I was the world’s worst Boy Scout

News item: 12-year-old Boy Scout Jared Ropelato was scared but he still knew what to do when he got lost during a Utah wilderness outing: He built a shelter made of tree branches and wood to get through a cold night and he also covered himself in dirt to stay warm.

Jared Ropelato is a great advertisement for the benefits of Scouting. He was in a tough spot and kept his cool. He remembered his training, stopped walking and survived a long night unscathed.

Good thing it wasn’t me. I was the kind of Boy Scout they don’t advertise. They would have found me alive, but I would have been half-naked, gnawing on a tree branch and crying like a 10-year-old girl at a Bieber concert. OK, maybe I exaggerate. But not by much.

The Fat Man circa 1974. Ladies love a man in uniform.

I was a Cub Scout, a Webelo and a Boy Scout, and I loved almost every minute of it — the uniforms, the oaths and pledges, the playing with bows and arrows, camping in the rain, constantly learning new things. I just wasn’t, shall we say, a natural.

I have friends who went on to become Eagle Scouts; not surprisingly, they are accomplished adults, worthy of emulation. That’s no joke.

Those guys set an example for all Scouts to follow. I’m more of a cautionary tale.

Don’t believe me? Here are five absolutely true stories from my Scouting days:

1. Cake wars. Early in my Scouting career — I must have been a Wolf Cub or Bobcat — our pack held a bake sale fundraiser. The catch was that the cakes had to be baked,frosted and decorated by the Scouts themselves, with minimal help from mom or dad.

My mom thought it was important to follow the rules. One humid summer afternoon, she hovered in the background as I baked my first cakes, spreading wayward flour, sugar and butter across the kitchen. I managed to burn my hand yet undercook the cake, and half the frosting was mysteriously eaten while the oven was heating. Somehow my mother resisted the urge to snatch the spatula from my fat little 8-year-old Wolf Cub hands and finish the job herself. As it turns out, the other moms weren’t as strong.

Later that night, we all met in the church basement for the big cake auction (the early ‘70s were exciting times in rural Maine, no?).

I knew something was wrong when I placed my work next to others from my pack. My friends’ cakes were things of beauty — soaring cathedrals of flour, sugar and lard. I don’t want to imply my buddies had a little help from their moms, but I’d seen their crayon work in class, and let’s just say we had more than a few paste-eaters. No way did these guys do their own sifting and blending.

Meanwhile, my lumpen creations, while honestly made, had the shape and color of the collapsed lungs of a heavy smoker.

Needless to say, I did not pull down the high bid. As I remember it, no one bid at all. My dad finally put in a mercy bid of $2 and no one rushed to top him. At least I got to eat the evidence of my lack of baking skills. The cake was ugly, but it tasted good. Failure has never been so delicious.

2. The Ballad of Racer 8. One of the storied rites of passage in Cub Scouting is the Pinewood Derby.  Kids are given a kit with a block of wood about six to eight inches long, four plastic wheels and four nails. The Scout, with help from mom and/or dad, whittles the wood into the shape of a race car, then adds the wheels, a paint job and decals. Enterprising Scouts can add weight (up to a limit) to make the cars travel faster down the slanted race track, or design a car that looks just like the real thing.

I was not enterprising. The kit sat in my room until the afternoon before the Pinewood Derby race, held in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the high school auditorium. (Pinewood derbies were a big thing in those days. We had an announcer calling the heats over the PR system, and you could buy that unidentified orange drink from the big vat the folks from McDonalds sent over.)

A furious few hours of whittling gave me a racer with a bottlenose shape on the front and back (It looked more like a half-crushed cruller than a race car ). I barely had enough time to cut out a notch for an imaginary driver, slap on a coat of red paint, add a racing strip and a number 8 decal and hammer in the wheels. There was no time to add weight, so I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to win.

