Several years ago I found my sixth grade Girl Scout uniform, still crisp from the dose of spray starch my mother had given it when she last ironed it over 50 years ago. I had been a tall, heavy 11-year-old, and I must have grown only a few more inches after that. Now the uniform was shortwaisted on me, but I could still get into it. And I still had the beanie and the badge sash. It occurred to me that this bit of material culture from my past might be funny to use as a Halloween costume.What I didn’t realize at the time was how it also would become a means to examine the connections between my past and present.
Salute to the Girl Scouts
When I tried it on, I saw myself in a uniform for the first time since my last Girl Scout meeting. That was in the 1963-64 school year, which was a big year for many in my generation. In my mind, JFK’s assassination in the fall of 1963 blurs with other personal connections to the Girl Scout uniform. But what first occurred to me was the significance the uniform held for me as a symbol of belonging. I wasn’t a popular kid, and this was a group from which I couldn’t be rejected.
At the time, military uniforms still held the caché and patriotic pride left over from World War II and, to some extent, Korea – the first of our unwinnable wars. Historically, both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were clearly modeled after the military, with their two- and three-fingered salutes (depending on age and rank), their pledges (“On my honor I will try to do my duty to God and my country . . . “), troop names and numbers, and the merit badges worn like medals (although my merit badges were heavy on the arts rather than, say, archery). But still a whiff of the military came with the regular donning of that uniform, worn to school, where members were identifiable as a group who stood for . . . something.
As a chubby suburban white girl who drew dogs and wrote plays, I had no idea of the geopolitical issues of the day – Kennedy’s fraught forays into Cuba in 1961 and 1962, and the growing presence of US “advisors” in Vietnam. In a few years, divided public opinion about these military adventures would begin to alter the range of meanings military uniforms held for me and my generation, especially as my older brother enlisted, and then a few years later my high school cohorts would join or be drafted or drive over the Canadian border. In the early 60s, though, little of that skepticism about the military had percolated into adult American opinion. My parents were Republicans, and I was pro-Goldwater in the run-up to the 1964 election.
The 1963-64 school year was a challenging one for me. My dad wasn’t well, my brother was just finishing basic training in Fort Lee, VA, and I was an awkward kid going through the awkwardness of puberty, trying to make as little fuss about it as possible. As the year began I liked my GS uniform because it fit ok and it was something I could wear that was like what other girls were wearing, which was rarely the case on other days.
Trick or Treat
Last year, needing a Halloween costume, I put on the Girl Scout dress, the badge sash, the beanie. Pretty perfect with knee socks. But I needed a little something more to make it fun. Costumes are liberating; Halloween allows and encourages the carnivalesque, right? In fact, the very act of costuming oneself creates the occasion, as we see in cos-play conventions and Mardi Gras. It’s the logic and the pleasure of drag that a person can disappear into a costume and “safely” become someone else – perhaps someone more real than they feel they are in everyday life. In our culture it’s become a cliché that many women – store managers, college professors or dentists in their real lives – choose Halloween to explore their spooky and/or slutty side.
I didn’t want to go there, but got to thinking about how I could make my Girl Scout a little edgy. Maybe some blood dripping from the corner of my mouth, or pad the middle to be a pregnant Scout? But no, I couldn’t do that to my younger self.
In my memory the autumn of 1963 seems impossibly long. My dad had had his first serious heart attack a few years earlier, and my mother was still focused on keeping him alive, measuring his meat portions for dinner, packing cottage cheese and fruit for lunch. It was a strict diet that he secretly torpedoed with trips to the deli where they served what he called “delicacies”: treats from a Jewish childhood he would deny to his death. As my father seemed to show no weight loss for all her efforts, my mother became more and more determined to help him, and I drifted into puberty without her noticing some of the changes I was trying to navigate on a daily basis.
We lived only a couple of blocks from the grade school, and Mom liked for me to walk home for lunch almost every day. I felt too old to be doing it, but she liked the company, and I did enjoy watching one of her soaps with her. So it was during a lunch at home that we saw Walter Cronkite announce that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. For some reason neither I nor my mother thought that might be reason enough for me to stay home. In fact I remember feeling a sense of needing to go back to my class to tell them what had happened, which of course everyone knew by the time I got there.
In my mind, I’m wearing the Girl Scout uniform that day, though I’m not sure that’s true. I guess it’s how I remember my sixth grade self, feeling some sense of duty during that long day.
Anyone who lived in America during the time of JFK’s assassination will tell you how surreal the next few days, weeks and months were. I remember watching TV alone in the living room that weekend and seeing Jack Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald. I did not even know what happened until my dad saw it and explained what I had seen, and kept seeing again and again. No one thought to turn the TV off. This was before the 24-hour news cycle, YouTube, and pocket screens that replay disaster with the touch of a finger. Still, in 1963 the images of death and mourning were everywhere. In school we wrote poetry and drew pictures to help us all process what no one could.
On a Girl Scout uniform day during that same autumn, I was standing in the classroom, looking into a cupboard for something and my teacher Mrs. DeFord came up very close to me and began to whisper. Mrs. DeFord was a formidable lady – tiny, in high but sturdy heels and a 1940s hairdo that fascinated and baffled me. She had never stood close to me before or spoken so intimately, but now she whispered, “You have a . . . spot . . . on the back of your dress.” What? I was excused to go to the restroom and found a bloodstain (more than a mere spot!) on the skirt of my uniform. I had gone through the Kotex I had put on that morning and was now panicked and deeply mortified: the womanhood I had hidden from classmates for a year was plain for all to see. Mrs. DeFord materialized as I came out of the restroom; she showed me how to wrap the sleeves of my sweater around my waist to cover the back of my dress.
I can’t remember which happened first that autumn – the national tragedy or my personal drama. I walked home with the other kids, not explaining why I was skipping Scouts or was wearing my sweater tied carefully around my waist. I was no longer like them. When I got home my mother took care of me and of my uniform. By the next Scouts day the uniform was perfect again, but it was never quite the same to me.
As spring approached I began forgetting to wear it on meeting days, and I wasn’t the only one. The troop leader started levying fines for each uniform item forgotten: 50 cents for the dress, 25 for beanie and sash each! This was a heavy toll indeed. After forking over the fines once or twice, my now 12-year old self came to the only conclusion possible: being coerced into wearing that uniform was bullshit.
When I recently mentioned to a friend that I had been a Girl Scout in the sixth grade, she smiled, “Really? I thought we were past that by then.” I hadn’t realized until that moment how very uncool I had been in those days. It wasn’t until college that I would begin to understand what was at stake for our generation and the country. I caught up rapidly with the cynicism of my age group, but my initiation began with that uniform. It would take a few decades for me to accept the girl who had worn it.
Save the Beanie
More than 50 years after last wearing my uniform, I made something of an entrance when I wore it at a Halloween event. Some women smiled in recognition, though a few looked away – embarrassed for me or for their own girlhoods, although one woman who collects Girl Scout paraphernalia coveted my intact beanie. My first impulse had been to cancel out the uniform’s earnest, straight-arrow connotations, but then I rejected the notion of making it a monstrous disguise, feeling somehow protective of that awkward girl. Instead I decided just to wear the uniform, with my longer limbs, redistributed weight and weathered face. I think my costume was a hit.
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