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Feature Story

Cruel Summer

There is No Merit Badge for Torture

Chuck Shacochis

Sizzlin Summer 2004

Hot? Or Not? City Paper's 2004 Sizzlin' Summer Guide

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Heat Stroke Kayak Commuting Puts You Up the Inner Harbor With a Paddle | By Lily Thayer

Cruel Summer There is No Merit Badge for Torture | By Gabriel Wardell

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A La Curb A Guide to Dining Outdoors in Baltimore | By Richard Gorelick

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By Gabriel Wardell | Posted 5/26/2004

To Camp! To Camp!

Camp! There's a word that's filled with adventure for every real boy! Camp stands for freedom, fun and adventure!

Camp is the high spot of your free and happy Scouting life. You'll learn more about Scouting in a few days in camp than you'll learn in months in the patrol den or the troop room.*

Fetus was a troublemaker. All throughout camp, his behavior epitomized what we referred to as "down slope." A shameless kiss-ass when authority figures were about, Fetus was the kind of kid who was always, always, always in the middle of some kind of trouble. Bullying younger boys. Telling lies. Picking fights. Tattletaleing. Talking back. Spreading malicious rumors. Cutting lashings on other kids' pioneering projects. Sneaking around after lights out. Stealing cigarettes. Making trouble.

Like most kids, he earned his moniker as a first-year camper. At 10, his oversized head proved hilariously out of proportion with his diminutive frame. As he grew older, his trunk filled out to the extent that he no longer resembled a concentration-camp bobble-head. Kids outgrew nicknames like Fuzzy, Zipperhead, Barnacle, Doughboy, and Damien, but Fetus stuck long after others had shed their Tenderfoot names.

Your Life as a Scout

Today you are an American boy. Before long you'll be an American man. It is important to America and to yourself that you become a citizen of fine character.

For most people, the mere mention of the Boy Scouts conjures images of Norman Rockwell paintings: wholesome, milk-drinking, meat loaf-eating, Eisenhower-era crew-cut future dittoheads, tying knots and pitching tents, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. Neckerchief- and khaki-clad young lads in knee-high olive stockings and fire engine red berets helping old ladies across the street. Turning good deeds. Being prepared.

I've seen troops hustling though the airport en route to some jamboree or other and thought to myself, What a bunch of assholes. Worse than the kids are the troop leaders. Grownups dressed like kids, and without fail, the uniform is too small, and the leader's bulbous belly threatens to burst the brittle buckle of the BSA-issue belt. (Clearly these leaders are more concerned with the part of the Scout Oath to be "morally straight" than to be "physically strong.")

Despite my hostility to Boy Scouts as a concept, I was, in fact, a Boy Scout. Not someone who flirted with scouting and then outgrew it when his voice cracked either. I was an Eagle Scout. In for the duration, from 10-and-a-half to my 18th birthday. Along the way, I received the Top Scout honor from my troop and was granted entry into the Order of the Arrow.

The fact that the Boy Scouts of America now behaves like the de facto youth program for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and that the organization has waged fierce legal battles to defend discriminatory policies against atheists and homosexuals, makes it difficult to defend fond memories of my own formative years as a Scout.

Perhaps I distance myself from it all because I always thought of my troop as different. For one, we were larger. While most troops met in den mother's living rooms, our Baltimore-area troop--more than 100 boys strong--filled an entire recreation hall. Our scoutmaster, an eccentric scientist who married into the DuPont family, opened the basement laboratory and the backyard of his own palatial home to the kids of the troop every weekend. The lab was always alive with activity as kids gathered to work on badges, play pick-up football, conduct scientific experiments, or gather round and listen to the old man ruminate on space travel, extraterrestrial life, getting kicked off the Manhattan Project, or his disputes with Albert Einstein.

