When I was a child I had great difficulty asserting myself. Consequently, I often found myself talked into doing things I didn’t really want to do. When I was about 12 years old, one of my friends invited me to a ‘bring a friend’ evening at the local scout group. I thought the evening was ‘okay’, so when he asked me to go again, I said ‘yes’ – but just this one last time.
Six months later, and I was still going. I’d been talked into buying a uniform. I was talked into learning to tie knots and build a campfire. I was soon chanting along with the others (‘dib dib dib dob dob dob’). My father was so impressed that he became involved in fundraising activities for the group. Pretty soon I realised I was trapped. (Meanwhile, the ‘friend’ who’d talked me into going in the first place had stopped going.)
It wasn’t long before I discovered that scouts provided bullies with yet another opportunity to pick on the weaker kids. This was particularly evident with any hiking or camping activities. The bullies shared the same tent, smoked cigarettes and looked at pornographic magazines together. The weaklings (like me) got the worst campsite, the worst tent and the worst jobs. I can vividly remember washing filthy pots and pans in cold water at night, while the bullies stood around the campfire sharing cigarettes and sex stories.
My parents were oblivious to any of this. They thought that I was having a great time. In fact, I can remember Mum remarking on the fact that I used to stand by the window and watch for my ride to scouts drive up to the house. She thought I was excited and couldn’t wait to get there, when the opposite was true. I dreaded going, and was praying that they’d forget me, or break down on the way.
It wasn’t just boys that bullied. Some of the adult scoutmasters were just as bad. I can only assume that they themselves had been bullied as kids, and enjoyed the opportunity to enact some kind of revenge by bullying others. One of the scoutmasters was in the army, and used the scouts as a kind of ‘proving ground’ for his warped idea of discipline. He used to scream at us until his reddening face looked like it was going to explode!
But the worst thing about scouts wasn’t the bullying, the camping or even the evil scoutmasters. The worst thing about scouts was the dreaded ‘Bottle Drive’. About once a year, all of the scouts and their parents had to go doorknocking for empty beer bottles. On their own, individual bottles weren’t worth much, but a whole truck full of bottles provided a fair bit of much-needed cash for the group.
We’d start as early as possible. People would often still be having breakfast, and would answer the door dressed in their pyjamas. It was usually the bleary-eyed ‘man of the house’ that guiltily led us to the bottom of the garden where his stash was hidden. The bottles had usually been laying there for some time, covered in dirt, tangled in weeds, with snails and slugs stuck to them. Sometimes there was still a trickle of beer inside, and it ran down your arm, or the front of your shirt, when you picked it up the bottle. We loaded the beer bottles into boxes and crates and stacked them in the back of the station wagon. By the end of the day everything stank of beer – hands, clothes, hair. It was revolting.
It was years before I managed to worm my way out of the scouts. Long enough to develop an aversion to uniforms, discipline, marching, camping, knots, and – most of all – beer.