Corey confronts his fear of Cub Scouts
BY COREY LEVITAN
This series of columns is about confronting things that scare me. I could get right into the bungee-jumping and skydiving, but I don't think physical fears have anything on psychological ones. Of all the action Harrison Ford saw in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," wasn't his most meaningful feat surviving the pit of snakes?
Little children are my snakes. They activate my cringe reflex, and not just on airplanes while kicking the back of my seat.
My friends back home in New York all have kids. They look alike, sound alike and all jut the same tiny fingers into my face, wet with food that I don't like the smell of. I don't know how to act around them, can't tell them apart and never remember their names. I just wait until they clump together into a pack, then I shout out the name Dylan. One of them usually responds.
Yeah, yeah, Sigmund. I'm really an overgrown kid myself, so I'm jealous of any attention directed at the genuine article. Like I haven't heard that analysis before, during breakup speeches interrupted by exhortations to "Shush, mommy's on the phone."
Whatever the reason, I'm just not a kid type of guy -- which is exactly why I volunteered to chaperone Torrance Cub Scout Pack 733 on their monthly outing to Laser Storm in Torrance. On the phone, scoutmaster Mike Fleder promised his kids to be "generally not well-behaved" and "very wild" while playing laser tag.
Cub Scouts terrified me as a kid, with their Armylike uniforms and groupthink mentality. Sleeping on dirt and eating bugs? No thanks. The mattress-loving/Kix-eating lifestyle was daunting enough for me, especially on those days I had to face Bryan Millman in gym class. This hideous bully would threaten to beat me up every time he saw me, for any reason that popped into his mind. I'm pretty sure he was a Cub Scout, too.
"You're in charge of the kids," says Fleder. "Round them up, help put on their equipment and keep it all organized." The 37-year-old dad laughs before scampering off.
"You said you wanted responsibility," he adds.
Our first laser-tag game is kids versus adults, and I am to serve as captain of the kids. Each team has a separate ready room, and it is my duty to corral 15 little rascals into ours.
My strategy, to befriend them in order to gain their respect, meets with Hindenburg-like success. When I try engaging three scouts in conversation, they ignore me. (Hey, I really do feel like a kid again!) They're more interested in trying to coax a rare Mew card from the Pokemon vending machine in the lobby.
"You don't really work for the newspaper," I am informed by Brandon Elledge, 9, of Torrance. Elledge, I will discover, is a terrorist-in-training. Later, he sticks out his foot and trips a frail Asian boy, without appearing to know him, AS HIS VICTIM WALKS ALONGSIDE HIS MOTHER! (Apparently just as frightened, she says nothing as Elledge skips away.)
My first lesson in scoutmastering -- that unreasonable screaming is the only reasonable course of action -- gets all 15 kids to follow me into our ready room. Only it's not our ready room, and all the equipment they put on must be removed. Just 5 minutes into my command, cracks have begun to appear.
"Where are we going?" asks Clayton Mingo, 7, of Hawthorne.
"Where's my suit, soldier?!" barks Lance Fujimoto, 10, of Torrance.
"How long will this game take?" Mingo continues.
The unanswerable questions keep coming. After a while they blend into a Zen-like blur of high-pitched indecipherability. A Laser Storm staffer has mercy and takes over, leading us into the correct room and telling us exactly what to do. I try my best to hide the fact that I cannot follow his directions well enough to fasten my own laser vest.
I have no idea how laser tag works. I've never played it and my pre-game strategizing consisted entirely of trying to determine which words are rated G versus PG-13. For instance, I can kick the other team's "butts" but not their "asses," one parent advised.
This is already enough for my brain to process, since most of my language during action situations is NC-17. It turns out that even the T-shirt I wore today, in hopes of bonding with the kids, is inappropriate.
"They're much too young to watch `South Park,'" one mother admonishes me.
Laser tag is played in a dark room glowing with black light. Hiding behind cloth screens and walls, you aim the red dot from your laser gun at the headphones of opposing team members. When hit, the sound of an explosion fills those headphones, followed by a vocal command to "energize." Getting hit deactivates your gun, until you rub it against a recharging station in the rear of the room.
