The Trouble with Old People

The Trouble with Old People | Tough Gratitude

by Steve Van Auken

“Boys,” said Charlie Strait, our Scoutmaster, “quit playing grab-ass and listen up.  You need to learn to splice rope. Because when you get in the Navy, and you tell the Chief you know how to splice, why, he’ll put you right on the rope detail, and you won’t have to chip paint in the sun with the rest of them, those guys who never learned how to splice.”

In case you have misplaced your Boy Scout Handbook, recall that splicing involves weaving strands of rope together to make a longer rope or form a ring at the end.  Unless you happen to be Facebook friends with a bunch of stevedores, this may be a skill you have not thought much about recently. But we boys of Troop 311 in Findlay, Ohio, were ready.

As it happens, life has not yet put me in a situation where I can save a boatload of people from a terrible storm using my knowledge of how to splice ropes. 

But that isn’t Charlie Strait’s fault. He prepared me.

I am grateful to him and all the other adults who cared enough to annoy me and bore me and force me to learn things I didn’t know I needed. This is harder to do today. When was the last time you rolled down your window to remind a kid that riding his bike in the middle of the road is not a good idea? Maybe he or she listened with or without giving you the finger and reporting you as Mr. Stranger-Danger. Most of us take the easy way out and keep rolling.

This is not to say that our Scoutmasters felt a need to supervise our every move. Our troop was sponsored by the fire department. I don’t know whose idea this was. Maybe all the churches in town already had a troop. Anyway, the firemen figured they knew the basics: take the boys to Camp Berry, make enough chili to last a few days, and then retire to their tent to play poker. They reappeared in the morning to make breakfast. This left three dozen boys alone from dusk to dawn in several squares miles of forest.  

What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing major did. I do recall inching across a narrow dam over the river in pitch darkness to elude kids from a rival troop. Most of the time we fell into a game of capture the flag. The Troop 311 version involved us younger kids running through the woods to avoid the bigger kids who could catch us and drag us back to their secret base.

The firemen probably had a limited grasp of the child development literature. None of them even had a kid in the troop. They could have stayed home and gone fishing in their time off, instead of riding herd on a bunch of ungrateful kids. But there they were, chiding each other the way firemen do, melting lard on the griddle each morning to make enough pancakes for two or three troops.      

Our Scoutmasters operated within the rules that separated Kid World from Adult World. Adults left kids to their own devices, while reserving the right to invoke adult authority when they saw fit. These rules did not go away just because a young person reached the arbitrary age of 18. I learned this when I took my car to the gas station because of the funny noise coming from the left front wheel. I was 20 that summer and commuting to work in my first car, a 1965 Dodge Dart that specialized in funny noises.

My neighborhood mechanic was unimpressed with the car and with me. He refused to look for the problem. “These brakes are too damn hot. What have you been doing? Learn to drive right. Drive with your gas pedal, not your brake.”

Gratitude was not the first emotion I felt in response to his wisdom. Who did this guy think he was? I hadn’t asked him to give me his deep thoughts about my behavior. I knew how to drive. But, apparently, I didn’t. His rebuke stayed with me. It made me think about how I was driving. It still does.

I’m still annoyed at his presumption. But I’m grateful he took a risk to tell me something that could help me. I hope I have the courage to offer useful advice to a younger person, despite the risk of their anger. But I wonder: Have we all pulled back from each other out of oversensitivity and our own self-protective reserve?

If the day ever comes when young people are left alone to face life because older people aren’t willing to annoy them with advice, we are all in a lot of trouble.  

Not all advice stands up over time. Don’t expect to be grateful for all of it. It was one of the firemen (not a Scoutmaster) who pulled out his packet of smokes and held it up to make his point. “Fellas, when you get a little bigger you’ll want to smoke. This here is the kind you ought to smoke. ‘Cause with Raleigh’s, you get a coupon on every pack. The more you smoke, the more prizes you get. I just got a new tackle box.”

Some elder advice is better than others. Some of what we tell you will be golden. And some of it will be straight out of our personal collection of stupid ideas.

It is up to us to care enough to offer. It is up to you to figure out which kind is which.  

Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be.