Here’s an essay by my late grandmother. I recently found a stack of her essays, written when she was in her 80′s.
A PROBLEM LIFE
David was my youngest child, my fourth son. By the time I started his Cub Scout den I felt cool, experienced; I’d been through a lot and felt I could pretty well cope with any set of eight-year-old boys. The first meeting disabused me of that idea. Braced for their noisy slam-bang arrival, I was instead alarmed by wild noises in the backyard. Sliding open the dining room door, I found mayhem, a whirling ball of arms and legs. Wading in, I seized a couple of boys at a time, finding at the center a kid who was a stranger to me, beating up on Joey, an inoffensive neighbor. The rest of the den had been trying to separate them.
I didn’t try to sort it out, just ordered them into the house, announced a no-fighting policy and moved on with the organizational meeting. The aggressor, Gary, was the only one not from our neighborhood. I decided not to pursue why he had been assigned to me. He didn’t give me any more trouble that day. Next meeting, same thing: Gary beating up on a different Cub, the rest trying to stop the fight. This happened every week. He didn’t disrupt the meetings, but didn’t participate much either. The other boys pretty well ignored him. He brought out my social-worker side, but I still had all my children t home, each one needing my full attention, and I couldn’t spare any time for him. I decided to follow the medical precept “At least, do no harm.” and didn’t berate him for his conduct.
Eventually, he stopped fighting and became relatively invisible in the hurlyburly of the den meetings. He did emerge when we had our clay animals project. Most of the animals were lumpy body-legs-head affairs, requiring some tact to discover just what animal was intended, but not Gary’s: his was a rolypoly stylized purple creature, with a few telling additions immediately identifying it as a hippopotamus. During the project, he had offered a few good suggestions — the proper way to stand a paint brush, for example — which were well-received by his denmates. His mother, it seems, was an artist. (His father, I had found, was a pediatrician who appeared on TV every noon for a five-minute health program.) After that brief flurry of attention, he reverted to fighting occasionally, but I settled for quick resolutions.
Our big event, topping the year, was the Pinewood Derby. This was a national competition, in which each Cub made his own car and raced it competitively within his den; winners competed with other dens’ winners, and so on, with national Cub Scout Pack finalists competing in Dayton, Ohio. Originally, it had been strictly a boys’ project, but so many boys’ dads did the actual work that it was officially declared a “father-son” pr0ject. I ordered kits for all my cubs and gave them what instruction I could; then it was up to each boy…and the competitive level of his father.
The Cub Pack fathers built a regulation steep wooden track; gravity would propel 2 cars at once down to the finish line and the car with the better time would go on to compete again. On the big night, the boys were excited, noisy, apprehensive, each bragging tot he other on his own car. I lined them up, nothing that Gary had not arrived. I had been interested in meeting his dad, but got caught up in events and forgot him. One den at a time competed; just before our turn came up, Gary sidled in. I greeted him and hustled him into the line. As our boys competed, he kept backing to the end of the line. Finally, Gary and the other boy who was left had to step up to the track.
Gary had drawn his car out of his pocket; for the first time I saw it and my heart sank. The corners of the block of balsa wood had been crudely hacked, sanded not at all, and painted orange with watercolor paint that had sunk into the wood; the wheel/axle units had been attached to the car with very large staples, which hung the car up so the wheels wouldn’t turn.
The fathers at the track worked with it, doing what they could, but it was hopeless. The car would not run. They had to put both cars on the track and the other one ran to the bottom. Gary’s car didn’t move. The adults were sympathetic, the boys didn’t jeer…their very silence was hard to bear. Gary, expressionless, picked his car off the track and swung about. Silent, motionless, helpless, we all watched as he marched across the gym; at the door, with one stiff motion, he dropped his car int he trash bin and disappeared alone into the night.
That was the end of that year of scouting. I never saw Gary again, but I learned something about his life. My younger daughter acquired a kitten that summer and we took it to the vet for whatever it is that one must do with new pets. As we settled into the waiting room I recognized, from his daily TV show, Gary’s farther, Dr. G, the pediatrician. He had with him two beautiful Irish Setters; another man was asking him about them.
Proud of them, delighted to talk about his cherished dogs, he held forth on his program: it was most important to spend lots of time with them, giving them love and rewards…positive reinforcement was the clue. He went on to say he spends every Saturday morning taking them out to open spaces where they could run and frolic and he could train them with love and attention. The dogs skylarked about him, competing for his attention; he caressed their heads and scratched behind their ears. He was bursting with pride, the picture of a satisfied man. We were called to bring in our kitten; when we came out he and his dogs were gone.
I never saw him again, either. Years passed; I was downtown at Red Cross headquarters to visit my friend Lois, the director. As I waited for her in the main room, I watched some volunteers who chatted while they rolled bandages; I was caught by the sound of a name: “Mrs. G…”. Just then my friend came out of her office. I said casually;
“Isn’t that Mrs. G? Her son Gary was in my cub scout den.”
“Is that right?” said Lois. “Pity about that boy, isn’t it? I hear he’s in County Jail again.”