The first time the Boy Scouts wrecked a backpacking trip for me was in 1976, on the trail up San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino Mountains. Two of us had struggled for most of a gray day up a dastardly series of switchbacks, and we were feeling triumphantly worn out after making camp in the late afternoon.
We were alone with a campfire and the descending dusk, speaking in the quiet way that wilderness demands, when suddenly the screech of adolescent voices pierced through the trees. They were upon us like a flash flood: a dozen Boy Scouts, triumphant but far from exhausted. Their camp was set up close enough for us to read the covers of their Mad magazines. They seemed oblivious to our camp, tramping directly through it to find firewood, yelling to each other (“Hey. Johnson! Did your mother pack you some Cheez Whiz?!") as if they were at opposite ends of their own homes, horsing around among the bushes. It was the most infuriating thing that has ever happened to me in the wild.
So ten years later, I found myself on a night hike with 150 screeching Boy Scouts, on their way to having the bejeezus scared out of them at summer camp. It was Monday, August 4. and as we tromped under an intense star-field, I was reminded of all the times I had encountered Boy Scouts on backpacking trips and how each time the experience was ruinous to my appreciation of the outdoors. But each time, I was struck by how much pure, unchecked fun the scouts were having, and I began to wonder: having never been a scout, did I miss something? Was there something about this regimented, wholesome male bonding that I should have experienced?
I learned long ago that I damn sure couldn't beat them, so I joined them for a week at the San Diego Boy Scout Council's Camp Mataguay, sixty-five miles northeast of San Diego and about six light years south of adulthood. My mission: to see the Boy Scouts from their own point of view, not that of a disgusted backpacker on the receiving end of their exuberance. My method: have a ball!
Surrounded by boys of every description — fatties, bean poles, Thais, Filipinos, blacks, whiners, hellions, and serious Eagles — this realm of boys would be my home for a week. No phones, no women, no booze, no newspapers, no commercials, no freeways, no problems. A boy’s world as idealized and vacuum-packed as the Boy Scouts of America can make it.
I chose a troop at random and, with the cooperation of its scoutmaster, Dale Wegworth, joined six boys from Troop 951 of San Carlos. We arrived at Camp Mataguay near Warner Springs late Sunday afternoon, and by the Monday-night hike, one of my troopmates, Jason, who is eleven years old and just one step beyond Tenderfoot (the lowest rank in scouting), was a good buddy of mine.
He’s the member of Troop 951 with the least seniority and therefore is the receiver of the most joshing. All the way up the mile-and-a-half trail he kept asking me, “Is this really gonna be scary?” To which I’d reply each time in the affirmative. He’d giggle nervously and not know what to do with his hands.
Explosive is the only word that comes close to describing what it’s like to hike with a mob of boys in almost utter darkness (there was no moon) toward an anticipated rendezvous with wild fright. As we moved up the valley through thick black oak groves, their collective excitement seemed to be welling up into a balloon that would blow us all to bits and send us on a short journey up to join the stars. When the road gave way to narrow dirt trails, the rising tension echoed back from forbidding hills.
Despite constant pleas by young staff members on the route to keep quiet, the only time the chatter and squealing were finally drowned out by the thrumming of the crickets was when we arrived at the grave site of John Treannor, the rancher who once owned the property and who died in 1935. Some people think his death was just one more tragedy in a series of suspicious occurrences that has plagued the area since 1903, when the Indians of nearby Warner Ranch placed a curse on the land in retaliation for being forcibly removed.
Beside the grave, which is marked by a large boulder with a mounted plaque, a campfire sent sparks into the black canopy of night. Around the campfire in mock slumber were four camp staffers dressed as cowboys. Jake Miller, eighteen, bearded, barrel-chested, charismatic, the most popular counselor in camp, waited until all 150 boys were seated around the fire and then began a story made up of three parts myth, two parts bunk, and one part half-truth. “Life just don’t seem the same without ol' John, does it?” Jake began, rousing himself slowly beside the flickering fire. To his left loomed the dark, rather ominous shape of the boulder over John Treannor’s grave. The crowd, swathed in firelight, was absolutely silent. “Well, it seem like to me it was kind of a tragic death,” Jake continued. “How long you guys been around here?”
“Four days,” replied a cowpoke.
