Coming from the world I’d inhabited in the City of Chicago, where there were few rules and fewer people to enforce them, the culture shock of working at the Boy Scouts of America was profound. I’d enjoyed being in Cub Scouts as a kid, earning badges for simple tasks. But that ended one afternoon while playing kickball at a Den meeting. One of the kids in the Pack stole second when no one else was looking and I called him out on it. “You have to go back!” I declared. “No stealing!”
He mocked me boldly. “No way,” he insisted. “I didn’t steal.”
I walked toward him ready to challenge his claim when the Den mother walked out of the house to find me in mid-stride, yelling at the cheater. “Okay, Chris, that’s enough fighting. You can leave if you don’t want to play nice.”
“But he cheated!” I turned and told her. “He stole second when no one else was looking!”
“Terry, did you steal second?” she asked. He shook his head, saying nothing.
She glared at me. I walked off the field and strode straight home. And never went back.
So perhaps I should have known that the Boy Scouts of America were not the most honest organization in the world. Despite Scout’s Honor and pledges and all that quasi-military stuff the Boy Scouts use to collar kids into controlled behavior, deep down the BSA is a conflicted, contrary and anachronistic organization with more to hide than it has to offer the world.
For example, I quickly discovered that several of the “high-performing” District Executives were cheating at their membership numbers by paying for kids that weren’t even signed up. Those “ghost units” showed up at legitimate kids in the program. The criminal aspect of those actions wasn’t just limited to lying to the Council Executives and volunteers about membership levels. Those figures were also used to solicit money from local charitable organizations like the United Way. The Council leadership knew that some DE’s were cooking the books at some level. But when I asked questions I was told never to mention it, and that it was my responsibility to hit those numbers no matter where they came from.
This was just the rot at the core of the BSA council where I worked. The stench of strange intrigue existed at the periphery as well. One of the far-flung camp properties owned by the council was a “ranch” about forty miles west. An elder District Executive ran the ranch, and everyone pretty much left him alone in that endeavor. He was sort of kind and chill, and known for hosting kids that like to ride ATVS and dirt bikes.
But somehow a rumor floated back to the Council that the Gold Old Boy running the ranch was up to some real no good. The Council executives and perhaps a policeman or two showed up unannounced at the ranch one day and Good Old Boy put a gun to his own head and fired. The child pornography he’d been created was discovered in his domicile, and the ranch was sold soon after.
In fact, the Council was in the process of a big property sell-off. The tax burden of multiple camps, one for each District at the time I joined, was too large for the organization to sustain. But the District volunteers were not happy about selling properties on which they’d grown up in Scouting. So the head Scout Executive was not a popular man.
Every morning I’d get up and go for my modest three-mile run to process all that was going on in the vortex of the Scouting world in which I’d become immersed. Days would be spent mulling over membership numbers and visiting elementary schools to recruit Cub Scouts and Tiger Scouts. We’d face gymnasiums full of restless boys and try to keep their attention long enough to interest them in signing up for the program. The fliers would go home (we hoped) and sometimes enough kids would emerge through that process to fill a unit or start another. It was a big churn dependent on the goodwill of the school officials allowing the BSA to conduct business inside their public and private schools.
I had friends on the BSA staff. One was a former track athlete and teammate that I’d once coached as an AAU athlete. He ran the Explorer program, a career and interest resource for kids beyond the Boy Scouts in age or experience. Another of my peers had indeed earned his Eagle Scout award during his Boy Scout days. The two of them were a pair of the biggest pot smokers I’d ever met, and when spent most of the trip high as we traveled to a big Scouting professionals convention in Columbus, Ohio.
Such were the contradictions of life as a BSA professional. My peers warned me not to get too close with the volunteers, but I made the mistake one day while riding around with a volunteer that I liked of admitting that I’d smoked pot in college. I really liked the guy, but he turned around and reported me to the Council the next day. His conservative belief system could not tolerate the idea that someone had done something even slightly illegal in the past.
The Scouting Life
Working with the volunteers in my heavily urban and somewhat socioeconomically poor district was a daily adventure in managing expectations. The head volunteer was a man in his sixties named Clem. His big white mustache indicated his love of tradition, where the Scout uniform was almost a holy object, and “training” to be a Scout leader was equivalent to being ordained. I admired his dedication, but lacking the romance of having a full scouting experience in my past, I took a far more objective and frankly jaded view of the enterprise.