Inspired by the pioneering spirit of the robust old scoutmaster, we put significant emphasis on rank advancement and intellectual development, taking the "or" options out of BSA merit-badge and rank requirements, opting instead for the all-inclusive "and" clauses. We also demanded that our Eagle Scouts mount service projects that more than doubled the requisite man-hours, and the Old Man added badges like Pioneering, Cooking, and Hiking to the comparatively lax official BSA requirements.

Attaining the rank of Eagle was a priority, and to date my old outfit has produced more Eagle Scouts than any other single troop in the country (291, currently). The retention rate once Scouts achieve Eagle is staggeringly high. Most kids lose interest in scouting sometime in their early to mid-teens, usually thanks to a moment of realization that wearing a beret and badge sash lands one a few rungs on the social hierarchy beneath even the chess club, the mathletes, and the Dungeons and Dragons role playas.

But we didn't wear those hideous uniforms--or rather, our uniforms spent 360-odd days in the closet and were reluctantly worn to a handful of ceremonial events. We had badges, but we didn't need no stinkin' badge sashes. We fashioned ourselves renegades. We flouted the conventions of the Boy Scouts of America and followed our own path. And our strength in numbers and our superiority in advancement gave the Joe Boy Scouts something to suck on while they thought about it.

Summer Camp

Camp! Just breathe the word. Immediately you think of days full of excitement. You think of a tent under the open sky, of bacon sizzling in the pan. You imagine yourself sitting with your best friends at night around a blazing fire.

Summer camp was the centerpiece of our year. While most BSA-sanctioned troops in the Baltimore Area Council flocked en masse to Broad Creek in Harford County for the equivalent of a time-share camping convention of area troops, we took the initiative to secure our own property, build our own camp, and run our own program--with emphasis on advancement symposia, as much as independence. Our camp, a large Chesapeake Bay waterfront nestled on the edge of some Eastern Shore farmland and buffered by a quarter-mile-thick canopy of woods, provided the picturesque setting for the annual two-week sojourn. More than 100 kids divided into five patrols: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon--an exclusive camp site just for the Eagles.

The individual patrol sites degenerated quickly from plush grass oases in the woods into shantytowns of tents, ranging from enormous old-style canvas numbers to the ubiquitous dome tents, christened and known forever more as "earth tits." The skyline of tents would then be framed by clotheslines draped with drying towels, tarp pavilions, a maze of swinging net hammocks, lawn chairs, and finally wood-work pioneering projects such as self-sustaining towers, tripods, picket fences, bridges, and "piss piers," constructed downwind, so one could enjoy the true outdoor camping experience of peeing off a precipice.

Style points had to be awarded to the twisted bastard one year who showcased his superiority with lashings and knots by erecting a fully functioning gallows on which he proceeded to stage mock executions, complete with pillowcases covering the heads of the condemned, and impressionable Scouts acting the role of bloodthirsty medieval peasantry. A slip knot in the noose allowed for the most dramatic climax. The hapless victims were spared, but nevertheless scared.

It would be disingenuous to suggest there was no adult supervision. Of course there were dads about, as well as a patrol of assistant scoutmasters. But the real day-to-day operation of camp remained the domain of the Eagles. Dads oversaw the kitchen like mavens, completing a handful of daily chores and taking advantage of downtime to pursue leisure activities of their own, pitching in to lead bike trips or read stories at night. Likewise, the assistant scoutmasters counseled merit badges and supervised the Eagle staff. But mostly, in the seclusion of the woods, they allowed the Eagles some room to work, deferring to them on all internal housekeeping matters.

The laissez-faire stance by the adult leaders lent credence to the Eagles' authority. As an Eagle, you felt legitimately in charge, responsible for the kids. And the adults tended to turn a blind eye to the Eagles' own brand of mischief, respectfully honoring Epsilon's sovereignty (the site was off-limits to adults), relying on "what we don't see can't hurt us" as a de facto rationale and accepting, within reason, a "boys will be boys" doctrine.

In Camp

You'll have a glorious time. But you'll do more than that. You'll build up your health and your strength. You'll learn to be resourceful, self-reliant. You'll deepen your love of nature. You'll come to appreciate our country's natural resources. And in camp you'll learn to get along with others.

