July, 2008

In the early 60's I lived in the Bronx, well before MTV, the Internet, YOUTUBE, iPods, PlayStations, Facebook, and the other techno- diversions that kids have today. Most of us didn't have a television or even a baseball glove. Yeah-- here it comes: We had to make our own fun.

My room, 1962; top left window.

We had dozens of games we played with a pink, rubber ball, variously called a Spauldene or a Spaldeen (for the brand name SPAULDING). We'd play Pop Fly, Stickball, Curb Ball, (and its slightly more refined offshoot, Stoop Ball). My friend Alan reminds me that in Brooklyn there was also Punch Ball, Box Ball, Hit The Penny, and Johnny May I Cross Your River? We played Dodge Ball, Keep Away, Hit The New Kid In The Face With The Ball And Run Like Hell, etc., etc...  O.K.-- I made that last one up. In decent weather, it seemed we we were only ever indoors to eat and sleep.

As winter approached and there wasn't much to do outside, a friend suggested that I join his Cub Scout Troop. He made it seem very exotic. Meetings were held; uniforms were worn; pledges and handshakes and oaths were involved. We got neckerchiefs! This sounded sort of rustic and cowboy-esque, and appealed to me. "Our Troop meets in this basement and we do stuff. It's Indian Week, now!" he raved. Cowboys and Indians! Say no more! Count me in! I begged my mom, who spoke to his mother, and then phoned the Troop's Den Mother. She thought this would be a good, wholesome type thing for me to do, and was satisfied there was adult supervision. I set off the following Saturday to become a Cub Scout!

I took two buses and then walked a few blocks to get to the house where the Scout Troop met, near Van Cortland Park. I already felt like an explorer! A kid named Robert answered the door when I knocked. His mom was our Den Mother. Robert spoke in a perpetual whine, complained about everything and looked down his nose at the rest of us. We all gritted our teeth and didn't slap him silly, because his mom was the Big Cheese. Five minutes into my new adventure, I sensed it might not be as much fun as I'd hoped.

There were anywhere from 10 to 15 of us in the Troop, depending on who showed up on weekends. We wore blue Cub Scout uniforms. Very snappy, if you dig the look. Our Den Mother, Mrs. W., dressed in a dumpy, plaid housecoat. She chain-smoked Winstons and drank from a teacup which she filled from a bottle she kept in the kitchen pantry. She seemed nice enough, but very distracted, and she encouraged us, in her hazy, slit-eyed way, to go and have fun in the basement. We'd descend into this dingy, poorly lit room where there was barely space for us amidst the spare tires, boxes of junk, window screens and rusty tools. Mrs. W would steer us vaguely toward some kind of organized activity, and then wander upstairs to watch TV, leaving us all to our alleged "fun".

I was about 10, I guess, and I was initiated into the Troop as a "Bobcat". Other kids were Bears or Wolves or Squirrels or something. I didn't understand it too well, but I was in! This initiation ceremony involved being dragged into a circle by a bunch of screaming, whooping kids and having a little metal pin attached to my shirt. There didn't seem to be any big plan following this terrifying welcome, so we aimlessly poked around some of the boxes full of junk. Robert told us to leave them alone.

The following week, for a couple of bucks extra, I got my Scout Knife! A real knife! I'd saved part of the money for it by returning old soda bottles I found to the grocery store for the 2 or 5 cent deposit, and Mom gave me the rest. I could carve and whittle and... do vaguely defined Scout stuff! The knife was confiscated by my mom a week later, shortly after she caught me scraping at our dining room table. It wasn't like I could really deny my handiwork, what with my freshly gouged initials right there by my place mat, and all. I remember a feeling of great sadness as my Official Scout Knife went clattering down the garbage chute...

This Cub Scout business started out being interesting, but very soon didn't seem that cool. I had to schlep across town every week to get to this crummy basement where I'd spend a few hours doing boring stuff with a bunch of kids I didn't like very much. We all had to wear these little outfits that struck me as sort of a variation on my parochial school uniform-- but with a silly hat and a neckerchief. There was nothing remotely cowboyish about the neckerchief, more's the pity. What the hell had I been thinking? It made me feel very self-conscious. to ride the bus in this get-up. I bore this all under the semi-interested guidance of an alcoholic house frau, whose limited imagination would prove to be my undoing.

"Indian Week", you see, lasted about three months, during which time we laboriously fashioned our own, really bad Indian costumes. We'd staple soda straws to strips of cardboard grocery boxes, tape pieces of colored paper to the soda straws, put twine through holes we punched in the ends of the cardboard strips and then tie the whole mess around our heads. These were our feathered "Indian headdresses".

We dipped pieces of elbow macaroni into food coloring, let them dry on sheets of newspaper, and strung them on pieces of butcher's twine. We'd put on these "Indian bead necklaces" and whoop and dance around with our shirts off until we got hoarse and sweaty, and stripes of food coloring ran down our scrawny little chests. Imagine the fun, if you can. We all looked like members of some horribly low rent tribe of bad scrapbook makers. The staples scratched my forehead.