“I come into the valley about a month ago and heard John died. I went over and I talked to that there medicine man up there on the reservation. Ah-haw. Them Injuns. I can’t believe ’em. Anyway, his name was, check this. Soaring Eagle. Ah-haw. Anyway, he tell me, he say, Manymanymoonago. Ah-haw! Them crazy Indians, they ain’t got nothin’ better to do than sit around and count them moons. Ah-haw! He tell me, Manymanymoonago there was a tribe down here in the valley, and them there little Mexican fellers come along, and they treated these here Injuns like slaves around here. I guess them Injuns got a little angry at ’em. I mean, angrier than a raccoon in a snake shed. Set a booga-booga on the valley. On the whole, entire valley. A booga-booga. A curse. Manymanymoonago. Ah-haw!
“You know the funny part about it? They said it done run out them Mexican fellers. All of ’em. And then you remember when we come in with John, they said they done forgot about the curse. How ’bout them crazy Indians? Forgot about a curse! That kills people! Ah-haw. I can’t understand it.”
The scouts shifted nervously while dying firelight flickered over the grave.
“Guess that’s what they say killed ol' John. A booga-booga. That was put on manymanymoonago. Ah-haw! No, they say that’s what actually happened. That one night he was sitting in his ranch house and that there storm come overhead, you know? They say that there storm stir up the horses down there in the barn. You know that barn’s still there. John hear it rustling up the feathers of them horses, so he go down there and he saw that branch on the roof. He went up there with a saw. He go up there and start sawing away, and Soaring Eagle say that barn just start a-shakin. You ever hear the likes o’ that? So anyway, said it knocked him dern off, even the saw. He fall off that barn, you know he had that bum leg, and right at that time, Soaring Eagle say lightning struck that tree over there where we used to sit and drink that moonshine. Anyway, he fall off that barn, and lightning hit that tree, and the tree fell and pinned him down real good. And then that saw come down and cut his head cleeeeeean off! That’s what they say.”
A low gasp mixed with a rustling of feet in the crowd, and many of the boys eyed the shadows in the brush behind the grave.
“You know John had made friends with them Injuns. So them Injuns helped bury him right up here on his favorite spot.”
At this point Jake came out of character to address the group of boys who were sitting rapt before him. He explained that the four cowboy characters were the men who had ridden into Matagual Valley with John Treannor in the early part of this century and then explained some more about the curse that has been attached to the area. Treannor died on October 20, 1935, and Jake explained that the curse was taken off the valley and placed on the gravestone as a way of protecting the grave. It is said to be very bad luck to touch the stone.
In earnest tones, Jake told of some of the strange happenings that occurred after people touched it. He said a scout reservation ranger died in 1976 after doing some repairs on the plaque attached to the boulder. “The plaque fell off,” Jake said. “The ranger didn’t believe in the curse. Well, he decided to stick the plaque back on. Two and a half days later, they found him on Highway 79, his truck wrapped around a tree. I mean, there were no tire marks on the road, no skid marks in the sand, his truck was just compacted into this tree. They had to pull him out of the ashtray. Needless to say, he was dead.”
He detailed several other strange and gruesome instances, including this: “Last year a young scout touched the rock. The very next day he was bit on the tongue by a snake in the nature den. What he was doing trying to French kiss a snake, I don’t know. The point was, he was bit on the tongue!" And so on.
As the group moved out toward a scheduled stop at the barn where John Treannor supposedly died (we had passed its sinister, dark shape on the way up), two boys jumped on top of the rock and danced on Treannor’s grave. This sent the boys who witnessed it shrieking down the black hill, trying to avoid being touched by the now luckless duo, who naturally were chasing everybody in their troop like a couple of murderous lunatics. It was a riotous journey to the barn, where a staffer was hiding inside a coffin and another was hanging like a dead man from the rafters. If you’ve never been squashed inside a dark barn on a moonless night with 150 terrorized Boy Scouts, you can’t comprehend the meaning of the word hysteria. Luckily, as the crowd carried me past the body swinging from the rafters, which was lit eerily by a dozen sweeping flashlight beams, my feet remained under me.
On the way back to camp, Jason stayed close and kept repeating the same question: Did I believe in the curse? Well, I told him, I didn’t go near that rock.
