Monday, June 18, 2012

British Bulldog

When I was a Boy Scout, many moons ago, we had a scoutmaster named Mike Mitchell.  He was British--that is, he was from Britain, had the accent, which we all thought was very cool--but was retired from the US Army.  He turned out to be one of the great men of my life.  We had the most awesome campouts.  We learned so many cool skills, like lashing--I could still, to this day, build a signal tower with logs and rope if for some reason I needed one. 

Brother Mitchell had this idea about Scouting. He thought the main purpose of it was to have fun.  People talk about scouting and how it builds character and teaches boys about leadership, and instills values and stuff like that.  Probably that's all true; though I remember with some vividness sitting around in a tent at Scout camp, some older boys telling us all, with great confidence and authority and, it turned out, truly astounding inaccuracy, where babies came from.  And probably Brother Mitchell taught important values too.  I just don't remember them.  What I do remember, and will remember until the day I die, were those campouts. And above all, I remember British Bulldog.

British Bulldog was a game he taught us, which we played essentially every night after MIA (what we now call Young Men's).  In fact, we told our parents Scouts went 'til 9:00 instead of 8:30, so we could have an extra half hour for British Bulldog.  It was a very simple game.  You played outdoors, in a field.  There were two goals, one at each end of the field.  One guy was chosen as It.  When he said "British Bulldog," everyone else ran from one goal to the next.  It tried to tackle one guy, and pick him up, hold him off the ground long enough to say "British Bulldog one two three."  If It succeeded, then that guy joined him as It; you had two Its.  The two Its would then try to grab a third guy, hold him up: "British Bulldog one two three."  If they succeeded, you had three Its.  The other guys couldn't just run--It had to say "British Bulldog" first, so you all ran together.  But guys would get captured, and eventually, everyone was It except for one final guy.  Then he had to try to run through the entire group to the other end.  That's how you won--you were then the British Bulldog champ.

Only two guys in our troop ever succeeded in becoming British Bulldog champ.  It was hard--you had to run past or through the whole troop, at least twenty guys. One champ was my friend Allen Teare.  He was a real athlete, very fast and quick, the starting point guard on our ward basketball team.  I was the other champ.  I wasn't fast or quick, but I was really strong back then.  Allen's approach was to use his speed and quickness to dodge people.  My approach was to plow ahead like a fullback, just keep my legs churning, and also grab people trying to stop me and throw them aside.  I only made it the whole way once, but man, I was proud of that.  And even when I didn't win, I was hard to bring down. 

Here's the thing: once It grabbed you and held you up--"British Bulldog one two three"--he'd just let you drop.  And there were no other rules.  Biting was frowned upon, but objections to it were more aesthetic than moralistic--it seemed an inelegant way to avoid capture.  Basically, though, British Bulldog was unrestrained mayhem.  I mean, that was the appeal. 

It's just unimaginable to me to think of any Scoutmaster today allowing boys to play British Bulldog, let alone, tell boys what the rules are and then watch matches and cheer, as Brother Mitchell did.  And it's not like he was saying 'careful, there, boys, we don't want anyone to get hurt.'  That wasn't Brother Mitchell's style.  He was more like 'get in there!  Grab him!  He's getting away!' recently ran this article, which involves the kinds of complaints about 'modern liberal overreach' to which I am generally unsympathetic.  But then I remember British Bulldog.  The thing was, when It grabbed you and held you up and shouted "British Bulldog one two three," it wasn't gently done.  And then, It (or in my case, usually several Its) would just drop you.  Right?  Just right on the ground.  And in our current litigious society, I think Brother Mitchell would have gotten in trouble.  I think teachers wouldn't have allowed it, or any of the other games that enlivened recess when I was a kid.  And maybe things are safer, and maybe that's good.  And maybe, also, we've lost something valuable.  Kids being kids.  Boys, rambunctious, wild, roughhousing boys, being boys.

