Editor’s note: Matt Keenan is off this week. This column originally ran on July 4, 2009.
Growing up, my two brothers and I loved Boy Scouts.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
But back then Boy Scouts wasn’t like it is now. Today if a Scout can’t earn Lifesaving, he can earn something called “Emergency Preparedness.” Used to be, Eagle-required badges were non-negotiable. I knew kids who quit because they couldn’t save the portly adult leader in the deep end.
You see, chubby guy was a Scout Nazi. The kids who knew him in Troop 120 would say that’s being charitable. He was mean, old and did I mention obese? He also was covered in hair. What wasn’t hairy reflected more sun than the Hubble telescope. Other than that, he was charming.
Now you had to save his life, which meant reaching across his chest, strapping him to your back, and then pulling him to the pool edge without swallowing half the pool. And he would resist. He would fight you. “Drowning swimmers will take your life to save theirs,” he’d say.
Campouts were different back then, too. Nowadays many dads and even some moms go on campouts. You used to have just one leader, who tended to stay in his tent. The real leaders were the grown men — meaning Life Scouts — one rank below Eagle. Often they had beards. They brewed coffee in the morning, put mustard on their hot dogs and could attest to what Schlitz beer tasted like. They had girlfriends and drove Mustangs. Never mind that they were 15. They were über cool.
There were other differences. Back then the adults who conducted the Eagle board of review were men in their 70s who knew Scout movement founder Baden Powell personally. The review was like a Ph.D. exam. You could flunk it, and those who did, legend would go, snapped and spent the rest of their lives in a rubber room at Larned State Hospital, which was just 25 miles southwest of Great Bend.
So you earned all your badges and then crammed for the review. That meant memorizing Morse code, reviewing 20 different knots and preparing for preposterous emergency scenarios — “You are in a snowstorm, have no food, no clothing, no cover and a pack of wolves attack. How do you respond?” (Cue crickets chirping.)
But perhaps the biggest difference was how Scouts used to raise money.
The big ticket was firecracker stands. Every troop had a firecracker stand. Today it’s completely taboo. Not in 1972. My kid brother — not a day over 14 — was the manager of the Troop 120 stand.
Child labor laws were still evolving, obviously. His inventory could blow up Fort Knox. That gave Marty incredible power, which, of course, he abused. There were two things you absolutely positively could not do. The first was shoot any fireworks before July 4. Any loud bang resulted in a quick visit from the city police, who had lots of idle time.
You dared to demo the latest Black Cat, whiz-bang, smoke bomb, though. So Marty would authorize “demo tests” to make sure the Chinese had not sold us duds, provided you were the obligatory 200 feet from the stand.
The second banned activity was selling, possessing or firing bottle rockets. Renegade states such as Missouri and Oklahoma freely sold them, so naturally they infiltrated Barton County. And from time to time, the fire marshal would attempt to send over some undercover loser who would park, walk up to the stand, pretend to be an average customer and ask, “Got any rockets?”
It was a preposterous, laugh-out-loud cover. One time it was Harold “Buddy” Walters, whose name means nothing to you except he was the fire chief. Never bothered to ditch the uniform, apparently. Marty was on top of it immediately. “No sir. Rockets are illegal and very unsafe, too.” And then Buddy left, probably heading over to Troop 142’s stand.
We never sold rockets, but we darn sure shot them. And if a couple shake shingle roofs were in jeopardy, it was all part of celebrating the nation’s birthday. Life was never better.
Happy July 4!