There is something deeply profound in watching your children grow and learn.
A parent’s hope is that their child will be safe, healthy and successful. How often do we get the chance to help direct that hope into reality?
If you have a son in Boy Scouts, or a daughter in Girl Scouts, you get that opportunity frequently, but it all depends on how involved you want to get. It’s like anything else in life – you get out of it what you put into it.
For me, and two of my four sons (the oldest two are Eagle Scouts and have aged out of the boy program), the concentrated microcosm of life, an opportunity to grow exponentially, right before their father’s very eyes, comes each summer, the third week of July, at a Boy Scout camp like no other, at Yawgoog (pronounced YAH-goo) Scout Reservation, in Rockville, Rhode Island.
In the woods of West Central, RI, a ferry ride and short drive from Long Island, New York, there is a Boy Scout camp over 100 years old that holds the spirit of Peter Pan and Lord Baden Powell close. It is a magical place known only to those who have witnessed its inspiring works.
Like trying to catch lightening in a bottle, to describe the impact of the place is impossible. I can only scratch the surface, but that may be enough.
My ten year old son, newly crossed over from Webelos Scout (Cub Scouts) into a Boy Scout troop, finally getting to go to Boy Scout camp was almost too much to bear. Bouncing off the walls does not begin to describe his pre-camp status.
My wife and I tried as best we could to focus him on being productive prior to going to camp. We had him think about and prepare things to pack in his footlocker trunk. We had him complete Merit Badge packets (lengthy assignments that usually go with earning Boy Scout Merit Badges). We and his brothers told him stories of his brothers and Yawgoog past. We forced him to do laps in the grandparent’s pool in preparation for the swimming test and Swimming Merit Badge. The “I gotta pee” dances when he talked about going to camp continued, but he did everything that was asked of him and more.
His capacity for absorbing information seemed limitless. Bright eyed and very bushy-tailed, my 10 year-old son was going to simply burst if he didn’t get to camp soon.
My 15 year-old son was going into his fifth year at camp. He had just finished the final Merit Badge he needed to begin working on his next and final rank: Eagle Scout.
Several months prior to going to camp he had earned the leadership rank of Assistant Senior Patrol Leader (ASPL), right next to one of his best friends, who was selected as the Senior Patrol Leader (SPL), the head of the boy leadership for the Troop.
A week before we left for camp the Scoutmaster, someone who was counting his 21st trip to Yawgoog, asked my 15 year-old and I to come to his house to check some forms and to have a talk about camp. I suspected what the meeting was really about, but wanted the Scoutmaster to bring the topic up with my son.
We handed in some medical forms, which the Scoutmaster meticulously examined as we sat, the three of us, at his dining room table. A place I was very familiar with, as it was the place where countless Boards of Review had been held over the years.
A Board of Review is a meeting that takes place where the Troop Committee (volunteer adult leaders) considers the advancement in rank of a Boy Scout. It is semi-formal. Boy Scouts must be in full Class A uniform, from head to toe or they are sent home or not advanced.
The boy is questioned on his knowledge of Scouting, but in reality the review is an opportunity for the Committee to seek information from the Boy Scout about his Scouting experience. Open ended questions are asked in order to evoke what Scouting means to the boy. It is an opportunity for the adults to peer into Scouting from the boy’s perspective and get thoughts and feelings from the boy on how things are going in the Troop and how things might be improved.
It was at this table that the Scoutmaster asked my son if he knew why he had asked him to his house. My son, nodded, head down.
The Scoutmaster said he had received an email from the SPL’s father that day saying that the SPL’s mother, who had been battling breast cancer for a long time, was entering hospice, and did my son know what hospice was?
My son said he didn’t, but that the SPL had texted him earlier in the day to tell him his mother was not doing well. She had been in the hospital (again) and the prognosis was grim.
We explained that hospice meant the SPL’s mother did not have long to live. It could be days, and probably not weeks before she passed. Hospice was a place to make people as comfortable as possible before dying.
We let that sink in. My son’s head remained bowed. I could see by the expression on his face that he was battling tears.