Thousands of boys have spent some of the best times of their young lives at Camp Mataguay since the San Diego Boy Scouts Council purchased the 679-acre valley for $168,500 in 1956. For six weeks each summer, the council conducts its scout camp, with a new group of boys arriving every Sunday. Each boy pays ninety dollars to cover the costs of his meals and to help pay for the equipment and upkeep in the camp. The purpose of the camp is, primarily, to provide a week of fun but also to provide merit badge classes and training (merit badges are the stepping stones to scouting’s highest honor — becoming an Eagle Scout). The scout camp is also an insular, artificial world where scouting’s codes, creeds, and rituals reign. Scout camp is where the scout promise, “To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight” is made palpable.
My outfit. Troop 951, arrived Sunday along with several dozen other troops from Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada, bringing the total population of dudes (the customary way they refer to each other) here to 324. There are about thirty staffers who run the place, most of them older scouts, supervised by a group of impressive adults who are Eagle Scouts. Not a single female is on the property. It’s like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting: apple cheeks by the bushel, squeaky voices, a quaint respect for elders, a certain can-do spirit. But I'm with the right troop. Our guys are going for a minimum of merit badges (in fishing, primarily) and a maximum of fun.
Troop 951 has been shrinking for some time, having dropped from about thirty-five scouts a couple of years ago to only about a dozen now. The six who made it to camp are Jeff and Joey, two close friends on the near shore of puberty, blond, polite, aged sixteen and fifteen, fishing fanatics; Colin, a serious and short-fused eleven-year-old with a critical eye, critical ear, and critical mouth; the twins, George and Henry, who appear to be capable of Hyde and Jekyll, or Heckel and Jeckel, who are both twelve and sporting new butch haircuts; and Jason, eleven, freckled, picked on and puppy-innocent. It was Jason who finished dinner Sunday night with ketchup on his right ear; Jason who, during a late-night frog hunt just before bedtime, got cold-cocked on the cheek by a giant frog and was amazed that he lived to tell me about it.
Unlike most of the other troops, ours didn’t have a scoutmaster along, since Mr. Wegworth (Jeff's dad) couldn’t take a week off work to be here. Fine with us! A camp staffer, Ken Harrington, was assigned to be our scoutmaster, but he had about forty other dudes in similar circumstances, so we didn’t have to be bothered by too much supervision.
The Matagual Valley is nestled in the slopes of Volcan Mountain, which separates the San Felipe and Santa Ysabel valleys. The valley is only about one-third of a mile wide and three miles long, dropping from an elevation of about 3500 feet down to 3000. The Boy Scouts dammed the little stream running through it to create two lakes, one at the upper end of the valley and one in the middle, where most of the scout program activities are centered. A mixture of pines and oaks covers the upper end, while the lower valley tends toward chaparral. The whole expanse is quite beautiful and lush, visited by mountain lions, golden eagles, turkey vultures, deer, wild donkeys, ducks, squirrels, snakes, turtles, and stunning royal blue and rust-colored dragonflies.
The scouts have divided their reservation into three camps: Blackfoot, Beaver Lake, and Indian Rock. Only Beaver Lake and parts of Blackfoot are utilized now. The camp’s heyday in the late 1960s and early 1930s saw 1500 boys a week running around here. Now a big week is 350 dudes. But the areas that have gone to seed are some of the nicest parts of the reservation. They’re quiet, overgrown, with an empty swimming pool here, an abandoned tree house there. Visited mostly by squirrels and the warm wind and black-and-yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies.
The central program area includes oval-shaped Beaver Lake, about a hundred yards long and fifty yards wide, with its boat house, small island, and swinging suspension bridge leading to the archery range on the far side. Up from the lake is the “swimming hole,” actually a large swimming pool, and above that the camp trading post, which sells everything from friction fire kits to Nerds candies. To one side is the Beaver Lake lodge, more or less camp headquarters, and opposite that is the program director’s office and staff quarters, and between them lie merit badge warrens. There’s a nature den, which houses local creatures (and where I was amazed to find myself able to withstand a tarantula crawling slowly up my forearm); a scout crafts area, where everything from knots to wood chopping are taught; and a “hogan,” a round hut built Indian-style in which classes in leather craft take place. Nearby is the basketry class area. And just up from that are the horseshoe pits, where I hoped to sucker in some unsuspecting Tenderfeet and take their candy money.
