Boy Scouts

Boy Scouts: A Brand You Can Trust

When they came at me with the branding iron, I began to wonder whether my decision to join the Boy Scouts was a mistake.

But it was too late.

Running would have been futile. We were way out in the woods, and a fat kid like me wouldn't get far--the older scouts would track me like a deer and bring me back squirming in a sack.

Had I actually read Lord of the Flies, instead of just faking the book report, I might have thought, "Man, this is SO Lord of the Flies!"

Except the adults were in on it too. In fact, one of them was holding the branding iron.

But he wasn't gay, and that's what counts.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America have the right to block gays from their organization.

Not surprising. The Boy Scouts are a living, breathing slice of Reagan's Fantasy America, based on God-and-country principles that still appeal to many while strongly evoking values of suburban 1950's. The Airstream Trailer of youth groups.

I was a scout for years, and frankly I think knowing a "cool" gay adult (meaning he'd let us build fires visible from Skylab) would have been good for us. We were homophobic little creeps.

Until the original lawsuit leading to the Supreme Court decision was filed in New Jersey, the BSA had no formal, written policy on homosexuality. There was no chapter in the Boy Scout Handbook called "Don't be Gay." The BSA probably understood, better than Clinton did, that it would lead to a political quagmire. In fact, they ended up right where the military did: Don't ask, don't tell.

Back to the closet, gentlemen. The Progressiveness merit badge is no longer offered.

There are over 120 merit badges left to choose from, but most of the list reads like a catalogue of boring high school science films from 1964: Beekeeping; Machinery; Surveying; Farm mechanics; Pulp and paper; Railroading; Electronics. All very blue collar.

In the Girl Scouts, you get a number of very different badge choices to go with your pink collar: Art to Wear; Caring for Children; Outdoor Cook; Healthy Relationships; Horse Fan (formerly Horse Lover)(really!); Being My Best (formerly My Self Esteem); and of course Looking Your Best.

For some reason they discontinued Girls Are Great. Maybe they sold it to the Boy Scouts.

It's easy to make fun of the Girl Scouts, but I know former members fully willing to take up their marshmallow skewers and defend the honor of the institution.

And though I'm down on the BSA on certain issues, it was certainly better for me than watching TV or playing baseball. Scouts often do lots of good community work, and I learned plenty of useful skills. Knot tying may seem corny, but I've noticed that some women get all friendly when they learn that I know over twenty knots. They probably just want me to help them move, but still, the attention's nice.

I'm still a little pissed off about the branding, though, even 30 years later. In my troop, they branded all the new scouts at their first overnight trip. Laramie? Dallas? Try San Mateo. I was 11. I was afraid.

The other scouts were quick to ease my mind. "You'll squeal like a pig, Davis." I prayed I'd maintain at least that level of dignity.

There's a big campfire for the ceremony. They've got a real branding iron with a big T in the middle and a 2 and a 7 on either side. Troop 27. The troop sings songs while it heats.

The Scoutmaster tests the iron on a log, burning T27 into the bark. Then four of us new guys are marched off into the dark woods, waiting to be made into men.

Danny is the first to go. Through the trees I hear a growing cheer from the crowd, and then a scream. Danny. The bastards.

They chant as I'm half-dragged to the fire. "Davis! Davis! Davis!"

The branding iron is sized up against my bare chest, and I feel its heat. I think, what's this going to smell like? That's when I lose it.

Don't bet against the fat kid when panic's on his side. The two thugs holding my arms don't even see it coming. By the time they hit the ground, I've plowed into the mob, swinging. But I'm hopelessly outnumbered. Pinned to the ground, blindfolded, I hear the troop's cheer building, and then a sensation of heat.

The blindfold comes off. Someone writes "T27" on me with an iodine pen, right where the hot leather glove had been pressed. Urgent, hushed voices tell me to scream.

Goodness, did I forget to scream?

I scream.