Current Events

Yea, the United States is backing the wrong side in Honduras, MJ’s fans are committing suicide, Cap&Trade passed the House, and Al Frankin is officially a Senator. I know the world rolls on. I just can’t bring myself to comment on it. Neptunus Lex has a good post up about the death of a real American hero, kind of puts the recent overcoverage of Michael Jackson in perspective.

If you’ve been lurking here and the Scouting stories are of interest, please leave me a comment. I’ll open unmoderated comments for this post.

The American people deserve to know that they’re not just watching the administration’s spin on their local newscasts, they’re paying for it, too.
–Senator John Kerry



Getting a Troop out camping every month requires dedication. Most of your active adult leaders have jobs, wives, homes, and personal lives. As Scoutmaster, part of your role is to get them to forsake sleeping in their own bed, cutting the lawn, spending time with their wife, or any of the other activities that a weekend might promise. In return you offer them the opportunity to sleep on the ground in a tent full of snoring fat men, eat camp cooking, work with a group of Boy Scouts, and participate in the life of the Troop.

Lots of people refuse. They are known as “sane”. They drop Johnny off with his pack and equipment on Friday afternoon and pick him up Sunday around 2:30 PM after all the gear has been stowed. They have obligations and things that “just came up”. Vague promises to make some undetermined future camp out are made, and forgotten like old campaign promises.

Some people will help when asked. They will drive so the Troop can get to an event. They will take a Patrol Leader and another Scout to the grocery store midweek so they can buy food for the weekend. Sometimes they’ll serve on the Troop Committee, or teach a merit badge they have some expertise in.

In that second group are your potential recruits. You look for signs. Someone who enjoys a camp out, a veteran who coolly appraises the the way the Scouts handle a flag ceremony, a new dad who asks how he can get involved.

When you get one, you sink the hook deep. As Scouters, we usually cooked and camped as an adult Patrol. We got competitive with our cooking. I would make Belgian waffles and bacon on Saturday morning. One of the other long time Scouters specialized in cast iron cooking. Big stews, biscuits, dutch oven desserts. You make it look effortless, and at least for most of the time, you don’t have to fake how much fun you’re having.

You get him uniformed, “Just get one”, you say, “a summer uniform”. We’ll give you the patches. Here’s a couple of Troop T shirts. You don’t tell him you have 3 full uniforms, two summer and one winter, and 6 pairs of green socks, four of them the old knee high ones. And a red Scout jak-shirt so you can look Scouty in the fall.

“Get a pack”, you tell him, sitting by the campfire one night, so you’ll be ready for the fall hikes. Later he’ll figure out that you don’t pack your pack every month. You leave it loaded. You have bought duplicates of anything you used to take in and out, and you know where everything is. The pack sits in the corner of the bedroom behind your wife’s rocking chair. The bottom compartment is unzipped because that’s where the food gets put just before you leave.

Once he’s coming along regularly, send him to Scoutmaster Fundamentals. Tell him it’s part of what every Scouter should do. It is, but training breeds confidence. By now, you know he’s on the way. He’s not self-conscious wearing the uniform. He whittled himself a walking stick. He’s gaining a Scout persona, his own place in the Troop.

Allow yourself a little pride the first time he turns to his own son and says, “I dunno, Billy, better go ask the Senior.”

Enjoy the time you ask him why he’s doing something a new way and he shrugs and says, “It seemed like a more Scouty way to do it” , and you just nod and tell him he’s right and it looks great, because you know the tests are coming.

Test like the camp out where it starts raining Friday night and is still raining when you slop over to your cars after hanging out all the troop tents to dry on Sunday afternoon.

Or the week at summer camp where every day is over 100 degrees, and the younger Scouts are struggling with the heat, the program, and the homesickness.

Or the weekend where everything went fine on the Scout trip, but his wife spent the weekend dealing with a plumber because a pipe burst and flooded the upstairs bathroom.

When he passes them, and he stills shows up, with his pack slung over his shoulder, a hour early for a weekend camp out, smiling and saying, “I got off early so I could come help load.”, he’s a Scouter.

