My Father’s Friend, the Scoutmaster

by | Apr 9, 2024 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Eight

When my father made a friend at eighty-three, I assumed he was in good hands. A scout in his youth, my old dad was drawn to this kindred soul with his upright morality and dependable cheer—a middle-aged master at scouting, right down to the woggled neckerchief and wholesome, hot-dog smile. My father trusted him and initially, I did too. Map-making, fire-building, knot-tying—it looked a lot like care; it looked a lot like love.

If only I had consulted the scouts’ own cautionary checklist of grooming behaviors:

  1. Scoutmaster prepares a target victim. In my growing-up family, we didn’t often say I Love You. Rather, love was assumed; repeated declarations would have seemed forced or artificial. And yet, this scoutmaster’s oozy endearments were maple syrup on my old dad’s pancakes.
  1. Scoutmaster assesses vulnerability indicated by age. A scoutmaster can drive a jeep, access a bank account online, and read the white space in contracts with missing clauses. His midlife faculties—including the ability to read human need—are at peak performance. He might even take a susceptible scout under his wing, purporting to compensate for a damaged father/son relationship. Let’s just say my father’s son wasn’t a chip off the ol’ block, but carved his own. Let’s say, too, the scoutmaster probed that tender fissure and fondled my father’s wallet right out of his pocket.
  1. Scoutmaster assesses vulnerability indicated by the home environment. My elderly dad was new in town, far from friends or family who would keep a watchful eye. Situational disempowerment, the experts call it. Dad was both widowed from his second wife and divorced from his former precision. He had lost his cognitive compass and much of his hearing. Meanwhile, the master at scouting had a keen understanding of his territory, pledging daily allegiance to my father’s checkbook.
  1. Scoutmaster assesses the likelihood of telling. If my father remembered his silver safety whistle, he must have decided not to blow it. Others might call him a squeal or stop offering him a ride to the campfire. They might hide his glasses or dismiss him as “prone to imagination at his age.” Too, my father was not one to question authority. Sworn to secrecy, he kept his word.

    Over the phone, I once inquired about an arrangement he’d made with his scoutmaster; they were just back from a fishing expedition and I smelled something other than trout. My gentle, soft-spoken old dad then yelled at me to butt out. He had never yelled at me before. Ever. Not when I wet the bed at age four; not when I totaled his car at seventeen or flaked on a family holiday at twenty-six; no, only on this one occasion when he was almost ninety, and I urged him to tell his lawyer about the private business with his scoutmaster. I’d bet you my last folding pocket knife, the day my father yelled at me on the phone, that scoutmaster was sitting right next to him, urging him to be tough: Just between us. You don’t owe her—or some busybody lawyer—an explanation.

Eventually, my father’s lawyer and I had to tell him the truth about his scoutmaster. It broke my father’s heart.

Dad never went to another campfire, but if he had, he would have been squirming and buzzing with stories of his youth. The only one he’d remember, however, is that when he was fifteen, his home-town troop installed a pipe organ in their home-town church. He’d tell his story twice. He’d tell it three times. In a clear moment, he might add some advice: Keep your hand over your heart, and be prepared.

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