Bunch of years ago, while living in southern California, I had the delight and honor of being the first Scoutmaster of a brand-new troop. These young Scouts—recently graduated from nearby pack—just ate up the Boy Scouting program! We started small; just two patrols of six Scouts each, plus a popular and knowledgeable slightly older Scout who had transferred over from a neighboring troop and was almost immediately elected Senior Patrol Leader.
On one of our early trips, we spent a weekend at the San Diego Naval Base. Got to eat in the mess hall with the sailors; sleep in the barracks; “fly” simulators for Super Hornets, Corsairs, Chinooks, Vanguards, and other totally cool aircraft; use the outdoor pool; raise the American flag in front of the entire Navy corps on Saturday morning (the Scouts practiced over and over again—all on their own—so they wouldn’t mess up). In all, we were having one heck of a good time!
Saturday afternoon we had some free time before chow. A basketball court was right outside our barracks. So, digging into my car’s trunk, I tossed the Scouts a basketball, told ‘em we had about an hour for some play, and turned back to the barracks for a quick “Scoutmaster’s battery re-charge” (translation: nap).
Behind me, squawking and complaining and shouting like crazy! I stopped, turned, and watched. I sized it up in a second. These boys had no idea how to play “street” or “pick-up” basketball. That’s right—they had no idea how to just play among themselves without adults supervising their every move!
Someone much wiser that I observed that “the soccer, Little League, PAL, and Pop Warner fields are full, and the playgrounds are empty.” Whoever said that was dead right!
As city kids growing up in the most densely populated U.S. state, none of us played what we today call “organized sports.” We played lots of sports, of course—touch football, “street” stickball, baseball, and lots of basketball year-round. Plus other games we invented for ourselves (one we called “Mummy” that resembled tag, but with a wicked “Walking Dead” kind of twist to it). But here’s the thing: There were no adults—no parents, no coaches—at all. Nobody “supervised” us. Nobody “taught” us how to choose up sides, or even what the “rules” of the chosen sport or game were (you learned as you went, and the other guys would take you aside and show you how, if you’d just messed up real bad).
But these Scouts of mine looked like they’d never had the sheer joy of “being boys.” Their entire lives up till now had been “programmed” with school, soccer, Taekwondo dojos, piano and violin or cello lessons, special after-school language classes (Hebrew, French, Chinese, whatever), and the list goes on.
“Free time”? A myth or a dream, but hardly a reality in their young lives. And unlikely to change anytime soon…except, perhaps, for the kind of Boy Scout troop they’d just joined. I was determined to give them at least a brief taste of boyhood—a boyhood that their parents had, with all best intentions, stolen from them. (Well, maybe not actually stolen. How can you steal what someone never had?
So I joined the game, but briefly. The one rule while I played was simple. Andy can pass and move the ball, and set up picks and such, but he can’t shoot. Other than that, this basketball game was more like Australian football—if you can get away with it without drawing blood or knocking anybody down, it’s fair game.
Took ‘em maybe ten minutes to catch on. They figured out it wasn’t about “rules”—it was about having fun, jostling each other if necessary, scoring, and keeping things fair without “blowing the whistle” on each other every five seconds and getting themselves embroiled in a heated debate for the next twenty minutes about who fouled whom. Instead, they played, and they were happy!
I left them to start up a new game, all on their own, started back toward the barracks for my re-charge. That’s when I discovered I had a bigger problem on my hands. A couple of parents, who’d been drivers and were staying for the weekend, were hustling straight for the court. I stopped them and asked what they had in mind. “They need supervision,” they said. “Nope. They’re doing just fine,” I said, “so let’s go get a cup o’ java.” They wouldn’t hear of it. “What about if they get hurt?” “What about the ‘rules’?” “What about…” It was obvious: They had the same problem as their sons. They didn’t know how to just leave ‘em alone to dope things out for themselves. It took a lot of convincing, and I’m not sure they all bought it, to get them to simply stay away and let their sons be boys.
Same thing happened on our first overnight. The two patrols had gone to our Quartermaster and checked out used Philmont Trek tents I’d bought (for pennies on the dollar) at the end of last summer. Each tent was complete with stakes, guylines, and rain fly, but with no instructions for set-up. The Senior Patrol Leader and I agreed: Let each patrol figure it out, and let’s keep the parents away from them. The first part was easy. Each patrol cooperated among themselves and after a couple of attempts knew exactly how to set up the tents. But the second part was tough, and most of the parents were pretty furious with me for not showing the Scouts, step-by-step, what to do.
Map and compass? Same problem. The Scouts were simply told, “It’s in your handbook. If you really need help call or text your Patrol Leader; Patrol Leaders, you have our Senior Patrol Leader if you need him. We’ll see you next week for our compass-hike.” Parents’ hair was catching fire; steam blew out their ears, or so it seemed.
And the list went on. Knots and lashings. Basic first aid. Trail signs. Poisonous plants (lots of poison oak where we went hiking). But guess what? The Scouts did it all—and they did it for themselves.
Meanwhile, at least half their parents thought I was the worst Scoutmaster they could possibly imagine. I overheard “Is he lazy, or is it that he doesn’t know this stuff himself?” more than once. I probably drove them as crazy as they often drove me.
Then, our troop’s first Camporee—a real Camporee, where patrols compete in Scoutcraft skills (like map-and-compass, knots and lashings, first aid, poisonous plants, trail signs, and of course tent-pitching). Both patrols, none with any Scout ranked higher than Second Class, cleaned everybody’s clocks. They took First Place and Second place (they were within just a couple of points of tying for First!) among some 50 to 60 patrols competing—some made up of all Eagle Scouts.
Why? How? Simple: They’d learned for and from themselves. They’d learned by not necessarily getting it right the first time, but not giving up and working at it till they got it. They’d learned by cooperating, by learning one another’s strengths and skills, and by figuring out how to “buddy-up” so that one-plus-one equaled three!
Scouting, when you have a “lazy” Scoutmaster, just might become the last bastion of boys being boys—just like they’re supposed to be.
Baden-Powell, who was a heck of a lot smarter than me, wrapped it up this way: “Never do for a boy what he can do for himself.”
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[No. 475 – 2/23/2016 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2016]