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A Yankee Notebook

December 10, 2012


MONTPELIER, VT – A couple of summers ago I happened to look out the front window one afternoon, and spotted a couple of Mormons coming up the driveway. No question about what they were; the Witnesses always come in a car, usually with four people inside, while these kids had on white shirts and ties, in spite of the heat, with little brass name tags pinned to their shirt pockets. “Elder So-and-So,” they generally read. I couldn’t catch the names from where I stood.

I decided to cut them off at the pass. The living room is in the front of the house, at the second-floor level, and the porch the same. I walked out onto the porch and spoke from a superior position. “Can I help you boys?” I asked, in as equable a tone as I could manage.

“Yes, we’d like to talk with you about the Church of Latter-Day Saints,” said one. “Perhaps you’d be interested in our message.”

“Been there, done that, forty years ago. My wife and I went all through the seven sessions on The Book of Mormon. I think we’ve still got our copy of it.”

“And what did you think?” he asked hopefully.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” I said. “My field was 19th-century fiction, and in my humble opinion, your book is a third-rate Victorian novel written by a charlatan.” Then quickly, before they could recover, “By the way, where you boys from?”

One was from Utah, and the other from California. “Are you one of the young men who went door-to-door in California urging people to vote for Proposition Eight?” He was.

“Shame on you! Shame on you! – to deny your fellow Americans their civil rights because of a personal belief you learned as a child! That may be your religion, but it’s not patriotic.”

Undaunted, they asked where else in the neighborhood they might take their message. I directed them to the home of an occasional substance abuser with two very large dogs, and returned to my labors, like Scrooge, with a much improved opinion of myself.

What’s brought this up is the announcement this week that yet another corporate sponsor of the Boy Scouts of America, the Merck Foundation, has withdrawn its support because of Scouting’s prohibition against gay members or leaders. “The BSA’s policy of exclusion conflicts with the Merck Foundation’s giving guidelines....we cannot continue to provide support to an organization with a policy that is contrary to one of our core beliefs.”

Now, I have no idea just how significant a contribution the Merck Foundation was making to the Boy Scouts’ coffers, and appreciate, as well, that its withdrawal from participation is a matter of small moment to most people – except to those who, like me, remember their days in Scouting as some of the happiest of their youth. I may have kept my copy of The Book of Mormon for over forty years, but I’ve kept my Handbook for Boys for over sixty.

Both are, frankly, superannuated. One keeps its King James language inviolate, apparently unaware of the irony of the Angel Moroni speaking in 17th-century English; the other opens with a fanciful tale of a 5th-century knight responding to “the shrill scream of a woman in trouble....One stroke of his trusty sword disposed of her captor.” This is posited as the origin of the Good Turn Daily that every Scout is expected to perform.

For all its old-fashioned hokeyness, however, this old Scouting manual is still full of good stuff: proper treatment of the flag, information about the Sedition Act of 1918, useful knots (at which I’m still a whiz), the treatment of stomach aches and pimples, swimming and lifesaving, map reading and navigation, and common trees and birds. All really well illustrated, except that in almost every drawing the Scouts are wearing utterly inappropriate uniforms. Early Scouting was very big on uniforms; no surprise, as its founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell was a 34-year veteran and a general in the British Army, famous for his defense of the town of Mafeking during the Boer War.

When my old Scoutmaster, Doc Doran, pinned my Life badge on me over half a century ago, he murmured, “Once a Scout, always a Scout.” And he was right. The old oaths and pledges still mean a lot, as do treating the flag properly and tying really good knots. Which is why I get very upset when I see how much conservative sectarian religion has (just as in politics) infiltrated and infected an otherwise uncomplicated outdoor recreation, conservation, and citizen-training program.

The Supreme Court has ruled the Boy Scouts of America is a private organization, and free to set its own rules and guidelines. And in one way I agree: Somebody has to defend conservative values, lest we progressives run completely wild. But dammit, I claim some ownership of Scouting, too, if only because of a lifetime association; and feel that religious principles that exclude some American boys from membership should not trump secular guarantees, no matter a boy’s religion, ethnicity, or gender identity. The Scout executives who recently reaffirmed their exclusive policies may not appreciate the inevitability of change, once they’re gone. I only hope they don’t run the ship onto the rocks while they’re still in command. It has meant a lot to a lot of us.

Photo by Willem lange