One evening, a long time ago, when the world and I were young and our Boy Scout troop was just finishing up its monthly meeting, during which the various patrols competed in woodcraft and the pursuit of merit badges, and one patrol, the Red Foxes, had exhibited its research project into the culture and daily life of the aboriginal peoples who had once lived on our island but now were long gone, leaving only the name of our hamlet, our troopmaster, Mister Ward, asked me to stay behind, as the other boys trundled home.
When they were all gone, and the only other soul in the cavernous room was the assistant troopmaster snapping up chairs, Mister Ward and I sat on the edge of the ancient wooden stage, and he asked me gently if I really wanted to be a Boy Scout, and if I had any ambition whatsoever to rise to the next rank from the netherland where I had dwelt peacefully since entering the Scouts, and if I was intimidated, perhaps, by the exploits of my older brother, who had been a remarkable Scout, or by my younger brother, already rising rapidly through the ranks, and if I had any inclination at all to eventually pay or at least make a gesture toward paying the dues I had owed since entering the order, and if I had any inclination whatsoever to participate with any interest whatsoever in any activity whatsoever other than summer camp in the forests of the north, in which I had evinced great interest, despite total lack of woodcraft, said avid interest being perhaps, suggested Mister Ward gently, more a function of being assigned to a tent with my three best friends at the time, all excellent Scouts who tended to cover for me in any Scouting endeavor, than any, shall we say, significant personal interest in the ideals and practices that we have come to expect in this troop over the years, the very ideals at the heart of the Scouting movement itself as envisioned by its estimable founder Lord Robert Stephenson Smythe Baden-Powell?
I remember his gentle face, Mister Ward, a little worn with care and work — he ran the village dairy — but open and patient, his spectacles just a hint awry, his crewcut like a lawn that had been meticulously mown weeks ago but a few patches were working up toward the light a bit faster than their compatriots, giving him a slightly uneven ceiling, and his worn but pressed uniform, complete with Scouting kerchief bound with a beautiful tooled leather holder called a woggle; funny the words you remember from previous lives, and funnier the extraordinary level of detail.
I remember there was a black bear’s face artfully burned into the woggle, its piercing eyes staring at me from Mister Ward’s throat as he gently issued a speech that must have been awkward to contemplate and harder to deliver, for he was, it soon became clear, inviting me gently to retire gracefully and in good order from Scouting, inasmuch as I could not honestly claim an iota of ambition or genuine interest in any aspect of the idea, other than summer camp in the forests of the north as aforementioned, and even there, said Mister Ward gently, he had noticed that my tentmates tended to carry me surreptitiously in group endeavors, which he admired, collegiality and true friendship being, of course, root virtues of the Scouting movement, to which he had lent his own energies for years now, initially as patrol leader and then assistant troopmaster and now troopmaster, in which capacity he found himself obliged to occasionally have discussions like this one, and did I have anything particular I wished to say along these lines?
He must have been all of about 40 then, Mister Ward, although to me he seemed craggy and ancient beyond measure, with gray wings in his cropped hair and fingers yellowed by his cigarettes, but I remember how gentle he was that night, almost rueful, almost a little sad — not, I think, because he was asking me to leave, or because I did not love what he loved, but because at heart it pained him to set a boy adrift. We did not know each other well, we had hardly spoken in my brief tenure in his troop, and while he knew what I did not want, he could not see what I did want; nor did I, then, which he also knew, and which worried him, I think, deep down.
Ever since that night, some 40 years ago now, I have told this story with high glee, savoring the oddity of being the rare boy asked to leave the admirable Scouts for total lack of ambition, and thus, of course, actually celebrating myself, trumpeting my individuality, peering from the forests of comedy. But now, writing it all out this morning, it seems to be not about me at all, but about the grace and pain of a good man.
It was hard for him to say what he said, and all I heard was me; and it took me 40 years to understand what he must have steeled himself to say that night, and stayed late from his own family to try to help a boy he hardly knew, a boy he would never see again, a boy he could only hope would find a road that riveted him.
I did find that road, eventually, and have tried to walk it since, listening for stories of quiet grace, the accounting of which is my work; the celebrating, that is, of people like Mister Ward. The thing that might save us all, that might lead to the world we have dreamt about since we were small children, is that there are more Mister Wards than we know, than we will ever know. If ever there was reason for hope, that is.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author most recently of the novel Mink River.