A short distance up steep Cardiac Hill from the program area is the dining hall. Our first dinner there consisted of cold hot dogs, spongy white buns, American imitation cheese, cabbage salad, and orange Jell-O. A less than auspicious beginning. Before the food arrived, George took a wad of gum out of his mouth and put it on the edge of his plate for safekeeping. It was approximately the size and shape of a small animal’s brain, and I don't know how he could possibly have gotten his boy’s mouth around it. Jason ate part of a hot dog and then filled up on the Jell-O. I choked down a dog, somewhat worried because even before my first meal here. I'd been warned by a staffer, who’s been in camp for five consecutive weeks, that the food was less than glorious. I'd asked him if, after five weeks, he was tired of anything yet. “Some things,’’ he replied. “I miss females. And the food! Hot dogs every Sunday. Spaghetti every Friday. Cereal and milk every morning. Milk to drink at every meal. Milk. Milk! Man, I'm tired of milk.”
They don't let the scouts cook for themselves anymore; it proved to be too time consuming when each troop was allotted raw food for every meal and it was up to the troop to build its campfire and do its own cooking. Also, the California Division of Forestry strictly controls when and where fires may be started on the property, and now about sthe only campfires allowed are the ones built in the amphitheater, where nightly campwide assemblies meet. As a result, the property is overflowing with enough wood fuel to power the next shuttle flight. If this were the real world, the scouts might receive instruction on how the state's fire prevention policies have actually created the fire hazard by eliminating the small fires that historically culled the fuel supply. But they don’t offer a merit badge in “Backward CDF Fire Policies." We're all supposed to jump into the lake or the swimming pool if a fire roars down through the valley. They tell us it would take less than twelve minutes for the whole valley to be engulfed in flames.
Every meal is served in the cavernous dining hall, with a roof but no walls, so it is open to the wind, the yellow jackets, and a wonderful view of Matagual Valley. Four flags are hanging from the rafters: the coiled snake “Don't Tread On Me” flag; the American flag; a replica of the first California Bear flag; and the flag of Spain. Spain? A staff counselor explained to me that they got a good deal on a bunch of flags somewhere, and Spain was part of the package.
On Tuesday morning, after a breakfast of Cocoa Krispies, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and toast, I divided my time between the archery range, the swimming pool, and the horseshoe pit (no competition). Colin, Henry, and George went up to the rifle range; Joey went fishing. Later, they all planned to meet at the Swing, a length of rope tied to a tree branch on which they swing across a deep ravine. They insist I come and join them tomorrow. Jeff was undergoing a sacred “ordeal” as part of his induction into scouting’s elite Order of the Arrow. This is a group of older scouts and adults who form a kind of labor fraternity within scouting. They take a solemn oath to continue working for scouting even into adulthood; it is the OA members who do much of the construction and maintenance work on the camp during the winter months. OA members are nominated by their troop, and sixteen of the new candidates were “called out” in an elaborate ceremony Monday night. They had to sleep alone under the stars, to contemplate their place in scouting, and all day Tuesday, they were prohibited from speaking while undergoing their “ordeal." They were also limited to light meals. In Jeff's case, the ordeal entails clearing weeds from the lake all day. Others waxed the camp’s fire truck or worked on the roads. Though he was not supposed to utter a word, Jeff managed to tell his friend Joey that, so far, the OA ordeal “sucks.” If they survive the ordeal, tonight the candidates will be inducted into the OA in a secret ceremony I've been invited to attend.
At the archery range, an eighteen-year-old Eagle Scout named Tabo Saito was practicing. He lives in Clairemont and is now an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 608. He's been shooting arrows for less than three years, but he's already a national champion target archer in the free-style, young adult class. He’ll be attending the Olympic archery trials next year.
Saito’s bow, with its forward stabilizer bars, looks something like the Sputnik satellite. It’s composed of a magnesium alloy, with limbs made of fiber glass and wood. Saito stood before a target and pumped his special black arrows within millimeters of each other inside the bull’s eye, while a dozen other scouts gaped in awe. He seemed embarrassed by the attention he commanded. After showing me how to shoot the bow (I’m the one who was really embarrassed), he effortlessly fired a few more bull’s eyes. I asked him if he’s ever split an arrow by firing one into the rear of another.
