Childhood: Unplugged and unclean


Our son, at 12, is back from the wild. He has returned from a week at Boy Scout camp. He went off with big plans, a big grin and a “Class A” uniform thrown over his shoulder. I waved good-bye until the van was just a dot in the distance.


The decision to send him away was not taken lightly. I had read all the literature, spoken to the parents of older scouts who said they hardly cried at all (the parents, not the boys) and perused all the very fine print on the waiver forms.

You know, the ones you sign promising that if anything happens no insurance carrier will ever be held responsible for mauling, maiming or losing your child. Even if your kid comes home with a peg leg and an eye patch you are not, under any circumstances, to come crying to them.

You sign this right after being informed that your child has signed up to earn merit badges in a variety of activities such as archery (real arrows!), firearms and something involving jumping into a very deep lake at sunrise.

Why they don’t just throw in a few awards for rabid dog taunting, sword throwing and playing with fire at “Camp Poke-Your-Eye-Out,” I’ll never know. I think you get that as an Eagle?

Still, once I quit hyperventilating, I realized the benefits far outweigh the risks. As summer camps go, it’s never a bad idea to pick the one where virtually everyone in attendance has extensive first aid training and is not afraid to use it.

Sure, there’s always the risk that a simple mosquito bite will result in an overzealous, badge-hungry scout putting you in a full body cast, but that’s a risk you have to take.


Conscious of the need to “be prepared,” we diligently followed the packing list provided. It listed what a boy might need for a week of primitive camping (shorts, underwear, socks) in the quantities necessary (10 each).

This list, of course, was a ruse fashioned solely to put maternal minds at ease. The real list, available only to the boys and possibly written in disappearing ink, was more like this: shorts, underwear, socks — one pair each.

My son, like many 12-year-old boys, would wear the same clothes for a month, easy. On day five, during “Family Night” when parents were invited to visit the camp, the Scout leaders cagily provided brand-new T-shirts for the boys to wear.


I think this was solely to disguise how filthy our kids really were. In fact, my son took the opportunity to really embrace his inner-environmentalist and proudly informed me that he had personally conserved water by not taking even one shower all week.

Seeing him wreathed in smiles and as happy as a pig in slop, I had to allow that yes, being able to write your own name in the dirt on your wrist really was something.

He did, he assured me, “jump in the lake everyday.” When you’re 12 that’s just as good as bathing.


Still there was order — and discipline — to the days. This was Scout Camp after all. They paid attention and stood at attention.

They had classes and chores, dressed for dinner and retired the flag every night. It is really something to see hundreds of young boys and men stand perfectly still, saluting in utter silence as the U.S. flag is carefully lowered and folded in solemn ceremony.

I’m corny enough to say that I looked out across the grass at all that youth and promise and my heart seized up a little at the beauty — and blessing — of it all. Then they shot off a cannon and scared me half to death. Boys!


For seven days the boys were entirely unplugged. No television. No radio. No video games. No complaints. Just boys being boys in the great outdoors. Probably the closest you’ll get to an “old-fashioned childhood” outside of time travel I’d guess.

They carried on and carried their weight. In their free time they played good-natured pranks on each other and plotted wild adventures involving Bigfoot and bears.

Not in on the jokes

At least I think that’s what happened. To this day my son and his friends laugh so hard when they talk about camp that I never really get the full story at all. That’s OK. I don’t think I’m meant to be in on the jokes anyway.

I have a feeling that when it comes to being a kid back from camp there is one truth that remains self-evident: what happens at scout camp — stays at scout camp.

Self-sufficiency, self-respect and walking a little taller on your path to manhood? That you get to bring home.

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  1. Thank you Thank You THANK YOU for your excellent witty piece on Scout Camp. It’s hard to believe that for a week an adolescent boy can give up the comforts of World of Warcraft and microwave pizza to learn about archery, make a leather knife sheath and tip canoes but it happens all over ever summer. And it’s really good for boys! They come away with a sense that authentic achievement (rather than electronic score) does count and that completing something physically challenging raises self esteem. Also, the sense of belonging is great!


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