I was right. Not only did I not win, I came in last. My car did not move. I’m not saying it moved slowly — it didn’t move at all. In retrospect, I should have spent less time on the paint job and more time making sure the wheels would turn after I hammered them in to the body of the car.

I can still see the den leader trying to give ol’ No. 8 a little goose to send it down the track long after the other cars had finished. No luck — it wouldn’t budge.

I learned a valuable lesson about physics and friction that day. And laughter. My mom almost wet herself laughing on the way home from the derby. Which set me laughing too (We are nothing if not a family that can laugh at itself).

The sad story of Racer 8 is the stuff of legend in our house. For many years, the car sat, immobile, in a place of prominence on the family’s living room bookcase. I took it with me to college, where it sat on my desk during many late-night writing sessions. I still have it packed away in a box somewhere.

3.  A bright idea. Everyone loves Girl Scout cookies. They have to be the easiest fundraiser in the world — set up a booth in front of the grocery store or give an order form to mom and dad to take to the office, then sit back and wait for the money to roll in. In my day, the Girl Scouts actually had to go door-to-door, competing with the Avon lady and the encyclopedia salesman for the neighborhood’s disposable income.

It was no contest. After all, who could resist a cute little local waif selling something as tasty as Thin Mints? No one, that’s who.

Would you rather have this...

What did the Boy Scouts sell? Light bulbs. This was a real thing. The theory was that everyone needed light bulbs. True. But everyone needs toilet paper, too, and you don’t see that sold door-to-door.

It was no contest. When a cute, neatly dressed neighborhood girl comes to your door offering delicious baked goods, you’re going to buy some. When an acne-ridden junior high Webelo shows up at your door, shirt untucked, hair plastered to his sweaty forehead, and asks you in a voice ravaged by puberty if you want to buy some light bulbs, you’re going to say no. Then you’re going to see if he left a flaming bag of poop on your doorstep.

...or these?

To make things worse, we were selling these things in the middle of the winter, so it was cold, icy and dark on my route and people didn’t want to spend a lot of time in an open doorway. Invariably, they would shake the box you were trying to sell them to make sure the bulbs weren’t broken — breaking the now-frozen bulbs in the process. They would then hand the suddenly useless box back to you, shaking their heads sadly, as if you were trying to rip them off. I was too shy to argue. I just wanted to go home where it was warm and I could eat a sleeve of the Thin Mints my mom bought from the girl down the street.

I think I sold $8 worth of light bulbs. Needless to say, my career as a door-to-door salesman was short-lived.

Sweet little leaves of pain.

4. The Long March. We were selling the bulbs that winter to raise money for a summer trip to a regional Scout gathering outside Montreal. This was a massive event, with Scouts from all over Canada and northern New England.

It was also the weekend my troop discovered maple candy. We ate it by the box our first night there, piece after piece after piece.

(The important thing to remember about maple candy is that it isn’t really candy. Candy has other ingredients like chocolate or almonds or nougat. Maple candy is maple sugar boiled down to a black hole of sweetness, then molded into pretty, unthreatening shapes like seashells and maple leaves. Don’t be fooled. Sugar is to maple candy as children’s asprin is to Oxycontin.)

Unsurprisingly, the next morning was not pleasant.

We woke to searing headaches, clenched stomachs and frequent trips to the restroom.

Then we learned of the day’s ‘surprise’ activity — a brisk 10-mile hike through the woods outside Montreal in the 100-degree heat.

It did not go well. My overwhelming memory of that day is of the smell of the hike —  pre-teen puberty sweat, maple sugar and vomit. And of the sound — the troops from Montreal, obviously much fitter and not in the throes of maple candy withdrawal, singing loudly as they marched in perfect formation.

I have not touched maple candy since.

5. In the Army now. My greatest triumph as a Scout didn’t happen at a Jamboree or camping trip. It wasn’t helping a little old lady across the street or saving a boy who had fallen down a well. My high point came as a member of the Berlin, N.H., area’s premier 11-year-old KISS cover band. No, the band wasn’t 11 years old. It was made up of 11-year-olds. Webelos, to be exact.

