wild, wild webelos
For us dads, there is only
one thing more frightening than
anesthesia-free vasectomy ---
more bone-chilling than changing
a diaper prodigiously loaded with
number two --- more horrifying
than hongry lawn grubs shackin' up
in the ol' Kentucky Blue.
That, dear dads, is the
time-honored terror of Scouting.
Scouting is an esteemed, and for
impressionable boys, even awe-inspiring
tradition steeped in honor,
service and duty. And yet, for eons,
Boy Scouting has littered the
parental landscape with dads frazzed
and laid to waste, who in their
knot-tying, racer-building fugues
wind up reduced to sniveling, puling,
Its insidious beginnings always
seem innocuous enough.
The demon invitation flyer comes home,
like critically important math papers,
bally and crumply and smeary in your
kid's Eastpak. He's out of breath
with the promise of the sheer excitement
of the Scouting Experience.
There is a peculiar Komsomol light in his eyes.
Even the smartest dads detect these
tell-tale warning signs only in hindsight.
The prospect of honest-to-gosh
Wally & the Beav quality time with
junior, and the eminently bankable
brownie points you'll score
with the missus are the siren songs of
You blink three times and suddenly find
yourself writing a check in an ancient
fallout-shelter-green gymnasium that
smells suspiciously like tinkle,
as the Cubs, Bears and Webelos run wild
with the newbies amongst the gutter regatta
demos and award-winning
igneous rock collections.
I had been deprived of the experience as
a child. Back in my pre-pubescence,
when dinosaurs roamed the earth,
moms had to do the den mother thing,
taking turns hosting the feral Scouting
horde, sating them with Fresca or "Little Tom's"
and plenty of it, all waiting, hoping,
praying for the blessed scientific discovery
of Ritalin. As such, there was no way it
was gonna happen in my house. So instead,
your favorite pre-dad would glom onto the
local Cubbie pack as a guest here and there,
hiking along weed-choked "Stand By Me"
train trestles in my civvies with the
uniformed mob, eating frozen Oscar Mayer
weenies with our hands and joking collegially
about pooping and the yuckiness of girls
and the like.
It was heaven.
But you had to be fully-fledged to do
the coveted overnighters, so all this pre-dad
could do was yearn silently and
camp out in the backyard with my noodnik
friends in a sad approximation of
The Scouting Experience.
Not that this was completely without merit.
The crotchety geez in the next yard
who'd keep our errant baseballs and
basketballs would always get his just
desserts on these faux-Scouting forays.
We'd drink up copious amounts of Yoo-Hoo
and Pepsi and poison his prized
Better Boy tomato plants with our super-
ammoniated pee under the summer stars as
he slumbered. Or we'd pinch a coupla
half-smoked cigs from household ashtrays
to make delay fuses for M-80s, which we
would set to ignite just inside the
all-night laundry, where the ancient widowers
would congregate for late-night commiseration
of their many miseries, trade laundering
tips, and foul themselves mightily when
the M-80 finally blew as we chortled
and snorted uncontrollably across the street.
But it just wasn't Scouting.
Not the way we idealized it --- the way
it was in the Flintstones episode where
Fred and Barney take Wilma and Betty camping
in a secluded park only to wake up the next
morning in the middle of an international
Boy Scout Jamboree. You know, the one where
at the end, the whole Jamboree visits Fred
and Wilma back in Bedrock and Fred gets on
his roof like the Beatles did in "Let it Be"
and he does a sing-a-long thing.
Now, a full thirty years later, I had my
chance, albeit a vicarious one.
Here comes my kid with some
popsicle stick, bead-n-feather thing
from his den meeting with another flyer (yipe)
announcing an overnight camp-out on
nothing less than the U.S.S. Little Rock,
a gen-yoo-ine World War II battleship
now permanently berthed along with a
decrepit submarine and some other floating
war-thing in the Buffalo Naval & Servicemen's Park.
Fifty bucks each.
How can you miss?
So my kid and I pack up and shuffle off
(you KNEW that one was coming, I'd guess).
Manly sleeping bags stowed in the trunk,
the bare necessities of toiletry all
in our traveling luggage (matching blue
recyclable convenient store bags), we
pick up a pint-sized pal and his dad
and set off in our environmentally-conscious
carpool on the Big Bear Trail to Buffalo,
four hours distant, for my son's
outdoor achievement credit and my own
long-awaited Official Overnight
First off, I don't know the guy I'm driving
with from Adam, except that he's a
joke-crackin' good-old-boy-kinda cop
from my 'burb. As the kids' Game Gear
beeps and bleats in the back seat, I get
to make four hours worth of small talk
with a guy who's never said much more
to me than "I'll pick my kid up at five"
out the window of his V-ger mini-van.
So we talk about all of the captivating
stuff dads talk to each other about:
"Get good mileage?"
Three hours, fifty-nine minutes,
fifty seconds to go, which I reckon to
be around 5-thousand bottles of beer
on the wall.
We finally do get to Buffalo, of course,
and by the time we pull in to the Naval Park,
dads being the social beings we are, we are
fast friends, conversing with ease on a broad
range of topics:
"Made good time."
"Get good mileage?"