Summer camp provided everyone an annual shot at redemption and reinvention, serving as a measuring stick as one's character formed and developed from year to year. Miraculous transformations found one-time bullies blossoming into effective patrol leaders once they learned restraint, demonstrated responsibility, and earned legitimate respect without relying solely on intimidation. Likewise, the scrawny hazing victim might mature into a brick shithouse, and having taken his lumps in stride, he now empathized with the little ones, serving as a protector or guardian.

Fetus changed not at all. At 15, he carried the pattern of behavior that had gotten him kicked out of at least one prep school into the off-season. He was the worst kind of difficult teen: a privileged child, whose hotshot daddy, between business acquisitions and trophy-wife conquests, bought Fetus' way out of trouble as his son smashed his share of clean slates.

At camp, Fetus found new and interesting ways to piss people off. Underachieving in advancement, his peer group surpassing him, he had begun to curry favor by acting out, pulling center-of-attention type stunts. Fetus wanted to be liked but never enough so to get his act together and behave.

Playing with a can of bug spray and a lighter one afternoon, Fetus quickly drew an audience. Lighting ants on fire with his blowtorch, the sinister ringleader began to seek out bigger prey. A toad would be ideal, but no one could produce one on short notice. A box turtle--that was easy.

The baby turtle had been adopted by Beane, a first-year camper, as a temporary pet/mascot. He had proudly built a little twig pen for it and was making a fuss over feeding it. Homesick kids sometimes need this sort of project. Nurturing the turtle made Beane feel important and in command of his own destiny.

While he was off collecting insects and such to feed to his pet, Fetus snatched the pet from the pen and lacquered it with bug spray. The turtle withdrew inside its protective shell. Then Fetus put him down, calmly struck a match and lit the shell on fire.

The turtle's appendages emerged from their casing, the legs scratching, attempting to escape. Fetus pressed the button on the spray can, discharging another hefty dose of flammable mist, the fire blossoming much to the delight of the other boys. The turtle moved with uncharacteristic haste.

As Beane approached, he saw the commotion, heard the laughter, and rushed to join in the fun. He was horrified at what he found.

"Stop that!" he cried as Fetus, egged by a group of kids, blasted the turtle with a merciless stream of flammable liquid. The inferno had spread from the turtle's back to its head and legs, which were moving slowly under the relentless torrent of flames.

"Napalm!" Fetus cried, resurrecting the dancing flames to white-hot intensity with another squirt. "Like a dirty fucking gook!"

"Stop it!" Beane implored again. "Put it out!"

"You want me to put it out?" Fetus taunted. The turtle continued writhing around.

"Yes!"

"OK," Fetus obliged. "But remember, you asked me to!"

And with that, he stomped on the flaming turtle's shell, crunching it into a pulpy mass.

Be Careful With Fire

As a Scout and camper you will know exactly what to do to have a safe fire. You will know how to build a proper spot for it. You will make sure it cannot possibly spread. You will put it dead-out after use.

Epsilon was the only campsite allowed to build a fire. First-year Eagles performed the nightly ritual of building and managing it. Even at the top, there is a hierarchy. Good fire-tending ensured a roaring blaze deep into the night.

The Epsilon fire had to burn bright and high as it was the focal point of social activity, a hearth surrounded by confiscated chairs, a pyre in which we sacrificed our civilized selves and surrendered to the natural chaotic order of wild adolescence.

Without meaning to state the obvious, it bears repeating that, at its core, a fire is hot. When a campfire is raging, one can offer to it the following items and find no evidence of them the next day: glass bottles, aluminum cans, lawn chairs. You can poke at the warm gray ashes in the morning, searching for remnants of the bounty--a bolt, or a cap--and there will be nothing. The ashes are fine, and the matter dispersed.

When doused with kerosene or Coleman fuel, a campfire spits a wicked flare. The effect often appears more magnificent than it is, creating a flourish that dies down as suddenly as it was awakened.

