Under a thin drizzle from a pearl-gray, late winter sky, I followed my school-mate and friend Agis Alevras along a narrow street to the entrance of a small apartment building. He paused, scanned about for anyone observing us, then pressed the bell (one long, two short rings) to one of the dwellings within. The buzzer unlocking the grate door sounded; we pushed our way in. A lady, in her early thirties, admitted us at the door of a ground-floor apartment and we entered a small living-room.
The place was much like any middle-class “salon” in the city; cosily furnished and decorated. The roller window-shutters, however, where lowered blocking any light from outdoors and, more importantly, preventing anyone in the street seeing what was going on inside. In the room were gathered eight or nine boys aged between seven and ten sitting in a half-circle on the carpeted floor. There were also three adults. The lady who let us in was introduced to me as Ran, the two young men as Akela and Balou.
Few people today, especially among the young, would know these names unless the happened to see the Walt Disney film. But, when I was a youngster literate persons would recognize them as characters in the juvenile tale by the great Victorian storyteller and poet Rudyard Kipling:” The Jungle Book “. In brief, the story recounts the life and adventures of a human male infant, Moghli, lost in an Indian jungle wilderness, adopted by and raised in a pack of wolves along with several other, mostly friendly, beasts. Akela was the indomitable, paternal leader of the pack; Raksha his female mate, Balou a gentle avuncular bear. There was also Ran the kindly stork and. Bagheera the black panther, Sirkhan the tiger and (?) a cobra serpent whose dispositions towards the man-child were less reassuring. This story ( which preceded by several decades that of the ape-reared Tarzan) together with the other great Kipling tale “Kim”, were the myths upon which were structured the Wolf Cubs of the international Boy Scout movement. Both tales were the departure point for the Scouting youth experience which aimed to inculcate, from an early age, those values treasured by the Victorian era and the movement’s founder, Lord Baden-Powell of Stillwell: devotion to God; loyalty to the Monarch or other Head of State; one’s country, society, family, one’s fellow-Scouts and responsibility for one’s behavior in one’s Scout Patrol, Troop and society at large. There was also nurtured the notion of a world-wide brotherhood of Scouts transcending ethnic and national boundaries which was celebrated every four years in exciting international Scout Jamborees gathering several thousand lads from scores of countries under the auspices of the International Scouting Association in Geneva. There was a corresponding, dynamic movement of Guides for girls.
This, in brief, was the conventional concept and function of the Scouting movement in normal times; in times of peace, and it was the pride of boys, the joy of parents and the satisfaction of society to have its youth enrol and advance in the Scout ranks, But on that afternoon, when I made my debut in Scouting, times were far from normal. Much of the world was embroiled in WWII, my city, Athens, was locked half-way into the brutal 41-month occupation (1941-5) of Greece Nazi German and Italian Fascist invaders and Scouting was a perilous act of.....subversion against the Axis!
The prohibition of Scouting in Greece (founded in 1910) had begun in 1937 under the regime of General Ioannis Metaxas who had seized power in a bloodless coup in 1935. Metaxas cast his rule in the mold of the Nazi and Fascist dictatorships, which like all totalitarian regimes before and since, “black” or ”red”, are allergic to organizations having foreign fraternal relations and not abiding by their narrow chauvinistic, illiberal doctrines. Along with Masons, Rotaries, Lions, the YMCA and all sorts of professional, labour and other organizations with international links, the Scout movement of Greece was abolished and all school-age youth compelled to join EON (the State-run National Youth Organization) modeled on the Hitler Youth and Mussolini’s Balilla movement, including the fascist salute.. The ban would not be lifted for 18 years, in late1945, when the Germans left Greece and the war ended. Yet, during all this period Scouting in some clandestine form stayed alive. In the pre-war some pre-Metaxa Scouts managed to maintain a good semblance of Scout life under the guise of an EON formation, essentially only changing their uniforms for the blue and white of EON. When Greece was overrun in April 1941 by the Axis, Scouting continued, without any uniforms, as an expression of underground moral resistance, keeping alight the flame of patriotism and hope among children and youth not of age to engage in the serious subversive activities of their elders..