The best role models a Scout could have.

Back in 1977, Gene Simmons wasn’t some doddering, grandfatherly presence on a basic cable reality show. He and the rest of KISS — Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss — were the biggest, most dangerous band on earth. Every suburban boy with a wispy hint of a rebellious streak wanted to be counted a member of the KISS Army.

So when it came time for the annual Scout talent show, we decided we could best display the Scout Oath (“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”) by doing a lipsync version of a band whose bass player was known for spitting blood at his fans during concerts.

We spent several afternoons at each other’s houses, listening to albums and trying to come up with a three-song set list (Deemed inappropriate by our parents: Love Gun, Ladies Room, Calling Dr. Love and Christine Sixteen).

We eventually settled on Detroit Rock City, Shout It Out Loud and Rock and Roll All Nite and moved on to a more important problem — there were four members of KISS and seven Webelos. We had a drum kit and four guitars, so that took care of five kids. Another kid had a cool set of Moog-like keyboards. As the newest kid in the group, I was stuck with the only instrument left on the stage — a stand-up piano like the ones they play in old-timey Westerns. Rock on. “Strutter,” indeed.

The night of the show, we put on our costumes — made mostly of black turtlenecks and tin foil — and held still while our mothers painted black, white and silver makeup on our faces. (There’s a picture of this somewhere, which I promise to post if I find it.) We were strictly admonished against blood-spitting.

The concert was rolling along smoothly. We were lipsyncing pretty well, and I was rocking out on the piano, with some excellent moves (the one-leg kick and the spin around and point).

During our finale, we unveiled our special surprise — explosions. Our troop leader helped us rig some basic pyrotechnics that would go off near the end of the last song. The explosions went off without a hitch. The part where the stage caught fire afterward was, somehow, unexpected. I will say this — our faux-Gene Simmons kept his cool, stomping out about a half-dozen little fires with his giant boots, never breaking character. We had everything under control by the time the adults made it to the stage with the fire extinguishers. The Fire Department was not impressed with our pyrotechnic skills or our makeup.

We did not win the talent show.

It’s easy to remember the failures. What I’ve also come to appreciate is how the other, more traditional lessons tend to stick with you. (Sometimes I think I learned every truly useful skill I know in two places — Boy Scouts and seventh-grade shop class.)

There have been times when I’ve been lost while hiking; because of my Scout training I knew to slow down, stay calm and read the woods around me. Thanks to the Scouts, I haven’t been lost for more than a few minutes.

A short list of the things I can do because of the Scouts: Read a compass and map; start a (non-stage) fire; catch, fillet and fry a fish; read the clouds for weather; perform basic first aid, set up a tent in the pouring rain, sew, and identify local plants as well as animal tracks. I can even bake a cake.

Scouting’s lasting gift is letting kids try and fail, then figure out how to do it right the next time. Experience and preparation matter. Scouts, from my Eagle Scout friends to F Troop rejects like me, still work that way as adults.

Jared Ropelato made a few mistakes, too. But he kept his head, came up with a plan and got home safely.

Whatever the challenge, there’s a confidence among Scouts past and present that we can figure out a way to meet it.

As long as it doesn’t involve maple candy.

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2 Responses to I was the world’s worst Boy Scout

  1. Wow, that brings back some great memories. Though it also brings back the night of the dreaded play. See the evidence at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hollyking/3121430193/

  2. Jake Willits says:

    Great post! News to the world is that even those of us who made Eagle had this type of experience. Forgotten sleeping bags, rain gear. A wrong turn on a hike that led us 4 miles out of the way, with a late return to 20 anxious parents. Shoot, another that took 7 camp staffers so far away that it was easier to hike into town and catch a ride back to camp. But those experiences are what made us. They gently shaped us into resourceful young men, with quiet confidence. Thanks for bringing back my memories.

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