Troop 967 is running out of boys

April 18, 1996|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE de GRACE -- We went the other evening to one of the regular spaghetti-supper fund-raisers held here by Troop 967 of the Boy Scouts of America, and came away well-fed but disheartened.

The food was as plain and filling as ever, and it came came out of the kitchen with the efficiency that comes from long practice. Troop 967 has been holding these dinners in the basement of the United Methodist Church for years, and the proceeds have helped pay for many an outing. When our son was a member of the troop our family attended often, both as diners and as kitchen help.

This year we saw a lot of familiar faces among the organizing adults, but there was an ominous change. There were only a handful of uniformed Scouts in evidence. Troop 967 has tradition, institutional skills and great community support. But it's almost out of kids, and in another year it could be gone.

How this sad situation came about is worth exploring, because it has implications that reach far beyond the plight of one troop of Boy Scouts in a single small and unpretentious community. It's another local reflection of certain new and disturbing national realities.

Troop 967's trouble is partly the result of old-fashioned competition. A new troop in the Havre de Grace suburbs was started, and because it was more convenient to their families it siphoned off a number of boys, especially those from more affluent neighborhoods. There's nothing especially wrong with that.

The creation of the new troop left 967 to serve the poorer families of Havre de Grace, a mission for which it's especially well equipped because it doesn't rely entirely on the parents of current Scouts to provide adult support. For years, 967 has had a cadre of veteran assistant scoutmasters who, typically, got involved with the troop when their children were Scouts, and then stayed on because they liked each other, liked the activities, and above all liked the kids. Under their direction, the troop had at least one outdoor activity every month, an annual week at Broad Creek scout camp and much more.

But increasingly, poorer families are the ones most likely to be without fathers, and families without fathers are less likely to send their sons to Boy Scouts. Why that's so and whether or not it's bad are arguable questions, I suppose, but there's not much doubt that it's a fact.

Perhaps fatal problem

Anyway, the shortage of new troop members presents a serious and perhaps fatal problem for Troop 967. If it doesn't get new kids, it won't be able to continue.

In the great scheme of things, perhaps, that's no big deal. All the camping equipment collected over a couple of decades can be sold or given away, and the adults who've volunteered so much of their time to the troop can find other things to do. As for boys from Havre de Grace who might in the future become interested in scouting, some will have parents who will drive them to the new troop in the suburbs. And some won't.

A lot of these kids, it's true, are going to have far bigger problems than the lack of a convenient Boy Scout troop. In a new book (''Life Without Father,'' excerpted in the current Wilson Quarterly) Rutgers sociologist David Popenoe writes dramatically of the on-going collapse of American children's well-being, so linked to the decline of fatherhood.

Since 1960, juvenile crime has increased six times. Teen suicide has tripled. Scholastic Aptitude Test average scores have dropped 80 points. By the century's end 40 percent of all births, and 80 percent of minority births, are likely to be to unmarried mothers. According to Mr. Popenoe, ''60 percent of America's rapists, 72 percent of its adolescent murderers and 70 percent of its long-term prison inmates come from fatherless homes.'' And fatherlessness leads not only to too many little boys with guns, but to too many little girls with babies.

Children who grow up with only one parent -- usually the mother -- are twice as likely to drop out of high school and 2.5 times as likely to become teen mothers as children who grow up with both parents. (Interestingly, another study cited by Mr. Popenoe found that the presence of a father in the household seems to make girls, especially, better at math.)

What does that have to do with the Boy Scouts, and the plight of Troop 967? Indirectly, perhaps quite a lot. For scouting and fatherhood are entwined. And while fatherhood can certainly flourish without the help of the Boy Scouts, when fatherhood is in trouble scouting will be too.

The collapse of 967 is like the death of a canary in a coal mine. It strongly suggests that something is seriously wrong.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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