The Scoutmaster broke the silence by saying that the SPL was probably not going to summer camp.
Summer camp was usually the culmination of the leadership trail for SPL’s and ASPL’s. My oldest son had been SPL for nearly a year and then led the boys at summer camp with his best friend and genius as ASPL. That ASPL later would earn a full ride scholarship to Cornell University, studying computer science and then later working on Watson, the IBM supercomputer that, among other things, can diagnose illnesses better than a team of human expert doctors. These two boys rocked Yawgoog that year. My oldest son brought his guitar and would sing to the Troop at night, accompanied by other close friend-Scouts. It was truly a magical year for him and his friends, and for all of us who witnessed it. But that was my oldest son’s personality. He is outgoing, unabashed, gregarious, ice in his veins in front of a crowd. In his senior year in high school, on a whim, he tried out for the school play, Beauty and the Beast. He won the role of Lumiere, the singing French candelabra. He nailed it, including an authentic sounding French accent that was both understandable and comical.
My 15 year-old was none of those things. He could get in front of a crowd, but his leadership style was opposite of his oldest brother. He is subtle, shy, and an assimilator. He is understated, but thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent.
The Scoutmaster asked him how he would feel about being SPL for summer camp in place of his friend.
There was a long silence.
In education (I have been an educator for over 30 years) as in Scouting (I have been a Scouter for over ten years), we learn to wait for an answer, to give the person time to think and formulate a good answer.
Finally he said, “Well, it’s kind of out of my comfort zone, but yes.”
Relief that he answered (we don’t wait forever), and relief that he said “yes.” I was proud, not so much that my son would be leading the Troop at summer camp, but that this boy chose to move forward, in spite of the tragedy brewing with his friend’s mother. He chose to go out of his comfort zone and accept the challenge, a challenge of leadership and a challenge of the heart.
Life is hard, and is full of difficult and challenging moments, the toughest of which seem to just spring up without warning or reason. This was going to be his Crucible.
My Great Uncle Harry (God rest his soul) once told me, “M’boy, courage is not the absence of fear; it is doing what you fear for the right reasons.” I could not have been more proud of my son at that moment for his courage. Comfort zone? Terror zone. But that’s what life and Scouting are all about, going outside of your comfort zone and surviving and then thriving.
Summer camp is many things to a boy: adventure, challenge and fun. For parents who are fortunate enough to go as adult leaders and witness and participate in summer camp, it is work, hard work. But we don’t talk about that, we just do it. We do it because we love it, and the boys.
Comfort zone? There is no comfort at summer camp, no creature comforts, that is. Bug nets, heat, walking. Oh, the walking! I logged 6.7 miles on average per day shadowing my 10 year-old. All good, barking dogs and all!
The food was much better this year than in the past. The meat looked and tasted real; the vegetables, fresh and delicious. “Bake Shop,” the name for the daily cake or cookie treats, were made in the dining hall kitchen rather than in the past ordered and received from a commercial baker. The baked goodies at camp were almost always “special,” in that they were almost always birthday Bake Shop. The boys whose birthdays fall within the week are sung to by the whole camp in the large dining hall, with an emphasis on an extra (and extra loud) “YOU!” at the end of each phrase.
There was always lots of singing, chants and noise in the dining hall. Some troops would get up and sing (always during the meal) popular songs by the Beatles, Monkees and others. Sometimes, out of nowhere, the boys would get up and do something that if aliens witnessed it they would keep going to another planet with sane people on it. The “SPOON!” event must be seen to be believed. Just grab your spoon and then stand and raise it over your head and yell, “SPOON!” for no apparent reason. The boys loved it, and the adults didn’t seem to mind either. Heck, how many times in your life do you get to do something completely different and not be judged? The boys have had this tradition for years, and even had t-shirts made the previous year that had a large spoon on the front that said, “It’s a Yawgoog thing,” on the front, and on the back “You wouldn’t understand.”
It was in this spirit of fun and fancy that camp got off to a normal and exciting start.
