A few months ago news came out about a racially motivated incident at a Boy Scout camp in the south. Reading through the accounts which have been published by various news outlets, there doesn’t seem to be a clear motive or string of events. Just a precipice incident: a young Scout, an immigrant to this country, was subject to some rough language and rock throwing at the hands of other Scouts in MAGA hats.
I was not there. I do not know any details about the groups or individuals involved. I know for sure that what was seen and reported is just a drop in the bucket of what that kid likely dealt with that week. I know because I have seen it play out dozens of times through the years. It will continue to happen for decades to come.
On the surface, The Boy Scouts of America is exactly what you expect it to be. A group of well-meaning citizens in well-pressed uniforms living up to oaths, community service and building bonds that will last a lifetime. However, the way those bonds are built is by installing a vicious “us versus them” mentality. Community service is great, but make sure your community is served first. Games of Capture The Flag teach competition. ROPES courses reveal the weakest links – if one of us fails, all of us fails.
It is no surprise that most of the reported story in Alabama has been denied or contested, or that the family wants to remain anonymous. Instead of finding out what really happened it has turned into a game where the winners are whoever can cover their ass the best. Of course, no adult supervision was around to see exactly what was happening. Although, one of the Scoutmasters:
“We have African-American kids in our own group,” Spiegel said. “I don’t think it’s a story. I’ve seen a lot worse things happen at camp.”
Seen a lot worse? Yeah, me too.
When teenage boys are left to their own devices they get bored, seek the approval of their peers, and some horrendous things happen as a result. Hazing tops the list. This is also when various small forest creatures are captured and tortured, anthills set on fire, or when fireworks take off fingers.
In 1906 Lord Baden Powell saw a population of post-war teenage boys in London’s urban environment without much to do. Were there another war, these kids would be eaten alive by the enemy. Growing up in a city during an industrial revolution, few had the rough-and-tumble upbringing that Powell and the returning war veterans had.
In 1907 Powell hosted his first camp on Brownsea Island. The Boy Scouts were officially established in 1910. William Golding would publish Lord of The Flies in 1954. I’m certain these dates are not coincidental. From the uniforms, the patrols, the idealism of survival – the Boy Scouts were developing concepts of tribalism in young men since its inception. Today, it is the exact same. Uniforms, patches denoting different troops, patrols (tribes), and an environment that nurtures the idea of letting boys be boys because that is how we create a solid generation of men.
During my 15+ years as a Scout I spent many summers at camps all over the country. As I got older and looked for summer jobs, they usually ended up being at these camps where I instructed shooting sports or served as a backpacking guide. During those years, I fell witness to numerous events that were not unlike what happened in Alabama. I’ve had ribs broken and entire bags of gear destroyed. There were nights I retired to unpleasant surprises left in my sleeping bag and been thrown out of sleep from collapsing tents, water, and the senseless shitheadery of boys being boys. I’ve seen, been the target of, and witness to retaliation from punching to a stabbing.
Every single time, witness or participant, the result is the same. It is as though they have it down to a science. Clean it up, keep it out of the courtroom.
One of the more severe instances I felt witness to was my last year of working at a camp in the Rocky Mountains. I’ve never talked about it to anyone. I hadn’t’ even recalled it until I read through the circumstances of the Ethiopian kid in Alabama. I’m not sure what the statutes of limitations are. I’m not sure I care either.
I hadn’t intended on working at a camp on that particular summer, but a bad romantic breakup had me needing space between myself and the city. Late in the Spring, the camp called me asking if I wanted to participate with their staff that year. Not that I had any particular skill sets to offer, they just needed to cover their insurance liability by adding one more legal adult to their roster.
Any 18-year-old with a pulse would have done just fine.
For that summer I would sleep in a bunkhouse with eight other men and spend my days fixing mountain bikes that were persistently abused by Scouts must have been clueless as to how a bicycle worked. The bike shop was on the back side of the building used for leather and woodworking classes. Among the group of leatherworking instructors was that year’s camp intern. I think his name was Ryan, he was 13 years old and the most excited person to be at the camp.
About halfway through the season, I had smoked every cigarette I had, and the stash of beer I had hidden in the back of the bunkhouse fridge was almost gone. Fixing bikes had gotten dull and I had shifted into a minimal-work mode.
That afternoon a rainstorm had moved down the canyon. No one was riding bikes. Everyone was under the awning working with leather and wood to keep idle hands busy. When the rain broke I was summoned over the radio to the camp office where Ryan was sitting out front, bawling his eyes out. The kid had been fired. Me and Philip – a 19year old from Britan who was visiting for the summer, were to take Ryan back to his home.
The story goes: Ryan had stabbed a camper.
I gladly agreed to take him. It was a three-hour drive to the city, where cigarettes were sold and I could get a decent meal while I was at it.
We weren’t ten minutes down the road when Ryan asked from the back seat: “Does anyone want to hear my side of the story?”
I tell him I don’t care. He launches into it anyway.
The camper had stabbed himself; a slip of a woodworking knife. The campers that week had also known Ryan for years through school and didn’t care for him. After a week of picking on him, it wasn’t too far of a jump to claim that Ryan had stabbed one of their tribe.
So the story went: Ryan stabbed a camper.
The camp dismissed Ryan immediately to cover their ass. Apologies were issued and lawsuits were threatened and never pursued. The only person who was even remotely punished as the 13-year-old who was having the time of his life.
No one ever pursued a potential criminal charge of an alleged stabbing.
No one ever followed up with the kid who allegedly stabbed himself to see if self-harm was a habit he entertained.
I doubt anyone in the camp’s office or the associated council wanted to spend another moment thinking about it. The camp had a rough summer. A weird romance had resulted in a fight over one of the female staff members. The aquatics director died suddenly. A visiting Scoutmaster endured a heart attack. Each a great story for another time. Point being: the paperwork had stacked high enough, and there was still four weeks to go.
Ryan’s mom wasn’t thrilled to see him home before the season ended. I never saw the kid again. Philip and I had a burger and beer before the drive back to camp. A few weeks later the Scouting chapter of my life came to a complete close. I started my last year of college, dealt with the woman who dumped me last Spring and dropped the last of my uniforms in a Goodwill donation box.
US and THEM to a 13-year-old is the definition of everything they do. At a certain point, most of us grow out of this mentality. Others double down on it. Some of us stop wearing patches and brands, and others define their wardrobe with them.
The immigrant child in Alabama most certainly had rocks and slurs thrown at him. It likely ruined his experience at the camp and will always fuck with his idea of what it is to be in tribal America. I’m willing to bet the incident was only the precipice of what he endured that week and the only event that was reported. The kid likely had toothpaste squeezed into his shoes and pinecones stuffed into his sleeping bag. Money was stolen, and his food was spat in. He likely only spoke up because he couldn’t stand it otherwise.
All of these are teachable moments. But how do you teach it? As a way to define the need for teamwork and inclusivity? Or a justification as to why you should strengthen the bonds of your tribe and further vilify the THEM?
So yeah, I believe the kid from Ethiopia.