It was a dark and stormy night, but the imitation Christmas tree was blinking properly, the fire in the natural-gas fireplace was blazing safely, and Kenny G was blowing “Jingle Bell Rock” nauseatingly. All was well with the world.
And yet, as I lay sprawled on the couch in an after-dinner daze, something nagged at me. On TV, some guy was demonstrating the proper way to wrap gifts. As he neatly folded the ends of wrapping paper around the corner of a small box, a wave of nostalgia struck me.
It was 1946, and I was at a weekly Cub Scout den meeting. My mom, who was also my den leader, was teaching the half-dozen members of our ragtag band of young Cubs how to wrap packages.
When Mom was finished, it was our turn. Until that moment, the only thing any of us whippersnappers had ever done with ribbons and tape was to tear it off. Now, with fumbling fingers, we put the Cub Scout Motto — “Do your best!” — to the test, ever mindful that the mastery of package wrapping would take us one step closer to the much-yearned-for Wolf badge, and that the knots we were learning would serve us well when we were conquering the Matterhorn. The results weren’t pretty, but we ended up knowing how to wrap packages.
At another den meeting, we learned how to safely use a pocketknife. In later years, on the school playground, we learned how play Mumblety-peg, which required throwing knives and making them stick in the ground, sometimes dangerously near our feet. Those of us who were Cub Scouts stuck our knives safely, of course.
The boys in my den weren’t from well-to-do families. Only a few had complete uniforms, but if you had the regulation Cub shirt and cap, you were “in.”
At den meetings, we hatched plans to launch expeditions into the Great Unknown, which began at the city limits of our small town. On these treks into the wilds, we braved windy, rainy nights in Army surplus pup tents, our survival dependent upon the insulation of damp, Army surplus sleeping bags.
We built campfires from scratch, finding dry tinder and wood, using woodcraft learned at Cub meetings. Only when all else failed did we resort to the candles and newspaper we’d hidden in our packs. With our newly learned pocketknife skills, we expertly opened cans of Campbell’s Pork and Beans, and set them near our fires to warm while we ventured into the dark woods to find hot-dog roasting sticks.
We learned to stand back from the fire a bit, and not to pick up hot rocks.
We learned to wait a second or two before taking a bite of fire-roasted hot dog or marshmallow.
We learned how to whittle, and how not to whittle.
We wore our scars like badges.
We learned how to get along with others, no matter how strange or different they appeared to be.
We learned the rewards of persistence.
We learned the importance of taking care of ourselves, and the importance of taking care of others.
We leaned stuff we’d remember the rest of our lives.
Sated with nostalgia, and thinking that a bowl of weiners and beans would certainly be good right now, I remembered that I still had gifts to wrap.
Who knew that something learned 70 years ago would come in so handy?
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.