At one point in time, the preferred method of interrogation and retribution at camp involved stoking the fire. In a process called "Iron Chair," a subject would be blindfolded, brought to Epsilon, duct-taped to a lawn chair, placed at the edge of the fire, and asked questions until offering a confession or expressing remorse. The angry fire provoked and convinced, aided by cups full of kero. But this practice was retired when a stubborn subject faced the questioning unflinchingly and suffered second-degree burns about the legs and chest when the sadistic interrogator got a little happy with the fuel.

Control Yourself

There is a constant battle going on inside all of us. Sometimes a fellow feels like kicking up in an outburst of temper--the next moment he is too lazy to do anything. The main thing is to be strong enough to suppress these moods.

Justice for Fetus arrived quietly, in the middle of the night.

Four of us--Homer, JT, the Hand, and I--armed with supplies, set out on the mission. We were prepared.

The Hand was the Dean of Discipline, and it was his plan we set out to execute. His name branded him the handyman--which turned out to be prophetic, seeing how he is now a surgeon, but this transpired long before that. Resourceful, clever, and intuitive, the Hand could surmise a situation, find a weak spot, and strike. Homer was big and brooding, a thinker. He was the kind of guy who knew everything there was to know about anything, but he was an angry drunk, infected with a wicked temper that sometimes found him with a Maglite pummeling someone who dared challenge his intellectual authority. He was also the epitome of the guardian angel type exacting revenge on those who would torment younger Scouts. JT was a crazy, wiry fucker. He rounded up the supplies: rope, a gag and blindfolds (those neckerchiefs are good for something after all), a walkie-talkie, and a flashlight. Then there was me--I carried "the goodies."

The plan: storm Fetus' tent, grab him, gag him, blindfold him, bind his hands. Take him silently, without disturbing the sleep of the kids around him

It was dark, save for the narrow, fluttering beams from the flashlights. The cacophony of insects and night critters filled the air. The foliage was moist with night dew, and the summer nighttime humidity was thick and oppressive.

"Try and keep up," I whispered into his ear. "You'll only make it worse for yourself."

We led Fetus by his bound wrists along familiar paths before venturing into denser terrain, in search of a secluded point. Fetus stumbled on a tree stump and dropped hard to the ground.

"Quit stalling!" Homer barked, delivering an abrupt blow to Fetus' ribs. He winced, stood up, and continued.

We didn't remove his gag until we were far enough out of range that he couldn't disturb the silent night that blanketed the camp.

"What the fuck, you guys, c'mon?" he whined.

"Shut up!" Homer ordered.

"You shoulda thought of that before," JT added.

"That's the spot," the Hand said, pointing to a small clearing. His flashlight revealed a raspberry bush and a tree. Wilderness Survival class had been through earlier in the day, citing the locale as one source for edible sustenance in the woods.

At night, in the woods, the most mundane daytime surroundings take on a sinister, haunted personae. This spot, potential salvation to a lost and hungry camper by day, became its dark inverse parallel by night.

"What the . . . ?" Fetus began.

"I thought I told you to shut the fuck up," Homer repeated, this time demonstrating his effective backhand. "Do you realize that torturing animals is like one step away from being a fucking serial killer?"

Hand intervened: "Homer! We're not here for a sociology lesson."

JT and I moved in with the supplies. Fetus was still blindfolded. We tied a rope around the tree and slipped the knot through the binding on his hands. He now had to sit, with his hands behind his back, bound to the tree.

I pulled down his army fatigues, exposing his skinny legs and tighty-whities.

"No, please don't leave me alone," Fetus begged. "C'mon, guys, this is so uncool."

This is where we waited a beat.

"Oh, we wouldn't think of it," Hand explained. "We've decided to make sure you have company out here in the woods. "

"What?" Fetus asked.

"Raccoons. JT, if you would do the honors."

JT removed Fetus' blindfold and gagged his mouth. He was free to see what befell him, but we were sick of his attempts to reason. We made a show of the presentation.