Clem clashed with a heavy-duty district volunteer named Bill. He was an imposing dude who wore the large-brimmed Scouting hat as if he were the Field Commander for a military operation. Bill would stalk around a weekend event at one of the council properties inspecting camp sites and pointing out flaws in the way that Scout leaders wore their uniforms. Clearly there were some compensatory control factors at work with Big Bill. He’d stand at the back of district meetings and stare at people to intimidate them. And when he talked, he made no effort to lower his voice but sounded forth like an old bull elk trumpeting in the trees.
But Bill didn’t intimidate me, and that meant he didn’t quite know how to act in our encounters. During one weekend Camporall, he showed up to inspect my non-traditional Eddie Bauer tent perched on the bank of a quick-running stream a hundred yards away from the cluster of tents on the main field. I’d decided to camp where it was quieter and not overrun by the noise and smell of cigarettes and fat weiners burning in blackened frying pans. As Bill approached, I look up and called out, “Isn’t it nice out here?” He trudged through ankle-high grass to reach me and stood next to a big tree. I pointed up the stream and told him, “And look, there’s a spotted sandpiper on the sandbar!”
Bill sort of harumphed and walked off. Though he still tried to control everyone else he encountered, he never really bothered me again. I considered that a quiet triumph. Because, fuck him.
I felt compassion for some of the volunteers trying so hard to make the program work for underprivileged kids. Many times these folks gave to the program money they didn’t really have, buying supplies or giving time they could hardly afford to give. One of these women had obviously been a real beauty in her time. But years and the strain of having four kids by four different “husbands” showed in her. She was a chain-smoker, and when I visited her home to drop off a requested set of membership forms and literature, she invited me inside where it was difficult to breathe due to all the smoke. Then I noticed a different, quite-familar smell as well. Natural gas. She had a leak somewhere in that home, I was sure of it. I told her so, and she grinned the wan grin of a woman that had faced a million strange threats in her lifetime, and chuckled. “Well, I ain’t blown up yet, so I guess it’s okay.”
Another volunteer named Glenda had such bad hygiene I could hardly stand near her for wanting to puke. Her hair was greasy and her skin oily. The uniform skirt worn by Scouting women was hitched up to the wide mounds of her breasts, and she stank. One day I pulled up to the serving window of a Burger King in my district to find Glenda serving the food. I saw her visage and kept on driving rather than pick my my food.
Her husband Jim was a sweet man but hardly the handsome type. His ears stuck out and he wore a perpetually fuzzy haircut about 3/4 of an inch long. His learning disability was also evident, but you’ve never met a more sincere man in your life. He kept asking me about a pin that he’d earned, and I wrote down the name of it. But when I asked around the Council to find out more about his prized pin, no one had ever heard of it. I wrote the National office and tried to secure the pin that way, but no one there could answer my question either. So week after week I’d see him at meetings and he’d approach me to ask about the pin. I never did find the damned thing. He had a picture of it, but that didn’t help either.
Then one night I met Glenda and Jim at a District meeting. Standing next to them was a tall, strikingly handsome young man. He wore his Boy Scout uniform with a panache I’d never seen. Other Scouts gathered around this pillar of virtue, and for a few moments I wondered where he came from. Then Glenda and Jim grabbed me by the arm and introduced me to their son. I honestly wondered, “How could that Adonis come from those two people?” Just goes to show you can’t judge people. Ever.
Running every day kept me sane through all those Boy Scouts of America shenanigans. All day I’d recruit kids or raise money. At night I’d attend district meetings or visit Blue and Gold Banquets where Cub Scouts and Webelos earned their badges. I’m a social guy, but it wore me out talking to gaggle after gaggle of babbling mothers asking for supplies to be brought to their next meeting.
I tried to make the best of the relationships I had with other district executives. I liked my immediate boss well enough, but he was exceedingly enigmatic about most of our dealings with volunteers. When he was replaced with a big guy named Mo, I wondered how long I’d last. But Mo was one of those calmly resolute Black guys wanting to do a good job despite the corruption he saw all around him. Mo’s biggest piece of advice was, “Don’t project anything. If you don’t see it, don’t say it.” That’s another way of saying “Don’t bet on the ‘to come.” Mo was one smart man.