“My going-away present for the staff last year was a split arrow," he shyly explained. I had seen these two arrows in the Beaver Lake Lodge, and because they were perfectly fused to each other. I'd assumed a machinist had joined them. “I’ve triple-split arrows before. It's not that hard, but it gets expensive.”
Saito is a model scout with an academic scholarship to college. Scout executives say most of their future growth will come in the sector north of Highway 94, where Saito lives, and especially in North County. Currently in the San Diego scouting council, about 35,000 boys are enrolled in scouting organizations: Explorer Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Cub Scouts. In 1980 there were only about 20,000. But the growth has taken place mostly in the Cub Scouts, and the Boy Scouts have continued to have trouble keeping boys once they reach girls-and-cars age. The Boy Scouts have also had acute difficulty making themselves popular in the less affluent areas, such as Southeast San Diego.
Sixty-nine-year-old Max Gonzalez has been involved with scouting in Southeast San Diego for thirty years. “There’s supposed to be twelve troops in Southeast, but now there’s only five or six,” he explained one morning before breakfast. We sat at a table overlooking the Camp Mataguay amphitheater, where the flags of the U.S., California, and Great Britain (there is a British scout in camp) were about to be raised, to the accompaniment of the camp bugler. “Nobody’s doing much in Southeast,” Gonzalez continued. “It’s a mess.”
Gonzalez explained that it generally takes two parents to keep a boy in scouting, because of the money, encouragement, and time required of the adults. “The last two merit badges you need to make Eagle are up to the parents,” Gonzalez said. “For the citizenship of the world badge, you have to attend one court date, with the sponsorship of a judge. And the community merit badge requires attendance at a city council meeting. The parents have to make the calls to set these up, but parents in Southeast aren't very encouraging, and they won't do it. They let the kids go off by themselves, and they won't buy them things. They come home and they’re either too tired from working or they’re on welfare and don't have the money. And the kid's named Rodriguez and the mother’s named Jones — common-law parents, you know?
“I don't know how to explain it. The kids grow themselves up. It’s pitiful. They don't have three meals a day at home; mom tells them to go to the refrigerator and open a Coke. I tell them to get their dad to help them on a merit badge requirement, and they laugh at me. They say, ‘When I get home, my dad’s drunk.' They’re working peons in Southeast. In the north, their fathers are executives; they can afford to take a week off without pay and help on a troop outing.”
At Camp Mataguay, there was one troop of black kids, a sprinkling of Hispanics, and a troop of Asians from Linda Vista who filed into the dining hall for breakfast. But mostly the scouts were white kids, flush with the exuberance and air of confidence that solid families engender. Still, I could read the futures of some, and I saw plenty of budding rednecks and yahoos. And it was easy to spot the kids with superior abilities; they were natural leaders who seemed to have an easier time in every activity, from life-saving classes in the pool to traversing a cable bridge, and they were quieter and less rowdy than the other boys, no matter their age. The mix of ethnic standouts seemed larger than one might predict, given their small percentage of the Boy Scout population.
I couldn’t really get a reading on the futures of my own troopmates, probably because the lack of a scoutmaster had allowed them to surrender to absolute, unfettered boyhood. Tuesday night at dinner, the talk mostly concerned the Swing or the “Funolator,” which is a giant slingshot Joey used for shooting water balloons at scouts canoeing on the Colorado River. Throughout the meal, Colin was fuming. “I hate this place,” he said. “It’s dumb, and the counselors are jerks. Just because I put one foot inside the trading post, they made me pick up all the trash on the porch.” Just before the counselors started their after-meal sing-along, I ran into David Keeley, the twenty-two-year-old camp program director, who was extremely peeved. He was pulling three grim-faced boys aside, and by the redness of his complexion, I could tell they weren’t about to be commended. “All right, is it true that you guys pissed on John Treannor’s grave this afternoon?” he barked sternly. The boys all nodded their heads and began pointing at one another, trying to say who started it. They also copped to chipping off some of the lettering on the plaque and to dancing on the rock. Keeley could hardly contain himself as he scolded them (after all, grave desecration is a crime punishable by up to six months in jail) and spoke ominously of their punishment, which he would decide later. It turned out that they were sentenced to spend the rest of the week collecting wood for the nightly campfires. Further proof that touching that rock is bad luck, after all.
