POST 11: Pack Mentality

Even when our family participated in normal life events, we somehow managed to make them unmistakably not normal. Among some of our failed and misguided attempts at being a "normal" family was Cub Scouts. When my brother Buddy turned seven-years-old he joined a local pack which met once a week at a nearby Lion's Club. Buddy was by far the cutest little boy in the group with his soft blond hair and sweet blue eyes. No kid was more endearing and certainly no kid was more eager to be a part of such a highly esteemed boyhood right of passage. I was not allowed to participate as a Cub Scout because I was a girl, but I attended every meeting just the same. I helped Buddy study for upcoming badges and I helped him get dressed for the meeting each week. Cub Scouts became a Thursday night regular event for the three of us - Bud, Buddy, and me.

Eventually the pack outgrew the Lion's Club and the decision was made that the participating families would take turns hosting Scouts in their homes on a rotating schedule... but every time it should have been our turn to host, we were skipped. The first two times I didn't pay much attention to it. Maybe they changed the schedule? However, the third time we were skipped over I felt compelled to intervene. Although I knew our family was somewhat different than other families, the full realization that we were drastically different had not yet occurred to me. So, when the Scout Master was readying himself to announce who's turn it was to host next, I spoke up. "We ain't had a turn yet." Silence. "Why don' we have it at our house?" More silence. It was obvious there was a major hesitation on his part, but after a few awkward moments the Scout Master agreed. The next week our family would host Cub Scouts.

Hosting an event in our home was an almost totally foreign concept to me. Being an extrovert, I was thrilled at the idea of having people over, but I was equally curious as to what was expected of "hosts." My grandmother (in theory) was around to teach me such things, but when it came to matters of warmth and hospitality - something we southerners pride ourselves in having naturally from birth - grandma had a noticeable deficit. Bud was equally clueless in this area. In all the years I lived in his house, I can remember only one time anyone came over to our house for more than a five minute pop-in. People didn't come to our trailer for "visits;" they came to peek in on us like animals at the zoo. We never hosted dinners or parties or backyard barbecues. Who would we invite? Bud didn't have any friends to speak of. Who would want to come? Everyone knew our house was one huge health violation. Even though I was only nine-years-old, I was the lady of the house and as such, I felt responsible to make sure that our guests would be taken care of. I had no clue what to serve for food or what I should do to prepare the trailer for guests. I knew we would have to serve refreshments. Clearly this was one of those times when a mom would have really come in handy. Hmmm. Think, think, think... I've got it! I came up with the best choice any third grader could think of: Oreos and Kool-Aid.

The day of the meeting came and I was looking forward to this little gathering as if I were hosting a ball. As the time approached for the first pack members to show up, I dutifully made an entire pitcher of purple Kool-Aid and placed the package of Oreos on our sticky kitchen table, minus half of one row I had secretly eaten the day before. Soon our guests began to arrive. As all fifteen of us crammed tightly in a circle around our miniature living room, I suddenly became very aware of how awkward this scene was. My eyes zoned in our dirty floors and furniture. We didn't have enough seating for everyone. Our trailer smelled heavily of smoke and filth. I felt embarrassed and surprisingly aware of just how poor and nasty we really were. The Scout Master made a passing apology to the attendees for how small the living room was and quickly hurried through the rest of the meeting. When it came time for refreshments, I was humiliated when all I could offer my guests was a half-eaten package of Oreo cookies and some watered down Kool-Aid served to them from the empty, reused jelly jars we used for glassware. As person after person trickled out of the trailer that evening, they looked somber and disgusted. The Scout Master turned to us before leaving and said, "Thanks for havin' us over but I think it's best to keep it at other people's houses, okay? Your house is, uh, too small for us, you know?" Too small and too dirty. Just say it. We accepted his verdict without any protest. I knew no one would want to come to our house again anyway.

Months passed and Buddy continued in Cub Scouts. Even when his face and uniform were clearly the dirtiest among all of the other boys, he somehow still managed to look adorable and sharp. Soon plans for the annual Cub Scouts camping trip were underway. An entire weekend of fathers and sons camping, sharing stories, fishing, and doing very Cub-Scouty things. It was all the boys could talk about for weeks leading up to it. The fee for this event was $40, a reasonably affordable price for the other boys' families but for our family it was a hefty, hefty sum. When Buddy asked our father if he could go, Bud was annoyed and dismissive. "I don' got $40 for that, Buddy." Funny. You buy a carton of cigarettes every week and you somehow manage to always have the money for that, even when we don't have food in the house. My brother was crestfallen.