Come fall, I pulled enough fitness together to race the Park Forest Scenic 10-Miler and finished in a decent time of 54:00. That gave me the confidence and interest to try running a marathon that fall in the Twin-Cities. So while the insanity of working for the Boy Scouts kept escalating, I increased my training and made little mention of it to anyone but my friend Bruce, the guy that recruited me and loved running himself. We ran some slow 20-milers together heading into fall, and I asked him questions about how to better get along in the Scouts. He had a mellow demeanor balanced by a completely focused work ethic when it came to Scouting, and I was quite the opposite. But I tried to learn from him.
One crisp fall day we got back from a long morning run and he hit the shower while I dined on a glass tray of chocolate chip cookies that he’d baked. I was so hungry from the run I downed half the tray before he got out of the shower. He laughed upon seeing the carnage, and asked, “Hungry?” “Stress eating,” I told him. That was certainly true. I had the BSA Blues and didn’t know what else to do about it but to keep running and make the best of every day possible.
Preparing for the marathon in October, I trained hard through the month of September. Coming up to the weekend before the race, I worried that I needed one more long run to prepare. Dumb idea. I bonked at around eleven miles and had to job back home for a harrowing 18-miler. For the rest of the week I felt half-sick and worn out. But I’d committed to run and had the plane ticket and a place to stay with my former college roommate in Edina, so I stuck with the plan.
The morning of the race dawned fearsomely cold and windy. The temps were just above 30 degrees and I unwisely chose to wear only a tee shirt under my Running Unlimited singlet. Standing at the starting line, I looked over to spot the former Olympic marathoner Don Kardong in his long-sleeved Salazar cold-weather tee, so I sidled over and joined the group around him.
We ran 5:20 miles through 5, then 10 miles. I felt far better to that point that I deserved after messing up by running that last long run. But at 15 miles, I felt a numbness set into my hands after circling around the lakes in Minneapolis. The cold wind coming off the water froze my face and my tongue started to swell. I had hypothermia. My lips turned blue. At 16 miles I saw Dani Fjelstad standing by the trail. He knew me well as a teammate for four years at Luther. “How’s it going, Cud?” He asked. When I could not answer without speaking in a slur, he ran over to clasp my arm and said, “Come on, dude. You’re done.”
And that was that. My only serious marathon attempt ended with my climbing in a warm car and calling it a day. I was tired beyond belief anyway. But I’d run all those miles with Don Kardong cracking jokes as we wound through the Tri-Cities. It was still a great experience. And even though I didn’t finish, it was the type of hard work I truly admired, a far cry from the groveling manipulations of those corrupt Boy Scout executives scrapping over the next $50 they could raise to make themselves look good.
Not everyone on the Scout staff was a nasty person, but the nice ones tended to suffer the scrutiny and debasement of the insecure manager above them. One o the nice guys was an older man named Pete, whose daughter happened to attend Luther College, my alma mater. When Luther won the NCAA Division III national cross country championship that fall, Pete stopped at the Luther Book Shop and bought me a tee shirt honoring the achievement.
Pete did his job well and it made his superiors insane. He’d annually hit his numbers in both membership and the Friends of Scouting (FOS) campaigns. His volunteer corps was complete and capable, and Pete relied on them to help him achieve his goals, but the top executives harangued him to do more. “C’mon, Pete,” they’d harass him in meetings. “You always do just enough to get by,” they’d complain. But actually, Pete usually beat the annual goals even when they raised them by goofy percentages.
In other words, Pete was an honorable man among dishonorable characters. We shared quiet moments talking business and I’d sometimes turn to him for advice on volunteers and such. He’d give the best answer he could, then seal it with a glinty wink of the eye. God, I appreciated that man. He was conservative in the best sense of the word, but he was working for leadership that was ‘conservative’ in the worst of all ways. In that regard, the Boy Scouts of 1985 foretold a future of conservatism in America that would compromise even the roots of democracy in the year 2020. I knew it back then, and I saw it coming in the world today.
None of it shocks me anymore. The brand of conservatism that for decades hid sex scandals and pedophilia among Scout leaders is running amok in America now while gaslighting the rest of us as if “liberalism” were the enemy. It is the secretive dealings of the ardently repressed that we should watch most closely in this world. There are fascists among us, and the BSA is and was no exception.