My ten year-old practically bucked out of the starting gate, and it was all I could do to keep up with him once he figured his way around. This boy is a born navigator. Wherever we go, whatever we do, he wants a map. He likes to lead. He strives to be first, no matter the situation. The kid bought a black scarf in the Trading Post (nicknamed the “407” – no one knows why) that has a map of the whole camp reservation (Yawgoog is actually three camps in one on 1,800 acres) in white on it.
My ten year-old was so psyched he wanted to earn six Merit Badges! He had done pre-requisites for some at home prior to coming to camp, and was ready to do as many as he could. The average for Scouts is about three Merit Badges. First Year Scouts tend to do more, as we strongly encourage them to do at least one “as needed” badge they can complete on their own time, and then one evening Merit Badge that meets after dinner, usually Indian Lore. The idea is to keep them busy, completely exhaust them, so as to reduce the tendency for down time and home sickness. Whenever I have had a First Year Scout I have volunteered to shadow and guide all the First Year Scouts. If ever there were an achievement segment (little colorful pictographic arched patches that go on a circular felt patch that hangs on the uniform) for Herding Cats, I have earned it several times over.
As fun as it is frustrating, by the end of the week, when the boys are most comfortable with you and then asking questions, and asking questions, and asking questions, patience becomes the overriding virtue of being an Assistant Scoutmaster. We pretty much “father” all the boys at camp except for our own, who we try to let be more independent. Our own sons may still spend time with us, but are encouraged to ask Scouting questions of older boys and the other adult leaders.
At each campsite, one for each Troop, there is a flagpole. The boys learn proper care and handling of the American flag in Cub Scouts, so by the time they are in Boys Scouts, it is second nature.
By the second day in camp, things are organized and ready for the routine of getting up, taking care of personal hygiene, or what passes for personal hygiene at Boy Scout camp (we all know a Boy Scout is clean, right?), the boys have assigned jobs in the morning, such as latrine duty (cleaning toilets), filling lanterns, Camp Police (trash detail), Water Buckets (since everything is made of wood or canvass, at each lean-to or tent there is a large red coffee can that needs to be filled with water each morning for the potential of fire – these cans also circle the fire pit), and tidying up the living quarters. Just before heading off to breakfast and a day of fun, the SPL (my son in this case), calls the Troop to, “Fall in at the flag pole.”
The boys fell in at attention. The SPL, standing with an assistant at the flag pole unfolds the Troop U.S. flag, and then called for the Troop to give a “Hand salute.” He attached the flag and the assistant raised the flag.
What happened next astonished and surprised us, but no one moved. No one flinched. There had never been a deeper silence in this Troop, nor, I can imagine in these woods.
As the flag reached the top of the pole, the assistant slowly brought the flag down to half staff.
This was the subtle beauty of my son’s leadership style and loyal friendship. The half staff flag posting was in memory and honor of his friend’s mother, who had passed away the morning the Troop left for camp.
No one had mentioned the passing except in reverent whispers.
The boys had thought of the gesture, asked and then received permission from the Scoutmaster, who had said nothing to the rest of us.
This simple but profound gesture was all that was ever publicly said about the death of a Scout’s mother. It was all that needed to be said or done.
This was not done just once. It was done every morning, and the flag hung that way until the boys retired the colors after dinner each evening. Every time we entered or left or sat in camp, there it was, a constant reminder that one of us, one of the Troop, was in pain and mourning and therefore so were we. All for one . . . .
Camp went on. Merit badges were earned, and my 10 year-old earned his six. 135 were earned by 42 boys. A boy earned first place in the mile swim, we won the Water Carnival, and earned the distinction of Honor Troop for the week. Many boys earned rank advancements. Most did something they’d never done before, such as catch a fish, paddle a canoe, MAKE something with their hands, learn about Native Americans, and experience deafness and blindness on the HAT (Handicap Awareness Trail) experience.
And every boy learned what it meant to be reverent. Every boy learned what it meant to be loyal. Every boy learned what it meant to honor a friend. Every boy learned what it meant, even if ever so slightly, what it meant to be a man.