It's a boy's life ...
On October 31 1966 just after 10pm, my mother left my father, taking us to live with our Grandma Batho who lived nearby. My Grandmother was deaf. It was a surreal time.
I instinctively knew that the marriage was on thin ice (even as a kid), but had no idea what was happening that dark & chilly halloween night at 980 Sloane Street Woodstock, Ontario; in the north-east corner of our small conservative city in southwestern Ontario. A large truck pulled up, minutes after Dad left for work (night shift) as a dispatcher at Overland Express; a new job that he hated, and it was quietly filled with furniture, then poof.
She took ‘half’ is what she claimed later on but it was more than that … all loaded into Granny’s house to the point where you could barely move on her ground floor/cellar. Dad came home at 6am the next morning to an abandoned house (his family gone) and I'm guessing that he lost his shit. What ensued in the months/years to come cannot be described. I was 10, having had a handful of friends in the neighbourhood - gone forever.
Dad was rarely home, having been a travelling salesman up until a few months previous and when he was home, he was absent. Spending most of his time (weekends) in the basement alone, drinking and watching a small black & white TV that got 5 blurry channels. Dad loved hockey. Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights (brought to you by Esso/Imperial Oil), is where we sometimes bonded. It was all about the Toronto Maple Leafs! Watching Davy Keon scoring a hat trick was a highlight in our time together. On Saturday mornings, he drove me to the Perry St. arena to play in the minor hockey squirt league while he watched. I wanted to make him proud of me but I sucked.
He was damaged goods. Moving from Woodstock to North Bay when he was 14 to become a telegraph operator, some time in the army after that ... alienated from his family early on - beaten by his father as a boy. Married, kids (because that was part of the drill). He crashed, drunk in bed (beside Mom late) or passed out on a sofa in the finished rec room downstairs (bar & beer fridge) and whenever they talked, it was an argument. She was miserable. Dad accused her of flirting with other men. So what if she did? Could you blame her? She was a beautiful and vibrant young woman who essentially lived alone and raising 2 boys on her own (and had the rest of her life in front of her).
Getting out was her only recourse. There was a frosty formation in the stratosphere that late spring '66. Change was on the horizon, especially for women. Nancy Sinatra's 'These Boots Were Made for Walkin' was a hit on the radio and feminism (women's lib) was just a whisper amongst housewives sick & tired of their husband's bullshit, and yet quietly continuing to comply because rockin' the boat was just an idea too risky to test out. It's a clear memory.
Weeks later at Grannys, Mom, realizing that I was hurting, signed me up for Cub Scouts which congregated on Wednesday evenings at St Michael’s Church basement on Devonshire (a few blocks from where we lived with Dad) - thinking the social interaction and ‘male nurturing’ would be good for me. It was a noble gesture coming from a place of innocence and desperation, knowing that it was just a temporary fix, thinking that maybe she might meet a new man who would take an interest in my little brother and me, while providing her with some quality companionship.
That never happened.
So right … Boy Scouts; November 1966. I was to bring $6 on my first visit to the scout meeting, to cover the cost of my uniform & cap which I got (used); all of it way too big for me. When the scout leader (man) gave me my white scarf (brown leather band), he said that I would get the orange scarf (what the other boys were wearing), when I could recite the Scout’s code “pledge” that I was to memorize for the following meeting. Reading it (first time that night) on the sheet of paper gave me a knot in my stomach.
I hated it … this whole preparation for the military exercise just felt rotten. When I got home later, I cried in bed, not wanting to go back but Mom insisted … telling me it would get better. It didn’t.
I was introduced to ‘pack mentality’ early on. Thinking back; it all being part of some hideous ‘survival’ strategy. Learning how to grow up and be a man kind of thing. The other kids had no interest in me and stuck together in clumps. I felt alone and isolated in those meetings. When I stood to recite the pledge under florescent lights on that second week (first thing on the agenda), I was extremely nervous and forgot the words and flubbed it, even having spent hours memorizing the dozen or so lines of stark prose. All the kids (about 12 of them) openly laughed and I was told I would have to continue wearing the white scarf until I could say the oath by heart without making a mistake.
Punishment came with the territory and it was expected. I wore the frikkin' white scarf for weeks never getting to orange. A big part of the problem was that I didn’t want to say it. Something around pledging allegiance to God, the Queen and my country crap. I was just 10 but could still smell the hypocrisy a mile away, only then it was just a lie.
The pledge/oath represented everything I hated about my brief Scout experience … promising to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight (something along those lines).
You see, the Scout Law and Oath embodied the joint values of the Scouting movement all over the world, binding all Scouting associations together. Patriotic Nationalism for impressionable boys. Such a valiant cause. The emphasis on “learning by doing" providing rich experiences and hands on orientation as a practical method of learning and confidence building. Just what we needed. Small groups working together, building unity and a close-knit fraternal atmosphere to develop responsibility, character, self-reliance and self-confidence, reliability, and readiness; which would eventually lead to collaboration and leadership (or so was the goal). A program of progressive and attractive varying activities expanding a Scouts' horizons and bonding the Scout even more to the collective.
Activities and games developing dexterity and providing a fun way to develop skills. In an outdoor setting, these also providing contact with nature and the environment. All super healthy stuff right?
Early December, we went on a Saturday afternoon ‘nature hike’ down by the Thames River. It was cold and wet but that’s part of the experience, obviously designed to toughen us up, learning to make a fire, tie knots and shoot a bow & arrow. I was bullied by the older boys that day while the Scout leader watched and did nothing.
All part of the training.
To this day; “Duty to God" is a principle of worldwide Scouting; Scouting organizations in different nations apply it differently to their membership policies. The Boy Scouts of America takes a strong position, excluding atheists. Looking back, it’s like there was no room for individuality. Strength can only exist in the group. Years later and in researching the Scout movement, I learned that it was all started by a British Army Officer. Robert Baden-Powell in the early 1900s. Son of a Reverend Professor, launching the Boy Scouts Association first in the U.K. then U.S. then internationally by 1960. He was later criticized for being a racist, misogynist homophobe and his statue being removed in Poole England in 2020, decades after he died. Robert Baden-Powell immortalized? Never to be.
The birthplace of the Scout movement hanging in shame. Pressing on. We must never surrender.
H E A V E N L Y F A T H E R
a covid lockdown production
Today, the Boy Scouts Association is tattered and torn in every colonialized country it’s in and especially in the U.S. where it’s facing extinction; financially strapped with numbers dwindling. Dad was heartbroken but would never admit it; slowly disintegrating in the years following; living alone in a tiny apartment in Woodslee Ontario for years until he secretly drifted into oblivion in September 2002. As for Mom, she moved on without him; in & out of multiple empty relationships with men, all basically with the same hangups until she passed away in July 2004.
That said, she was successful in making her point, that was long overdue ... way ahead of her time.
That one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.