It is probably safe to say that all my years as a Boy Scout in Troop 96, camping in the rain, the snow, the muck, the mire, served me well for a lifetime appreciating the charms — of room service.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America, a proud and noble institution in our national life. And while Scouting honors some of the more famous in its ranks — Hank Aaron, John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates and Barack Obama — alas, there are some of us of whom it can probably be said we never were quite prepared.
Or to put it more succinctly — I was sort of the Beetle Bailey of Scouting.
Certain questions haunt my life, never to be understood, or answered.
I'm not sure why I ever joined my Boy Scout troop in Akron. This was a bit like Paris Hilton deciding to move into an Amish community. At first, things seemed to go along just fine. The uniform for an 11-year-old was sort of spiffy, and the meetings in the school cafeteria at St. Sebastians were nice.
Who knew we had to go camping, too? Why? I was just getting comfortable.
I have never figured out the camping thing. Why should people leave the warmth of their homes and conveniences to schlep into the woods to sleep in dirt and run the risk of being eaten by some annoyed beast? Please? Anybody? Any help with this at all?
It wasn't as if I was unaccustomed to the outdoors. I had spent many summers at a Catholic Youth Organization camp. But at least we had a roof over our heads and a bed and a bathroom to use and the only thing one had to worry about was fending off the odd randy seminarian camp counselor.
The Boy Scouts insisted on a more traditional Lewis and Clark form of camping. On weekends I'd find myself being carted off to the woods to commune with nature and eat Dinty Moore beef stew out of a can. I was informed this was supposed to be fun.
Many former Scouts can point to their merit badges for canoeing, or astronomy, or bugling, or bird study, or climbing. I learned to drink and smoke. And I was good at it, too! Unfortunately there was no merit badge for hangovers. Otherwise, I would have been an Eagle Scout for cocktails.
I was hardly alone. Before each camping trip many of my fellow Scouts would pilfer a few cigarettes from their parents. One kid, whose father apparently had drinking issues, would abscond with some of his parent's hooch.
Then we would all assemble in a tent and pass a canteen around with our own unique concoctions.
Here's what I learned. Filtered Marlboros were preferable to nonfiltered Chesterfields. And it is a really bad idea to mix scotch, gin, vodka and bourbon together. Life lessons, life lessons.
You are probably wondering right about now — where were the Scout leaders while all this was going on? We wondered that, too.
During my two or three years as a Boy Scout I do not remember going on a single weekend camping trip where it did not rain, or snow, or both. This was Akron, Ohio, after all; Mother Nature's idea of practical joke.
I've often thought my years roughing it out in the middle of the wilds would have prepared me for a life as a Navy SEAL, just as long as the commando raids involved Paris, London or New York's Upper East Side.
Finally — FINALLY — Sunday morning would arrive and my worn and weary Scouting brethren — smelling like Sasquatch meets the boat people — would be delivered back to our families. I had to re-enter the house through the basement to deposit all my musty clothes into the washing machine to be properly deloused.
I still carry with me a souvenir of my last Scout outing.
As a bumbling, stumbling, accident-prone child, I probably spent more time in the emergency room getting stitches for one mishap after another than I ever did taking in the wonders of the woods.
It was called a "Leadership" camping weekend. About the only thing I was capable of leading was the proper ratio of vermouth to gin in a martini. Okay, I have arcane skills. But there I was.
Walking through the campsite as dusk descended, I tripped over a rope and landed on a tent stake, ripping open a gash on my knee. Not exactly a Walden Pond moment. Instead of spending the weekend once again turning myself into Jeremiah Johnson, it was back to the ER. Darn.
I left Scouting shortly afterward. But I still have the scar on my right knee — my own personal and well-earned merit badge for klutziness.