By the time I made it to the sacred induction ceremony for the Order of the Arrow, it was 9:40, clear, warm, the stars winking like slivers of shattered prisms. About a dozen other solemn spectators, some of them adult scoutmasters and all of them members of OA (no one else is allowed to witness the ceremony), were sitting on logs splayed out before an altar of four totem poles. A raging campfire sparked and crackled in front of the totem poles, and around the campfire, twelve small tins of white gas formed a thirty-foot circle of flame. Standing behind the campfire and within the circle was a staff member dressed as an Indian chief, in full headdress. To either side and in front of him were three other staffers, including program director Dave Keeley, in authentic Plains Indian garb. They were silent, reverential sentries in an important rite of passage. One of the Indians came over to me to make sure I knew the “admonition,” a secret Indian word known only to OA members. The word means, “To love each other.”
The ceremony began. The chief asked if his Indian brothers were satisfied that all present are members of the Order of the Arrow. Two of the Indians moved forward among the spectators, asking each for the admonition.
I whispered the sacred word, as does everyone else, and then the Indians returned to their positions. From the shadows, a hide drum started pounding in a slow, solemn rhythm. One of the Indians was sent away to find the candidates, who were being held in silence nearby. The drum beat hypnotically for five minutes before the Indian returned, leading the candidates. They were roped together, and each boy walked slowly, apprehensively, with his hand on the left shoulder of the boy before him. After the Indian signaled the chief by administering a series of shoulder slaps, each boy was asked quietly whether he survived the ordeal without flinching and then was placed into the proper position to “receive their knowledge.” They were lined up straight in front of the campfire, facing the totem poles and the Big Dipper above.
Each of the four Indians repeated lines from an elaborate script that details the OA member’s commitment to a life of “brotherhood, cheerfulness, and service.” Other terms such as “fixity of purpose,” “set aside for a higher purpose,” and “cheerful service, self-denial” became leitmotifs in the monologues. Then the chief administered the sacred oath, which the boys repeated and which ended, “ ... be unselfish in service and devotion to the welfare of others.”
After more talk of Indian legends, each boy received his OA sash, white with a red arrow, in a formal laying on of hands by the Indians. The chief whispered the secret admonition to every boy as the drum beat softly, the crickets chirped, and gray smoke rose into the night. “You may now take your places in a circle which is being widened to receive you,” the chief said, and all the spectators (except me) stood and formed a circle around the campfire. They all gave a secret hand signal, crossed arms and clasped hands with the new members, and sang a song of “binding brotherhood.” Then one of the Indians walked slowly around the circle of smaller fires, snuffing them out one at a time as he repeated the twelve virtues laid out in the Scout Law: trustworthiness, loyalty, helpfulness, friendliness, courtesy, kindness, obedience, cheerfulness, thriftiness, bravery, cleanliness, and reverence. “ ... As we extinguish these candles, may the virtues they represent grow stronger in our hearts and consciousness,” the Indian said. Then the new members were heartily welcomed into the Order of the Arrow' by the older members, as the campfire sputtered out to smoke and glowing embers.
Nothing like a little male bonding to warm the spirit and fuel the shaky notion that a man's role in this world is to protect the weak and serve the organization. But whatever good feelings the OA ceremony brought about for me were cooled the next morning. At breakfast a young scout told me what the chaplain said at Vespers Tuesday night: that the boys shouldn’t listen to rock and roll music because it will warp their young minds. Frightening! If the Boy Scouts are battling for the hearts and minds of the young, let us hope that the majority of those hearts and minds can sense when they’re being used.
Luckily, my troop seemed to be immune to anything that wasn’t fun. After breakfast we all repaired to the Swing. Two years ago, Jeff and another trooper named Todd (he couldn’t come to camp this year because he’s taking his college entrance exams) stole a thick rope and shinnied up this old oak tree and lashed the rope to a sturdy branch. The branch hangs over a deep, dry gully, and the boys grab the rope and swing from one side to the other. This activity, along with the “monkey bridge,” a rope bridge spanning the creek just above the lake, has taken up the bulk of my troop’s time here at Camp Mataguay. And why not? Let the rest of those little uniformed regimentals spend their time productively in the merit badge classes; the fullness of summer is short-lived, and its call is sweet, and plenty of drearily productive hours await my troop in adulthood. Right now, the Swing was what really mattered.