Everything about British Bulldog hurt.  It was like tackle football, but with fewer rules.  We loved it.  But yeah, it hurt. It wasn't unusual for the smaller kids to start crying; bloody noses, black eyes, bruises, road rashes were all common.  The point was to never, ever, tell your parents what we were doing.  We were united in conspiracy.  A little kid, weeping in pain, knee of his trousers ripped out, nose bleeding, skinned knee and elbows would nonetheless angrily reject the very idea that he might tell on us.  "No way," he'd say.  "I'm no rat fink." And the next week, that same kid would be the first to ask "Brother Mitchell?  Time for British Bulldog yet?"   Such is the power of peer pressure.

We also played tackle football, of course.  Touch football?  Flag football?  Games for wusses.  My house had a backyard that was very long and very narrow and very liberally festooned with dog crap from our beloved Prancer.  That made it a perfect venue for tackle football, involving every guy in the neighborhood, where every play was a fullback plunge.  Our driveway was for basketball--the rule there was, it wasn't a foul unless it drew blood.  Layups were, uh, rare--uncontested layups, unknown. 

And Scout camp was also about, well, violence.  I vividly remember a game of Capture The Flag that took one whole day during a campout one fall.  Two hills, flag atop each, with a stream in the valley between them, covering at least, two miles.  I still remember my friend Larry May grabbing the flag, sprinting off, taking a huge leap off a cliff, landing in a bramble patch to victory.  We learned all sorts of values that day, like strategy and tactics and whacking people with flag poles.  It was great.

And yeah, we got hurt.  I kept breaking my arm.  Different arms, many times.  I broke an arm playing backyard football, I broke an arm running track, I broke an arm being flipped off a log by my best friend Wayne Johnson ten minutes into summer camp one year.  I never broke an arm playing British Bulldog.  No one did, which is good, because we thought our parents probably wouldn;t approve.  (I think, though, they knew, and thought it was fine.)

I'm an Eagle Scout, because my Scoutmaster was Mike Mitchell, and he was (no hyperbole, just fact) the greatest Scoutmaster in the history of the world.  And I expect I learned all sorts of great values from Scouting. Mostly though, dang, we had fun.  Brutal, dirty, violent fun.  Perfect for a troop full of boys.


  1. Growing up in Scotland, we played British Bulldog all the time. Our PE teacher would have our all-male class play on the hardwood gym floors. Same rules applied with the three count and lifting to make someone "out." One time when I was about 7 years old, I remember giving a full-mouthed chomp to the leg of a classmate trying to lift me up off the ground. This chomp left a full, dark, purple replication of my mouth as accurate as any dentist's model. I am shocked by my unbridled violence, looking back. But I guess that's what happens in the masculine pressure cooker of BB.

    1. Oh, man, takes me back. We played indoors a few times, but then one of the custodians narced on Brother Mitchell, so it became an outdoor game. I never bit anyone, but I got bitten a few times. You're right, great example of peer pressure. You didn't want to be the one to wimp out. But also fun? Right?


  3. Night football was our indoor scout game. Two teams, one eraser (ball), two ends of the room. Team at either end of the room wanted the eraser at the opposite end. The eraser would be tossed towards the middle of the room. While the eraser was still in mid-air the lights would be switched off. Go.

    1. Probably just as well Brother Mitchell never heard of that one!

  4. Ours was "Whipper Snapper." We invented it. Sticks or the ubiquitous "1970s huge back pocket comb" were the weapons (the "whipper snappers"). Basically, it was the "Hunger Games"...a free-for-all hunt. You killed your prey by hitting them with your whipper snapper. The harder, the better. Welts were a sign of glory. We got so good we could hit a running, diving, twisting target 30 yards away. Those combs would spin like boomerangs. Eyes? Faces? Exposed skin? Not protected...they were target areas. If you were good at causing pain then next round people were less likely to hunt you. It made perfect sense.