The startling release of Boy Scout sexual abuse files by an attorney from my home town, of Portland, Oregon prompted me to review my own history as a youngster with youth organizations. I recall certain experiences that caused profound psychological effects, possibly leading to what in the 80’s was popularly called “An Identity Crisis.”
It’s difficult to imagine a kid wrestling with an identity crisis at such a young age, but I exhibited this possibility when, as a very young child, I planned to succeed cowgirl Dale Evans as Roy Rogers’ partner or be the next Lois Lane at the Daily Planet. (In fact, for most of my life, I’ve lived a Walter Mitty existence. I’ve also imagined myself as Walter Mitty.)
But the more significant psychological torment began when my parents told me I was to attend kindergarten at Portland’s new Meriwether Lewis Elementary School. Although this sounded promising, the Portland School Board at the time apparently lacked confidence in Lewis or perhaps its new students, since classes only went up through the 4th grade.
The following year after kindergarten, which I aced, the school boundary changed. I was placed in first grade at Duniway Elementary School, ten blocks in the other direction from my house. I attended first and second grade at Duniway, an assuring stability, since I was assigned to the same kindly teacher for both grades, a Mrs. Vera Smith. She only punished me once by writing my name on the Utter Humiliation Board when she learned I’d been asking kids returning from receiving polio shots if the injections hurt. This offense was discovered after another student—Judy Cary— ratted me out. (I am hoping this disclosure and your sending this column to at least 100 people, will finally “out” Judy Cary as an informant.)
When I was eligible for third grade, the school boundary changed again and I was enrolled once more in Lewis School. I attended for two years since Lewis tentatively began adding one new grade level a year.
For fifth grade (you know what’s coming), the school boundary changed and I was back at Duniway School. I was there for four consecutive years, possibly because of the rumored assassination of the School Boundaries Clerk.
This see-sawing of school attendance at different locations might have caused identity crises for many children, but I always knew I was either a Lewis student or a Duniway student, depending on who was asking. I also recognized the advantage of knowing more people I’d later see or avoid at the magnet high school. (For the record, I attended one year at that high school and then, maintaining my consistent pattern, attended another high school across the Willamette River in downtown Portland.)
No, the identity crisis arrived because every time I changed schools (not counting high school), I needed to join a different youth organization. In second grade at Duniway, my parents signed me up for Bluebirds, the youngest age group for what was then the Camp Fire Girls. Bluebirds wore cute uniforms—navy vests and skirts, baseball hats, blouses with Peter Pan collars. As supervised by a stay-at-home mother, which 95% of mothers were at the time, our group mostly did small crafts like little leather coin purses “stitched” with shoelaces.
Years later I began to notice most of the small crafts I’d made mysteriously disappeared, although my parents assured me my artwork was packed away for safekeeping. These were the same parents who assured me my duckling Peeper had been sent to a farm family for safekeeping. (For further information on Peeper’s fate, see the online San Francisco Chronicle, “Pet Birds, They’re Not What’s For Dinner.” http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/Pet-birds-they-re-not-what-s-for-dinner-2514578.php.)
Back at Lewis School in third grade, I was compelled to enroll in the Brownies, then the youngest group of Girl Scouts. The Brownie Scout Handbook—–all youth organizations had handbooks—–showed little girls cavorting outdoors and inside, wearing light brown uniforms with beanies. Mostly we did small crafts under the guidance of a stay-at-home mother. (Please re-read last paragraph.)
The following year at Lewis, I was formally invested (as the term was used) and became a Girl Scout, with a new green uniform and sash. I met the requirements of the Tenderfoot Rank and later the Second Class Rank, which sounded demeaning but allowed me to begin earning proficiency badges. I learned one particular life-long skill—-emptying a tuna fish can, filling it with paraffin, lighting a string attached to the paraffin, putting the tuna can inside an empty upside down 46-oz Hawaiian Punch juice can and cooking a small pancake on top. This is one of the skills I’d always list on college applications and computer dating forms.
When I was back at Duniway, the predominant youth group was Camp Fire Girls. I didn’t dare reveal I’d been in the competing organization. For Girl Scouts I’d had to memorize the Girl Scout Promise, the Girl Scout Laws, the Girl Scout Motto, history of Girl Scouting, and the salute and handshake. Now I had to mentally dismiss all that and immediately memorize the Camp Fire Girl lore and requirements, including a progression of earned certificates—–Trail Seekers, Wood Gatherers, Fire Makers, and Torch Bearer.
The language of the certificates reflected the organization’s interest in camping, but the stanzas contained formal, stilted verse. The Wood Gatherers’ pledge began “As faggots are brought to the fire firmly held by the sinews which bind them…” My sophisticated Las Vegas cousin had once used the word “faggots,” which he’d defined but perplexed me, so that I had a bizarre visual image whenever I said the Wood Gatherers’ pledge.