Poor Jason was the designated low man again. Yesterday the troop was calling him a “homo sapien” and he was yelling, “I am not! I am not!" and he couldn’t understand why they were laughing so much. This morning they called him a “fag" because he’s dropped off the rope too many times before reaching the far lip of the gully. George, in his confederate rebel’s cap, told Jason that he has to make it all the way across five consecutive times in order to erase his fagdom. Jason was frightened of the swing, and he said I should try it before he goes again. But I was as frightened as he was. As Jeff and Joey yelled instructions from the other side, I launched myself into space and realized halfway across that I had a twisted, terrified expression on my face. I tried to mask it as I landed just over the line of fagdom. but once is enough for me. I left them, listening to their hyena laughs and squeals dying away through the trees.
That afternoon Jeff and Joey and I hopped into a truck for the ride up to the COPE course. COPE stands for Challenging Outdoor Physical Encounter. and it was instituted three years ago as a way to keep older scouts interested in coming back to camp. Here in San Diego, as in the rest of the nation, scouting is enjoying a resurgence in membership after suffering hard times throughout the 1970s. COPE is thought to be partly responsible for this renewed interest.
The course is composed of a series of obstacles designed to teach seven goals: decision making, problem solving, trust, teamwork, self-esteem, leadership, and communication. The COPE course trainer is Jake Miller, the popular eighteen-year-old staffer who is a competitive wrestler (he plans on competing in the Olympic trials next year) and has a music scholarship to use.
The training “elements" include the 700-foot zip line, which provides a fast ride across a deep ravine with the scout clinging to a pulley; the wall, made of wood about twelve feet high that the dozen boys in the class must climb over but which requires the assistance of everyone working in concert; the trust fall, a five-foot-high stump from which each boy falls backward into the arms of his comrades; the knotted rope, attached to a tall tree and which each boy must climb and, once at the top. fall forward into space and be stopped just short of the ground by a belay line controlled by Jake.
One of today’s elements was the wild woozie, an isosceles triangle of taut cables suspended between trees about four feet off the ground. The triangle’s base is about six feet wide. The object of the exercise was for two boys to team up at the narrow end of the triangle and, each boy balancing on a cable and leaning inward against his partner for support, move down the widening triangle to the far end. “Okay,” Jake began, “we’re in a big volcano, see, that's hit by an iceberg, and these two big icicles shoot through the wall. They look like cables, but they’re really icicles. A virgin is standing over there at the wide end. and our heroes have to rescue her. But down below is a guacamole pit, with a big, twenty-eyed, furry-lipped guacamole monster, waiting to eat you. Okay, the first two guys, up on the icicles."
It took a lot of trial and error, with much discussion among the group, before two boys finally succeeded in making it all the way. There was a remarkable lack of criticism, and a lot of positive support, given to the weakest participants. After about forty-five minutes, when the last two had struggled to the far end, everyone rejoiced and gave each other high-fives, and Jake said, “Let’s talk about this a minute. What’d this have in it?"
“Right," Jake asserted. “Really, it had all seven of the goals we’ve been talking about. And you guys kept good PMA, a positive mental attitude. Keep a good attitude always, even at home, guys. Even with your little brother. Talk to people like you want to be talked to, and use this in your troop, in your community. You can get through life with these seven goals. Eventually, you’ll run into something like the wall, or the wild woozie, figuratively, and you'll need to remember these goals ...
“Who here knows what they're gonna do in life?” he asked the group. “Be a paramedic”
“It’s okay to be unsure, guys. Don’t expect to know what you're gonna do yet. Just get yourself well rounded. Look at me. I thought football might get me into college, and it didn't happen. But I had music, and now I've got that $13,000 scholarship to USC. You’ve got to give yourself alternatives. Don’t set all your hopes on one thing. Have something else ready if one thing doesn’t work out. Now gimme a lucky chucky lucky!”
“Go go all right!”