Each week Buddy watched every single Cub Scout (except him) gleefully turn in his $40 and receive a pat on the back from the Scout Master, followed with a kind, "Glad yer' gon' make it!" The other kids and dads asked Buddy if he would be going, too. "No," He replied. "We don't got the money." They didn't seemed phased by Buddy's admittance; they already knew there was no way possible for us to afford for my sweet, gentle brother to make that trip. They silently pitied him, but turned their eyes from his gaze so they would not have to acknowledge the pure disappoint on Buddy's dirt stained face. Week after week Buddy waited to see if he would be able to go. Week after week, he was told he could not. The Scout Master knew of Buddy's dilemma and never said a word. He could have waived the fee for him. He could have said, "You can pay me back later." He could have asked some of the other families to help out, but he didn't.

The week of the trip, Buddy could not think or talk about anything else. Friday came and we all knew the Scouts would be leaving for the camp grounds first thing in the morning. I was heart sick for my little brother. He should be able to go camping. If Buddy had asked one time if he could "Please, please, please, please go!" he had asked a thousand times. As the sun began it's slow evening descent behind pale blue and purple streaked clouds, it seemed that Buddy's chance for a happy, normal moment would pass like so many others. But later that night an unexpected twist of fate occurred in Buddy's favor. Almost as if a magical wand was waved over his unjust world, Bud came home with the money for the camping fee. Buddy would attend the camping trip fatherless, but he would go after all. Whether Bud borrowed the cash or what, I don't know. Maybe he saved his cigarette money that week and decided to use it on Buddy instead? Unlikely, but a nice thought. It didn't matter how Bud got the money. Buddy was going! And he was ecstatic. That night before bed, I watched my baby brother pack his backpack with extra clothes and underwear, a flashlight, and his Cub Scout hand book. The smile never left his face.

The next morning, we arrived at the meeting spot right on time. We had woken up extra early so Buddy could be sure he had everything he needed and to make sure he looked his best in his sweet blue and gold uniform. When we arrived there was a flurry of activity in that parking lot - mothers kissing their babies good-bye, dads loading up supplies, little boys chasing one another in merry circles. Buddy could hardly contain himself with nervousness and excitement... and his innocent and giddy smile was still stuck on his face from the night before.

We each piled out of the car. I hugged my brother good-bye and told him to have a great time, and then waited by my car door while Bud walked over to give our money to the Scout Master. Buddy ran to his friends, his pack mates, and joined them in their delightful game of chase. I found myself thinking how glad I was that for once something had turned out right for us after all. Bud approached the Scout Master, who looked up from packing one of the big coolers. Bud said, "We're h'ar. I know we're late wi'd the money, but Buddy's h'ar and ready to go. Sar'ry it took us so long to come up wi'd the money, but ya know how thangs are." The Scout Master looked unhappy to see us. His eyes roamed from Bud's face to my brother's figure playfully dashing around with the rest of the Scouts. They exchanged some words that I could not hear but I could tell something was wrong. A few unpleasant and exasperated sentences later and Bud was storming towards our car. He yelled for my brother, "Come on, Buddy! Let's GO! Get y'er bag!" My brother looked confused. Buddy excused himself from the other kids and grabbed his backpack. When he reached us, he asked, "What's the matter? What's goin' on?" You can't go, that's what's goin' on. Bud was fuming, "Mr. Scout Master said you can't go 'cause we didn't pay y'er money on time."

My brother got back in our car, rolled down his window with the half broken hand crank, and waved good-bye to the other boys as we drove away with huge, sorrowful tears in his eyes. He was beyond disappointed; he was distraught. He cried and cried and for the life of him he could not understand why he couldn't go. We had the stupid $40. That drive home was tense and very sad. Disappointment was something my brother and I were both bitterly familiar with, but this seemed so unnecessarily unfair. Nothing ever worked in our favor. Ever. Even when it looked like we might catch a break, it appeared there was some hidden force waiting to jerk the rug right out from under us. No matter what. This insult was more than my brother could shoulder and he permanently dropped out of Scouts. The thing he loved the most of all childhood things he left behind because he now knew the same thing I realized that evening standing in our living room surrounded by a circle of scowling, judging adults: It's hopeless.

Don't think for a moment that this story is about the embarrassment of a small, dirty house or a puny $40 and missed camping trip because it is about so much more than that. In times when it should have been easy for our neighbors to show compassion for two innocent children caught in a disturbing mess, they turned a blind-eye to nearly every problem we faced, no matter how large or small. I don't know what I think anyone should have done. Call Social Services when they saw the condition of our home? Pay my brother's fee so he could go camping? I don't know. Would either of those things have made a real impact? I don't know that either. But I do know with certainty that their not doing either of those things made a very real impact. It was a clear reminder, a message, that when it really came down to it we were on our own. Sink or swim. No one wants to be bothered.

Heaven help me for times when I forget for even a moment what it's like to live on the other side of humanity, where life doesn't always come in neat and clean packages and answers aren't as simple as I would like to think.

Heaven help me for times when I turn a blind-eye to my neighbor's too small or too large problems when they are staring me straight in the face.

Heaven help me when I forget that my hands were made for helping and not for sitting on.