Val-de-ree, Val-de-ra by
(133 Stories)

Prompted By Scouting

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Being a Brownie was an unquestioned part of being a midwestern girl of the fifties.  On meeting days, we would wear a (yes—dorky) brown dress and beanie hat to school which showed you were in the club.  I don’t remember much of what we did at those meetings but do recall one of the songs: “I’ve Got Something in my Pocket” (I’ve got something in my pocket that belongs across my face.  I keep it very close to me in a most convenient place.  I’m sure you would not guess it, if you guessed a long, long while, so I’ll take it out and put it on—it’s a great big Brownie smile!).  On the last line, we would put our hands in our pockets, pull them out and wipe them across our mouths, leaving the eponymous smiles on our faces.

I’m sure you would not guess it, if you guessed a long, long while, so I’ll take it out and put it on—it’s a great big Brownie smile!

After Brownies, we “flew up” to become Girl Scouts (green uniforms!) in a bizarre ceremony that centered around a fable involving a house-cleaning elf.  Where, oh where, could the girl find the elf (brownie) who would clean up their messy house?  According to the myth, a brownie is “a magical little creature who slips into houses very early before anyone is awake.  It tidies toys, folds clothes, washes dishes, and does all sort of helpful things.” The girl hoping to fly up would reenact a story of searching for the brownie, that culminated in looking into a mirror (ersatz pond) on the floor and reciting a poem that went something like this: “Twist me and turn me and show me the elf. I looked in the water and saw . . .myself!!”   The clear lesson was: it was our job to clean the house.  Not that there is anything wrong with any kid helping around the house, but ouch!

Scouting was supposed to have outdoor activities, but ours were pretty limited, despite the promise of somewhere in Switzerland: “High up, high on the mountain, we founded our chalet.  It’s sloping roof and wide will shelter us without a care, and each Girl Scout and Guide will find a welcome there”.  Our highlight was going to East Lansing city park, a large flat lawn with scattered trees and picnic tables.   We sang, “I Love to go a-Wandering Along the Mountain Track” as we carted coffee cans filled with tuna and noodles and mushroom soup to our circle of wooden tables.  The cans were garnished with the best part– potato chips—then placed in a barbecue pit, and voila! Before too long we were eating charred tuna noodle casserole.  I don’t recall we stayed overnight, but it did get dark, and we cooked marshmallows on sticks over the coals, experimenting with the patient slow- golden-brown approach versus the faster light-them-on-fire technique, then smashing them between graham crackers and Hershey chocolate bars into S’mores and eating too many before the end of the Big Adventure.

Of course, cookies were an essential part of scouting—we were expected to sell them every year.  We were supposed to go door-to-door, keeping track of who ordered what, and delivering them weeks later.  I was terrible at sales, but liked eating, especially the peanut butter oatmeal “Savannahs”.

Somewhere in grade school I fell away from scouting, but, curiously, took it up again in seventh grade when I lived in Dacca, East Pakistan.  There wasn’t much in the way of extra-curricular activities, and one of the ex-pats started up a club.  We didn’t have uniforms, but made some sashes where we sewed on merit badges.  I recall ones for sewing and embroidery.  And there it ended.

In all fairness, scouting has evolved from the early twentieth-century days.  In the US, the founder was Juliette Gordon Low, a socialite who patterned Girl Scouts after Lord Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts in the UK, and it spread worldwide.  Google reports some of the twists and turns of the organization, including competing with the Campfire Girls, which were sponsored by head of the American Boy Scouts, and were designed to be more domestic and less threatening to the boys’ organization.  I was happy to find that the Brownies no longer use the old elf story for fly-up, but they have “bridging ceremonies”.  The Girl Scouts organization remains overall secular and has addressed race and gender issues—but anything that aims to empower girls has the potential to ignite culture wars. I met a woman in the early 1980’s who tried to promote scouting in the religiously conservative state of Utah, where they ran into strong opposition.  She maintained that Utah had the highest per capita enrollment in the Boy Scouts, but the lowest per capita enrollment in the dangerous Girl Scouts.

In any case, those ancient scouting songs have lodged in my brain, taking up valuable memory space somewhere between the nursery rhymes and songs of the sixties.  When I got a little Swiss chalet music box, wouldn’t you know it would plink out the tune for, “High up, high on the mountain”?  At which point, the rest of the words played in my mind without fail.  And when I actually do go a-wandering along a mountain track, I carry the refrain, “Val-de-ree, val-de-ra, val-de-ree, val-de-ra-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, val-de-ree, val-de-ra, my knapsack on my back.”



Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Having never been involved in any of the various scouting organizations (even though a Midwest girl, through and through), I found this discussion of the rituals quite interesting, Khati. So many girls I knew were involved, but my mother wouldn’t let me. She was worn out after two years with my brother in the Cub Scouts.

    I knew nothing of the history of any of the movements (wow about the notion that the brownies are there to clean the house; as you say – it is fine to teach about keeping the house clean, but that can’t the entire lesson). Also interesting about the push-back from the religious community about women’s empowerment. We have SO far to go!

    And, though never in the scouting movement, I immediately recognized your title and know the whole song as well. As someone who has sung her entire life, that is a well-known folk song that I sang in my youth too.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      And I never went to summer camp—so we didn’t share all the extracurricular kids’ activities. But we do share songs :). I never thought much about the brownie myth except in retrospect, and was duly appalled. But it fit with general teachings for children of that era. Since updated, fortunately.

  2. Marian says:

    Love the details in your story, and it is indeed odd how those songs stick in one’s head and ears. I remember girls in my school “Flying Up” but had no idea about the elf/brownie story, although I guess it comes from an old folk tale. I used to (snidely, I’m afraid) ask my former husband if he had left bowls of milk for the elves to clean the house while we were asleep, him having shirked his commitments. Sobering to think of the message back then, but I’m glad that Girl Scouts have progressed.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      See my note to Suzy about the elf story. Leaving the milk out for the brownies was certainly part of the story–sort of like milk and cookies for Santa Claus I supposed. I love the idea of you using that to goad your recalcitrant husband.

  3. Suzy says:

    Fun story, Khati, and I knew all the songs, and sang along as I was reading. Love your description of the “eponymous” Brownie smile.

    My daughter Molly was a Brownie from 2002-2004, and they did that story of searching for the brownie when they had their investiture INTO Brownies, not when they left Brownies by flying up to Girl Scouts. There was the same chant about “twist me and turn me” and looking in the mirror, repeated for each girl (so 12 times at our ceremony), but there was nothing about cleaning the house! It was just looking for the magical brownie so that they could become Brownies too. When they saw themselves in the mirror – voila! – they were Brownies.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Things have evolved over the years, I think for the better! I found the original brownie elf story online–from the early 1900’s when the organization began as girl guides in England. There were two sisters who lived in a house with their poor tailor father and kindly grandmother, and the house was a mess. The grandmother told them about the brownies who could help clean up, and sent the sisters to look for the wise old owl in the woods to find the brownies. He had the girl look in the pond where she saw her reflection. After some time, it dawned upon the girls THEY were the brownies, and they then spent the night cleaning the house so the poor old tailor father was amazed and overjoyed each morning to find the house spic and span. Ultimately, they revealed they were the brownies. Whew!

  4. John Shutkin says:

    A great, fascinating story, Khati (and typically well told), and even more information about the Girl Scouts and their traditions, ands even aboutt he mysterious Campfire Girls. I’m beginning to feel that I’m ready for my exam.

    And, for some reason, I have also remembered the “Val-der-ree” song after all these years, and I remember us morphing into laughter as we sang up, though I’m not even sure who the “we” was. And now, of course, it’s going to be an earworm for a while.

  5. Thanx for your story Khati.
    I didn’t know about the Brownie elf, and now am sorry I wasted any childish envy over my troop mates who, unlike me, had been in that mysterious fly-up ceremony!

    Our outside activities were also held in local parks, but I did enjoy the GS experience and remember having a nurturing leader, the mother of a friend in the troop of course..

    But the recent BSA revelations have certainly colored how we now think about scouting – what a travesty.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      It seems that scouting experiences, if any, are highly variable and largely leader-dependent. Having opportunities to explore new things in a nurturing environment outside school is great when they work out. Obviously I remember that tuna casserole experience to this day (it tasted pretty good ha ha), even if it fell short of the mountains and wild places scouting seemed to advertise.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Thanks for reminding me of the Brownie smile song. And the flying up verse. I never thought about how we were being primed to be good housewives. I’m pretty sure my daughters didn’t receive the same message when they were each Brownies for a brief time. Never saw any evidence of tidying up on their part!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Those old songs have just dug into my brain…and the smile idea is nice except for how women are told to smile. Given how hard it is to get anyone to help around the house, let alone kids, it is easier to understand the brownie meme (apart from gender stereotyping). I am glad it has been demoted over time, but the emphasis on helping others remains a good one especially in these mean days. Cheers.

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