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Murder Ball for 5th Graders

December 21, 2015
Photo on 3-28-15 at 5.00 PM

Tales of the subgenius.

December 20, 2015

One fall day in 1983 our sons Bob and Todd came back home from somewhere, a dusty day hike with the Boy Scouts.  That was the first I’d heard about the Scouts in Billings.  Our son Bob said he had carried a heavy American flag for a long way, perhaps miles, on a road in Eastern Montana.  He explained that when the Boy Scouts hike carrying flags the business must be performed in a precise manner.  Not letting the flag droop.  In those days, the boys and I had been playing Dungeons and Dragons for hours, so I was glad that they finally did something outdoors.  But the Boy Scouts?  Not my idea!  We were hippies! I thought.  We raised them in Missoula to be free thinkers.  They wore hippie lace-up boots.  We drove volkswagen vans.  (I rolled my own cigarettes, although that was becoming passe.)

One Monday evening in Billings in 1983, P., Clara, and I picked the boys up at the church after their scout meeting.  We went downstairs to a kind of big room, far wall covered with cabinets, doors hanging open, scout gear spilling out.  An inner cabinet door displayed an avalanche of tacked-on red, green, blue, and purple ribbons declaring “100% Boys Life” for a variety of years.  I looked:  the 50’s, 60’s, and, like, 1973.  A metal stand with an American flag stood over to one side. Two old gray-haired, fat-bellied, men played what looked like volleyball with perhaps five grade-school age boys.  Two of the in the room boys were ours. They darted around, not noticing we were there.

The old guys were Arlie Bornhoft and Dewey Hansen, both dead now.  Come to think of it, they weren’t even playing volleyball.  They played murder ball.  I noticed that the fluorescent ceiling fixtures hung askew and dangling at a couple of points.  The scouts ended up pushing the ceiling danglers back into place with a pole.  With a game of murder ball, someone flings a partially inflated ball with great force at another, as in a game of tag.  Only with welts and broken fixtures.  All the while the boys belonged to the group, murder ball dominated the agenda.  The meetings went this way:  post the colors, recite the scout oath, the scout law, the pledge of allegiance. Then, came a lengthy, punishing game of murder ball. Finally, with everyone trying to catch their breath, they had a closing ceremony.  Oh, I almost forgot: they must realign the fixtures.  Close the cabinet doors, leave the building.  I just got ahead of myself.

First, one had to carefully employ the pole to realign the fluorescent fixtures, then do the flag business:  one boy or another always recited the scout oath and law and the pledge of allegiance.  Occasionally, a boy would demonstrate how to set up a tent or tie a knot.  Sometimes we would talk about a forthcoming trip into the frozen places near Billings to spend the night sleeping in several nested sleeping bags.  The day before, somebody’s mother always called me to tell me, almost in tears, indignant, that she wouldn’t let her son out in subzero weather.  I controlled my urge to call her son a pussy.

Our kids slept in sub-zero weather.  So did I.  We earned a special badge, “100 degrees of frost.”  That badge did NOT get us closer to “Eagle.”  However, it gave us certain strutting around rights.  One of the kids in Troop 2 made Eagle.  I’ll tell about that another time.

Oops I forgot.  Soon I was named by Dewey Hansen to be the Scoutmaster of Troop Two, an old troop in an old church.  Stan Bruce kindly agreed to be my assistant.  He had a pickup.  He grew up in Baker.  His sister still lived there.  He wanted to teach the Boy Scouts about carburetors.  I agreed with him.

Although my late Uncle Carl Bonde had been a scout, had left behind his Handbook for Boys and an official flashlight, I didn’t quite understand scouting.  I mean what did Scouts do?  The old guys who recruited me spoke of camping trips where they had fed the boys from a huge pot.  Then there was our world.  We went swimming once a month at one of the college pools.  We tried to sleep overnight outdoors at least once each month.  We put sleeping bags inside of other bags in the winter.  One night a chinook blew and I woke up drenched in sweat.

We had one older boy, a junior in high school, our senior patrol leader, for as long as I could remember.  I can’t remember his name, but one day in June he lead Troop 2 for a camping trip into the Beartooth Wilderness to Elk Lake.  We had, maybe, six boys, organized into two patrols that lived together, ate together, watched out for each other.  They knew how to fix noodles and sandwiches and to eat cereal for breakfast.  They got along.

Short of it was, the kids managed themselves for the entire time.  Well, except for one kid who got mad at his fellows and disappeared.  Yes, disappeared!  Man!  I was pissed.  I stormed around and made everyone stay put.  I forget how it happened, but eventually the angry kid made his way back to the rest of the group.  I wore him out.  He ended up being quite a good runner, a miler for one of the high school track teams.  Just coincidence, I suppose.

Another time I almost lost Todd on the trip.  We had been hiking up Elk Creek and stopped to rest atop some rocks looking over the tumbling, noisy, distant white water below.  Todd took the weight of his pack off his shoulders, facing me, back to the cliff.  He raised the pack higher, higher, then — the pack flipped back off his arms, throwing his weight toward the cliff.  I reached out and snatched his shirt.  He would have pitched backward.

Above Elk Lake, a short river linked to another small lake.  A memory:  the Senior Patrol Leader shouted at the boys who were wading across a swift water.  “Hey goofs!”  he shouted.  When we got across I found a live campfire someone had let burn.  I carefully extinguished it, disgusted that someone would have so little regard for the wilderness.

I learned later that our backpacking trip to Elk Lake fit the ideal Boy Scout model.  Boys governing boys.

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