It was the most solemn moment of the night, probably moreso than the ceremonial crossing of the bridge that would eventually end the night’s activities. Even the Tiger Cubs were paying attention now, and their patience had already been tested (and failed, I might add). For now, each candidate’s trueness of spirit was to be tried in flame. And no six-year-old boy can look away when there’s a promise of fire on the church altar.
This was the Arrow of Light ceremony, possibly the high point of each year’s Blue and Gold Banquet. The banquet is a celebration of the February birthdate of Scouting, and in most Cub Scout packs, it’s traditionally the time when senior Webelos graduate from the Cub Scout pack and “bridge” into the Boy Scout troop of their choice.
This is an important turning point in a Scout’s life, as he is leaving a program that’s administered and overseen by adults, and is suddenly expected to take part in a largely participant-run organization. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like they go completely Lord of the Flies. But still — solemn.
The boys will have adorned and customized their own arrows, which the Cubmaster will then “test” individually to determine whether the boy who made each one is ready to bridge into Boy Scouts. To test the arrows, the Cubmaster quickly passes each one over a candle flame — if the boy is worthy, the shaft of his arrow will ignite in a brief-but-brilliant flash, indicating that the Great Spirit of Scouting has deemed that boy ready to move on. (Hint: After the boys decorate their arrows, they give them to their den leader for “safekeeping” — as well as any secret chemical enhancement he wishes to provide in order to stack the odds — until the night of the Blue and Gold. As a result, the Great Spirit has yet to reject any Webelos….)
This might sound hokey to you. That’s okay. To the target demographic — 6- to 11-year-old boys, blissfully unaware of BSA politics — it’s cool as all get-out. And frankly, it’s pretty cool to this overgrown kid, too. This particular ceremony was somewhat meaningful, too, as I had one son about to bridge out of Cub Scouts, and one who was in his first year — part of Tiger Cubs. I was Den Leader to him and eight other frisky Tigers, and had been Assistant Cubmaster, Cubmaster, and Service Coordinator to the Pack during his big brother’s five-year tenure as a Cub Scout.
I’d wanted to be there for each of them, for every step of their journey, to make sure they got maximum enjoyment and minimal negative exposure, and the best way to do that was to volunteer. So in essence, one phase of my volunteer career would come to an end as Christopher crossed the bridge later that night, even as a second phase was gearing up with the semi-culmination of Matthew’s Tiger year. So, yeah — solemn.
And quiet. The noise of dinner had died down, the boys having feasted on Hawaiian fare to match the “Aloha” theme before trudging up the hallway from the dining hall to the church sanctuary. The leaders thought the stillness and reverence of that great room would contribute to the solemnity of the upcoming ceremony. It took some convincing to get the Tiger Cubs to agree, but they finally began to settle down, as did the other three dens — Wolves, Bears, and first-year Webelos.
As a parent of one of the Arrow of Light candidates, I was invited to stand with them in line on the altar steps as they awaited the ceremony. I reminded the Tigers that they were in the frontmost pew, where everyone in the crowded sanctuary could see them, and begged them to behave accordingly. I left the Assistant Den Leader in charge, sitting with other Tiger Akelas (aka parents) in the second pew back, as I joined Christopher at the front of the church.
The Cubmaster stood behind the candle on the altar and explained that each candidate was to approach alone, presenting his arrow for the test. They mounted the stairs and the first of them prepared to hand over his arrow, probably a little scared that it might not ignite and a little scared that it might just blow up in his face. As all eyes settled on the first of the Webelos, a hushed awe fell over the sanctuary.
And in that moment of anticipatory silence, one of my Tigers — those sweet little cherubs in the frontmost pew — decided to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, if ya know what I’m sayin’. He blew one cold, as we used to say. Floated an air biscuit. Stepped on a duck. Unleashed a barking spider. Gave a Jersey salute. Played taps. Launched a mouse on a Harley. Tooted his own horn.
In other words, he farted. Hard. On a wooden pew. You know how that goes — farting on wood creates an amplification effect; he might as well have had the microphone in his pants. I mean, this kid didn’t just break wind; he shattered it into a million noisy pieces.
And he was in my den. I was mortified. I nearly snapped my neck as I jerked my head up in bug-eyed reaction — and immediately knew which kid it was. I know what you’re thinking, but I’m happy to report it wasn’t Matthew, who was sitting on the near end of the pew, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the candle and waiting in wonder for the first arrow to be tested. Nope, this was the kid in the exact middle of the group of nine. I could tell, because the reaction spread out from this kid’s central spot, like ripples from a stone dropped in water.
I watched helplessly as the pew full of first-grade boys began to giggle in concentric pairs, growing louder and louder until the reaction reached the ends of the pew and continued on to other pews — until it became obvious that everyone in the church had heard that kid’s Hawaiian dinner popping up to say “Aloha.”
Everyone, that is, except Matthew. I’ll never know how he stayed oblivious not only to the initial report, but to the building chaos that ensued. He never turned his head toward the rest of his den or the rest of the sanctuary, instead staying focused on that evidently hypnotic candle on the altar.
