The Cub Scouts– A Tragedy In Four Acts

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.

A Domestic Trilogy #3 — Home Improvements

I am currently in the process of denuding this house of all its flotsam and jetsam. Fifty-two years worth of accumulated papers, mementos, and tchotzkes have managed to gum up my life to such an extent that, like alter ego Tabitha Twitchett Danvers in Diary of A Mad Housewife, I lie awake nights roaming mentally from room to room rearranging, dusting, organizing, and cleansing. I’ve already burnt up one shredder after forcing it into overtime, and I’ve bought every large black plastic garbage bag that I can find. We are reassessing everything we own, and things are either being sold on eBay, brought to charities, or mailed to friends and family. Who needs stuff anymore? Certainly not I.

 

The positive side to all this is that one succeeds in slimming down one’s baggage; the negative side is that, once that baggage is done away with, you discover floors and storage space and walls that suddenly need drastic attention. Normally I’d spend a day off at the monastery over in St. Leo, or buying yarn, or reading, or napping; however, in light of the aforementioned improvements, here is a typical Day Off for me lately…

8:00 AM. Awake to the alarm, thinking instantly of To Do list on kitchen table. Lurch out of bed with Good Intentions; after stumbling around blindly inserting contact lenses and hearing aids, fall exhausted back into bed for another hour.

9:00 AM. De-gum contact lenses from eyeballs with tap water because you’re still out of solution; remove hearing aids prior to showering so as to avoid yet another lecture from ENT man. Notice grout around tub is in serious state of decay.

9:30 AM. Load car with bottled water; CD of obscure girl group non-hits; Jitterbug cell phone; and To Do list.

9:45 AM. Arrive at The Home Depot, and wonder aloud to self why “The” is necessary in store’s logo, when “The” is not used with Publix, Target, or Palmer’s Nursery. Congratulate self on high state of intellectual meandering at this early hour.

9:50 AM. Experience usual sense of inadequacy upon entering this mecca of hardware masculinity. Realize, once again, that I don’t know what half these things are, and whether or not my home needs them. Finnegan pins? Upindirts? Loddurs? It’s all Greek to me.

Upon finally locating bathroom fixture aisle, which is approximately six miles from the front entrance, I am faced with grout color choices: is grout White, Bright White, Off White, Ecru, Beige, Light Beige, Sand, or Greige? Have no idea. Choose tube of Off White, as everything in house is already slightly “off” due to budget constraints of 1980 builder’s market.

Dryer vent presents next challenge: do I want aluminum stretchy accordion-looking thingies, or white plastic stretchy thingies? Which is better? Floor help, up to now as thick as thieves, suddenly nowhere in sight. Choose aluminum stretchies, fondly recalling tin man costume from Wizard of Oz.  Sing “If I Only Had A Heart,” much to confusion of officious looking young lady in floor tiles, who materializes like succubus around next bend, laden with keys.

Electric aisle presents further choices: need new control for ceiling lights in kitchen– amperes, voltage, ohms… single, double… Beige or White or Sand face plate? Choose double grounded Clown motif, round nose on / off switch providing whimsical slant to late night refrigerator raids.

Having saved worst for last, it is time to choose new toilet seat. Choices are endless, and am amazed and chagrined at extent of human capacity for designing something that Nice People just don’t talk about. (Fondly remember Aunt Theresa, who bought softy toilet seat in 1960s… and then returned it years later when it had lost its spring.) Choose standard, non-skid model, one size fits all. Embarrasedly parade it through store to checkout counter.

12 PM. At home. Install toilet seat. Refrain from performing test drive. Apply bandaid to forehead thanks to wound incurred when raising head a bit too quickly after tightening plastic screws while in impossibly convoluted position. (Note to self: see if position ranks within hoary pages of Kama Sutra.)

12:30 PM. Apply a particularly neat line of caulk around tub and in odd places where original grout has come away. Stand back and admire work while accidentally stepping on tube of caulk. Find alcohol so as to remove caulk from floor, walls, new toilet seat, hands, bare feet, and hair.

2:00 PM. Have forgotten how hot attic becomes while baking under broiling sun; in fact, it is DAMN hot. Should not take too long however to affix dryer vent to roof exit, but takes considerably longer to extricate leg from hole created in attic floor when I slip off rafter and plunge halfway to China.

4:00 PM. Turn off breakers to entire house; replace kitchen switch plate effortlessly. Turn power back on. Sigh of relief– kitchen lights working again; unfortunately, gummy state of kitchen floor is brought into high relief. Hear commotion outside… neighbors gathered in court assessing current loss of power to all homes but mine. Smug remark on my part about paying one’s bill on time is met with stony silence. Creep back into house.

