a Cornucopia of Arrowheads

When I was 10 or 11 or so, and a Cub Scout, my mom was a Den Mother. I’m certain she didn’t want to be a Den Mother, responsible for 20 unruly thuglings in blue with yellow trim. I have to ask her about that. In retrospect, it seems as though it would have been an irritating gig.

My buddy in the Cub Scouts, Chris Bazar (who may or may not be one of the several Chris Bazars that can be Googled up at any time) and I, at one meeting, scoured the Cub Scout handbook for loopholes. Our aim was to scavenge as many Arrowhead awards—maybe that’s what they were called—as we could, while putting minimal effort into the scavenging.

For some reason, we were very rules-oriented, and consequently very loophole-oriented. Somehow, that is the Life Lesson that we learned in early elementary school. You didn’t write your name in the top right corner of the assignment? You didn’t make sure you crossed out the letter with a slash instead of an x? Minus five points for you.

I blame our teachers. Also, Society.

In the scouting handbook, we found an entry for code-making. As I recall it, for every two language codes that a child created, one arrowhead would be awarded. The codes were simple, just quick letter-transpositions of short, secret messages, eg: “Margaret is the funk-meister of the universe” would be transposed, by letter substitution, to “Nbshbsfu jt uif gvol-nfjtufs pg uif vojwfstf.”

Very simple. Chris and I were excited; even at our tender ages, we realized that we had discovered an Arrowhead goldmine. We had rejected several other Arrowhead tasks that we’d read up on, because they all had limits written into the explanatory paragraph on the number of Arrowheads one could acquire. This entry, this secret code task, had no written limits. A cornucopia of Arrowheads awaited us.

An hour later, toward the end of the meeting, Chris and I had churned out fifty different codes, good for 25 Arrowheads. Our chests would be heavy at the next meeting with small gold and silver triangles of cloth. We were pleased with ourselves.

My mother was not so pleased. Even after we showed her the limitations set on various other tasks, and the clear fact that the Secret Code task had no written limitations, she refused to approve our work. While being pulled and nagged by several other Cub Scouts who were clamoring for her attention concerning their piddling little tasks, she looked over our evidence, then ruled that—even though we were correct, even though there were no limits, even though we had adhered to the letter of the law—she was only going to give us credit for three Arrowheads.

Chris and I were appalled. Here we were, working within the system, cagily using it to achieve the greatest amount of glory for the smallest amount of work, and my own mother arbitrarily created a new rule that crushed our initiative.

Eventually, I forgave her. Over time, I even extracted a lesson out of the fiasco: Rules can be changed. Rules are mutable. Rules aren’t a priori notions that are lying about waiting to be written down, they are flexible things that real people create, and so real people can change them when they no longer work the way they were designed to work.

It was a hard lesson for a couple of Cub Scouts to absorb. I believe that it even led to several tawdry cheating incidents that came later, both discovered and undiscovered, through faulty application of the moral.

But in the end, I think I got it.

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