He was an eagle scout, and to be fair, in his situation it was about the only thing that he had that kept him out of trouble and gave him something to do besides be poor and hungry.

    But even he said that in scouting and masons he was always most impressed with these beautiful mottos and oaths which people solemnly intoned. And to think that they just made them up before the group enetered the room where they swore to them! They had to have, because the people swearing them sure hadn’t even tried to live up to them to his knowledge.

  4. The girl scouts here wouldn’t let me in because since my mom was a single parent and was working two jobs and going to school she couldn’t volunteer some time. It was pretty crappy.

    That’s ok, I don’t think I missed out.

  5. The summer after I turned 13 (1979 (damn, I really am old))

    What does that make me? I turned 13 during the Summer of Love (extra points for you old fogies that can tell me what year that was).

    • I think I’m one up on you, Spanish. I was conceived in the Summer of Love, (and then born three months premature – so born in the Winter of Discontent?)

  6. …we went to a scout camp up in Pennsylvania. I have tried to find it on a map, but have no idea which one it was. All I know is that we didn’t get there via the highway, it was in some low mountains, and there was a small, but long, reservoir held back by an earthen damn.

    Does Hidden Valley ring a bell?

  7. I was in the Cub Scouts for six months, right up until they left me at a Dairy Queen.

  8. That’s the one we were at the jamboree. I think it’s near Buffalo Springs or something. You have to go around the dam to get to the camping spots.

  9. I’m a product of the summer of love. 😉

    Back in KC when I was around 6 I was in some church version of scouts called the Royal Rangers (which I’m guessing has no need to exist anymore since the actual scouts have become a church version of scouts). I thankfully don’t remember most of it, but we got to throw tomahawks once. I do remember not feeling like I fit in at all, but I guess being literally twice as big as everyone else spared me from the shenanigans some of you are talking about. No snipe hunts or beatings in my sleeping bag.

    Btw, what is that about a lot of guy groups anyway? Why is there always hazing? That’s why I never joined a frat in college.

    • Btw, what is that about a lot of guy groups anyway? Why is there always hazing?

      Because, with the exception of the intelligent, sensitive group that hangs out here, men are fucking boring idiots for whom one-upping each other is their only reason for living. That, and beer.

      Color me cynically misanthropical.

    • Hey, hey, hey! Ric, it’s true, as I’ve been telling my sisters for years, that men are pigs. However, there’s no call to be bad-mouthing beer like that.

    • The beer’s just an innocent bystander.

  10. (((Billy))),

    I was in the Cub Scouts and Webelos, but not the Boy Scouts and never had any kind of hazing that I recall. However, and to my eternal shame, I was in a fraternity in college. But the one time there was even the mildest hazing I told them they could damned-well do it without me. I’ve never understood why anyone would put up with that sort of thing.

  11. Some people need to belong, to be accepted by the group. At my college, it was feared that without belonging to a frat or sorority, you’d have no social life, so that prompted a lot of people. We were in a social desert. For my friends at larger schools, especially if the schools were near or in a major city, such groups were minor blips on the radar with not much compelling them to join. Likewise, those groups’ hazing was practically nonexistent from what I hear. I suppose when you’ve got competition, you have to adapt.

  12. Sarge: One of the big similarities between scouting and the military is that shit flows downhill. The scout masters left the kids alone, John and I were left in an unfamiliar area, in the dark, by a lake and, when we did the sensible thing (walked back via the road) it was our fault. Great lessons, right?

    Poodles: Were you denied access because your mom wasn’t married? or because she couldn’t volunteer time? Either way, sounds rather narrow minded.

    SI: Damn, you are old. Weird thing is, you sound younger than Philly. And it was the summer I was one year old — the summer of ’67. Haight Ashbury and all that.

    Postie: Damn kid.

    SI: Hidden Valley? Not sure. It was within a three hour school bus ride from Sharpsburg, Maryland.

    Revatheist: A little harsh, there. After all, we left my big sister at a gas station in Pahrump and she stayed with the family.

    Sarge: Could be. We were camped up at the head of the lake (where all the mud was).

    Philly: Another damn kid. In Cub Scouts, we had an overnight in which the new kids were hazed in a gentle and funny way under the supervision of adults. Then we watched some WWII air combat films, built tissue and balsa rubber-band powered airplanes, and flew them the next day at the high school gym. That was a fun weekend.

    I think the hazing is a product of tradition. Most people are willing to put up with all the hazing shit with the expectation that, in a few years, they get to try to top it hazing the next new kids. Idiocy begets idiocy. Pain begets pain. Which also explains much of the history of terrorism and violent racism.

    Postie: I was mildly hazed in cub scouts, but, again, it was with adult supervision and with a sense of humour. I missed out on the whole Greek system as, other than academic fraternities, there were none at my college (I am still a member of Phi Alpha Theta (and the initiation involved candles, ceremony, scotch, sherry and wine)).

