This is another of those #100 celebration blog posts, but not anything I did this time. This Sunday, Boy Scout Troop 105, sponsored by the First United Methodist Church in Lockhart, Texas celebrates 100 years as a troop sponsored by the same church. I think that is noteworthy. Troop 105 was not the first Boy Scout troop in Texas, but was among the first five.
A few of you might remember reading my blog post from two years ago--Just A Rock. That post tells the story of probably the worst day of my life, a day of utter failure and humiliation as an 11-year old Boy Scout at his first summer camp. I had a hard time writing that post. It was not an easy memory to confront, but it is an important little slice of Phil. I hope you’ll read or re-read that two-year old post that I’ve dug out of the archives and included at the bottom of this post.
Happily, I got over the Just-A-Rock misery and went on to enjoy Boy Scouting as one of the foundation activities of my teen years. I suppose I was a likely candidate—not an athlete, not a scholar, but a little guy who liked to read and loved being outdoors. And I probably liked the uniform and being able to earn awards and then wear them.
Merit badges are the core awards in Boy Scouting. Well over a 100 different merit badges each with its own list of requirements constitute a wide choice of interests for Scouts to pursue. The photo below are three merit badge sashes of three generations of McBride boys.
First is my father’s merit badge sash. He was a Scout in the 1930’s during the Great Economic Depression. In the middle is my sash, that of a Scout of the 1960’s. And last is one of my sons’ sashes-- I can’t tell which one--who was a Scout in the 1990’s. And, yes, mine has the least number of merit badges sewn on—21, the minimum number needed to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. I’m sort of a minimalist achiever.
I’m proud that my dad and two uncles all earned their Eagle Scout ranks way back when, as did my brother and I, and all three of our three sons. Eight Eagle Scouts, over three generations, with four great-grandsons in a fourth generation on the ground, one now a Cub Scout, next in line.
Please take a close look at the merit badges themselves. They reflect our changing world. Pop earned Animal Husbandry, Bookbinding, and several craftsman-focused merit badges. My sons earned the Computer merit badge 25 years ago, and now stand-alone home computers are outdated relics of the early ‘90’s. Computer technology has now morphed into the world-wide internet--a key underpinning of our globe-spanning civilization.
We all had to earn some core merit badges, some of which haven’t changed: Lifesaving (the one merit badge that my dad and I both struggled to earn), Personal Fitness, Camping, Safety, and Reading. Citizenship merit badges have grown from the Home and Community, to include the Nation and the World. Pop taught my sons to use hand-tools to earn their Woodworking merit badges.
Moving past the merit badges, Pop went to the first National Scout Jamboree for a week in 1939, where he camped on the National Mall in Washington, DC. My brother and I both went to later National Jamborees in the 1960’s. My sons did not, but I went with them to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico in 1999 on a 90-mile backpacking adventure, which takes me to the photo below.
This one image of my sons at Philmont best describes why I’m still such a fan of the Boy Scouts of America. The organization has had its share of problems over the decades, to be sure. Some self-induced, some not. It’s not been easy for the Boy Scouts to stay relevant to teenage boys starting in 1910, still a time of horse-drawn carriages, until now in 2017, a time when driver-operated automobiles may well be on the verge of obsolescence.
But this picture makes my point: There are my two teenage boys, up on a mountain, in the middle of that ten-day backpacking trek, having to figure out how to work together to saw through a big old tree trunk, as a service project.
They are on a trail on which they’ll never walk again, removing an obstacle for the benefit of others. They could have said, “Screw this. I’m hot and tired. I really don’t care. Let someone else do it.” I imagine that’s what they secretly wanted to do. But they were good guys and plowed their way through, most likely fussing and cussing at each other with every stroke of the unwieldy two-man saw.
Corny? Yeah. Important? Yeah. I believe we all need to get past the big damned rocks we can’t carry on our hips, like I had to do as a 11-year-old shrimp at my first Scout camp.
And we all need to work together to saw through the obstacles blocking the trail for others, like my teen-age sons did as a reluctant team at their last Scout camp.
