I think I was seven. It was the end of the year Cub Scout meeting, the one where all the dens of a dozen kids each came together into a pack of two hundred and filled up the local high school cafeteria. Most of the pack meetings were pretty boring. They were dominated by business announcements, calendar reminders and other items of note only to our parents.
This one, though, was the big one. This was the graduation meeting at which we would all be promoted to the next level in scouting. I was a Wolf at the time and I was excited about moving up to Bear, the level at which we started doing real scout stuff like hiking and archery rather than morality skits and macaroni pictures.
The WeBeLo's made the ceremonial crossing of the bridge and were given their Boy Scout hats. The Bears were given their WeBeLo patches and scarves. Then the Wolves came up to receive their Bear patches, each boy from each den called by name to deliver the Cub Scout oath and shake hands with the pack leader.
Except for me. They never called my name. I was not asked up to receive my patch and I did not shake hands with the pack leader and when my den had all stood up, I was left alone at our table, still wearing the accoutremonts of a Wolf Cub and doing little but wonder why.
What had I done wrong?
I'd completed every exercise in the scout book. I'd attended every meeting, done every project. I'd earned the longest chain of conservation beads in my den and more silver arrow points than any but one other boy. Sure I came in second to last in the Pine Wood Derby and I wasn't well liked by most of the boys in my Den, but that should have been of no consequence. Cub Scouting isn't supposed to be a popularity contest.
It seems silly now but scouting mattered to me. The son of an overworked single mother and speaking with a pronounced English accent, I had struggled at such a quintessentially American, father/son activity as scouting. Despite this, I'd done well in scouts that year and I was, rightly I think, proud of myself.
But, the rest of my den marched forward and were each in turn awarded their Bear patch and were applauded by the rest of the Cub Scout pack while I sat, obvious and alone, without that honor and without an explanation.
A week later, after making quite a row with the local scouting administrators, my mother discovered that she had transposed two numbers on the check for the next year's dues, effectively post-dating it. My mother, who worked fifty-five hour weeks while raising a budding super-villain of a child, was up late doing bills and, as was the style back in England, wrote the date DD/MM/YY, rather than MM/DD/YY. The twelfth of April became the fourth of December, the BSA didn't get their forty-four dollars and I was held back without so much as a phone call of inquiry.
I did get my Bear patch, a month later, without ceremony or apology. It was simply handed to me in afterthought as I left a weekly den meeting. That was when I began to realize that I was a bit of a pariah in scouts, rather than simply unpopular. Apparently our predominantly Catholic midwestern town had trouble stomaching success on the part the English kid with the divorced single mother. The following year, my Bear year, I'd finished every project in the guidebook by Christmas, had more silver arrow points than anyone in the pack, won the Pine Wood Derby and then quit scouts before the last pack meeting of the year.
Granted, the tribulations of my scouting career are trivial in the face of others' much more substantial adversity and I'm probably being self indulgent by bothering to think of it. It is funny, though how some things stick with you.
I learned a lesson that day, perhaps the first truly adult lesson of my life, a lesson far removed from "to do my BEST for GOD any my Country." I learned that the world is not a meritocracy, that circumstances often conspire and that the actions, omissions and prejudices of others can hold more sway over one's success than one's own efforts. I learned that the Cub Scout motto, "Do Your Best," sometimes counts for fuckall.
In retrospect, I think the words of Teddy Roosevelt count for much more than a thousand occasions reciting the Cub Scout oath. "The boy who is going to make a great man must not make up his mind merely to overcome a thousand obstacles, but to win in spite of a thousand repulses and defeats."