Shortly after I was adopted, I was introduced to my new mother’s brother, Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie was unlike anyone I had ever met. He had a boisterous, jolly personality and was the kind of person you couldn’t help but feel good around. If he wasn’t doing hilarious impersonations, he was telling stories that had everyone in stitches. One of my favorite things Charlie did was recite the Boy Scout Law. Except Charlie did it in a way that left me laughing and perplexed at the same time. He would start out veerrrryyy sssllooowwwlllyyyy. “A Scout is….” and then as quickly as he could, would fly through the rest, “Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent!” He would say it so fast, it sounded like one long word. I would laugh every time because it sounded so ridiculous. At the same time, I was in awe that a human could talk that fast. And I was boggled, because I was too young to know what half of those words even meant.
Within a few years, I myself was wearing the Boy Scout uniform and learning the same Scout Law. (Yes, I can say it as fast as Charlie.) As I made my journey through scouting, I had a plethora of wonderful experiences and made great friends. Bonding with young men my age, going on camping trips, attending scout meetings, climbing in rank and earning honors, combined with the invaluable skills I picked up, prepared me for so much in life.
My favorite memories center around the annual pilgrimage to summer camp. The fun times I had earning merit badges, performing skits or singing songs around the campfire, surrounded by hundreds of other scouts and leaders, will never be forgotten. But just like anything in life, there were a few times I did not particularly enjoy. In all the years I attended summer camp, 95% of my memories are wonderful. The few unpleasant experiences, though not horrible, still taught me just as much as the positive ones.
One experience recurred at every summer camp and was really more of a nuisance. Every year at the beginning of camp, there was a ritual that all scouts had to go through—the dreaded swim test. Now, I wasn’t worried about the swimming portion (I was an excellent swimmer). It was another part that I dreaded. You see, the test took place in a lake. A lake that had God-only-knows-what living (or dead) in it. Think about it—you had to jump into a lake in which you couldn’t even see your own feet, much less the bottom. Take a murky lake, a young boy’s wild imagination, and a myriad of horror films that took place AROUND LAKES!!, and you’ve got a recipe for paranoia. After I easily passed the swim portion, it was time for the dreaded moment. Each scout was required to dive down to the bottom of the lake and grab a handful of…well, whatever you could grab—weeds, mud, muck, a severed hand…I absolutely hated this part! With my luck, I was going to put my hand right into the mouth of a waiting snapping turtle. But I knew what I had to do, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to wimp out with all these other boys around me. Talk about a humiliating week at scout camp! Oh well, here goes nothing. Taking in as much air as my still-forming lungs could hold, I dove down, kicking furiously and pulling the water with my arms just wanting to get this over with. It probably wasn’t more than 10 feet deep, but it seemed like 100. The entire time, the hideous things that awaited at the bottom raced through my head. No turning back now. Finally, my hand would hit bottom. If a scream could travel through bubbles, I’m sure everyone at the surface would have heard me. As my hand groped through muck and God knows what else, I quickly closed it, and turned back toward the surface. Again, kicking like a madman, I made my way back toward life-giving air. Bursting through the surface of the water with lake muck oozing out from between the fingers of my outstretched hand, I had passed the swim test. The rest of camp would be a breeze.
Every single summer until the age of 18, I returned to summer camp. And every year, even though the test got easier, I never did completely get rid of those horrifying images of what lay in wait at the bottom of the lake
Another not-so-fond memory involved one of the required outings for a merit badge. I had only been a Boy Scout for perhaps a year or so—a Tenderfoot. I was still fairly new to this (Cub scouts and Webelos only prepare you for so much) and I was still learning the ropes—literally and figuratively. I was taking the camping merit badge, which was a required badge for the Eagle rank. All week long, things went fine. We attended classes learning all the skills that would turn us into “Master Campers.” The big, culminating event for the camping merit badge was that every boy in the class headed out on Thursday evening for “Outpost.” Outpost was more or less the Final Test. There were always rumors and tales the older scouts would tell the younger ones about outpost to scare them. Most of these stories were ridiculous—a scout getting dragged off into the woods by a bear, stuff like that. And then there were stories that didn’t seem too far-fetched. Little did I know that the outpost I would be going on would become one of those stories.
Late Thursday afternoon, we all met up at the camping merit badge site. The skies overhead were threatening. We were allowed to bring very few things. We would be roughing it. Most of us had a sleeping bag and some matches; probably a few pocket knives as well. But that was about it. We could have no food. The camp counselors had everyone’s food for the night. We would earn our food when each small group had a fire built. No problem for a group of Boy Scouts, right? Not so fast. As soon as we started our hike, the heavens opened up. The rain came down hard and fast. By the time we reached Outpost, everyone was soaked and spirits were low. Immediately things went from bad to worse. The camp counselors, who were soaked as well, began treating us horribly. They started smoking cigarettes, cussing at us, and acting like anything but scouts. It left an indelible mark on me to see people who were supposed to be professional acting in such ways.
We knew that our growling stomachs weren’t going to be appeased unless we got a fire going. Problem—all the wood was soaked. The rain had stopped, but the sun was setting. There would be no drying out of anything. Fortunately, a few of the guys in my group were a little older and more seasoned. We began looking up into the standing trees for the driest dead branches we could find. Anything on the ground was useless. After a good deal of searching, we were able to gather a fairly decent amount of “dry” wood. Now to get it lit. With empty stomachs, we repeatedly attempted to light the tinder. And repeatedly the flame would die, along with our hopes of going to sleep with full bellies. Around us, other small groups of scouts were dealing with the same issues—counselors being jerks and wood that wouldn’t light. It wasn’t long before the low morale started creeping into the groups. Arguments, bickering and even crying started to set in.
My group was determined not to fail and let those jerk counselors win. After what seemed like hours, we finally had a small flame. Slowly the wood started crackling and bigger pieces started catching. Carefully, we continued to feed the flames until it grew into a nice blaze. We had done it! Almost with surprise, the counselors gave us our meals—ground beef, potatoes, onions , carrots and celery, folded up in aluminum foil. As the food slowly sizzled in the foil, the smell began to emanate through the air. I can actually remember feeling bad for the other scouts still trying to start their fires, while we were enjoying ours. I would have gladly given some of our embers to others, but we were not allowed to help other groups—it kind of makes one question the point of the “helpful” in the Scout Law.
That night, my group was the only one to eat, other than the counselors. There was a lot of whimpering and moaning, as we all tried to sleep after a very long evening. The experience, while not nearly as traumatic as I might make it seem, has never been forgotten
Between the lake and Outpost experiences, I learned that when you don’t give up, you keep a positive attitude, and you use teamwork, you can indeed succeed. I also learned that life isn’t always easy. You aren’t always going to get what you want and there will be times you may go to bed hungry. That’s just part of life.
All of my scouting experiences, good and bad, have helped contribute to the man I am today. All these years later, I still try to embody the qualities of what a scout is….
“Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”