So, shake a Boy Scout’s hand this weekend as the fine old organization we imported from England celebrates its 107th birthday in the USA.
Just A Rock ---A post from February 2015
I was eleven, still four months from twelve. I was short for eleven, still waiting for the growth spurt that never came. But I was a gung-ho Boy Scout and had already earned my First Class rank, three steps up the ladder in less than a year. And now I was at Camp Tonkawa for a week. No low-level advancement classes for first year Scouts for me. I was ready for merit badges classes, and that was a big deal to this eleven year old.
I also had been through all the Red Cross swimming classes at the neighborhood public swimming pool, but wasn’t old enough to take the Lifesaving class. So guess what merit badge class I signed up for at my first summer camp.
All of us who wanted to take the Life Saving Merit Badge class had to demonstrate our swimming skills and stamina to the waterfront staff. I did that, swimming across that cold dammed-up spring maybe a thousand times before they consented to let me in the lifesaving class.
The first class was the next morning and I was pumped. There were a dozen or so of us, all older and taller than me. So what. I was at home in the water, like a frog, and eager to get it on.
I was the first one chosen to do the initial drill to again proave that we had the right stuff. The day before we just swam to show we were good in the water. Today we had to swim with a rock on our hip. A simulated, unconscious person, as it were. Not a fighting, thrashing panicking person who would try to climb all over us, just a dead weight rock. No problem, it was just a rock.
The rock looked big, but I had swagger. I got in the water and stood next to the rock wall that lined the bank and had been built by the CCC some twenty-five years earlier, and made the spring such a fine well-defined swimming place.
I took the big rock in both hands, finding it heavier than I thought it would be, and shoved off. I got the rock settled on one hip and used scissor kicks to keep going towards the middle of the springs. I had to use one hand to keep the big rock in place, so I did an improvised one-armed sidestroke to keep my head and shoulders up. I still had swagger, and said a little mantra, “It’s just a rock, just a rock.”
Halfway across the call came to stop and drop the rock. I did and it sank. Like a rock. I tread water and nodded when the Merit Badge Instructor yelled at me to go down after it and bring it back.
I nodded and did a fine fishy sort of arching dive and swam right down to the rock. I picked it up and pushed upwards, but didn’t go far. I let go of the rock and came up for air. Three times I did that. My kicks weren’t enough to propel me and the rock to the surface.
The orc-instructor on the bank yelled again for me get the rock and finish. I yelled back that I was trying to do that. He yelled that if I didn’t get the rock off the bottom and bring it to him, I was out of the class. I tried once more with no more success.
I swam to shore, got my towel and was told that was it for me. Maybe next year I’d be bigger and stronger. I nodded and made the long walk back to my tent on the other side of camp.
No one else was there, everyone being off to their own first morning of classes. I shut the tent flaps, lay down on my cot and cried like a kid. The swagger was on the bottom of the spring with that just-a-rock. No mom or dad, no big brother, not even the scoutmaster to console me. Just me and my shame and anger at my failure. It sucked, and the memory of it still sucks. It was a long day.
The next morning I started a different merit badge class, Nature, I think it was. When I turned fourteen, I enrolled in a Red Cross Lifesaving Class at the YMCA. I was still the shortest student and probably the youngest, but I passed the big test after the series of Saturday classes. No rocks, though.
Where’s the tie-in of this little pity party tale from my childhood to the Civil War novels I’m writing half a century later? Only that I was at Camp Tonkawa, and an unnamed Tonkawa Indian brave is one of the first characters who John McBee meets in the Tangled Honor.
Can’t say they become friends, but they have a brief relationship. I must have blotted out the memory of the just-a-rock story when I was writing that part of Tangled Honor, or I would have killed off that Tonkawa sonofabitch. Writers can get even with bad memories that way.
Camp Tonkawa is no longer a Boy Scout camp. It’s now a privately-owned RV camp and the dammed-up natural spring swimming pool is still in use. The photo is from the RV camp website and is the very spot of my come-uppin’s that June morning in 1961. If you look closely, about half way out you can detect the just-a-rock on the bottom. Well, not really. But I can still see it down there, up close and personal.