Meanwhile, even the parents were trying desperately not to react. I saw one Mom in the second pew cover her mouth and look at the floor, her head shaking silently with repressed laughter. For a split second I doubted my initial assessment, and thought maybe she was the culprit — then I realized she was as much a victim as the rest of us. I vowed in that moment to not make eye contact with another adult in that sanctuary for at least two minutes — especially Christopher’s Assistant Den Leader, with whom I’d shared many a sophomoric barb over the past five years, and who happened to be standing right next to me.
The Cubmaster, meanwhile, did the best thing to defuse the situation (even as the Tigers did their best to diffuse the situation) — he moved ahead with the ceremony, took the arrow from the first candidate, and loudly announced that he would now hold the arrow over the flame to test that boy’s worthiness. That brought all the attention home to him, and the matter quickly settled.
Other than one arrow that nearly caught the church on fire, the rest of the evening passed without incident. Each of the Webelos was deemed worthy, and eventually crossed the bridge to be greeted by the representatives of the troop he had elected to join. We put the matter behind us, so to speak, and brought another Blue and Gold Banquet to a close.
That was one year ago, and I’ve been hoping everyone would forget the incident. Matthew and his den mates have been working hard toward their Wolf badges, a tougher accomplishment than the Tiger badge. They’re a year older, and ostensibly more mature. So I wasn’t too concerned heading into this year’s Blue and Gold, which we held last night.
After a more neutral dinner of hot dogs with macaroni and cheese, we again headed to the sanctuary, where I discovered that our den had been assigned to the back pews in the group — and that those pews had soft, sound-dampening cushions on top of the hard, amplifying wood. As a further safeguard, we separated some of the boys and had them sit with their parents across our pews, rather than the boys in one pew with their parents in pews behind them. All was well.
But damn if it didn’t happen again. It wasn’t the same kid, but it was still one from my den. And it wasn’t the most solemn/quiet moment, but it didn’t need to be — this kid made up for the ambient noise by boosting his own volume up to an 11. It also didn’t matter that the pew was cushioned, as he was sitting on his dad’s lap. I have no idea how he got that kind of volume out of those circumstances, but he did.
And this year, I was right in the midst of it. I’m not related to any of last night’s Arrow of Light candidates, so there was no need for me to be at the altar. Instead, I was sitting with my den, ostensibly keeping them under control. Mostly, I was zoning out, thinking about mortgages, unpaid bills, and other fun stuff while I waited for the ceremony to start.
The blue bomber in our den brought me abruptly back to reality with his flatulent announcement, and my head again conspired against my neck in a whiplash-inducing turn. For a brief moment, I made eye contact with the dad at the other end of my pew. His eyes were wide in panic and he incredulously mouthed, “Again? Really?”
“Who was that?” I mouthed back.
He nodded toward the pew in front of us as he put his arm around his own son, stealthily bringing his hand around to muffle the laughter that was starting to flow. I looked at the spot where he’d nodded and could tell he was correct — one of the Wolves was giggling with pride as he delightedly squirmed on the lap of his rather red-faced father. And once again, those giggles were contagious.
I looked back to my own pew, where his dad’s hand wasn’t enough to stifle the laughter now streaming from the mouth of the kid at the other end. The kid next to him was giggling uncontrollably, and next to him, Matthew looked undecided.
There’s no way he could have stayed oblivious this time, but he was loyal to the last, bless his heart. He knew he shouldn’t laugh, and he obviously didn’t want to, but he couldn’t help grinning as he looked to me for direction. For help. For an example. And in that moment, I failed him miserably as I started to laugh.
I bit my tongue — hard — and tried desperately to conjur memories of all the times I’ve had a beloved pet die. It didn’t work; I had lost, and the laughter just had to come out. I managed to keep it inaudible, but suddenly I had a whole lot of empathy for that mom from last year as I pretty much mimicked her actions, clamping my hand over my mouth and resolutely staring at the floor as my body was racked with convulsions for a minute or two.
When I looked up again, Kim was staring at me, silently shaking her head. I couldn’t tell if she was shaking it in disgust, dismay, or disbelief, but she was definitely dissing me some way. In that instant, I was transported more than 35 years to a point in my past, sent there to relive the sins of a five-hour drive that I’d helped to make miserable for my sister.
My family had spent the weekend at the West Virginia home of the oldest sibling, and two of my brothers, one of my sisters, and I were riding home with my parents. It was a long, lonely stretch of two-lane highway through the mountains, without promise of a rest area or gas station. My sister had had diarrhea, and was complaining that every noise my brothers and I made was upsetting her stomach again, causing her to have to find a bathroom. In typical younger-brother style, we decided to torment her.
We’d recently watched The Sound of Music together, and my older brother and I took turns singing the parody songs he’d made up, with original SoM lyrics changed to scatological themes. One of them in particular rose to the surface of my memory — my brother singing, “How do you solve a problem like a huge fart? How do you hold it in when you’re in church?”
Returning to the present, I knew in that moment that this was karma, farting all over me. Here I was — the would-be stalwart leader of these boys, expected to build their character and set good examples — reduced in front of them and my own peers to a quivering mass of adolescent giggles over a little boy’s flatulence.
I also knew in that moment that next year, my den will be lucky if they let us sit anywhere near the sanctuary during the ceremonies. I doubt we’ll get past the narthex, but here’s hoping. If they let us back in, I’m sure we can avoid a third consecutive year of disrupting the ceremony.
As they say, knock on wood….