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A Yankee Notebook

February 14, 2010

Hijacking The Boy Scouts of America

EAST MONTPELIER – In 1945, at the urging of my father, I became a member of the Syracuse, New York, YMCA. Saturday mornings, for the price of a city bus fare – about a nickel for a kid in those days – I rode downtown, walked two blocks east past a delicious-smelling Karmelkorn store, turned left at the mysterious Mizpah Tower Building on Columbus Circle, and a few yards farther on entered a beat-up door leading downstairs to a large room full of kids playing pool and ping-pong or working on projects in the crafts center. For a dime I could rent a clothes basket, into which I folded my duds and went in to the pool, where we swam naked as ancient Greeks.

There were swimming classes, but I was too shy to submit to one, so taught myself by splashing across the shallow end and finally from one end to the other. What a wonderful feeling to have accomplished that!

If you had asked me when I was ten years old what YMCA meant, I could have told you: Young Men’s Christian Association. But none of us who went there were aware of even a hint of Christian doctrine – unless, of course, you count unstinting acceptance and support of every boy who came through the doors. At YMCA summer camp my cabin mates were Irish, Jewish, Italian, and old-line Protestant, a fact I can determine only by remembering their names. The Director said a blessing before each meal and pronounced a benediction at the final council fire of each course; but if there was more of an agenda lurking anywhere, it did not come nigh us. We learned crafts, sports, canoeing, riflery, archery, woodcraft – whatever struck our fancy – and loved it all.

In the summer of 1947 a kind neighbor invited me to join a Boy Scout troop in Syracuse. Troop 6 met in the basement of a Lutheran church down near another sweet smell, the Tip Top bakery. We were a merry band of kids, and I really enjoyed the meetings and outings into the woods around Syracuse. Again, a wonderful experience. Again, my comrades were an ethnic and religious stew, and again nobody cared or was even aware of it.

I can see, however, looking back after all these years, how the experiences, interests, and predilections of our leaders affected our experience. Our leaders were veterans of World War II, then just ended. So we did a lot of marching and drilling, dressing right, and standing at attention. But within that stern regimen we were permitted the usual ration of adolescent horseplay and goofiness. My patrol, for example, was the Shmoo Patrol (does anyone remember L’il Abner?), with a smiling ham-shaped shmoo embroidered by my mother onto each side of its patrol flag.

When we camped over weekends, we went to church on Sunday, if possible. It was always a small rural church somewhere near our camp. We sat respectfully in a group, smelling, after a weekend of bending over camp fires, like smoked sausages. I learned decades later that our beloved Scoutmaster was a devout, conservative Roman Catholic, but no hint of that ever slipped from him. His job was to teach us Scouting skills and values. I had to leave at fifteen to go away to school, so I never made Eagle. But as he pinned my Life badge on me at my last Court of Honor, he said, “Remember, Frog [my nickname at the time], once a Scout, always a Scout.” He was right.

In recent years it seems the emphasis in Scouting activities has shifted in many areas from outdoors skills to religious indoctrination. Just as it did in our day, this reflects the interests and predilections of the leaders. Unfortunately, many of their values are rooted in the Dark Ages of both religion and American society. I’ve talked with several Scout leaders who are in total disagreement with the national council’s prohibition of Scouts or leaders who are either gay or who do not openly acknowledge the existence of God. But as long as the Mormon Church and the Roman Catholic Church provide critical financial support to the Scouting movement, the national council will remain in thrall to the religious beliefs of those organizations. And you thought Scouting was all about knots, fire-building, community service, and responsible citizenship?

In addition, the religious argument against homosexuality buttresses the existing prejudices of some conservative Scout leaders. Thus the brutish response by one leader to a lesbian couple in East Montpelier, Vermont, whose son is involved in Cub Scouts. He scratched their names from a list of volunteers because “we wouldn’t want you pushing your life style on the boys.”

Several perfectly good institutions have been hijacked or sullied by fundamentalism: moderate Islam by the Wahhabi; liberal Christianity by the religious right; and the Boy Scouts of America by sectarian support that comes with a heavy ideological price. Many United Way campaigns have dropped the Scouts from their list of beneficiaries. In response, conservative bloggers are urging readers to boycott the United Way. The victims of it all are the Scout leaders who must soldier on and keep their mouths shut, no matter their feelings; and the boys themselves, who probably would just as soon go camping, climbing, or canoeing as attend what amount to camp meetings led by smiling middle-aged men in cowboy hats and fringed buckskin jackets.

My wife has a maxim I’ve always rather liked: If it’s inclusive, it’s of God; if it’s not, it’s not. With the United States military about to follow the rest of the world’s armies into the current century, the Boy Scouts’ exclusive position increasingly isolates and weakens the institution. I have no problem with religion until it seeks to control the actions of others. And I still love the Boy Scouts of America, but wish they would either change their exclusionary policies or drop the “America” from their name. Don’t hijack the self-evident truths of our nation, too!