(Post by George Cheyne, of Glasgow – February 2021)
As initiation ceremonies went, the one you suffered at Scout camp wasn’t a patch on your fun-filled first few days at secondary school.
Remember them? When you had your head plunged down the bog, your face decorated with a giant feltie or your tuck shop goodies swiped off you. And if you were really lucky, you got all three.
No, the welcome you got in the Scouts on your first camp was pretty tame by comparison.
The older lads were more likely to mess with your head rather than just mess with you. The wind-ups fell into the time-honoured category and were generally pain free.
I remember when I, along with two fellow newbies, made the trip to County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland for a week-long summer camp in 1971 and went through the ritual humiliation. Tradition demanded that all first-timers had to be the patrol leader’s slave-for-a-day – carrying out all sorts of inane and inappropriate tasks until everyone tired of it all.
I was determined not to show any signs of weakness as I was sent to dig holes, fetch large drums of water, collect firewood, wash pots, dig more holes then fill them in again. Unfortunately, I showed signs of gullibility instead.
Yep, I fell for the oldest trick in the book when I was sent to the store tent to pick up a long stand for the dixie – camping parlance for a large cooking pot.
And Woody, the guy in charge of stores, gave an Oscar-winning performance as he kept me waiting outside for ages as he went through the motions of rummaging around, telling me to wait there as he supposedly searched other tents for that damn long stand.
I guess the sniggering from most of my camp-mates as I stood there like a lemon for about 15 minutes should have been a clue. In my defence, it seemed plausible to my 12-year-old self that those dixies needed some form of support when they were put on a log fire.
Anyway, lesson learned. At least I wasn’t the newbie sent to the nearby shop for a tin of tartan paint to “give our flagpole a Scottish flavour” or the one sent out to find a prostitute for the vegetable soup – “it’s like a beetroot, only different.”
It was our welcome-to-the-gang moment, a character-building episode which would probably be classed as bullying or mental cruelty these days. But we sucked it up and did our best to keep what remained of our dignity.
Truth was, after our initiation ended, we were made to feel part of everything. But there were still some hairy moments.
The Seventies seemed to be an era where psychos could hide in plain sight – and the Scouts were no different. From their perspective, you had uniforms, some pretty brutal games, ready-made victims, sheath knives and axes lying around. What’s not to like?
My antenna may have failed me in the “long-stand-for-the-dixie” incident, but it was whirling round in perfect working order when it came to one particular patrol leader.
He would sit around the camp-fire whittling away at bits of wood with his sheath knife and a manic grin plastered across his face. If you had some banjo music playing in the background, he could have been in a scene from Deliverance.
Now his idea of fun was to try and lure some poor, unsuspecting sod into a game of chicken where you stood opposite each other with your legs wide apart and chucked the knife between them. First one to flinch loses the game. Why it never took off as an Olympic sport, I’ll never know.
Anyway, our resident psycho – having tried unsuccessfully to entice us newbies into playing – “persuaded” one of his own patrol to take part. At first it went as well as you could expect, given the obvious folly of playing such a dangerous game.
Then Psycho Boy picked up the pace and, almost inevitably, his knife hit his opponent’s sandshoe. I know, I know…no-one in their right mind would play that game in steel-capped boots, never mind sandshoes.
To make matters worse, they were white sandshoes and almost immediately there was red blood seeping out the top of them. Game over. Cue taxi ride to hospital, a few stitches and a lot of explaining to do.
Where were our leaders, you may well ask, when all this was going on? Well, they generally turned a blind eye to the initiation stuff and – giving them the benefit of the doubt – probably weren’t aware of the game of chicken.
They tended to organise activities and supervise the fire to make sure no-one burned themselves or the food. After that? Well, a trip to the nearest pub would be a decent shout.
And that, as it turned out, led to a proper hairy moment.
With our patrol leaders – those grizzled, worldly-wise 17-year-olds – left in charge, we bedded down in our sleeping bags only to be disturbed by a lot of shouting and the unmistakable sound of an axe chopping wood.
Before any of us could pop their head out to see what was happening, somebody tried to yank the guy ropes which held our tent up. Then we heard voices – Irish voices – effing and blinding right outside. Safe to say, we were all bricking it.
In the background the dull thud, thud, thud of the axe continued until we heard a splintering crash. A few minutes after that, the noises subsided and we went outside.
Turns out it’s not a great idea to fly the Union flag in the Republic of Ireland at the height of The Troubles – and the local worthies, after a visit to the boozer, decided to chop down the flagpole.
If only we’d had some of that tartan paint on it…that might have defused the situation.