Things have changed over the years. The organization is in bankruptcy, facing a series of sexual abuse claims. It’s no longer called the Boy Scouts. It had made attempts to become more inclusive. While the BSA never had much of a problem with exclusion in the past, tortuously, with a little soul-searching and a few threatening letters from traditionalists, they came to accept gay members, and then transgender boys, and then — the doors flung so wide that the Mormon Church parted ways with them — even girls. And that put paid to being called the Boy Scouts of America. The Girl Scouts sued them. There’s a fine line between a long march to non-discrimination and global hegemony, and once the Scouts had pointed themselves in the direction of a Big Tent, they were going there over the bodies of that nice girl Cindy from next door and her Tagalongs. But (and it’s a big but), they never accepted non-believers. It’s in their DNA and a fair bit of the handbook, the first version of which stated flatly, “No man is much good unless he believes in God.”
I joined the Scouts in the late 1960s. God and I were pretty much on a par with my relationship to my fifth grade home room teacher: if she showed up, great, but if she didn’t, they always sent a substitute. And it was the 60s. It was all about substitutes for God.
Almost every weekend, for a fair stretch, I put on a pale blue cassock and white surplice and sang in the local Anglican church choir, but the link between the Deity and belting out a bonny wee tune was always tenuous. It was glee club with better furniture. Non-belief, or at least doubt, ran in the family, regardless of what trappings of faith surrounded us. When my father joined the army, a man at the recruiting desk asked, “Religion?”
“Agnostic,” replied my dad. The recruiting agent stopped his pen, confused, and said, “Church of England, then.” And jotted that down.
Agnostic sounded good to me, and as luck would have it, at my scoutmaster conference, on the cusp of becoming a Tenderfoot, I was never asked about my religion. I already had a reputation as a ruthless Capture The Flag player, and someone probably put in a good word: Don’t ask, don’t tell.
These memories surfaced last weekend on my first real hike of the season. It was a day hike, out and back, about ten and a half miles total, between 9500 feet and about 11,000. Stunning near-cloudless skies, cool enough that the sweltering July 4th afternoon seemed a long way off. I had set out to photograph a subalpine lake, carrying far too much camera gear, but the meadows were a riot of wildflowers and drew most of my attention. Over those ten miles I experienced the Six Stages of a First Hike: Expectation, Delusion (“This is going well; killing it.”), Self-Aggrandizement (“You know, I’m probably the fittest 60-year-old this trail has ever seen.”), Exhaustion, and then Hallucination (“Are those water ouzels? Would I know a water ouzel if I saw one? Funny name, water ouzel…You probably get a lot of grief in water bird circles from kingfishers, don’t you, Ouzel?”). It was in the Free Association phase of the downward spiral that I started thinking about being a tenderfoot. Because, strangely, it had never crossed my mind in any analytical way why recruits were called Tenderfoots. Was it an old military thing in basic training? Do good shoes make a difference? Can you bypass the whole tender feet thing with some Merrell tactical boots, or is it always necessary to toughen them up?
Prior experience doesn’t seem to count for much in a new summer. Especially if you jump into a six-hour trek on your first go, and especially now that my toes had decided to grow at right angles to one another, and keep much closer company than they had before. Heat, swelling, stream crossings compounded the issue, and by the time the old Jeep track approached the trailhead again, my face was a grimace of tenderfoot pain. Imagine how this must feel if you’re not the fittest 60-year-old this trail has ever seen, I thought. Poor sods. Self-Aggrandizement tends to return, out of order.
My parents must have signed me up for the Boy Scouts. My mother was sent a list of scouting equipment and apparel. When you’re eleven or so you don’t grasp the whole picture, necessarily. You remember highlights, and going into town to buy the knife was one. At the grocery store my mom was a picture of efficiency: she swept down the aisles with confidence, grabbing milk or Fruit Loops off the shelves. There were also times, less buoyant, when we pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript building and she fished out a booklet of green stamps, the ones I sometimes saw them pasting in late at night at the kitchen table. Leaving us in the car, she popped in and returned, putting the package in the back and giving us a strained smile, a proud Cornish girl, a little at sea.
But she was genuinely nervous at the sporting goods store. She held the list in her hand as we approached the glass-topped desk. Everything smelled old, oddly out-of-date, but in their peculiar local agreement with the Boy Scouts of America, anointed.
“My son is just joining, The Scouts.”
The owner looked over the reflecting glass. There exist a few photographs of me at that age. We grew quickly after the Summer of Love, and given the times, in an LA suburb, and given that our family had its immigrant quirks, I was probably dressed in a skin-tight long-sleeved t-shirt with blue and red horizontal stripes, and acid-blue corduroy pants that had belonged to my brother, with six-inch velvet bell-bottom extensions to make up for our difference in height. For the sporting goods manager with the thinning hair it must have been as though Tiny Tim had decided to join the Marines. You know, lady, I could see him saying, I think we can do something.
Later in the evening, I set out the khaki pants and the shirt, the knife, the handbook, the patches. It was all so new. This country still. These uniforms, these unfamiliar oaths and rituals. So maybe the last stage of the first hike isn’t free association at all. We’ve been there before. The body remembers. The expectation, the doubt, the humiliation of starting again. Persist, it reminds us. Persist. Even in soft feet, it knows what to do.