Well Done, My Cubs

by Elizabeth Rau

The graphite smudges were everywhere – on walls, tables, jeans, shirts, fingers, fingertips, cheeks, noses, lips. A stranger walking into the basement of Central Congregational might’ve thought he had crashed a party for chimney sweeps. Our Master of Ceremonies, I’ll call him Mr. Terrific, had so much gray powder on his face he looked like the Tin Man, with his heart, of course – and a very big one at that.

No one bothered to wash off the stuff and, anyway, why would they want to? If you’re a Scout you wear your Hob-E-Lube with pride. It means you did your homework and dabbed the dry lubricant on your axle to make your car go faster and maybe even finish first on that mountainous silvery track that is every boy’s dream toy.

“Three, two, one!’’ shouted Mr. Terrific and our pinewood derby began with a whish.

In these tough times I take solace in our Scout gatherings, where boys of various ages and talents come together to learn how to tie a bowline or lead a game of Simon Says or build a car from a block of wood – all the time reminding us that childhood is really about hanging out with your buddies and having fun.

My sons, Peder and Henry, are Bears. Their official designation is Pack 88, Den 3, Netop District, Narragansett Council, Boy Scouts of America. A Bear is what you become after you’ve been a Wolf and before you become a Webelos, as in We’ll Be Loyal Scouts.

There are six boys in our den. I’m den mother. Brian, another parent, is den father. My job is to send out e-mails reminding parents of our meetings. Brian actually runs the meetings. He’s good at that; he’s a third-grade teacher and knows how to captivate a roomful of spirited boys wearing neckerchiefs.

When I raised my delicate hand a few months ago to volunteer I was a tad nervous. I’m a Brownie and will always be one. And there was the obvious: They’re boys and I’m not. Would I be in over my head? And then I remembered I was a tomboy as a kid and that I’m raising two boys, and that just last weekend I had six boys in my house on a Sunday afternoon and the worst thing that happened was that someone ate a too-sour Skittle and spit it into the tub.

Our first meeting was good; our second was even better. By the end of our third meeting I was laughing so hard my jaw hurt.

Me: “Gather ’round boys. Today we’re having a presentation on knots.’’

Cub: “Can we tie each other up?’’

Me: “Not today, sweetheart. You’re going to learn the half hitch.’’

Cub: “Can I tie my sister up when I get home?’’

Boys need space to wiggle. Our hall at the church is cavernous and sparsely decorated with indestructible objects, including an enormous wooden table that looks like a castaway from a medieval castle. A fireplace fit for a moose makes the room look rustic, like a ski lodge in the Maine wilderness. The Dutch door in the kitchen is charming.
Our pack of 25 boys meets once a month; our den meets twice a month. It’s usually a challenge to get my kids to any activity.With Scouts, they are out the door before me.
At our first few sessions we practiced the Cub Scout promise (Do my best), handshake, motto, salute and, my favorite, sign: the V-shaped peace sign with arms straight up. You’d have to be a sad-sack not to be moved by the site of a group of boys, bedecked in their crisp blue shirts, neckerchiefs with gold sliders and baseball-style Cub caps, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in front of an American flag. I had to bite my lip to keep from bursting into tears the first time I saw my boys say the pledge at a pack meeting. Love of country. We could use more of that.
So far, we’ve covered a lot of topics in our den thanks to our parents, an eclectic bunch. We learned about Nikola Tesla, the little-known inventor who made revolutionary contributions to electricity. We drew superheroes. My husband gave a knot-tying lesson, and Brian brought in bars of Ivory soap, and the boys turned them into bears.

Sometimes we go on field trips. We toured a food bank and donated eight bags of groceries, which the boys weighed on a massive scale, along with themselves. This winter we went ice-fishing on a pond and although no one caught anything it was cool to walk on water.

Badges are big in Scouts. You could go crazy buying them; our den tries to keep it simple. Our Cubs got a patch for donating food and Brian handed out palm-sized certificates in recognition of soap-carving skills. Earlier this year, we had a ceremony to award red beads to the boys for completing three achievements in the Cub Scout Handbook, my bedtime reading. Our Cubs mastered “Be Ready,’’ “Ways We Worship’’ and “Games! Games! Games!’’

“Well done,’’ I said to Peder, Henry, Henry B., Owen, Will and Zack after a round of handshakes.

One of the highlights of Scouts is the pinewood derby. It’s what Thin Mints are to Girl Scouts. It’s a festive event that takes months of preparation and a few trips to the hardware store. First we cleared all the clutter off our dining room table and then my boys, with my husband’s help, set about to carve a car. Cut, sand, paint – each task required skill and patience.

The night of the event my boys were jumpy hens. Would they take home the gold? Dozens packed into the church hall, where the track stood off in a corner protected by a string of black-and-white checkered racing flags. The boys weighed their cars and then turned their attention to the tubes of Hob-E-Lube, applied in a carelessly happy way.

Folding chairs were available for seating, but the Cubs chose to kneel by the flags to get close to their creations. The cars raced three a time. The results of each heat flashed on an overhead screen. 219 mph! A new track record! The crowd roared and quieted and then roared again.

I watched my son Henry. His face grew stern as Mr. Terrific gently placed Car #21 at the starting gate and then Henry glanced at me glancing at him and he stuck his hand deep inside his pocket, where I imagine fingers were crossed hard. I’ll eat Brussels sprouts if I win.

His wish never got off the ground. He came in dead last in all his heats. But his spirits soared when his car, painted blue with a Bear patch on top, won Best Cub Scout Theme. Peder’s car, an ice cream sandwich, scooped up Most Likely to Be Eaten – and almost was. Zack’s fire truck won Most Unusual Theme, and Owen won first place for speed and got a photo op with the Cubmaster.
No one wanted to go home – and why would they? Oh, I never knew of the unutterable joy of racing a 5-ounce block of wood with greased axles. It felt wonderful to be alive. It was the best Scout day ever.

Elizabeth Rau’s essays have appeared in The Providence Journal, The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe and the 2008 spring and summer issues of Mom Writer’s Literary Magazine. A recent essay aired on NPR’s “This I Believe’’ series. She can be reached at erau1@verizon.net.

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