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Scouting, and the Tattoo Merit Badge

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook )

Scouting, and the Tattoo Merit Badge



On one of my last regional Scout outings, at a summer camp out in southeastern Connecticut in the mid-1960s, our Patrol was just going through the motions and enjoying ourselves. Each morning, along with Patrols from the various Troops in attendance, we assembled at the flagpole to raise the colors and listen to the day's announcements. Following the announcements, the scouts departed for the various competitions and events. Competent scout groups built elaborate suspension bridges while others conducted map reading and orienteering competitions. Serious scouts were working on their Eagle Scout awards while most pursued swimming, hiking, sailing, and canoeing merit badges. At the end of the week, after a review of all the activities and competitions, organizers would proclaim one lucky Troop as champion and award them the main prize, a special commemorative flag for their Troop’s flagpole.

As for a blue-collar outfit like ours, however, we just wanted to enjoy our summer break away from home. We used the small sailboats at the lake and enjoyed every activity centered on the water. We also appreciated meeting new friends, especially at the many campfires that burned throughout the area at night. In addition, if the situation was right, we might partake in the ultimate teenage act of rebellion of the time and sneak a cigarette.

One morning at formation, Troop leaders announced that after the day’s competition was over and everyone had finished dinner that each Patrol in the individual Troops could create a business and charge for the service. A scout could use this activity to earn one of several Merit Badges and scout leaders would acknowledge especially worthy or creative endeavors at formation in the morning. They urged Patrols to keep their efforts secret until evening, let word of mouth advertising and the market place decide what was popular. After the regular announcements, we broke formation and most of us headed for the canoes and sailboats.

After lunch, our Patrol gathered in a large Army-style canvas tent. We all came in and shut the flap.

“Look what I got,” one scout said excitedly, and held out a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes for us to inspect.

“Wow, where did you get that?” we blurted out in unison, trying to keep our voices down.

"A truck came to deliver food, and there was a whole box of cartons that tipped over off the back of the truck. So I picked one off of the ground and took it.”

“Man, you got balls,” someone said.

“Yeah,” echoed the rest of us.

“OK, let's hide them,” said a voice. “Let’s wait for dark.”

We buried the swag beneath our gear in the tent and went out for the afternoon. Returning for dinner, we talked about what kind of business to create. We saw a counselor who was doing various arts and crafts and asked him if he had anything we could use for the evening. He gave us a box containing several small vials of paints and brushes, and a dozen or so felt-tipped indelible ink magic-markers of various colors. We stood in a circle talking it over and looking occasionally into the box. There were a few suggestions that nobody liked, then someone said, “We could have a tattoo parlor, couldn’t we?” That was it! Everyone in the Patrol agreed; this would be so cool.

One scout asked, “Do you think anyone will come?”

“We’ll find out.” someone replied. “Remember, no hints to anybody.”

We scrounged up some wood and made a table, over which we suspended a small lantern. We made a sign with the paint and brushes to hang outside by the table. In large letters, the sign read, “Tattoo Parlor”.

After dinner, we retreated to our ‘parlor’, where we gave each other tattoos in black, blue, and red: snakes, embedded knives, hearts with the letters 'MOM' in them, mermaids, bullet holes dripping blood, and more. Leaving two scouts to mind the store, the rest of us set out to see what others Patrols were doing and to advertise our shop. We also let them know that, aside from procuring a reasonably priced tattoo, you might also be able to buy a cigarette or two in "the back room" if you so desired.

The other troops were creative if not mundane: there were lemonade stands, candy stores, and a theater that had a wide tent door as a stage. There were exhibitions on knife and axe handling, and on sharpening. Scouts had cooking tents, knot-tying tents, and others had first aid instruction. One group had thrown a large rope over a high branch and tied a seat on the bottom. For a dime, you could sit on the seat and ten scouts would quickly pull you up thirty feet in the air. We showed off our artwork and told our story, and let everyone know the location of our Tattoo Parlor.

As darkness fell, the small enclaves took on a life of their own. At our shop, we had a waiting line at the tattoo table, and afterwards, you could go into the dark privacy of the tent and purchase a cigarette for a dime. Fires burned through the evening and into the night, and we had a constant stream of scouts coming to our parlor.

The following morning in formation, we found out just how many patrons had visited our emporium last evening. In the ranks, scouts stood sporting crudely drawn images of every description. There were snakes with tongues and fangs, bloody representations of every description, knives, wounds, and bodies. I found out later how mad some troop leaders were, for here at the end of the gathering, parents were arriving to pick up their kids, only to find their children grotesquely “tattooed”. As for us, we stood with our pockets and scout-packs filled with the coins collected at our tattoo parlor the previous night.

That morning, I never heard any Scout Leader discuss the exercise of learning how the American free market system worked, nor did anyone commend us on our successful business.

I wondered if the Boy Scouts had a Tattoo Merit Badge that I could earn, a small circular cloth patch with a colored border that displayed the dark image of a bloody fang or knife embroidered across an innocent white background.