One of the goals of the Camp Fire Girls was to earn colored beads, each representing a different skill, such as a red bead for health, blue bead for nature, yellow for business, etc. The Camp Fire Girl Handbook was filled with pages and pages of activities you could do and the beads you’d earn. I’d confidently go through the handbook and, to the irritation of the other untalented girls, I’d check off most of activities in each section, confident I’d done them.
The Camp Fire Group leader/mother was aghast at the number of my check marks, questioning my credibility. But I wasn’t deterred because I had visions of all the colorful beads strung and draping down my Indian ceremonial gown which my working mother would have to sew for me.
The Camp Fire Girls helped establish early, in fact, my mother’s duty to perform sewing machine assignments not only for Camp Fire Girls, but also for my 7th grade Home Economics (Home Ec) class when there were only three sewing machines per class that were bitterly contested by my classmates. Oddly, my mother never thanked me for giving her the opportunity to buy a treadle (foot-pumped) sewing machine so she could, for my Home Ec assignments, learn to sew a zipper in a skirt, stitch a blouse, and ultimately get to complete the skirt, all skills she should have acquired years before.
The only time I recall having a male youth group leader was when the father of a classmate, the former Duniway principal Dr. Patton, took us up one weekend to the regional Camp Fire Girls resident camp, Camp Namanu. My sister had stayed there one summer and reported she’d had a good time. The rustic forested camp contained a meadow and ponds, and bordered the treacherous Sandy River. With the usual Portland overcast gloom, our Camp Fire Girls’ group planned several indoor activities for where we’d stay, a two story wooden lodge known as Kiwanis that had been built in the mid-1930’s. Our bunk beds were located on the second floor with its fenced balcony that overlooked the main floor.
Looking back at that weekend at the sleepaway camp when a man conducted our program, I can safely say I was never the same because of what he did. On Saturday night, the night before we left, Dr. Patton told us to go to bed and after we complied, giggling and goofing off even as we lay on our beds, he began to talk. He spoke slowly from below us, downstairs, describing in an unusually somber voice about the legend of an animal, a beast that used to roam the forest near Camp Namanu.
I couldn’t see anything out beyond our balcony except for the few lights that were still on in the lodge’s kitchen.
There were a few nervous titters from the girls. Then “Shhhhhhhh!!” “Be quiet, you guys!” and “Shut up!” “Shhhh it!” More giggles.
A Varmint, Dr. Patton continued, was the creature who roamed the woods, drawn to campfires and voices. The smell of food, but especially human flesh. The Varmint, once seen, was described as “sort of like a wolf on all fours, but also like a werewolf, and he could scurry around quickly, sometimes noiselessly unless he was trapped, and then he’d smash and crash till he could leap and tear his way back into the woods.”
I sensed an uneasy silence that descended on the girls, but secretly I scoffed. I knew and could tell a lot of ghost stories. Like the Walking Bloody Hand. I’d whisper to friends how the Walking Bloody Hand could find its way to a house, the house where YOU LIVE. And then it comes up the stairs, slowly, slowly, slowly toward your room. Now it’s getting closer. And closer… And closer.
“And the Varmint has been seen not long ago,” Dr. Patton said, “possibly drinking at the river and scurrying through the brush. A cook here thought she saw it when she looked out the window one late afternoon.”
I tried to pull the sleeping bag over my head, but it won’t go any further. I burrowed down, remembering the Walking Bloody Hand. And now it’s outside your door. And now the knob turns slowly, slowly. And now it’s inside your room….and walking to your bed…..blood is dripping…..
I don’t remember my sister telling me about the Varmint. Why did she leave this part out? Dr. Patton’s just making this up, I know. I’ve never heard of a Varmint animal.
“What was that noise?” Dr. Patton sounded startled. Uneasily I looked up from my bed and tried to see downstairs, but there was only the yellow glow of the kitchen light. Nearby, girls lay frozen or crammed deep in their sleeping bags. One had a pillow over her head.
CRASH! BANG! BOOM! CRASH! CRASH! Something was smashing its way below us, through what–? Pots and pans?– scrambling to get out of the building.
Screams nearby. My heart pounded. My stomach jumped into my colon.
But Dr. Patton was still alive. I heard him laugh with gusto.
Then I heard him reassemble and put away in cupboards the collection of pots and pans we hadn’t seen. He wished us a good night.
When he turned out the kitchen light, I was deep in my sleeping bag, listening. That’s how I spent the night, listening.
Decades later, re-reading about the Boy Scouts cover-ups of abuses, I’d have to say that the one male leader of my youth organization never laid a hand on me. But he still had a deleterious effect on my psyche.
Proof? For one thing, from that night on, I always refused to wash any pots and pans.