Scouting under the Axis occupation was attended by considerable danger to life and freedom. Any type of association required express permission by the police and vetting by the Germans. As, in time, underground resistance became stiffer so did anti-assembly prohibitions. At one point, all public gathering of more than three persons was forbidden without a permit, even inside one’s home. In Scouting the dangers concerned adults who organized and ran our meetings and our parents who consented to our participation and even paid the small fee which supported the few needs of the Troop. Under the martial law then in force, even such trivial disobedience of Hitler’s New World Order led to arrest and indefinite incarceration in a crowded jail or prison camp such as that at Kesariani in Athens. From there, people were randomly picked and sent to perish in forced labour camps in Germany or, worse, to be shot as reprisal for acts deemed sabotage or for injuring or killing of German personnel by individuals or the organized resistance. The perils for the young persons who led us in Scouting and for our parents where grave and imminent. They were few and, indeed, brave.
Under such circumstances invisibility was a major virtue and “covert” Scouting developed into an art ! The only institutions permitted regular assemblies were churches and their auxiliary groups. Sunday services, baptisms, weddings and funerals were unhindered, but under police surveillance; as were gatherings for pastoral teaching, charity and other benevolent activities, including those for the inculcation of Christian values (i.e. resignation) in Greek youth. Thus, it was that with the connivance the Church and some brave parish priests, a few clandestine Scout troops were able to constitute themselves and function under the cloak the Greek Orthodox Church.. The national church-sponsored youth organization provided an umbrella for several Scout formations, including that which I would soon join.
I only attended one more Cub meeting because at eleven years old I rightfully qualified to be a Scout. My transfer was, therefore, arranged to the 3rd(b) Sea-Scout Troop of Athens, the parent-Troop of the Cub Pack, and I was directed to the meeting place. This was in a semi-basement room, part of a row of small warehouse halls at the top of Sina Street, on the southern slope of the Lycabettus Hill, a twenty minute brisk walk from my home. The room, about 25X30 feet in area, was utterly barren with dank concrete walls, ceiling and floor. There was no window; light came only from a weak, naked light-bulb hanging on a wire. In this place I joined another fifteen boys and launched on what was to be an important experience, one formative of my life. Allusions to Boy Scouts - especially by adults who have not experienced a successful relationship with the movement - are often ironical, even sarcastic. It is curious that derogatory attributions are not made to some despicable trait manifest in a Scout’s behaviour (e.g. thieving, lying, untrustworthiness) but rather to those qualities universally recognized as virtues (truthfulness, loyalty, social conscience). So, someone whose word can be trusted is “ a real Boy Scout, ha, ha”. This speaks to the jaded sensibilities of the ignorant, because for me and most of my fellow Scouts our Oath and Promise were the template on which our youth was fashioned and which queried our judgement even in our later years. Affirming something on “Scout’s Honour” guaranteed its veracity.
At the risk, dear Reader, of tiring you I would like to dwell for a bit on some background that might explain why Scouting was so valuable to us at that, our most formative age. First, we were living in a time of total social and economic dislocation, when security, justice and much ordinary decency had disappeared. As a child of eleven I was aware of major changes from two years earlier: food had become scarce with staples available only through ration cards and after standing in long line-ups, in all weathers; clothes and shoes were virtually non-existent except at exorbitant cost; a curfew obliged us to be home at sunset on pain of spending the night in a cell at a local police station and driving our parents insane with worry. Even our schools, those bastions of stability, were not immune to the disorders of the times: they often closed or had lessons cancelled because of financial difficulties (parents couldn’t afford to pay the fees, there was no fuel for heating classrooms); or teachers were absent because they received no pay, got into difficulties with the authorities or simply fled the Capital to their relatives in rural towns and villages where some food might be available for themselves and their families. Finally, all of us had experienced the imminence of untimely death; be it from widespread hunger and disease (as in the winter of 1941-2), or the other bloody exactions of our occupiers and their collaborators. Against this “out of joint”ambiance we found Scouting providing us a context of purpose, focus and communal ritual which transcended the grim prospect of daily reality. Short of a promise of eternal life and salvation, Scouting became a sort of underground religion which would guide our ethical and moral development.
So, every Saturday afternoon we gathered in the dimly lit drab room, sometimes ten in number, at others up to twenty. We had approached the place with care not to attract attention; especially because, as the Devil would have it, exactly across the street was located the......German Evangelical Church which had served the German peacetime community of Athens and now also those religiously inclined in the occupation forces. A nail in the concrete wall serving as a flagpole, standing at attention, we raised a Greek flag the size of a handkerchief on a string while whispering the brave verses of the Greek national anthem.
