American Legion Missouri Boys' State is a hybrid of Scout camp, leadership retreat, civics class and Spring Break. It takes promising young men and tells them they can help plot the course of this nation.
"The Missouri Boys State Program has trained Missouri's finest youth leaders for over 50 years," touts the Citizens' Manual. "Your response to the challenge before you will prove that our founders were correct in giving to people the power to determine their own destiny. Take the torch which is being passed to you and run with it to the best of your ability."
I attended in June of 1988, accepting a sponsorship from the Raytown Rotary Club. I made the short list of people with high GPA's, bolstered by some moderate success on the speech and debate team. The experience didn't change my life, but it did give me a taste of college one year before I headed for the University of Missouri.
Mom and Dad dropped me off with my bags and said their goodbyes on a Saturday afternoon, and a bus trucked me to the Garrison Gym at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg.
From my journal, June 17, 1988:
Already I estimate that I've hauled my luggage around at least 4 times -- and I don't know yet where I'm going to be staying. Everything's so quiet here ... I'm hot and sweaty. I bet my suit's all wrinkled up because of all that hauling. I can see my suitcase from here in the bleachers -- just a little speck in the sea of luggage.With that part done, we begin our journeys into young congressmen, lawyers, lawmen, judges and journalists.
First thing that happened to us in the gym was that they made us take a survey -- mostly geography and (ugh) distance estimation. Guess they're trying to find out how many geographic illiterates they have here. I will close -- something's gonna happen.
Taking over an unused dorm in the building heat of June, I meet my roommate, "Paul" (so named because I can't remember his actual name). He's here from Steele, Missouri, a small town in the Missouri bootheel. Paul has his sites set on the legal track. I'm just trying to figure out what track I want. Becoming part of the government beast isn't on my list of career possibilities, leaving me defaulting to still-evolving journalism aspirations.
"Stand up," says James, our City Counselor in our first meeting. "Raise your hands."
We reach for the sky.
"Now stand on your chairs."
Fumble. Climb. Stand.
"Here's where you are right now. You are about to build a party structure, a city, a county, and a state government in a week. You're going to be blowing the roof off by the end."
Out of place as I feel, and still the shy one, I manage to hit it off with a few people besides Paul. Matthew is also on the J-track, and we will later end up as part of the Boys' State television operations. I also gravitate to the characters of the floor, one whose last name is Moran, but who affectionately takes on the name "Moron." We are a frat, but we don't start turning into one until we pick up on the name of our mock city: Coontz.
The name pays tribute to notable Missourian and Navy Admiral Robert Coontz, but in the hands of hormonally-charged teenagers, it takes on a sub-definition that hits below the belt. "Coontz! Coontz! Coontz!" the guys would chant as a rallying cry at various assemblies, forming a gesture with their hands to reinforce the subtext. We get a few mild warnings about it from the leadership, but what do we care? Girls aren't around.
Except during meals. A staff of young college ladies in blue kerchiefs, white blouses and dark skirts bring us our food and drink like peasant women imported from Minsk.
"I know that girl looked at me!" one of the guys at my table pants during our first meal. "You see that wink?" I don't see anything but testosterone. "I'm gonna leave her my room number!" He writes it on the tablecloth.
When party elections come around that evening, I stayed out. I'm not a partisan (and I'm still not), and the conflict-of-interest would be a screaming problem for somebody in the journalism school. Moron instantly stands out as somebody with enough goofy charm to be a likable leader, and he wins the ward committeeman nod. We pick a few other nuts-and-bolts jobs for the Nationalists and Federalists, our mock two-party system which wasn't supposed to have anything to do with the real-world Republicans and Democrats. I end up with the job of elections clerk, where I can be useful without setting off tripwires.
I take it seriously. Way too seriously. A group of guys back in Raytown is footing the bill for a week, for something I know wasn't right for me. I didn't dare turn down the opportunity; it's a point of honor. When somebody spends a lot of money to develop me, and I feel clueless as to what I'm doing, surrounded by the best and brightest strangers, it weighs me down like a boat anchor. After breakfast, on the way to Sunday church service, my head ends up inside a trash barrel -- sick, homesick or some combination of the two.
I make it through church. I make it through lunch. I make it to Boys' State Journalism school, where we get a crash course in the basics we didn't know and a trip to KMOS-TV, the CMSU station graciously donating studio time and space for our Boys' State TV newscasts -- to be shown at the evening assemblies along with commercials touting one city or another.
"These are $150,000 cameras," a production head softly pleads with us. "Please don't get wide with the shots and burn the tubes."
They let us try out the production switcher and Betacam SP tape machines. I drool over the Dubner CG and the way it can make text flip around and fly off in every direction. We appoint a news director and get two anchors. We pass them some scripts and tape our first newscasts. They come complete with public service announcements, as we dump a few blades of turf onto a table next to a chair, cheekily urging the guys to "Keep Off The Grass."
If only my reporting skills match my enthusiasm. Shy people make poor journalists because they can't pry information out of people. They're not dogged enough. I learn how much I lack when I file a story about a Sunday evening power blip that knocks out the lights to half the Coontz dorm. I have the basics with a lot of unknowns. Others fill in the gaps, but how? Where are they getting this information alongside all the meetings and meals and assemblies?
My governmental-track peers have their own hefty workload. The would-be attorneys, prosecutors and judges are cramming for Monday's bar exam, staying up past curfew with the counselors' blessing. Prospective legislators are already schmoozing alliances.
Still we find time to have fun. Moron and some of the guys hatch an idea to turn Sunday dinner into a toga party as a show of city unity. It would score points for us as cities competed for end-of-week bragging rights alongside the softball games. All of us march in wearing bed sheets around our t-shirts and shorts with pillowcase headwraps and sunglasses making us look like Roman Sheiks.
"Coontz! Coontz! Coontz!"
TOMORROW: How I find my way, and "kissing up" in politics!