I know none of this before entering the game and hearing my headphones explode like missiles the day before impeachment hearings in a White House sex scandal. Some of the fire comes from my own team, but I wouldn't exactly call it friendly. Despite constantly screaming that I am on his team, one scout is convinced that I am an invader from the adult side. Throughout the 10-minute game, he refuses to cease firing at my face.
My own gun doesn't seem to be functioning. I suspect sabotage by a guy named Rocco, who I recognized manning Laser Storm's front desk earlier. Rocco is a 26-year-old musician from Redondo Beach who submitted his CD to last month's RAVE!/Daily Breeze battle-of-the-bands contest and lost.
"No hard feelings, man," he told me.
When the computer printout of our scores arrives after the game, however, I discover that my gun works fine. It is my shooting that doesn't. The printout pegs my accuracy at 3.5%. I took 12 hits and landed only 3.
"You stood in one place too long," says Joe Flores of Torrance, 29, who bagged me 5 times.
"I kept seeing your hair," says another adult. (Apparently, black lighting enhances the, ahem, natural glow of my blond highlights.)
Vincent Arbogast, 7, of Torrance doesn't just laugh at my score, he cackles. As his captain, I have single-handedly caused our team to lose, 184-145.
"You stink!" adds Elledge. He smiles when he says that, since I'm much bigger than him. But if this were 25 years ago, he'd be Bryan Millman and I'd be in for a face full of fist in the locker room.
Upon this realization, all vestiges of my leadership pose melt away. I regress to Cub Scout age and decide that Elledge must pay.
The next game, I join the adults, solely for the purpose of blasting the Pokemon cards out of this kid's pockets. Elledge has no idea he is about to face Mel Gibson in "Payback" (probably because he's not allowed to see that movie for another 8 years).
Galvanized by my new purpose, I dive enemy fire and execute carpet rolls.
"Don't run so fast!" I am scolded by Laser Storm staff. The other adults are impressed by my enthusiasm, however.
"Take prisoners!" jokes pack chairperson Carl Reis, 35, of Torrance. "Reach over and grab them!"
It doesn't come to that, but after about 5 minutes I spot Elledge hiding behind a low wall. Savoring the moment, I watch the enemy lift his head slowly, look around and then duck down twice. After his second duck, I rush the wall and fire downward, bathing Elledge in red laser fire. Even after one of his teammates hits me, I remain there, vengefully pumping my deactivated trigger like a bee pumping venom after his death.
It is not Elledge, but Bryan Millman filling my sites now. Justice is finally being served.
"You're dead already!" Elledge's teammate screams at me. But I am way too carried away in this to stop.
Elledge, his phaser also deactivated, stands up to return my pretend fire. At this point I sincerely wish the game we were playing was paintball.
Back in the lobby, the printout tells another humiliating story: Despite my glorious, Schwarzenegger-like strike on Elledge, the kid also hit me without my realizing it -- twice. My accuracy increased, but only to a lousy 11.5%. I was hit 17 times, just about once by every single Cub Scout. Once again, I was the reason my team lost.
"Everyone who doesn't have me as a hit on their printout, you must stink!" I exclaim.
Unfortunately, I have underestimated the scope of the modern grammar-school curriculum; self-deprecating sarcasm isn't on it. One small cubbie is devastated by my joke.
"But I don't have you as a hit," he says, nearing tears over his inadequacy.
I give up.
"Don't you want to go for a third game?" asks Fleder. Tonight is Laser Storm's all-you-can-play special, "fire 'til you tire" for $10.
I have already tired, I explain, both physically and psychologically. I amble weakly toward the door.
"What's the matter? You can't take it?" Fleder addresses me as though I were one of his scouts and the term "chicken" isn't far behind.
"You want a real adventure?" he continues. By now he is talking to the back of my inappropriate "South Park" shirt.
"Let one of these kids stay with you for a whole week!"
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