Huia and Beyond

I am not sure why I joined the Boys’ Brigade; perhaps because it was there. The local church, where I went to bible class and youth club and, now and again, the service on a Sunday morning, had organised the troop. A young Scotsman ran it; I guess he was in his early twenties. I don’t remember his name.

The Boys’ Brigade, an alternative organisation to the Scouts and twenty years older, was founded in Glasgow in 1883. Its object, according to Wikipedia, is “The advancement of Christ’s kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness” – all to be achieved through a blend of fun, military drill and religious observance. I remember nothing of the last two, except that, for no good reason that I could see, I was appointed NCO to help drill the eight or so members of the troop – the first of several occasions when I have been invited to take leadership roles and not known why. People seem to see something in me that I don’t see in myself. Does my height give me an air of authority? Is my introvert’s reserve mistaken for calm confidence? It puzzles me still.

One event in my Boys’ Brigade career stands out; a camp at Huia, near the Manakau Heads. We slept in tents for a couple of nights and mucked around in a creek, where a small eel bit one of my toes. I have an image of long grass and summer heat, the sunlight filtered through the crown of the bush.

Apart from the eel and an old wooden privy that was full of wetas, I remember two things about this trip. The first was that I learnt to swear. I don’t mean by this that I learnt any actual words – I had been exposed to the necessary vocabulary as a nine-year-old in my Bradford primary school – rather I mean that I discovered the curious satisfaction to be got from allowing all those forbidden words to roll easily off your tongue in casual defiance of convention. In the end, I swore so foully and so much that one of the other boys asked me to stop it because he didn’t like it. He was blond haired and blue eyed and several years younger than I was. His hesitant but firm admonition embarrassed me. It was a small demonstration of what true Christian manliness was all about.

More significance than the swearing was our trip back out to civilisation. We spent an hour or two on Huia Beach; I guess we were waiting for transport. There we met a couple of girls, Joy and Jenny, who were staying in one of the baches. They were about my age and either they were more socially assured than the girls in bible class or else I was suddenly inspired by a new confidence for I found myself talking with them in an easy, relaxed manner quite unlike my usual tongue-tied self. I was sorry when we had to leave.

When I told my friend Bob Nottage about this encounter, he wanted to know more. Where did these girls live? Was I going to see them again? I hadn’t got around to any such arrangements but we decided all was not yet lost. The next day we set out for Huia on our bikes.

It was a tough trip: around 60km one way, with roads in the last third that were winding and hilly and without tar seal. It must have taken two to three hours. It was worth it, though. The girls were pleased to see us. Maybe they were bored with the rudimentary social life of Huia Beach or maybe they were flattered by our single-mindedness. I don’t know what the adults in charge thought – they were Joy’s parents, I think – but I doubt that we would have noticed anything short of explicit disapproval. We spent a couple of sexually charged and innocent hours before we rode home again. We made sure to get their addresses this time.

It was a slow trip home and we were late. I hadn’t old my mother where I was going and she was worried about me. I guess she was impressed by the power of my hormones because she gave me an anxious little lecture, an oblique warning about the dangers of teenage sex. I should be careful, she said, of girls who ‘wanted to get their hooks into me’. This seemed to mean that I was such a desirable catch that some girl would deliberately get herself pregnant in order to trap me into marriage, thus disturbing my progress towards a suitable career. I was bemused by this.  I had never thought about sex with a real girl and I couldn’t see that one would be that interested in me anyway.

I have not been back to Huia since and I don’t think I spent much longer in the Boys Brigade either. Christ’s kingdom had begun to suffer severe competition from some powerful earthly forces. I had better things to do with my time.

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