It’s been an interesting 23 years working for the Boy Scouts of America, particularly the last three. As an organization, we’ve had challenges and changes, controversy and condemnation, and have been thrust unwillingly into the national spotlight again and again due to issues not of our choosing. It’s easy in times like these to become nostalgic and want to return to the “good old days” of Scouting, when life was simpler and Scouting was just like it’s portrayed in all of our favorite Norman Rockwell paintings.
I was a history teacher before I went to work for BSA, and a hazard of that training is that, when nostalgia begins to kick in, for historians it’s time to cut through the foggy haze of memory and re-examine the reality of those days we’ve begun to pine for and see if things, were, really, so much better then than they are now.
I joined Cub Scouts in 1968. As a Cub Scout, I remember well riding my bike to my Den Mother’s house for weekly meetings, often being the first to arrive and helping set up for the activities of the day. We had a great time as I recall, doing games and crafts, having a set time to play outside, seeing our achievements recorded on the chart, doing opening and closing ceremonies, etc. Monthly pack meetings were always a highlight, as all the Cub Scout dens came together to sing songs, do skits, and receive awards. Pinewood Derbies were AWESOME and Cub Camp days were a summer highlight. And yes, I remember taking macaroni pictures home to my Mom, who proudly displayed them on the refrigerator door until the macaroni started falling off. Somewhere along the line, I was elected Assistant Denner and then Denner, and eventually earned my Arrow of Light. I remember the pride of those achievements to this day. I remember the FUN of Scouting! What I don’t remember is actually receiving all the character and leadership training and development I was getting as a Cub Scout.
I joined Boy Scouts and went to my first summer camp in 1972. My first troop was a large one, and being a “large” kid, I had a hard time fitting in with the older boys in that troop. I changed troops and joined Troop 72 at Avalon UMC, where one of my Dad’s friends, Jim Forsyth, was Scoutmaster. It was a totally different experience, and I loved it. I started as a Bugler, and was soon elected Assistant Patrol Leader, then Patrol Leader. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I got those jobs due to my less-than-formidable Bugling skills. Within two years, I was elected Senior Patrol Leader, a job I was re-elected to twice, as I recall (they REALLY didn’t want me playing the bugle anymore!). I remember one of the “perks” that came with being SPL was that, on campouts, I got to stay in the big cabin tent with the adult leaders and the ASPL. I had a great Scouting experience, that got interrupted when my family moved away and I went to a boarding school for a year. I didn’t like any of the troops I visited after we moved, because they weren’t MY troop, and my youth Scouting career came to an end at 15. Again, I remember all the adventures, experiences and FUN of being a Boy Scout. What I don’t remember is actually receiving all the character, citizenship and leadership training I was getting as a Boy Scout.
So what does that have to do with today? Simple. When I look back on my youth Scouting experience, I think about all the good, fun things I did, including camping in the rain, summer camp, etc. It’s easy to look back and think about how much simpler life was then. As an adult, I look back at those “simpler” times in a different way. I was a Scout in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a time of great social unrest in our country. Remember, this was the time of protests against the Vietnam War, “Flower Power” (the hippie counter-culture movement), the civil rights movement, marches on Washington, Watergate, and later the “anything goes” Disco drug culture of the mid-70’s. I was a Scout when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, when President Nixon resigned, when every night on the television included footage of anti-war demonstrations and flag-burnings, draft-card and bra burning, fire hoses and riots, as well as casualty counts. My uncle served in Vietnam, so I definitely remember the casualty counts. So, as an adult looking back at my youth Scouting experience, maybe it wasn’t simpler, easier times after all. Or was it?
While our country was in the middle of vast social and political unrest and change, I was a Scout.
While others my age were doing the “cool” things, like experimenting with drugs and burning flags, I was learning the difference between right and wrong and being taught that I should always do what is right (that whole “morally straight” thing). I was learning how to fold and care for flags, and how to respect my country and be a good citizen. I was a Scout.
I never bought into any of the “cool” stuff some of my friends were into. I do admit to owning at least one pair of bell bottoms and there is photographic evidence of big hair, a silk shirt and a leisure suit, but the rest wasn’t for me. I was a Scout.
Today, I look back and thank God for my parents and for my Scout leaders. They provided me with great, God-fearing role models who taught me what is right and wrong, as well as instilling the desire to always do right, and to do my best always to live the Scout Oath and Law. They taught me about Duty to God and Country and Family. They taught me that there is no room for bigotry and hatred in this world and that the only colors that mattered were Red, White, Blue and Boy Scout Green. There are times when I slipped, but those teachings and lessons learned as a youth stay with me and guide me to this day. I am a Scout.
Today, I look back and thank God that my Scout leaders were good men and women of character, patriots who wanted me and my fellow Scouts to grow to be good people, citizens and leaders. I thank God that at a time when Scouts and leaders could share a tent or spend time together alone, when showers at camp were a concrete pad with multiple showerheads and bathrooms were designed for 10-20 people at a time with no dividers, when it wasn’t unusual to go skinny-dipping on a hot day, when troop discipline included rites and punishments that are defined as “hazing” today, that my Scout leaders were good, Christian men with high morals who had a genuine interest in young people like me, and who never let things get out of hand or abused their authority. I thank God that they let me make my own mistakes and take my own chances, but were always close by to keep me from true harm and keep me and my fellow Scouts safe.
So, do I look at the issues confronting Scouting today and wish for a return to the “good old days?” No. The simple fact is that our country has changed, our society has changed, our parents and families and kids have changed, and if we as an organization wish to remain relevant and continue our mission, we have to adapt. Too many young people fell victim to predators in the days when “you just didn’t talk about things like that”. Too many young people failed to be given a safe Scouting experience provided by carefully selected and trained leaders and role models. Too many young people have not gotten the support and guidance and attention they needed to survive today’s world.
Scouting and Scouting’s leadership at all levels have done their best and will continue to do their best to be able to provide a quality Scouting experience to every young person and family they can. Change is inevitable and will happen whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not. What hasn’t changed is what makes the Boy Scouts of America the greatest youth organization in the world, and that’s our mission: “The Boy Scouts of America prepares young people to make moral and ethical decisions over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.”
Each of you has the right to choose how to use your time, talents and energy. If the Boy Scouts of America no longer fits into your plan, that’s fine. You have the right to pursue other paths. As for me, I believe Scouting is needed now more than ever before. In this time of social and political unrest and change, we will keep doing what we do, fulfilling Scouting’s mission and offering every young person the opportunity to have positive, caring role models who are teaching them how to live the Scout Oath and Law and providing experiences and growth opportunities they might not be able to get anywhere else. One of my dear Scouting friends and mentors who has long since passed away said “Scouting helps make old man memories”. 49 years ago, I wouldn’t have understood what he meant. Today, I do. I’m hoping that, 25 years from now, my Eagle Scout son understands that better, too.