Like an endless Italian opera, my Cub Scout life lasted four long years. During the early 1960s, it seems that every Catholic school boy was signed over to a Cub Pack Leader at birth, which is why I found myself spending a few hours each week in a den mother’s kitchen doing crafts, singing songs, and memorizing how to painlessly die from snakebite should a viper attach itself to a limb while roaming the alleys of Brooklyn.
The four acts I refer to stand for the four years we spent as Cub Scouts prior to becoming actual Boy Scouts. We were called Wolves the first year; Bears the second year; Lions the third year; and Webelos the fourth year. Great secrecy and penalties surrounded the mystery behind the origin of the name “Webelos.” I wish I could tell you how that name came about, but I was sworn to secrecy under pain of death. It’s true. Still, if you have time and a penchant for word puzzles, you can figure out how “Webelos” came about. It’s a little like kaballah, but minus the whole red string weirdness.
The first thing I notice about being a Cub Scout was that every other boy in Pack 53 was rough and tumble, and I was not. While I enjoyed activities like making flower pots from Crisco cans and clothespins, I was averse– nay, cowed– by group sports. Things like Tug-O-War, Three Legged Races, and Buck Buck made me feel inadequate and self-conscious. Had I been aware of it back then, I would have thought that my leanings were intellectual rather than physical; had I been both conscious and verbal, I would no doubt have been teased beyond endurance.
And there were lots of activities in which we were encouraged to shine. The Pinewood Derby was a race involving miniature wooden cars that we had to carve from balsa wood and then enter into annual competitions. Down a ramp they whizzed, cheered on by a mass of sweating Cubs, hirsute pack leaders, competitive den mothers– and the rare few kids like me, who really didn’t want to be there in the first place. (Odd… I avoided bonding with “kids like me” because I could easily see myself in them.) And each year there was a scandal involving a dad and his son who weighted their cars with tiny lead ingots so as to achieve greater speed. And these were Catholics! I tell you, it shook my faith in the Church. My car always putt-putted down the ramp like a puppy sniffing its way along the sidewalk, but at least it was honest.
While I could disappear into the crowd during Pack Nights, it wasn’t so easy during the weekly meetings at the homes of Den Mothers. These were affairs called Den Meetings, and usually involved a sweet snack; a sweet drink; and a not-so-sweet Den Mother. Well, maybe I was overly sensitive, but still– I’m just saying: these beehived, chain smoking, squinty-eyed dames intimidated me. Try as I might to curry favor, they always saw through my cherubic smoke screen, smelling the blood that leeched so freely from my poor psyche.
One memorable Pack Night featured a major competition between dens, during which we were made to play games in the middle of the auditorium, every eye anticipating the outcome. Even then it reminded me of the awful spectacles put on by Nero and Caligula, and I would wait my turn, sweating and shaking, only to be ultimately shamed on the arena floor. Not only was I acutely aware of being out of my element– I was acutely aware of being on the wrong planet entirely.
That night, I had to straddle a beige folding chair and face a boy from another den who was seated the same way. We were made to wear paper hats made from newspaper, and handed weapons fashioned from rolled newsprint. (We were into recycling decades ahead of everyone else.) The object of this exercise was to be the first to swat the hat off your opponent’s head when the signal was called. Well, I became distracted by the red velvet stage curtains and how evenly the folds fell, and in that instant my paper hat was swatted from my head and I lost that game for our team. It was my one chance to shine, but a dark cloud drifted across the sun of my youth and caused the Earth to grow cold. Mountain ranges groaned and heaved; glaciers calved and distant savannas shivered under a brutal, unforgiving rain…stunned silence reigned over all; and, somewhere, a dog barked.
The next day was our weekly Den Meeting. Mrs. Imbroglio presided. Her hair sprayed into submission, a pack of unfiltered Luckies at her elbow, she collected our twenty-five cents dues with a grimace. Behind her, the gummy stove top displayed our snack: Rice Crispy Marshmallow Squares. Eventually, styrofoam, pipe cleaners,and construction paper were produced.
“What’s that for?” I stupidly asked.
“Crescitelli… what’s the eleventh commandment?” Mrs. Imbroglio asked.
“Umm…there IS no eleventh commandment.”
“Yes there is… it’s ‘mind your own business.’ ”
All the other boys laughed. Stunned, I shut my mouth until Mrs. Imbroglio stated her views of our performance at Pack Night the previous evening. Admittedly, though no one had managed to lose a game within its first second like I had, we had performed abysmally.
“Whatsa matter with you guys?” she asked. “You shoulda done better than THAT.”
And I had to answer her; to this day, I don’t know why I did, but I did:
“Well, the other teams were really GOOD,” I said.
That was all I said. Mrs. Imbroglio fixed her Harlequined eyes on me, spewed smoke through her nostrils, and said “oh yeah? Ya think so? Boys… take Crescitelli out into the back yard and work him over.”
And they did. I was dragged out into our Den Mother’s innocent Brooklyn back yard by a half dozen Cub Scouts of assorted shapes, sizes, and smells, and basically pummeled. My glasses fell into the grass, far from my face, and I began to wheeze, eventually launching a hell of an asthma attack. Mrs. Imbroglio stood on her back steps, calmly smoking and overseeing the incident, hopefully making sure that I didn’t end up dead. The asthma did get her to call off her miniature pit bulls, and I was eventually escorted home by my suddenly contrite mates. I don’t remember what happened when I got to my house, but I can safely tell you that we did not enter a lawsuit against the entire Imbroglio clan. In those days, we were expected to take our lumps.
What did I come away with after my four years as a Cub Scout? We did manage to learn a lot of Irish drinking songs thanks to our Pack Leader, memorized during our many bus trips to far-flung educational sites: Philadelphia, museums in New York, the like… Songs like “Who Put the Overalls In Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” and “H-A-Double R-I-G-A-N Spells Harrigan” still resonate in my brain like crazed, caged monkeys trying to get out. Philadelphia? Arranged as a cub-and-family excursion, my grandmother wanted to come along with us, and I was thrilled because I loved her. We sat together on the bus; we latched onto two mothers and followed them into the Inner City because they seemed to know where they were going; and, in a crush of people, I fell forward and hit my head, hard, on the Liberty Bell. Dazed, I was led to the bus and made to rest with my grandmother, waiting until the Greyhound filled with Cubs and family for the long haul back to Brooklyn. Our Pack Leader gave a speech, reminding us of the next Pack Night, but he chose me for special recognition: “Crescitelli, you gonna bring Grandma?” Laughter… hoots, the usual.
Some things we’re cut out for; others we’re not. If children were allowed to choose for themselves what extracurricular activities they wanted to engage in, there would be a LOT more happy kids in this world. There came a day after my stint in the Webelos ended, and the Pack Leader asked me in front of Dad if I was ready to cross over to the Boy Scouts. Something dawned in me: a bright little sun all my own.
“No,” I said to the two of them. “No.”
“Why not?” I was asked incredulously.
And, like the title character to Addison near the end of All About Eve, I said “because I don’t want to.” And I didn’t.
But I’m not scarred after all this. Regardless of the circumstances, there were lots of positives in my life to outweigh the blue-and-gold weekly trauma; I endured it, made the best of it, and duly carted home the flower pots and handmade cards each week. Still, I wish a special Purgatory for Mrs. Imbroglio: her beehive reinforced with lead weights, she should be forced to drive to the A&P in a tiny racing car made of balsa wood, stopped by the police, and made to pay her fine in quarters.
And besides, I’ll bet I would have been a better Brownie.