The U.S.S. Little Rock may've won the battle,
but after fifty years it has clearly lost
the war. Its shabby, rusted hulk towers above
us in the cold October drizzle. Some guys in
uniform-store clothes, not quite
military and not quite rent-a-cop, wave our
car into a parking area secured by a 16-foot
galvanized fence topped with
roll upon roll of barbed wire.
"Lock yer car, bud...it's kinda a
bad part a' town over here."
It didn't go down this way in Bedrock.
The guy I carpool with opens the trunk,
takes his kid Ian's sleeping bag out,
and starts rifling feverishly through my car.
"Ian, where'd you pack MY sleeping bag?"
The bag, naturally, never made it out of
Ian's foyer back home. I was able to offer
my new pal the skungey sheet I stow in my
trunk that I parade out when my kids eat
ice cream in the back seat. He took it
gratefully, brown spots and all.
"Uh-huh," I answered, glad to help, and
up the gangplank we went.
Inside the esteemed fighting vessel,
the visible air was acrid with the rank
sweat of hundreds of little banshee scouts
from the U.S. and their beret-wearing
brethren from the Great White North, superimposed
on the half-century stink lingering from the
ghosts of navy men who hot-racked in the
triple-decker bunks to make more space for
Nazi-blasting ammo. The Canadian Scouts wore
neatly pressed uniforms. The American Scouts
sported any old slob thing with the requisite
light-up-at-the-sole, state-of-the-art foot
gear. But they all screamed together in a
grating 150db din.
The scouts get to help cook of course,
and tonight's specialty was salmonella chicken
with the skin still attached, to keep the
bacteria from cooking out, I guessed.
There was an abundance of flaccid yellowy
peas from cans original to the Little Rock,
and Elmer's gluey-mashed potatoes.
The chocolate milk flowed freely.
The fetid trash cans steeped nearby,
overflowing with effluvia.
I could feel the Scouting Magic doing its stuff.
We were herded through the drizzle into a
souvenir shop where you could buy
wildly overpriced commemorative patches for
Scouting uniforms and other marked-up
Mourning the "no-alcohol"
rule imposed on the accompanying dads,
I bought a hopeful looking shot glass
bearing a handsome color rendering of the
Little Rock for ten or twelve dollars.
I waited and waited for the wallet-making
session or for the Little Rock's
Captain Binghamton to tour us around that
austere and rusting monument to valor, but
in the end it was a show of Scout hands deciding,
in the democratic Scouting tradition we have all
come to revere, whether to watch "The Land Before
Time" or "Iron Eagle."
The mercenary little men,
as you may have deduced, chose the latter.
With oozy caramelizing pizza at only 4 or 5 bucks
a slice and a VCR, the floating Jamboree
crammed into the darkened mess hall to get
their ninja-kicking ya-ya's out.
When the last screen credit and the
final tracking noise line rolled by on the video,
when the last bit of mozzarella pizza-goo
dropped, congealing to the floor,
when the last dad had drunk the last bit
of the janitor-in-a-drum-strength
Joe, it was lights-out on the Little Rock.
The Experience was only beginning.
The three-tiered bunks were constructed
of steel impervious to Axis attack.
Top-rack clearance from "bed" to ceiling
was 18 inches and wasn't much
better between the lower two bunks.
Those dads addled with beer bellies
need not apply. The sailors of old musta
had their growth stunted by the
high seas, or diet over the intervening
years changed boomer DNA,
as at only 6'2", I found my
legs hanging out of the steely bunk
almost up to my calves. The cold from
the unheated windowless space in
the Buffalo night superchilled the metal
of the bunks and permeated every
square centimeter of my
K-Mart $19.97 sleeping bag.
Kids Darth Vader-dueled with flashlight beams,
bunk-jumping and yowling in a
sustained, shrilly clamor. Some wept.
One sliced a digit whittling soap
with a Scout knife sending a dad off
into the cold, drizzly night in search of
a doc-in-the-box. Other dads,
(you know the kind), were already zee'd out,
including my cop friend, who was
wrapped tight on his steel slab in my
rocky-road-stained trunk sheet, snoring
and emitting propellant flatulent
blasts into the stagnant air.
By 4 or 5 in the morning, the din had
calmed to a fairly rhythmic buzzing of
snores in every timbre, punctuated only
by my own tossing and turning
and ceaseless repositioning.
As blessed sleep finally began to
take me from that pernicious place,
I shot bolt upright with the alarming
shriek of a Scout three bunks away.
A flashlight clicked on, and I could
make out a dad drop from his rack,
trying to comfort his kid, whose mournful
wails not only persisted, but spiraled
into a frightful crescendo whose climax came
five minutes later with the all-too
familiar sound of Mr. Upchuck.
Calling Ralph and Earl.
Driving the Porcelain Bus.
Call it whatever your will,
but in that already-reeking room in
the U.S.S. Little Rock with not one window
hatch, two or three tons of pepperoni
pizza made a rather unwelcome reappearance
along with assorted mutinous stomach acids.
The crackly room speaker began to blurt a
warbly recording of "Reveille."
I got good mileage on the way home
the next day. My son got his Bear
Trail credit. A number of months passed
before either of us could even
consider ordering a slice at the food court.
As a result of that spray and
spew, it seemed that on some level of
mutual repulsion, father and son had
bonded, dear friends.
And isn't that really
what Scouting is all about?
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