I have the same flashback every time I tie a square knot. It’s again a Friday night in 1958 and I’m back in New Jersey at a Boy Scout troop meeting. I’ve been asked by the scoutmaster to demonstrate that I’ve learned this simple knot, as well as the more exotic clove hitch, bowline, sheet bend, and two half hitches. A merit badge is at stake. Think Frank! Is it “right over left, left over right or left over right, right over left that makes a knot strong and tight?” Concentrate!
To this day, tying a square knot is still a 50/50 proposition for me when securing something to my RV’s roof rack. If I screw up, I simply reverse what I’d just done and voila! A secure knot. But there’s no room for second acts when qualifying for a merit badge. You either get it right the first time or you don’t. As I remember, I didn’t.
I loved scouting but was a bit of a klutz when it came to certain skill sets. I was especially challenged by Morse code and using semaphores. You had to master them to get your badge in “Signs, Signals, and Codes.” Tapping out SOS was a piece of cake, but after that the dots and dashes got mixed-up in a swirling salad. I was much better at securing merit badges in First Aid, Citizenship, Cooking, Communication, and the like. That’s why I became a TV producer and not a neurosurgeon. Well, that’s one reason.
My good friend Jim was a wizard at tying knots and signaling. Part of my problem was that we were supposed to study the scout handbook between meetings and practice such skills. Jim obviously did. As for me, I’m pretty sure it was a time management problem. I was too busy watching “Preston of the Yukon,” “Candid Camera,” and the like. A boy had his priorities.
I relish some great memories from scouting, especially the weekend camping trips at Pine Hill Scout Reservation in the South Jersey Pines. In January — snow or no snow — we’d attend the Klondike Derby. This was a competitive event, and we’d vie with other local scout troops to see who could earn the most points. Multiple teams of scouts from each troop would push/pull heavy, wooden, Eskimo-like sleds they’d built themselves. We’d glide over the sandy soil and tree roots to various stations set-up in the woods where judges challenged us to display our wilderness skills to earn points. Of course, if we had to use flags to signal for help because one of us had become “injured,” we’d look to square-jawed Jim for salvation.
Our group had christened its sled the “Flaming Arrow,” inspired by the fierce Comanches on TV’s “Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” and I’d had a hand in painting this awe-inspiring image on the sled’s sides. The arrow looked more like a clunky exit sign than a projectile of war, but the quasi-deftly drawn red and yellow flames were designed to instill fear in competitors.
Our Scoutmaster was a saintly man who put up with much of the nonsense common to rowdy boys. Around 1957 when the wholesome singer Pat Boone was at the height of his fame (”Bernadine,” “April Love,” “Tutti Frutti,” etc.), his white buck shoes became the ultimate fashion statement. My best friend Ray and I just had to have our own pairs, so we saved up our allowances. After an eagerly awaited purchase, we decided to impress our fellow scouts with our extreme coolness by wearing the white bucks with our khaki green uniforms. Old Mr. Flynn had a conniption and sternly lectured us about being out of uniform because the dress code called for brown or black shoes. I guess coolness had its limits.
Last February I was reminded of much of this when I read that the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy because of multiple sexual abuse claims.
This institution, as American as apple pie and baseball, founded in 1910, chartered by an act of Congress, and even granted all royalties to “God Bless America” by its composer Irving Berlin, might be no more. Over 200 men in Maryland and 45,000 nationally had filed claims against predator scoutmasters and troop volunteers. When the victims were molested, their average age was 12.
Maybe this was going on when I was a Boy Scout, and it was quietly swept under the rug. But I’ve convinced myself it wasn’t. That’s so I can hold onto my cherished memories of a special time filled with adventure, laughter, and brittle innocence.
Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.