    Philly: People will do lots of ugly things to feel like they belong.

  13. Doh! ’69 wasn’t the summer of love? Wtf? Come on, 69! How could that not be the summer of love? 69! Of course if that sort of thing was going on instead, I wouldn’t be here typing right now.

    I popped out when the Chiefs were champs. Maybe that can be the new dating system. There was BC, then AD and now SB, Superbowl. I was born in 4 SB.

  14. Yeah, ’67 was the summer of love. ’69 was the summer that . . . the summer . . . Damn. Not much. Oh, yeah: we camped at Assateague Island National Seashore. We were almost alone because everyone was at home watching the moon landing.

    And as for your dating system, it is quite effective. I turned one a little after Superbowl I. Last January, I turned XLIII just in time for Superbowl 43. Helps me keep everthing straight.

    Damn kid.

  15. Geezer!

  16. I popped out when the Chiefs were champs. Maybe that can be the new dating system. There was BC, then AD and now SB, Superbowl. I was born in 4 SB.

    Ha! I remember watching Superbowl I.

    Wait. I guess I’m the geezer.

  17. Royal Rangers? I wonder if those were anything like Awana, the Hitler Youth organization the Baptists have.

  18. Nan: Awana? Hadn’t heard of them ’til now. Looks scary. Makes me have a Lackawanna (NEPA inside joke).

  19. The Southern Baptists had the Royal Embassadors, and it ran somewhat the same way as scouting.

    I know a forty-something former eagle scout. He was also in the order of the arrow, and people tell me that ‘everything came easy to him” so they weren’t surprised. He’s a nice guy, but he told me that things did, indeed, come easy for him. In scouting they came a lot easier when he happened upon three of the scoutmasters engaged in certain acts of moral turpitude. He told me that really (perhaps an unfortunate metaphore?) greased things. Ahem. All he had to do was mention his photography merit badge, and certain people were quite attentive to his wants. No, he didn’t really have any pictures…he says.

    The navy has a tradition called “frocking” where prior to your promotion for a period of time they “let” you wear the next steps rank and do the job. You’ve already probably been doing the job, but it is an honor and you should think yourself privileged to be permitted to be taken advantage of for six months. And when you go for chief, there is a sort of initiation thing you have to endure, pretty much the same as below, but if you don’t go along with the ridiculous bullshit you’ll never be welcome in a chief’s mess, and hence, never a “real” chief. Besides, it’s tradition. There’s somewhat of a controversy about it now, my son tells me.

    It’s always seemed to me that when someone humiliates you,treats you with contempt, shouts at you, insults you, maybe even causes you injury, it’s because they don’t LIKE you.

    Heirarchical organisations always want you to grovel, want you to ‘earn’ acceptance. I have never understood why people are surprised that others simply don’t think their shit is soft seve ice cream and won’t eat a mile of it to see what’s at the other end.

  20. Awana = Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed – a Baptist program for instructing indoctrinating kiddies. Since I was a Salvation Army brat, I was in groups like Junior Soldiers (Bible studies for elementary kids) and Corps Cadets (Bible studies for teens). I guess the good thing about those groups was that hazing was verboten.

  21. Great article. Keep on sharing 🙂

  22. Wow, American Scouts sounds a lot different than Australian scouts. I was a member for ages. I even went up to venturers and only quit a little while back coz all my friends left). We never really prayed or anything, the closest we came to it was have ‘to my god’ in the scout oath/promise/whatever it was. And if some kid beat up another they risked being punished kicked out.
    Although it could something that’s changed with time… do you think stuff like that still happens much? :s

  23. Insert, it depends on who the leadership is and what their agenda is.

    In fairness, I know about and have contact with some troops that are very well run, the focus on collaboration, personal developement, and having fun. Leadership, not just acting like a tin Hitler because you can is what is wanted.

    I was a merit badge counselor for a while, but they asked me to withdraw because it is common knowledge that I am an atheist. That seems to be an American thing, maybe because so many of the troops are sponsored by churches…and this is America, after all. No membership without belief in a supreme being. To be fair, the same applies to Oddfellows, Knights of Pythias, all masonic organisations, the Veterans of Foriegn Wars, and American Legion to name just a few, and I’ve heard people who came away from those with a bad taste in their mouths for pretty much the same reasons. Barring physical assault.
    Odd, the VFW will allow membership to people who were never even in the military, but me, a combat wounded veteran, I’m unwelcome.

    But, I’m like Rudyard Kipling’s ‘cat’ and actually tend to share Oscar Wilde’s opinion of fraternal organisations. 😉

    Still, I go and give programs concerning aviation, amature radio, flint knapping, music, marksmanship, and the civil war. The leaders aren’t forbidden to invite me, but I’ve been told that there has been some, well, discouragement, but the leaders I have contact with generally just ask me and opt for forgiveness rather than permission.

    No organisation is better than the person whose hands are actually running it.

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