5:00 PM. Most definitely time to call it a day. House hums around me, contented and working like a Swiss watch. Will deal with hole in laundry room ceiling on another day, though I decide I rather like unobstructed view into attic above. Very minimalist, after all.

A Domestic Trilogy #2 — Reading Beulah Land

Reading takes one’s mind away from the cares of the day, transporting the bibliophile into flights of fancy, soothing insect bites and calming the day…

Lowndesboro, Alabama. Photo by William R. Armistead

Lowndesboro, Alabama. Photo by William R. Armistead

The Beulah Land  trilogy by Lonnie Coleman fed into the Southern plantation fixation that I developed after reading Gone with the Wind  as a high school freshman.  This was in the Autumn of 1969, just after Woodstock; you’d think I would have longed for saturation in the Woodstock culture of mind-bending substances, hats made from brown felt, and untrammeled unwashed bodies, but I was only thirteen and still forced to take a bath every night.

Once I realized that “plantation” referred to acres of crops, and not simply to the usual white-columned “big house,” I longed for my Brooklyn house to be surrounded by cotton fields. And though our four-unit (legal three) semi-detached Bay Ridge address did feature three columns across the front porch, it nagged me that they were not an even number, like Tara’s four or Dunleith’s eight. Still, being in the wrong environment didn’t deter me, and the Beulah Land  books were my escape into a world of cotton fields and cavaliers first brought to vivid life for me by Margaret Mitchell.

If Mom and Dad had read the Coleman trilogy, they probably would have taken them away from me; I had been a choir boy after all, and choir boys didn’t get to read books like that. I had to sneak and read Jacqueline Susann’s books in the bathroom, for instance, and was even thwarted from browsing through Peyton Place  when visiting a grandmother. (She had only two books in her house: Grace Metalious’s New England potboiler, and the Bible.) Set in the usual ante-bellum world of plantation owners, slaves, and the occasional Yankee miscreants, the Beulah  books were full of every variety of sex you could imagine– and, at thirteen, there was still a lot of sex that I couldn’t imagine, let alone participate in. Everyone sleeps with everyone at Beulah Land, even the noble characters, and after a generation passes, a rainbow coalition of spawn passes to and fro from house to field to cabin to woods to town and then back again. Beginning in 1800 and ending in 1895, the intertwined family histories have to be charted on the books’ endpapers so that you don’t lose your mind when trying to figure out if so-and-so had a child by her second double first cousin once removed.

That’s another thing; all this byzantine family history caused me to unravel the relationships in my own huge Italian family, and my Aunt Terry used to get all white-lipped when I referred to people at funerals as my “second cousin once removed.”

I drove everyone insane with my plantation fixation. In 1970 Uncle John and Aunt Joanne motored to Florida with me in tow, a trip they are still recovering from. Interstate 95 was still incomplete, especially through the Carolinas and Georgia, and I was always on the lookout for vestiges of antebellum life as we passed through the small towns strung along U.S. Highway 301. At one point I bought a Confederate flag beach towel and tacked it to the wall back in my Brooklyn bedroom; to me it was holier than the Shroud.

This obsession reached the proverbial crescendo a few years later, in college. I decided to throw a theme party in my backyard, and invited a lot of people from school to come and drink mint juleps, sing Dixie, and admire the setting: desperate for some sort of realism, I’d bought hundreds of cotton balls from the drugstore and inserted them among the dark green leaves of the hydrangea bushes. I draped my little sister Gina in bath towels, wrapped her head in a kerchief, christened her “Prissy,” and made her serve my guests from a tray. At one point my mind must have snapped because I even played Annette Funicello records. Who knows why? Don’t ask me; by this point 1863 had blurred into 1963, probably because I was drinking too many wrongly-concocted mint juleps. But a grand time was had by all, and nice Jewish girl Robin Solomon was even crowned Queen of the South.

The next day, in the rain, Dad had to go out in the yard and pick the soggy cotton from the bushes because my grandmother was really annoyed at the mess. (She wouldn’t yell at ME, though. Ha!)

My Southern fixation actually grew, and I visited Natchez, Mississippi in 1976 so that I could wander through the plantation houses that they have on display. Everyone I knew thought I was crazy, telling me of all the horrible things that would happen to an Italian, Catholic, lifestyle-indecisive twenty year old from Brooklyn. And I was clueless. I had no idea how far it was from the Natchez airport to the Ramada Inn, for example, but in the atlas it was like a quarter of an inch and so I figured I would walk into town with my little green suitcase. Luckily, that was not to be; on the tiny plane was a Catholic sister who befriended me and then quickly decided that all the dire predictions of my family and friends would probably come true, so I was driven to the Ramada in a station wagon full of lovely, delightful nuns who were waiting for her at the airport. In fact, they made sure that I was entertained during my week in Natchez: I got a tour of their church and school, and old Sister Dorothy even got me into a family mansion for a personal visit. While at the school I was introduced to a young guy who told me how anxious he was to leave town and set out for a bigger city. “There’s not a whole lot I can do in this place in my line of business.” Well, I feverishly outlined all the reasons why he SHOULD stay in Natchez, that it was a perfect place, and there’s no place like the South, etc. etc. etc. Then  I asked him what kind of work he did:  “I’m a mortician.”

