Magazine | May 28, 2018, Issue

Good-bye, Boy Scouts

New York Times:  “The Boy Scouts of America, in its continued effort to appeal to girls, announced on Wednesday that it would drop the ‘boy’ from its namesake program next February.” But it’s still the BSA. Meaning, what? Boring Social Agenda, perhaps.

The main Scouting mag still uses the old B-word. Boys’ Life. In its early days, it was something that would horrify modern readers. The ads for bullets, in a kid’s mag, now look like Elmo on Sesame Street firing up a Lucky and squealing “It toasted!” Stories about explorers who went up uncharted rivers. Instructions on how to make moccasins — I can’t even, as they say on the Internet when they can’t even.

Militarism! Imperialism! Cultural appropriation! It goes without saying that the Army took out lots of ads, encour-aging Scouts to enlist. Why, there’s so much toxic proto-masculinity in the magazine, you’re surprised any library that contains a full set isn’t declared a Superfund site and each issue removed by men in hazmat suits.

I subscribed to the magazine as a young Scout. I hated it.

Scouting was for a different breed of lad, and this was brought home monthly when Boys’ Life appeared in the mailbox. For one thing, all the Scouts in the mag were excited about going to a Jamboree, which I gathered was a national gathering of Guys Who Knew Knots. Guys who could make a fire with a ballpoint pen, a feather, and some spit.

When will this come in handy? I mean, it’s cool to know, if you get lost, and it’s 1872 and you need to burn down a forest. You’re supposed to want to get lost in the woods, because then you can apply your Scout Know-How. First things first: Tie some knots. A Sailor’s Mizzen-Slip ought to do. Set it aside. Then you build a lean-to with vines and a sheet, which of course you brought when you wandered away from the house for no particular reason.

Now that you have shelter, it’s time for fire, so you whittle a stick with your Scout knife — you know, the one with the compass built into the handle, the compass that shows the direction you’d walk to get out of the woods. Then you roll the stick against another piece of wood until you see smoke. At this point you have blisters the size of jelly beans, but a Scout does not quit. You keep working that stick until it bursts into flames. Success!

At this point you ask yourself why you walked into the woods with a sheet but no matches.

You’re hungry from all the fire-making, so you gather some berries — using, of course, your knowledge of which are edible and which cause your throat to slam shut and your heart to stop — and then you mash them with a stone for a satisfying jam. Alas, your trip to gather berries meant you ignored the fire, and it’s gone cold. The sun rests on the horizon like a bloodshot eye; the shadows lengthen. A wolf cries in the distance, and you think:

I wish I were on the Enterprise with Captain Kirk and Spock.

Well, I did. When I was a Webelos — that’s a Native American word meaning “bruises easily, smells like milk” — we made a plaque by gluing letter-shaped macaroni to a piece of plywood. Perhaps we were supposed to carry it into the woods and boil the macaroni if we grew hungry.

I advanced to the lowest possible Scout ranks and then fell away. The monthly encouragements of the magazine felt like admonishments — Say there, fella! Why don’t you get the rest of the crew-cut freckled fellas together and make a canoe? No? What’s wrong with you?

Now the twist. Even though my own experience showed it wasn’t for me, I think Scouting is a wonderful institution that does marvelous things for boys and deserves respect. “Whaaa?” you say. “That’s not how this works! You’re supposed to translate your own petty animus into some high-blown critique to justify the dismantling of another institution!”

Sorry; can’t do. Looking at the old magazines from the distance of many years, you’re struck by their incessant tone of self-improvement through knowledge. A Scout knows how to plant a tree. A Scout is prepared to go into space. A Scout knows how to make a windproof candle out of a tin can. A Scout knows how to lance a boil and oil a gun. To be a Scout is to be prepared — but not just for any situation that might come up. You’re prepared to be a man.

All of those humble virtues were mocked into rubble when the Boomers grew up, found themselves lacking in the pith and gristle of their forebears, and decided to mock what was once respected. Sure, there was something corny and gee-whiz-it’s-a-Schwinn about it all. But no boy ever shook the nagging feeling that Scouts knew things a guy ought to know.

Now it’s co-ed and “Boys” is gone from the name. Girls deserve an organization of their own, it seems, but boys don’t. All male: exclusionary manifestation of the patriarchy. All girls: empowerment and solidarity.

The magazine is still called Boys’ Life — at least at press time. It may never be changed. Gender, after all, is a social construct. “See this badge?” a future Scout may say. “Got that for helping a little old person across the street.” You mean a little old lady? “Nuh-uh. See this badge? That’s for not misgendering.” Great. Can you build a fire?

Narrowed eyes of disapproval. “See this badge? It’s for zero carbon impact.”

 

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