Surfeited with cheesy "Indian" accoutrements, we pleaded with Mrs. W. for something-- anything-- else to occupy our time. She had her husband (whom we rarely saw, smart man...) nail a broomstick to a plank. She half-filled an old metal washtub with water, gave us some scissors, and a stack of old newspapers. We cut up zillions of strips of newspaper which we soaked in the washtub with some flour to make our own Papier-mâché. We slathered handfuls of this stuff onto the broomstick in an attempt to fashion some sort of an "Indian Totem Pole". I don't think it ever dried. None of us had any real gift as sculptors. It would all slide down the broomstick as we more added layers to it. It never looked anything like a totem pole. It resembled a pile of lumpy, gray turds on a stick.

The Totem Pole was beyond boring. We asked Mrs. W. if there were any other activities we could do. She suggested a nature hike, and appointed Robert as the Hike Leader. She waved us out into her back yard, where Robert led us on a brisk rectangular march along the inside of the fence, an area about 20 by 30 feet. After the third, boring circuit, we all complained that this was no fun--and it was pretty cold. Robert stoutly resisted our repeated suggestions that we hike a few blocks to Van Cortland park, so we might have some actual fun. He began to cry when we tried to argue with him, and ran inside to get his Mom.

Mrs. W. came outside and yelled at us. She'd put on a hat with earflaps, I recall. It was her husband's and it made her look exceptionally strange. It was plaid, like her housecoat, but it clashed. She hopped about briefly in her house slippers and shrilly informed us that we were not to leave the yard, as she was responsible for our safety-- and no, she wouldn't take us to Van Cortland Park. She told us to identify the different trees, and to look for wildlife. She stomped inside, lighting up another Winston as she went.

There was one small, scraggly tree out there, near the fence. Everything was near the fence, actually. It was a very small yard. This was late January. The tree had no leaves on it, and none of us had the slightest idea what it was.

"I think it's an oak," said one kid.
"Naahhh, " answered another; "Too small. No acorns. It ain't an oak."
"Only ignorant people say 'ain't'! Maybe it is an oak, and they're just under the snow," whined Robert.
"Why don't you go dig 'em up and show 'em to us, smart guy?" suggested someone.

We stood there, stamping our feet and flapping our arms and rubbing our hands and staring at each other for a few minutes. Our noses were running.  A bird landed on a branch in the scraggly tree.
"Hey! We got wildlife," I said. Robert sniffled. We all stared at the bird. It was brown or gray and looked like a meatball with wings and skinny legs. God knows what kind of bird it was.
The absurdity of trying to be an outdoorsman in the middle of the Bronx Winter was very clear in my mind at that moment. I knew vividly right then that scouting wasn't for me. The bird coughed and flew away.

We all piled back into the basement, bringing along a few twigs we thought we might use on the totem pole, somehow. They were a dismal failure as Totem Pole Accessories, but then someone said "Maybe we can rub 'em together and make a fire. Indians do that, right?"
"Yeah! Sure they do! Let's try it!" chorused the rest of us.

Several minutes of rubbing and scraping and getting splinters yielded nothing. I spotted a box of matches on a workbench. Why it occurred to me to try a shortcut, I don't really know; mark it down to sheer boredom or my latent anarchic streak. Anyway, I lit one and a piece of the match head flew off and landed in the dusty curtains on one of the basement windows. They promptly burst into flames.

There ensued a huge flurry of activity as kids ran around, yelling and hooting, and generally being panicky and unhelpful. I knew I had to put out the fire, somehow, and-- seized by inspiration --I grabbed handfuls of the soggy, Papier-mâché mixture from the washtub and hurled it against the curtains. This worked pretty well, so the other kids started throwing the stuff, too-- except for Robert, who had peed in his pants and was alternately crying and yelling at the rest of us. In a minute or so, we were all heaving great, sodden wads of gray goop at the smoldering wreckage of Mrs. W's curtains. This brought the fire under control in a matter of moments-- and stuck the remnants of the curtains to the walls pretty effectively, too.

The combination of smoke from the burnt curtains, the reek of steaming Papier-mâché and the screams of pre-adolescent boys brought Mrs. W. scrambling down the stairs. "WHAT HAPPENED? OH, MY GOD! MY CURTAINS! WHO DID THIS?" she shrieked, as the smoke and steam rose ceilingward. Robert sobbed. Everyone else nervously shuffled away from me, but not much closer to him, as he seemed to maybe not quite be finished peeing. A dozen wide-eyed Scouts stared in my direction. "He did it, Mom! Jeffrey did it! I saw him!" hollered soggy, old Robert, pointing his stubby little index finger at me.

She surveyed her scorched curtains, which now looked like a race of giant, newspaper-chewing vandals had used them as Spitball Central, and she just went to pieces. I remember a lot of shrieking and then being hauled bodily up the stairs and pushed out her front door. "GET OUT! NEVER, EVER COME BACK HERE! YOU'RE NOT A SCOUT ANY MORE! " she yelled at me.

Thus ended my Scouting career. I wandered homeward. For the next few weeks, I was too afraid to tell my mom I'd been kicked out of the Cub Scouts. I'd leave the house at the usual time, go to the library and sit there reading like a fiend until it was time to go home. I devoured a lot of Hardy Boys books and Jack London adventures. After a few months, I simply told Mom the Troop had disbanded. I lost the uniform some time later, but I still have my Bobcat pin. I developed a serious love of literature that winter-- and a mistrust for authority, team activities and all male organizations that require uniforms and badges. I heard that Robert went on to work on Capitol Hill.

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