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Mackie: A Boy’s Life in Scouting, With One More Good Deed to Do

I don’t have anything against gay people, except those who are Yankees fans. Their baseball orientation is anathema to me.

All kidding aside, I was pleased recently to read in our own Valley News that a Norwich Boy Scout troop has declared itself “open and inclusive” and held a pancake breakfast to raise money for a national organization that gives suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

Dare I say I felt proud of them? And hopeful that the national Scouts organization will end their policies that have brought us such oddities as ousting lesbian den mothers. As if a lesbian weren’t fit to teach kids to make macaroni wreaths (they were an essential craft when I was a kid, and millions of moms were “delighted” to find a place of honor for pasta hideously glued to cardboard and slathered with gold paint in quantities sufficient to cover a Navy destroyer).

In my years in the Cub Scouts, admittedly some time ago, sexual politics played little role in the week to week activities. I hardly remember what we did, except go on scintillating trips to places like the central post office, where we heard about marvels of the future, such as zip codes. We may have been so stunned that we stopped elbowing each other for 30 seconds. I also recall touring a city police station where a gruff sergeant showed us a photo of a needle-pocked heroin addict. I set aside any thought of earning an Opium Merit Badge when I made it to Boy Scouts.

Later I did graduate to Boy Scouts, where in the early years we were consumed by things such as hatchets, campfires and knots, which admittedly sounds suspicious. I nabbed the leatherwork badge by making a knife case with my name dug into it in a style reminiscent of the work of inmates in Alcatraz.

I grew up and out of scouts — at some point in junior high hiking about in a green uniform and kerchief made me feel less confident. But until then, my experience was such that it has been difficult for me to wish the organization ill, even when it failed to bend to my liberal wishes.

Boy Scouts, to put it simply, provided some of the good moments of my childhood. In this I may have been lucky; I have friends my age who report no similar memories. But my troop, located in a large Southern New England city, got us out into the woods and even to New Hampshire — for a fall campout in the shadows of Mt. Monadnock where we shivered and suffered in our summer sleeping bags.

In looking back at it, I think my troop was fun because the adults kept an eye on us, but from the narrowly opened flap of a platform tent in which they undoubtedly smoked and played cards. One authority figure stayed out with us, but the adults didn’t hover like a SWAT team of do-gooders.

There was something about that benign distance that let them be adults and us, children. It also gave us space to horse around, to be ourselves, while still doing our chores. And even with hatchets about, no one ever got hurt.

The early years were fairly innocent, but eventually things changed. One Scout friend of mine started listening to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. I imagine he read the New York Times Sunday Magazine instead of Boys’ Life. We were moving on, and the Scouts were not.

The cheery certainties of 19th-century morality — do a good deed daily; be trustworthy, loyal, brave, clean and reverent — weren’t going to be enough for the tumultuous sixties, and the Tilt-a-Whirl of life thereafter.

But the Boy Scouts could have taught us one more good lesson: to accept and appreciate all people, without exception, and judge them by their deeds — good or ill — rather than who we think they are. They could have taken a brave stand against fear and bullying, our shameful history of tormenting others whom we perceive as different.

I believe they will get to that eventually, and maybe Scouts like the ones in Norwich will lead them.

The writer can be reached at dmackie@vnews.com.