And later that year, on the coldest camp out you can remember taking Scouts on, where the two of you set up the big old army tent and filled it with hay for the whole Troop to use, and you make a huge pot of chili to feed them all, and you see him getting a third bowl, and he grins, “I’m only eating this so I don’t hurt your feelings, ya’ know.”

When a Life Scout goes to him and asks him to be his advisor for his Eagle project, and he accepts, and he easily handles the job of guiding that Scout over the last hurdle on the trail, he’s a Scouter. Three months later, it’s when he’s standing next to that newly minted Eagle Scout at his Eagle Court of Honor with tears in his eyes that you’ll know that the Spirit of Scouting has been passed on.

I have Scouted with men like this. If you walked up and thanked him for his work with the Troop, he’d wave you off, in a self depreciating way, saying, “I’m doing for the fun of it, just like you. What did you tell me back at the beginning, an hour and a half a week, and a weekend a month?”

A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different, because I was important in the life of a boy.
–Forest E. Witcraft, writing in Scouting Magazine, October 1950

Camp Time

On weekend camps, we did patrol camping. For summer camp, we always went to a Council summer camp. The facilities, the merit badge opportunities, the chance to interact with other troops, everything about an organized summer camp just seemed to fit our program.

Even so, there is a lot of planning. The date is picked at the Patrol Leaders Council in September. Merit badge and class selections usually had to be done and sent to camp by March. The tents and cots were provided, but there is still a trailer full of patrol gear and adult leader’s equipment to be considered.

The day before camp is usually a time for the Scoutmaster, his assistants, the Senior Patrol Leader and the Quartermaster to have one last meeting at the Scout hut. Final plans and final packing. Working from a list that had morphed into an Excel file, we would pack everything we thought we needed for the week, leaving room on the trailer for the locker boxes and assorted equipment the Scouts would bring the next day.

In keeping with tradition, there was always something important we needed sitting on a shelf as we drove off to camp. No matter, it could always be added to next year’s list. In a day or so it would seem unimportant in comparison to the things the Scouts would forget.

Check in at camp is a circus. Imagine 12 to 15 Troops of Scouts showing up on Sunday afternoon, everyone needs medical check in, swim checks, every Scoutmaster has to inspect and take responsibility for the Troop campsite. New Scouts have no idea where anything is, so an orientation hike around camp is necessary. All the gear and footlockers have to move from the parking lot to the campsites. All before evening chow and the opening campfire.

But soon enough, all that is over, and the first night in camp arrives. The camp staff puts on a rousing opening campfire, then the Troop makes it’s way back to the site. The Senior Patrol Leader reports to the Scoutmaster that everyone is accounted for, and heads off to his tent. The Scouts stay awake too long, talking and joking, finally fading to whispers and then to silence.

There is an final shift that happens with Monday’s reveille, your primary job is done. You got them here, the background work is completed. Now it’s time to step back and let Scouting happen. The Senior Patrol Leader starts by waking the Patrol Leaders and the Patrol leaders wake the Scouts. Duty rosters are already posted. The inevitable questions to the Scoutmaster are now met with a shrug and a smile, “I don’t know, better ask the Senior.”

After cleanup and breakfast, the Scouts all head out to their first scheduled activities and classes. There’s a fresh pot of coffee in the OA Lodge for Scoutmasters, and a meeting at 0900. It’s usually a weather forecast for afternoon thundershowers, a time to discuss any problems on both the Troop and the camp sides, and a reminder that it’s going to be hot so be sure to keep the Scouts hydrated.

With a fresh mug of coffee, you amble back to the campsite to find your assistants putting up the leader’s dining fly and arranging the adult equipment for the week. You sit down in the shade. This day seems connected to the last day of last summer camp, and that camp to the one before it. The intervening years has disappeared.

Because every Troop of any size is in many ways the same each year. The older Scouts are confident and in charge. There’s Patrol Leaders, finding their style as they take on real leadership responsibilities. Lots of young Scouts, away from home for the first time, some of them diving into camp with abandon, others homesick and unsure. In some way, you are connected to every Troop that ever held a summer camp. There is nothing outside of camp and no plans except what ever is on the Patrol duty rosters. It’s camp time.