Late in the week, at about the same time that my troop was tying Jason to a tree and pouring soda over him to attract ants (part of his initiation into the troop), I visited the most squared-away campsite on the reservation. The boys of Troop 753 of Fallbrook stood out among their peers because at all times each trooper was in full uniform — green socks, green shorts, khaki shirt with epaulets and badges, neckerchief, and cap. The majority of the other boys simply wore the khaki shirt once a day, a passable attempt to meet the requirement of wearing a uniform to dinner. One of the troops' five assistant scoutmasters had explained one day that the troop was established last April and that its own strict uniform requirement was put in place after a camping trip in the snow wherein many of the boys wore camouflaged fatigues. “They were decked out like Rambo, some with survival knives, and were even taking prisoners, and we felt that was the wrong persona,” the scoutmaster explained. “ They don't like the uniform requirement, but they have to learn that it stands for something.”
Troop 753's campsite is an obvious point of pride for the boys. At the entrance is an intricate arrangement of smooth branches forming a large star. Beyond that is the troop banner on display, with its motto, “Moving Together,” spelled out in small sticks. Nine of the troop's members were attending camp; three of them were seated now. carving on pieces of wood. Joel and Brian were carving their names as part of a pioneering merit badge; J.C. was carving “fuzzy sticks,” which are used as kindling for campfires. Most boys in the troop were working on at least three merit badges, and some were working on five. “We want them to achieve,” said Earl Dahlin, another assistant scoutmaster.
Joel, who is twelve, said he planned out the star at the campsite entrance. He and some of the other boys cut the nine branches, skinned and smoothed them into poles, and figured out which knots and lashings would be required to hold it together. “It’s basically square knots, round lashings, and diagonal lashings,” he said proudly. He and the other boys planned on adding a drawbridge to the star.
I asked him why he's in scouting. “It’s fun,” he earnestly replied. “I'm learning new things every day, like today I’ve learned four or five new things, like rubbing hand oil on this stick, for instance. I’ve learned that it darkens the wood, but not the letters I’ve carved in it.” Joel was certain he'll become an Eagle scout. “Every man who’s ever set foot on the moon was an Eagle scout,” he declared. The scoutmaster beamed. I headed for my own camp, a little unsettled by the twelve-year-old with such clear goals.
Program director Dave Keeley was trudging up a steep hill toward Friday night’s awards ceremony. He was holding a small flashlight over his head and making like a train: “Choooo-choooo! Chuga-chuga-chuga-chuga. Choooo-choooo!” Another staffer followed, forming the caboose. I kidded Keeley, “You don’t want me to be writing this down, do you?”
“Ahem!” he grunted, shaking himself into a picture of rectitude. He held up an index finger and declared, “The philosophies of this great outdoor experience entail the building of young boys into future renaissance men. These renaissance men will one day take command of this great nation and lead it even further into greatness ...” “Wait. My pen ran out of ink.” “Oh. Choooo-choooo! Chuga-chuga-chuga...”
Troop 951 sat on a log before the awards campfire, surrounded by chattering boys and the few parents who came to visit on this last night in camp. Colin was glum, sitting on my right; Jason was excited, on my left. Smitty, the sixty-six-year-old-aquatics program director, made a funny little speech and declared the awards ceremony officially open. “You’re dumb” Colin groused to Smitty. “That’s a dumb speech. That’s a stupid speech.” Smitty asked that all merit badge winners stand up for recognition. Jeff and Joey rose (for their fishing merit badges), along with about three-quarters of the other boys. “Hip. Hip. Hoo-ray,” Colin mumbled disgustedly.
Jason’s parents were here for a short time but had to leave. “It’s like you haven’t seen your mom and dad for two years,” he marveled. “And you know what? I asked my little sister if she missed me and she said yes. But then Mr. Wegworth [Troop 951's scoutmaster] asked her the same thing, and she said no.” He blushed, confused.
Those boys who have qualified for the NRA shooting medal were being called up to the campfire to be applauded. Henry, George, and Colin were called, and as each got up, Jason fidgeted a little more. “I don’t think I won it,” he said. Then, “I’m not sure, maybe I did.” A few more names. “Oh, they won’t call me.” The last boy. “I knew it.” Jason was the only member of his clique who wasn’t up there. He sighed and tried to shrink back out of the firelight. “Maybe next summer,” he said.