"And as an added incentive," Hand continued, "we are going to treat you to double snacks!"

Upon which, I took three-quarters of an uneaten food-service cherries jubilee cake and hurled it at Fetus' petrified face.

With delight, JT and I produced an industrial-size food-service bag of Cap'n Crunch, and a tub of maple syrup.

JT handed me his Swiss army knife, which I used to stab a dozen or more holes into the lid of the massive paint can-sized container.

I drizzled syrup over him with the devotion of a priest, slathering his body with the thick contents of the entire can, taking care to coat his naked legs.

Once he was sufficiently sticky, like a tar and feathering of yore, JT, Homer, the Hand, and I pelted him point blank with handfuls of Cap'n Crunch.

We roared in delight as the sugar cereal adorned his torso, arms, legs, and hair. Fetus closed his eyes and blinked wildly to avoid a direct hit. Homer snatched the bag and poured the crumbs over his head.

Homer then pointed the flashlight directly in his face: "Now, little bitch, we're going to leave you here. For the raccoons."

Homer removed the gag.

Fetus tried one last stab at mercy: "You can't do this. I could get rabies."

To which Hand responded, "Yeah, do you know how many shots to the stomach you get with that long needle . . . a lot."

As we gathered up our stuff, Hand offered, "We'll cut you a break."

Fetus: "Don't leave."

"We'll also be leaving you with this walkie-talkie. So we can monitor you like a little baby."

From Boy to Man

At the age of 13, 14 or 15 (sometimes earlier, sometimes later) you not only grow, but many changes take place in your body. Your voice deepens, your sex organs mature. These changes are caused mainly by the function of the sex glands, or testicles. They produce fluids that have a great effect on your development. While all this is going on you may be wondering what is happening to you. You may have strange feelings that you have never had before. There are so many questions you would like to have answered.

As Eagles, we retired to the fire nightly to discuss, debate, drink, and bullshit. This night would be no different. Sunrise remained a few hours away, and this had been an especially eventful night. A boom box provided background music while the conversation, like the fire itself, raged on. Typical topics of conversation ranged from which of the Golden Girls you'd fuck if forced, to who had the hottest sister, to who would start on the all-time all-Oriole team.

As we returned from our sortie, this was the topic at hand. I overheard the assertion that Mark Belanger was still the best shortstop, and maybe Cal could make the team as a DH. Someone else piped in that Reggie Jackson's rent-a-year in Baltimore still qualified him for a spot on the team--and maybe he should be the DH.

When they noticed our arrival, the Eagles eagerly jumped up, demanding details of the interrogation.

The Hand signaled to lower the music and produced the walkie-talkie, from which a tinny disembodied voice cried out, "Guys? You there?"

Laughter erupted, followed by shushes as the walkie continued.

"What's that? Hey. Stop. I'm serious!"

More laughter as Homer settled down to tell the complete story. He recounted the details, embellished the facts, and took whatever liberties were needed to capture the desired effect. This is what all good storytellers must do, especially when sitting in front of a fire.

Even while Fetus remained alone, scared.

I sat with the group, but I was no longer interested in what they had to say. I found myself transfixed by the majestic, mystical, mesmerizing honesty of the fire.

Steadfast in its mission, a fire consumes its fuel supply with indifferent efficiency. A gust of wind might send a stream of smoke in your eyes, to which you must retort "I hate rabbits!" to send the unwelcome intrusion elsewhere.

As the fire burned, bark pockets popped, kicking up sparks of confettilike embers into the night sky. The glowing glints flowed upward and dissolved into the backdrop of stars, which glistened before the infinite darkness behind them all.

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More from Gabriel Wardell

Parting Shots (9/14/2005)
The easiest way to tell when Tim McCarver is going to be wrong about something is to note when he is speaking.

Macro and Micro (9/7/2005)
The "Oriole Way" has become synonymous with "half-assed."

Chokerís Wild (8/31/2005)
Wild Card Races Are Bullshit.

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