Calendars and clocks exist to measure time, but that signifies little because we all know that an hour can seem as eternity or pass in a flash, according to how we spend it.
–Michael Ende

One Breath

It wasn’t a Scout camp, but it was a camp for boys. I had a job as the senior counselor for the the Pioneers, the younger boys group. Four junior counselors and twenty-five campers, six to eight years old. As Senior counselor, I was responsible for program activities, ensuring that they ate, took an occasional shower, and had fun. I was the person they talked to when they were homesick or hurt, and I was responsible for keeping them safe. I was sixteen.

Camps don’t run with young staff anymore, you’d have be eighteen, and I bet a lot of camps would want you to be twenty-one. But times were different, and I had the job. My junior counselors were all from the city, none of them had any camping experience, and none of them could swim.

What comes next is one of the core stories of my narrative. It is one of the defining events of my life. I have rescued a fair number of kids at swimming pools and lakes. It usually consists of using a reach pole, a couple of times having to jump in. There’s always someone else a step away and the safety plans and equipment minimize the risk to next to nothing. There’s only been one rescue like this.

One of the highlight events for the Pioneers every session was the long hike. The hike began on a trail that meandered through the woods. From there, it was onto an old farm road that we followed for a couple of miles. When we turned off that road, it was onto another road that followed a creek up past a paper mill dam and into a small, mostly unused park. The camp director would drive the truck down later in the day and bring lunch. Looking back, it also gave him a chance to check on us. We would let the kids play in the shallow water along a sandy bend, run around in the open area, and late in the afternoon, retrace our steps back to camp. For most of the kids coming out to this camp, it was like a day on another planet.

The woods we started the hike went through a part of camp that was undeveloped, and for a group of young boys, walking under the canopy of huge beech and oak trees along an old trail was an adventure in itself. It was shady and quiet, birds calling and flitting away as we passed.

It had rained most of that week, but on the day I remember, it was hot and clear. The hike through the woods was pleasant, but when we left the woods, the sun was bright and on the road the July heat was oppressive. Usually deserted, the road went up and down some hills, past fields and faded barns. Corn fields dominated the area and off in the distance sometimes you would hear a tractor running. Mostly it was the chatter of the boys, the smell of the fields and heat. By the time we trudged down the last hill and turned to follow the creek into the park, the campers were hot and cranky.

As we crossed the bridge I could see that the rain had swollen the stream. Instead of the usual trickle making a mossy green descent over the face of the dam, there was roaring wall of water. I knew wading was going to be out of the question and had started to wonder what we could do until lunch arrived.

When we got to where I usually sat and watched the campers, the water was deep and running fast enough to knock them down. It was a couple of hundred yards upstream from the old dam and normally would have been knee deep and still. I got the staff together and told them playing in the water was definitely out of the question. There were some campers who had been on the hike before and as I was turned away from the water, one of them jumped in.

There is no getting away from this. I let myself be distracted. Maybe I could have stopped him if I had been paying better attention. Maybe I should have had more staff. Maybe the camp should not have hired a sixteen year old to do this job. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. It was 35 years ago and I still have strong feelings about it.

The other campers started shouting. Hearing the alarm in their voices, I turn around to see a boy in the water. He was being swept downstream, moving at an alarming rate toward the dam.

Everything that happens in the next two minutes is Scouting based. I owe it to Baden-Powell, to my Scoutmaster, to the Scout Camp staffer that had taught me Lifesaving merit badge the year before, and to the thousands of other individuals that have given of their time to see Scouting prosper since 1910.

Without thinking, I sprinted across the grass, judging my entry into the water to intercept him. An open entry, keeping him in sight, it took only a few strokes to get to him. He had rolled face down and was underwater when I reached him and pulled him back to the surface. He was not struggling, he was limp. I rolled him onto my hip in across chest carry and began to swim.

It was the water I had to fight, and a rising feeling of panic. The current was strong, the water muddy and cold. My first strokes seemed to make no headway and I was starting to think we were both going to go over that dam. I took a different angle and pulled harder, losing some distance, but making headway to the bank. I made the bank, out of the main current, and then had to pull back upstream along the bank using roots to get to a point where my counselors could grab him and lift him back up on the grass.
I half scrambled and was half pulled up the muddy bank. The boy lay on the ground. The grayish color of his face was startling. His lips were a deep blue and he was not breathing. I rolled him onto his back, tilted his head and checked his airway, then gave him one strong breath and lifted up to check for his pulse. One breath was all it took.

