“Are we gonna, Bill?!”
“Shh! Yeah, so calm down.”
Bill and I walk to his house in anticipation of the fun ahead. We walk to our after school Cub Scout meeting where Bill’s parents lead our Den. Last year we were picked up or given rides. But now we’re old enough to walk by ourselves.
What adventures in boyhood await? Will we tie knots? Pitch a tent? Save lives? Will we use tools again?
At our first meeting ever we go out to the back yard where the plastic kids’ pool is starting to fill with the new school year’s first fallen leaves; where swing set chains clank against steel gray poles in the breeze. We stand in line behind a make shift tool bench and wait our turn to grip a hammer’s handle into our growing hands.
A 2×4 awaits us. I watch others before me: Bill, Brian, Nick, Joey, and the rest. Some guys’ nails go straight down. Others bend in genuflection to an incorrect angle, their heads thud against the wood. Still others break right in half.
Which way will my nail go?
It is finally my turn. I hold the hammer. What power I instantly wield—a power that could go in any direction. Strike down upon the nail head of progress or strike down upon the heads of my enemies. Fortunately, I have no real enemies at the moment. I am eight. So. I steadily hold the nail. Start with a tap. Then another ever so light as to allow it to stand on its own. Now I can move my fingers out of the way of subsequent—and harder—falls of the hammer.
Isn’t that a nicely packaged Life Lesson right there?
It went all the way in. Not exactly straight. More of an artistic angle, really. At least it didn’t break…
* * *
For other meetings, we are inside, say, for crafts around the dining room table in the shadow of Bill’s mom’s china filled hutch. Such as reindeer Christmas ornaments out of clothes pins as gifts for our mothers. The ubiquitous golden brown bottle of glue is passed around the table like Thanksgiving mashed potatoes.
Next week we are to bring juice cans, the kind where you have to peel two triangular holes on opposite sides of the top to get to the fruity goodness inside. Opened and hollowed, we will fill them with water.
In what will be a part of a life long series of stupid questions, I ask, “Um, do we bring our own water?” Bill’s dad reassures me: “We have water here.”
Said week has arrived. The cans, after filled and frozen with a solid block of ice, are now ready for us. We hammer nails through the metal and ice in a predetermined pattern—my angles straightened. The ice thaws, the water is emptied. A curved strip of metal is attached to one side. A candle is placed inside the can and then lit. The light shines through our labors and brings our designs—a cowboy hat, a pirate ship, a cross, a star—to life. We hold them for all to see in a Frontier themed skit performed in front of the entire Pack. Our dark blue Scout uniforms poke through overalls and plaid bandannas. The lanterns’ light reflects off yellow beads which hang from our uniform shirts and shines on us like the stars we will all become in our own way someday…
Those yellow beads—then red beads—are awarded for good, patriotic deeds and practical tasks done at home, at meetings, and out in the world. Beads lead to badges—Bobcat, Wolf, and Bear—given at Pack 51 meetings in Koelser Hall, the basement of our church, which smells of dusty hymnals and pepperoni from hot school lunches.
* * *
All of this is very exciting. But perhaps even more so is the anticipation of the forbidden.
Meetings are at 4:00 so many of us have time to hang out beforehand. Our hang out of choice: the basement. See, Bill’s found his dad’s stash of Playboys (and Penthouse and Hustlers, among others) dated from the 1960s to present day. That would be the mid-80s. Bill climbs up onto his dad’s work bench littered with the hammers, nails, and wrenches of Scoutly activity, reaches into a high crevice, and brings back…Wow! Page after page of naked women. Boobies that do not belong to our mothers, nipples jutting out of see-through drapes of white silk like eyes or headlights. They glare at us as we huddle in our secret society away from watchful eyes of adults upstairs.
We are The P.B. Club—and if anyone asks that stands for “Police Badge.” Bill, our glorious leader, seemingly, randomly decides who is worthy of a prize in its own way bigger and better than a bead or a badge: Our very own page. To take home. To hide behind the right hand drawer of my painted yellow wooden desk that was once my mother’s, where I will dig it out when opportunity of absent brothers or parents arises.
Ah, the rituals and ceremonies of boyhood, both the socially sanctioned, and the underground, where the balance of inclusion and exclusion is delicate.
You know, sometimes men are in the photos: accessories to the more important female models. One scene from a mid-1960s issue: a clothed man stands, his broad back faces the bottom left corner of the page. He looks over his shoulder at us. Clean cut dark brown hair. He smiles. A woman—naked of course—kneels down behind him. She has undone his belt and has pulled the back of his pants down just far enough to reveal his round and slightly hairy ass. Wow.
He winks! Do the other guys see it too or is this my own private invitation? He speaks! “Hey, Michael! The other boys can look at all the tits they want. But you, my young friend, can stare at my beautifully groovy butt as long and as hard as you want to.” Bill turns the page. Bastard.
“I got a page!” Proud of my badge of honor, I mistakenly tell this to Mrs. Warner, my favorite lunch mother at school who threatens to put me in a girls’ uniform jumper as I threaten to cross the invisible line separating the boys and girls at recess. I do not elaborate, but only use the code words—not that she asked—“police badge.”
After school, the phone rings. “You told!” I did not. “You told Mrs. Warner!” I didn’t tell her everything! “She’s not stupid—she can figure it out!” *Click*
My transgression does not stop club meetings. As wary as Bill’s mom may be, perhaps she would rather us stay in the basement instead of tromping dirt up the carpet on the stairs to Bill’s room. Maybe Bill’s dad is secretly rooting us on, reveling in our rites of discovery. Would he stop the meetings if he knew of my own secret? My loose lips do however close the circle of shoulders in front of me so as to cut off my view. No boobies or their owners’ bare-assed boyfriends. So I see what I want to see. Who needs your stupid pages, anyway? I have my own pictures in my head. I can look at them as long and as hard as I want to. But still…
My Scout days are long gone, but along the way, I have—I do find myself on the outside, standing on tip-toes, trying to look in. The boys have grown up, and their shoulders block so many of us from—shit, where’s that hammer..? No, no… What I can do is turn around, hold my lantern high and walk into the arms of my real life groovy guy whose ass is, well, wouldn’t you like to know? We don’t need a Playboy Bunny, that’s for sure! And in our little circle, we don’t need anyone else to deem us worthy of anything.
Michael A. Van Kerckhove is a Chicago writer originally from Detroit. He is a 2013 graduate of DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Writing & Publishing. His nonfiction and interviews have appeared in Off the Rocks, Midwestern Gothic, Consequence of Sound, How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, TYA Today, BELT Magazine, and Story Club Magazine. He is active in Chicago’s vibrant live lit scene, and has told stories as part of Guts & Glory, Serving the Sentence, You’re Being Ridiculous, Mortified, and many others. Much more at michaelvankerckhove.com