The building blocks of a Troop are its Patrols ( ideally four or five of five to eight boys), each led by an appointed boy Patrol Leader aided by an Assistant Patrol Leader, and bearing the name of a totemic animal. I was placed in the Halcyon (kingfisher) Patrol; others were the Sea Gulls, the Dolphins, the Penguins, the Swordfish, all denizen of the sea because we were Sea Scouts with a vocation in things relating to the sea. The edifice of a Troop is crowned by its top leadership: a Scoutmaster appointed by the local or regional Scouting Council, one or two Assistant Scoutmasters who have “risen through the ranks”. In peaceful and normal times there is also a supportive “auxiliary” of senior Scouts from the Rangers or Rovers, willing former Scouts, parents and friends. Under the peculiar circumstances then prevailing we practiced a unique form of Scouting devoid of many of its essential elements: besides no uniforms there was no spirited singing or “yells”, no outdoor games or ceremonies. Yet, even under these restricted conditions we managed to do much of what......Scouts do. I was initiated to the mysteries of tying complex knots for various applications, of First Aid techniques. Morse code, semaphore (signaling with flags), the honourable history of Scouting and, most important, the Oath and Promise uttered by millions of Scouts worldwide. We even managed to do a discreet bit of hiking - scattered in groups of two or three, meeting-up at our destination - and a couple of overnight camp-outs during which I was introduced to the novelty of sleeping on the....ground! All these things were new and fun and imperceptibly led me to blend into a wonderful group of like-minded comrades with whom I would spend some of the best times of my youth. For a solitary boy, being raised (spoilt?) by a fond grandmother, the experience was salutary in that it taught me the social virtues of cooperation but also of self-reliance, of amicable competitivity and readiness to accept responsibility. There are those who believe that the same qualities can be inculcated by school. That is false, because attendance and submission to discipline in Scouting is voluntary, and in school there is no unity of purpose such as exists in a Scout patrol or troop. In short, I knew then and know now, that we were privileged over other boys.
But a Scout troop is only as good as its leadership and our Sea Scout Troop was blessed with the best. All were veteran Scouts from the renowned 3rd Sea Scout Troop active in the pre-war and pre-dictatorship period, who had kept their attachement to the Scouting spirit alive. When, many years later, I was privileged to found a Scout Troop and serve as its Scoutmaster I realized what commitment and energy was required. Most of my seven years in my Troop were under the leadership of our “archigos” Iannis Malakates. His roots hailed from one of the Aegean islands and his name, light complexion and blue eyes suggested descent from one of the northern Italian feudal regimes, some of which had ruled there from the 15th to the 17th cent.
I remember Iannis with great fondness. Prematurely bald in his mid-twenties, his main characteristic feature were his........bowed legs. He was fair but firm with the boys under his charge; he had humour, his pale blue eye smiled .....before his face did. A trim athlete, he played basketball for the 1st division Triton Club. He was ably assisted by assistants of which Tony Ikiades and Vasilis Mavrides (Balou) come to mind. Everyone of them what we would call, in our time, a worthy “ role model” around which a bunch of boys could coalesce in a character-building and fun-filled experience which, for some of us, has lasted a lifetime.