I would make another trip to the Deep South, in 1977, to the Black Belt of Alabama (To Kill A Mockingbird  territory). That was unforgettable– my host took me to the sites featured in the book, like tiny Finchburg, named for Harper Lee’s mother’s people (and the inspiration for the name Atticus Finch). The courthouse in Monroeville, the setting for the book’s fictional Maycomb, featured a Harper Lee – Truman Capote Reading Room (Truman was the basis for Jem and Scout’s compatriot Dill Harris), and I took millions of pictures of everything– abandoned villages like Suggsville and Cahaba; lonely, splintered mansions sleeping in the middle of overgrown woods, tiny, forgotten churches… it all left such an impression on me that I decided I had to live below the Mason-Dixon line one day, and in 1978 I moved here to central Florida. Disney territory. Oranges, not cotton. A different sort of South, but the South nonetheless: there are still plenty of places around here which evoke an earlier time; you just have to know where they are and, with a book of maps and plenty of gasoline, you can easily go back in time.

Remember: you are what you read.

A Domestic Trilogy #1 — In the Garden

There comes a time when a man has to venture beyond the screen barrier known as the back porch and set foot into what is normally called the back yard but which, in my case, resembles the country of Kreplachia after the East Slavavagochans trampled it in 1038. (The borders are still in question.) It’s not that I am a lazy man; anyone that knows me can tell you that I’m the sort who works at something until I am half dead, and then I go back for more.

No– it’s fear. There are rare and dangerous things out there in the backyard world, and I can be counted on to run into every one of them in the course of an afternoon. What starts out optimistically and innocently ends in horror, as if I’d been innocently placed on the set of one of those wildlife observation shows– you know, half-hour live close ups of cute baby tigers gnawing at a zebra’s liver.

After driving ninety-six miles out of my way to buy fresh mulch, because my selective sense of political correctness forbids me from shopping at the Wal-Mart five minutes away, I begin my Saturday morning standing in front of seventy-five neatly stacked bags of shredded cypress- the plain kind. (NEVER buy that red designer mulch, because, at the first rain, it will look as if you’ve been gutting whales outside.) Neatly stacked, with all the labels facing the same way because… well, because. Just as I position the last bag, prior to opening and spreading their contents, is usually when the angry fire ants whose extensive catacombs I have unknowingly covered decide to go on the march. They crawl up one leg, tiptoe around a bit finding their way, and then descend down the other leg. When all are in a position guaranteed to inflict the most pain, they all decide to bite on cue. Sting. Chomp. Picture sixty very tiny pit bulls working on you at once; get the picture?

One week and thirty dollars worth of ant killer later, it’s time to venture back outside. All seems well. I get the trowel, the shovel, the gloves; the rake, the spade, the fertilizer, the cow manure; I line up the dozens of annuals, the Lithuanian ivy, the orchids, the tomatoes. I scan for ants: there are none in sight and, besides, I have wrapped my feet and legs in black plastic garbage bags. Smart, right? Very smart, actually, until the world’s biggest wasp begins helicoptering near my right ear, just enough beyond my peripheral vision so that I panic, run toward the house, and fall right down, hard, because black plastic garbage bags have absolutely no traction at all.

By weekend number three, it is broiling enough to bake anything that I have managed to plant, but still– I keep trying. And why didn’t anyone warn me about the mockingbirds who have nested in the Turk’s cap bushes? Mockingbirds are very territorial (I looked this up on Wikipedia.) They will hound you to the death if you come anywhere NEAR their babies which, actually, are not really attractive enough for anyone to bother observing closely in the first place. Let’s admit it– they’re not cardinals, okay? The only thing to do is plant and prune and fertilize with one hand, while holding up a protective umbrella in the other. It may look silly, but we have a tall fence.

By weekend four, I am overwhelmed by the collective appearances of a black snake; noisy Cuban tree frogs which sound like my Neapolitan grandfather when he belched; snails which leave tracks all over but can never be found, dammit (maybe the snake eats them?); and a neighborhood hawk who feasts on the smaller fauna hereabouts while perched on a branch high up in a pine tree. Do you know what it’s like to be rained upon with tiny bones, fur, and feathers while trying to pick green hornworms off the tomatoes with two-foot long clippers?

That’s why I think it’d be better if I stayed inside for the rest of the year. When the backyard gets to looking really terrible, I will simply draw the curtains. That’s the simplest gardening chore ever.