He vomited, mostly muddy water, and took a shuddering breath on his own. The color returned to his face and his eyes opened. He gagged up a little more water, and then he was awake. I sent one counselor to call an ambulance. As he ran off, I shouted after him to call camp, too. The boy was cold, probably in shock, and I stayed with him, having the others keep the kids under some sort of control. I had him somewhat calmed, covered lightly with a couple of towels when I heard the ambulance in the distance.

The camp truck showed up first. The ambulance crew took the camper to be checked. The truck, a big slat sided farm truck, took us all back to camp. I don’t remember much else that happened that day, I do remember expecting to be fired at the very least.

The next morning I got called down to the camp office. The camp director, the camper and his parents were there when I walked in. The boy’s father spoke first. “You saved his life.”

The mom was crying a little, she said “He told us he just jumped in. He’s been to that place before and it was always shallow, so he jumped in.”

The dad spoke again, “He wanted to come back to camp, and we decided he couldn’t be any safer than here with you. I want to thank you for what you did yesterday.”

I turned to the camp director, but before I said anything he held up his hand, “I talked to your counselors and they told me what happened and what you did.” He shook his head, “You could have died, I saw what that water looked like. You both could have died.”

The summer went on. Camp sessions continued to follow their two week cycle, in a decades old rhythm. The Pioneers came and went. I was different. Changed by two minutes on one hot July afternoon. I had passed the test. I had been prepared.

“Be prepared for what?” someone once asked Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, “Why, for any old thing.” said Baden-Powell.
–From the Boy Scout Handbook


One of the core merit badges. Along with First Aid, Lifesaving tied into the Scout Motto, “Be Prepared.” I wanted Lifesaving, wanted to work as a lifeguard. The summer after I got Swimming, I took Lifesaving. It was an all afternoon, every afternoon class.

More distance, more strokes, more first aid, safe water entry, planning a safe swim, and the rescues. Rowboat and canoe rescues, throwing rings, swimming out with a buoy, and then just swimming out there. Going out alone without any equipment was the last resort, and discouraged as a good way to get two people drowned, but we learned it. The final testing on the last day of camp were all the rescues. Part of what they were looking for was the stamina, and the courage, necessary to attempt an open water rescue. The staff served as our “victims”.

Since you don’t ever holler “Help!” unless it’s a real emergency, we used a code word. Pineapple. There you stood on the dock, tired from a series of assisted rescues, and out beyond the ropes, a 20 year old staffer that outweighed you by 50 pounds splashed the water and hollered, “Pineapple! Pineapple!” It’s your turn. The rest of the class watches as you go.

In the real world, you would take a towel at least, throw him one end, never let him lay hands on you. Or wait for him to tire, even if he drowned. Grab something that floated and push it out to him. Anything but let him grab you.

Making a lifesaving entry, keeping my eyes on the victim, I swim out and when I get close enough he launches himself like an alligator and wraps his arms around my head. I sink, drive my thumbs into his armpits, force him off. I go deep, beneath his feet, the water dark and cold as I swim toward the bottom. Air is becoming an issue so I take an extra stroke and surface, turning toward the direction I think he’s in. As I break the surface I get a big gulp of air and realize I am behind him. I throw my right arm over his shoulder and press him up into a cross chest carry. He struggles, but I have a grip on his armpit and chest. Swimming a modified sidestroke I manage to make the beach. I will pass, and receive my Lifesaving merit badge at the fall Court of Honor.

Two years later I would take Red Cross Lifesaving and CPR, and decades later I would requalify so I could lead water activities as an adult Scouter. It is the basics, learned young, and ingrained, that stay with me. Because once, just once, I needed these skills, and a life hung in the balance. And at that moment, all I had was what I had learned as a Scout.

Be Prepared… the meaning of the motto is that a scout must prepare himself by previous thinking out and practicing how to act on any accident or emergency so that he is never taken by surprise.
–Robert Baden-Powell