Circumstances made my attendance at Troop events sporadic. Curfews and other restrictions and tensions attending the end of the occupation and the departure of the Nazi troops, followed by political upheavals culminating in the four-year Civil War which turned Athens into a battlefield for several weeks, closed down our Troop for some months. My job with the British Army (described in another chapter) took me away from Athens and made my attendance only occasional. In the school-years 1946-7 and 1947- 8 I was “incarcerated” at the boarding school on the island of Spetses. Then , in Spring ‘48, with family finances running very low, I secured employment with the “American Mission for Aid to Greece”, which involved night-shift and weekend work but paid the rent and put food on the table for some fourteen months. Notwithstanding all these vital distractions, I took part in the Troop activities when possible. I attended weekly gatherings, took part in two city-wide “City Games” ; managed to enjoy three “wilderness” island summer camps - two at Poros, one at Andros ; planted scores of tiny Mediterranean pine saplings on the slopes of the Acropolis to replace the forest ravaged by the fuel-starved Athenians during the Axis occupation; staffed summer camps for disadvantaged urban children. One memorable occasion is a city-wide competition for the composition of a new Scouting song. Our Troop came up with some spirited new verses to a tune from a Viennese operetta, and we won the first prize: a shiny brand new......accordion
And we played games, rough boyish games which often caused bruises, scraped knees and twisted ankles; and there were pranks, some fun, some bold, some outright risky, all good-natured.. I cannot remember any parent complaining or any talk of the need for.......liability insurance (which, I am told, does much to stifle Scouting nowadays). And the Patrols competed, within the Troop, with points awarded for attendance, state of uniforms, victories in games, performance in Scouting skills challenges, decoration and neatness of each Patrol’s Corner, etc.; the Seagulls habitually finishing first, the Swordfish , most often, an unperturbed last. I could go on and on describing the engrossing activities with which Scouting filled our leisure time. But enough said for now. If I am granted time and energy (for I am 78 years old at this point) I shall recount some of the many exciting, funny or touching events of my Scouting youth.
A very touching moment was in late September 1949. I was 18 then and my age and the exigencies of life had somewhat distanced me from my Troop. I attended a weekly gathering at our clubhouse and, at the close of the meeting, it was announced that I would very soon be emigrating to Canada and I had come to say farewell . After the lowering of the flag (which marked the end of our gatherings) the Troop made a circle with me in the middle, crossed their arms, joined hands and sang the moving Greek lyrics of farewell and lasting friendship to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”; and the Seagull patrol, to which I was nominally attached, gave me their cotton Patrol pennant, white with the blue silhouette of the soaring bird., signed by every boy in the Patrol, as a memento of those six years, the happiest times of my youth.
Though I left my Troop to go to Montreal I never severed my attachment to Scouting. In the decades that followed I made “sentimental journeys” to attend the gatherings of tens of thousands of Scouts from all over the world in Niagara, Canada and Marathon, Greece. I saw my son, Alexander, join the Cubs and Scouts in Canada and in Tel Aviv, Israel, and go, for several years, to summer camp with a “tough” Troop in Greece. I was gratified to see that the experience was as salutary to his development as it had been to mine. Then, while on posting in west Africa, with the help of an American Eagle Scout (Dan Aaronson) and others from the staff of the U.S. Embassy to the Ivory Coast and the unstinting support and assistance from the Ambassador, we founded and ran a spirited and busy Troop, under the banner of the Boy Scouts of America, for 30-some boys attending the American School in Abidjan. Besides the American boys, there were children from Sweden, Belgium, France, Canada and Tanzania in the Troop, all saluting the raising of the..... Stars & Stripes in our American Boy Scout uniforms and insignia
The old-timers of the “core” of the First Sea Scout Troop of Athens, now in their 70s and 80s, are still in contact. A couple times a year they gather at some Athens taverna with......their wives , the old patrol pennants and other Troop insignia, to enjoy a good meal, quaff some wine, sing our old songs and make a “spectacle” of themselves, to the puzzlement of the other clients. I had the privilege to be in Athens and attend three such gatherings, to feel regret for those who had passed away, but enjoy the warmth of a great common experience which had forged the bond of a lifetime.
There are critics of Scouting who claim that, in the late days of Queen Victoria, it was a British construct aimed at promoting imperialist notions or that it was an offshoot of the militarist mentality prevailing in the early 20th century. There is no doubt that Rudyard Kipling was an inveterate believer in the “mission” of imperialism (the “White Man’s Burden”) and General Lord Baden- Powell was justifiably inspired to some extent by military practices. Scouting in Greece and most other countries, though promoting patriotic sentiment, did not have a imperialist agenda. In fact, countries in which some form of domination mentality prevailed (Germany, Italy, Japan, USSR and several other totalitarian states) were quick to abolish Scouting as incompatible with their narrow imperialistic designs. As to the “military” aspect of Scouting it was very light-handed because, as I mentioned earlier, submission to its good-natured discipline was voluntary. There were many boys who left us because they could not abide the mild obligation, the slight burden of responsibility and the joyous fraternal competition, which the rest of us eagerly incorporated in our daily life.